OCEAN CITY – The beach bonfire program in Ocean City has become wildly successful, but the cost of a permit could be increasing.
During a budget work session on Monday, Ocean City Fire Marshal Josh Bunting presented revenue projections for the beach bonfire permit program, which began in the 1970s and has steadily gained popularity over the years. From a low of just 68 beach bonfire permits in 2010, the number grew to 251 in 2016.
In 2017, the Fire Marshal’s Office explored the possibility of replacing the cumbersome paper application process with an online version and it was fully implemented in 2019. Residents and visitors could, practically in real time, apply for and gain a bonfire permit from their phone, computer or mobile device without making the trip downtown to City Hall to get a permit.
In the first year of implementation of the new system, the number of bonfire permits jumped to 479 in 2018 and 727 in 2019. When COVID broke out in 2020, the number of beach bonfire permits soared exponentially to 2,400. The pandemic was the driving force behind the one-year leap in bonfire permits issued, but the beach bonfire program has continued to grow. Many who discovered the program during the pandemic have grown accustomed to the program and continue to enjoy the bonfire program, especially with the streamlined permit process.
Bunting said on Monday there were 2,500 permits issued in 2021. The revenue from the beach bonfire permits was $192,000 last year, and the estimate for the fiscal year 2023 budget is a conservative $195,000. A quick glance of the fire marshal’s office webpage revealed there were already a dozen permits issued for this Saturday. Bunting said the beach bonfire permits, along with building inspections and the like, were the main sources of revenue for his division.
“We’re going to see growth in the two primary revenue streams for our department division,” he said. “The bonfire program has been a visitor and public relations success over the last year. It has changed the perception of Ocean City’s beach in the evening. It something different to do for residents and visitors to our resort.”
Bunting said the $195,000 revenue estimate for the coming fiscal year was conservative.
“We need to remain conservative with the revenue estimates,” he said. “A week of rain can make a big difference. A week of rain at the wrong time can be a $40,000 hit.”
During the review, the question was raised if the current fee for a bonfire permit was enough by Council Secretary Tony DeLuca.
“My question is this, at $75 have you thought about increasing it?” he said. “Raising it to $90 or $100 doesn’t seem like much for a family event. Just say everybody in the family chips in another $10. It just seems like there’s some room there.”
Bunting said he was planning a comprehensive review of all his department’s fees.
“We haven’t raised fees in the fire marshal’s office for years,” he said. “It’s something I’d like to tackle this fall comprehensively. I’d like to go into the next budget season with an idea of where we compare to other jurisdictions in the area.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said a bonfire fee permit increase should be considered sooner rather than later.
“I see where you’re going to comprehensively look at all of the fees,” he said. “I think the bonfire fees could be raised to some degree, maybe to $85 or $90. There is now an increased cost for us to monitor that. We’re spending more money to do that. The key is to be able to continue the program and make it cost-efficient.”