How To Fund Expanded OC Police Force Discussed; Councilman Proposes Room Tax Hike To Pay For Additional Officers

How To Fund Expanded OC Police Force Discussed; Councilman Proposes Room Tax Hike To Pay For Additional Officers
File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — After approving the hiring of 10 additional full-time Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) officers two weeks ago, the Mayor and Council this week began discussions on how to pay for them.

Two weeks ago, at the request of OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro, the Mayor and Council approved the hiring of 10 new full-time officers. Buzzuro said at the time he could envision hiring as many as 30 new officers over the next several years, but was only requesting 10 at this point.

The currently authorized number of full-time officers is 107, but that number has declined through attrition and retirements. Adding 10 new officers at this time would make up for the losses because of attrition, while augmenting that target 107 figure.

Buzzuro explained the need for more officers was two-fold, including an expansion of the off-season with additional special events and the steady decline of the seasonal officer program. By and large, the request for additional officers boils down to a ratio of the number of people in town at any one time and the level of personnel needed to police them, Buzzuro explained.

“We have 200,000 people here on any given summer weekend,” he said. “One-percent of that number is 2,000 folks that we need to keep an eye on. Drilling down even further, one-tenth of that 2,000 is 200 folks we really have to keep a close eye on, which is still a big number. It comes down to having the personnel to mitigate that.”

Buzzuro said the expanded offseason has facilitated the needed for more full-time officers. He pointed out the number of full-time officers has been stagnant for years.

“In terms of the shoulder season, in 2005 we had 50 special events,” he said. “Now, there are over 100 special events. The elongated season from where we were to where we are now is significant.”

A study conducted years ago predicted the eventual need for a larger full-time police force in the future. Councilman Dennis Dare said despite the age of that study, many of its findings were applicable 15 years later.

“Some of the things in that 15-year-old study are still valid,” he said. “One of the things that drives it the most are response times. If you’re happy with 10 minutes, we need less. If you want one-minute response times, we probably need even more than the 10.”

Dare also pointed out the request for more officers should have been approved earlier. With five officer candidates entering the police academy in January, Dare said they won’t likely be ready for one of the most challenging parts of the season for the OCPD, referring to a particularly violent and troublesome month of June this summer.

“It will be the Fourth of July before they’re ready to hit the street,” he said. “We know the problems we have in June, but they won’t be available to help with that. I think we missed an opportunity. We should have had them in the academy now.”

Buzzuro explained the initial request approved unanimously by the council was for 10 new full-time officers. However, that does not mean all 10 will be hired, and paid, in the current fiscal year. For example, the five officer candidates will enter the academy in January, while perhaps five more could enter the academy next July, which would fall in a new fiscal year. Whatever timetable is followed, Buzzuro said there would not be a rush to fill the positions just with warm bodies.

“That’s a good number of officers we’re trying to hire, but the one thing we are not going to do is drop our standards,” he said. “We are not going to sacrifice quality to fill those positions.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said whether its additional full-time officers, seasonal officers, public safety aides (PSAs) or a combination of all three, the town’s police force has to step up enforcement of city ordinances and increase visibility in general.

“We all agree on the need,” he said. “It’s more than just the calls for service. We fell behind a little bit this year with enforcing our ordinances. That’s where we get the most complaints. We need to reinforce the tone and enforce our ordinances. We’re hearing all the time we’re not a family destination. We need to get back to that.”

Each additional full-time officer will cost roughly $86,000 in salary and benefits. When the cost of training and equipping the new officers is added, that number goes to roughly $113,000. If just five new officers are added in the current fiscal year because of the academy timelines or the ability to find suitable applicants, roughly $565,000 would be needed this year.

There is already some savings in the reduction of the number of seasonal officers, dropping that number further. Councilman Tony DeLuca outlined his four proposals for generating new revenue to offset the cost of adding full-time police officers.

One proposal is raising the room tax from the current 5% to 6%, which would generate an estimated $3.2 million in new revenue. Another option is raising the room tax just a half-a-percent to 5.5%, which would generate $1.6 million.

DeLuca pointed out the room tax rates in similar coastal resort communities to illustrate his point. For example, the room tax in Rehoboth is 8%, Virginia Beach is 8%, Atlantic City is 13% and Myrtle Beach is 13%. DeLuca suggested a modest hike in the room tax with a portion of the proceeds dedicated to public safety. He also suggested cutting down on overtime. Other suggestions included pursuing state and federal grant money for additional law enforcement officers and taking a deeper dive into the sale of surplus property.

Councilman John Gehrig said yet another avenue to increase revenue needed to offset the cost of expanding the police department is hiring a full-time economic development director to really market the town and bring in larger, more desirable events, an effort that is already underway.

“Obviously, we need this economic development salesperson, and that’s just what he or she should be, a salesperson out there selling Ocean City,” he said. “A couple of big events could pay for a lot of public safety. If we get some of these big events, we don’t have any problem keeping Ocean City safe and clean, which has to be our top priority.”

Council President Lloyd Martin said the first discussion on funding the new officers was a productive one with the possibility of funding just five in the current fiscal year and five more next year and a discussion on potential funding sources. The issue will be brought back for further discussion at a future work session.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.