OCEAN CITY – On the heels of last month’s vote by the Worcester County Commissioners to approve a land buy for a future sports complex, an Ocean City councilman used his comment time this week to soapbox on the subject.
Last week, the county commissioners voted 4-3 to proceed with buying a 95-acre parcel west of Stephen Decatur High School for a future sports complex and to finance the $11 million project through a bond sale. While the project is essentially a county one, Ocean City, which has long desired tapping into the multi-billion-dollar youth sports market, will likely be a partner on some level along with the state of Maryland.
After the narrow 4-3 vote, there are already grumblings of discontent with the proposed property purchase. For example, Berlin officials have grumbled the town was not included in the discussion in advance of the vote. A petition for referendum drive is also underway by a group of citizens.
During the council comment period of Monday’s regular Mayor and Council meeting, Councilman John Gehrig, a fierce advocate for a sports complex in the area and tapping into the burgeoning youth sports market, covered a lot of ground, including its potential impact on the property tax rate in the future.
“This is not just for Ocean City residents, but for the other county residents as well,” he said. “I’m just going to have to be relentless on this, and I hope my other colleagues will be as well. It’s time for all of us to really pay attention to what’s going on around us, about what we’re discussing, and what’s going on at our county commissioner meetings and at the state legislature level.”
Gehrig said the sitting council was given clear directives during the last election cycle, none of which included a property tax cut.
“At the last election, we had some clear mandates,” he said. “One of them was to clean up the pop-up event, clean up June and bring the families back. Those were the election items. Not one person said cut my property taxes by 18 cents. Not one single person. What they said was make this place safer and attract families and get them here. I think we’re executing. We have debates and discussions and we don’t always see eye to eye, but I think we’re a highly functional group and I think we’re executing on a very high level as far as meeting those mandates.”
Gehrig said even with budget challenges, the council was poised to pass a fiscal year 2023 budget at the constant yield tax rate.
“The cost of everything is going up like crazy,” he said. “We have the same issues here. If you pay attention to our meetings, every meeting we discuss something that is going to cost us more in the future, every single meeting whether it’s the difficulty in hiring part-time employees or overtime.”
He said maintaining the safety and cleanliness of the resort was requiring more and more staff and there was a cost associated with that.
“You want to make this place safe?” he said. “It’s going to require more part-time police officers and public safety and public works people. You want clean? You want safe? You want your tax dollars to work for you? We work like crazy to have the people we need to do all of that. That’s going to cost us more today, tomorrow and in the future.”
Gehrig also said aging infrastructure was a concern in terms of the prudent spending of tax dollars.
“We have infrastructure we need to invest in,” he said. “Do we know when a sewer pipe is going to break? Ask Fort Lauderdale. They had sewage running through the streets literally. We hear lower my taxes by 18 cents. That sounds great until you have sewage running down your sidewalk.”
Gehrig said fiscal conservatism and prudent budgeting has allowed the town to maintain the property tax rate at the constant yield in the proposed budget, but there could come a time when property taxes have to be raised to meet the demands of operating the town. It has been anathema for this council and prior councils to raise property taxes and that is not likely, but investing in marketing and business development, including the proposed sports complex, will help avoid that eventuality, he said.
“So how do we pay for all of this?” he said. “We’re either going to make it, or we’re going to take it. That’s not a threat. That’s just a reality for government. We need to seek ways to make money or we’re going to have to take other people’s money. That’s called taxes.”
Gehrig said the proposed sports complex is a step in that direction. He said fears of a property tax increase because of the sports complex property purchase in the county were unfounded and identified several sources of state grants and funds that would be used to pay for the project.
“Something needs to be done,” he said. “That’s what we’re working like crazy to do. The sports complex is one idea with merit. It’s a $20 billion industry that has grown from $9 billion in the last 10 years. There are 50 million people that live within a five-hour drive from here. There are families that drive up to 12 hours to take their kids to these tournaments. They’re spending up to $13,000 per child per year and they might have three or four children and they’re dividing up the duties and going different places.”
Gehrig referenced a recent tour of a relatively new sports complex in Virginia Beach. He said he and others from Ocean City toured a 300,000-square-foot indoor space.
“People who don’t like sports complexes are never going to go,” he said. “They’ll refuse to step foot anywhere near where kids are having fun. Two weeks later we had a blizzard. Well, they had a blizzard too and they were still filled with thousands of kids and their families for a volleyball tournament in the middle of a blizzard.”
Gehrig said that type of scenario can and likely will play out in Ocean City with the right sports facilities.
“We live here, so we take the beach for granted, but people will come to the beach in the wintertime,” he said. “Those kids were having the times of their lives. We can fill this place all year long, but it will take courage and not fear and cynicism. There are opponents. We’re seeking ideas and they’ll say this is not a good idea, so bring forth other ideas.”
Gehrig cautioned against buying into the fear propagated by opponents of the proposed sports complex.
“What we’re hearing is the government is corrupt and it’s stealing our money,” he said. “They’re saying if this sports complex is approved, they’re going to raise your taxes. They’re going to knock on your door at dinnertime with a clipboard and propagate fear. They’re relying on people not paying attention. I want everyone to be aware of what’s going on and what is the truth. I encourage everyone to wake up and pay attention to what is going on.”
The councilman then went back to his soliloquy about those who call for a cut in the property tax rate.
“Here are the alternatives,” he said. “Cut advertising so my tax rate can be cut 18 cents. Get rid of all of that fund balance, that’s another 15 cents. We don’t need any investment in economic development. That’s not a government function. Just cut my taxes and I’ll cross my fingers. If crossing your fingers is a strategy, then I’m not your guy. Hope is not a strategy. I don’t want to raise taxes. None of us do. I want to make money because Ocean City is great. We will make money if we have the courage to invest some. No one is raising property taxes no matter what they say.”
Gehrig reiterated there were several funding sources available to help pay for the proposed sports complex, from state Program Open Space funds to Tri-County Council grants, and from partnering with the Maryland Stadium Authority to naming rights and sponsorships. He referenced a bill passed by the General Assembly to supply an influx of funding for projects such as the proposed sports complex.
Gehrig said parking revenue alone could pay the debt service on the bond to build the proposed sports complex. He said presuming a 100-team tournament, that would likely be 1,000 vehicles coming. He said people routinely pay $20 per day to park for the events, times 1,000 vehicles for a three-day event equals $60,000.
“Even if we did a terrible job and only filled it up half the time, or just two weekends a month, that’s still $120,000 per month just in parking revenue,” he said. “That’s $120,000 per month just from parking to cover the $60,000 per month note.”
Gehrig closed by addressing those concerned about the proposed sports complex and the potential impact on property tax rates.
“We have some opponents, and those opponents are going to knock on your door and write letters and do whatever they can to say this sports complex is going to raise your taxes,” he said. “They’re going to say the economy is going to turn, or the stock market is going to drop. They’re going to use every fear tactic. We all need to wake up and know the facts and listen to the people who represent you or replace them. You need to either trust us or replace us. We don’t want to take it, so we’re trying to make it and it’s right there for us. Don’t let fear win.”
Mayor Rick Meehan agreed with much of Gehrig’s comments.
“Well said, Councilman Gehrig,” he said. “We have an opportunity to make this area and Worcester County the amateur sports capital of Maryland and that should be our goal. I hope the citizens recognize that and so many of them do.”