Mayor kicks off ward meetings, talks dredging, flooding, taxes

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OCEAN CITY – Mayor Jay Gillian made the first of four visits to the city’s wards with a meeting at the Ocean City Free Public Library addressing concerns of Third Ward residents.

Gillian and the city’s senior staff answered questions and addressed concerns from dredging to the budget, playgrounds, flooding, beach tags, the Boardwalk, the skateboard park, union contracts, taxes and zoning.

Residents were for the most part complimentary but a number of speakers focused on how they felt visitors are catered to at the expense of year-round residents. Speakers said year-round residents deserve something extra for the inconvenience of dealing with the deluge of summer visitors.

Gillian said if residents are given beach tags, then revenue will go down and taxes would have to go up, even for residents who don’t use the beach. Still, some residents felt that free parking and beach tags would be a nice gesture.

“Every action has a reaction,” said Gillian. “How do you be fair to everybody? Some pay taxes but can’t vote.”

Third Ward Councilman John Flood said the question “comes up often.” The city has 22,000 inhabitable units and if all of them were filled year-round the city’s budget would triple, he said.

“We get the benefit of because all of these people pay taxes,” said Flood.

Local firefighter and resident Ray Clark said he disagreed that this was “America’s Greatest Family Resort.” He said it was a community, not a resort.

“I don’t need free beach tags, or parking, I’ll ride my bike,” he said, adding that public workers, police, firefighters and the public works team keep the city clean and safe.

“We hear that everyone is happy with the services,” he said, asking Gillian how the city could maintain services while cutting costs.

Gillian agreed that residents are happy with the level of services, but feel that “it costs too much.”

“The councilmen say we need a new model,” he said, but residents are unhappy with the price tag, not the model. “We could cut and slash, what do people want?”

“Until you need that quick response” you don’t appreciate what it means, said Gillian.

“We have to get away from ‘the model,’ it’s the cost,” he said. “Things have gotten out of control.”

Gillian said negotiations with local unions would be difficult but times were challenging and changes would have to be made. Safety is important but cost has to be a factor, he said.

“Everybody has a job, it’s going to be fair but there’s going to be a change,” said Gillian.

The average income in the private sector has dropped 17 percent in recent years, the mayor said.

Another resident said he raised six children on the island. They received an excellent education and enjoyed a unique quality of life, he said.

“I’m happy with Ocean City,” he said.

Speeding school buses were a big concern, and Gillian asked residents to get the number of the bus and call the school when they witness it.

Tax appeals

A declining real estate market has led many property owners to appeal property taxes. A “mini-revaluation” is in order as over 600 revaluations were completed last year, said officials.

The city’s ratable base is “a little inflated” compared to the fair market value of individual properties, said finance director Frank Donato.

“We’re dealing with a roller coaster real estate market,” he said. “Some owners are struggling to keep up with declining values.”

A full-blown revaluation would be time-consuming and cost over $1.5 million.

“We decided to tackle the problem head-on, with a two-prong approach,” said Donato.

Beach and bay-front properties are “way out of whack,” he said. The largest deviations are along the water, so to “head off” some of those appeals, the city will perform a waterfront revaluation first. The entire island will be revaluated by 2013.

“In a perfect world, we want 100 percent valuation for everyone,” said Donato. “We want fair market value in a fair world.”

Budget

Donato said he was “full force” working on the 2012 municipal budget. Each department head was asked to present a budget. Gillian said it would be a true “zero based” budget.

“We said don’t start with last year’s numbers and tack on one or two percent,” said Donato. “Start with zero.”

Donato said department budgets would be presented publicly later this month. By law, Gillian must present the budget by Jan. 15. Donato said it would be done on the first council meeting of the new year.

“Each department has a unique budget,” he said, adding that police take on summer officers and the fire department assumes responsibility for the beach patrol. Public works crews multiply and a small army of beach taggers are employed, he said.

Donato said there is good news as employees are now required to contribute more to their pensions and health care costs. Gov. Chris Christie’s reforms have been “really favorable,” he said, as the city’s contribution to the pension fund went down $150,000 rather than up eight or 10 percent as in the past. Employee health care contributions have “about tripled.”

General revenue went up, he said, though Hurricane Irene hurt local businesses and the city’s coffers.

“By and large we are stable,” said Donato.

Dredging

The lagoons are the Third Ward’s biggest problem, said Flood.

“Right out our front door,” said Flood, adding that shallow waterways affect more than just the big boats.

“Small out-boards can’t get out either,” he said, of low tide.

City business administrator Mike Datillo said it was at “the top of the list.”

“Lagoons are basically un-passable except at high tide,” he said. “There are a lot of complicated issues to deal with.”

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had strict rules governing the process and the city’s spoil site was nearly filled, he said.

Some improvements can be made to the mouths of lagoons between 17th Street and Waterway Road. The $1 million project will be put out to bid in the spring. The city can dump another 100,000 cubic yards at an existing spoil site.

“After this project, the spoil site will be full,” he said. “This is something everyone up and down the coast deals with.”

DEP ruling upsets resident

John Stauffer said a recent ruling by the DEP that three vacant beachfront lots between the Boardwalk and the bulkhead just south of 19th Street were buildable was a travesty.

“The DEP is now saying it is buildable,” he said. “They denied it three or four years ago. Going back to 1992 that area was under water at high tide. After a beach replenishment it was filled with 10 feet of sand. We the taxpayers paid for that. The property owners are only paying $70 a year in taxes.

“Why? If it’s now buildable property why?” he asked.

Stauffer noted that to obtain access to the property, 19th Street will have to be extended, which would necessitate ripping out an existing dune structure and paving 100 feet toward the Boardwalk.

“This will make it easier for water to get on to the street,” he said.

Stauffer wanted to know what the city planned to do about the situation.

Datillo said the lots would be subject to the same zoning approval process as any other lot in the city. If the proposed single family structure did not conform, they would be required to obtain a variance.

“We know where this is headed,” he said, indicating that a lawsuit would be likely so he could not comment on the properties. “There is a possibility of litigation.”

Skateboard park

Questioned by resident Georgina Shanley about the removal of the skateboard park at Sixth Street, Gillian said it was a safety issue and the park was the number one vandalized park on the island. It was built for skateboards and roller blades, but unfortunately bike riders and others were utilizing it, taking bolt cutters to the locks to gain access, he said.

The recreation complex along Sixth Street would be redesigned from beach to bay, he said. The skateboard park sat on 50 valuable parking spaces. Something new would replace it, he promised.

“There will be something safer that kids can’t take over,” he said. “A few people said it was selfish. I can’t help what people think. It was a safety issue.”

Shanley said city officials should consider the “needs of the young people.”

“I give you my word, we’re going to bring it back in some form,” said Gillian. “It’s not going away.”

Bathrooms and playgrounds

An existing playground will be replaced at 15th Street. Public input will be considered but some residents were more concerned about the possibility of including bathrooms. Tired of begging nearby businesses, they asked for relief.

Datillo said prevailing rates made the cost of even a modest building too high. A modular that ties into the city sewer was a possibility, he said.

“We do it but can we maintain it?” Gillian asked, adding that it was quite a conundrum.

“It’s amazing,” he said, of the process that a municipality has to go through to improve anything. “Just to put a bathroom in! Believe me I’d love to have modulars all over. It’s a disgrace that residents and visitors have to use the Music Pier bathrooms.”

Gillian said this conundrum was something he wanted residents of all wards to consider: “What do you want?”

“When we do something does it have to pay for itself?” he asked.

Flooding

A bulkhead will be replaced at 15th Street, which will alleviate flooding, according to officials. Bay water was pouring in, undermining some of the new tide flex valves. Bulkheads will also be replaced at Fourth and Sixth Streets.

“Many of the tide flex valves had reached the end of their useful life,” said Datillo. “The new ones have had varying degrees of impact.”

Old pipes continue to be a problem, he said. A multi-year plan was in the works to address myriad flooding issues.

“Some may be achievable, some may not,” he said.

Fields

A resident questioned why fields were locked and unavailable to the public. Gillian said that all of the city-owned fields are supposed to be open.

The Ocean City school district utilizes some of the fields for high school sports programs through an agreement with the Ocean City Board of Education, he said.

"All of our fields are open," Gillian said. "We try to keep our fields open. It's not fair if they are closed, they should be open. It comes down to the coaches, they want pristine fields."

Gillian said there should not be any "sacred cows" as far as field use and said he wanted to work together with the school district to keep fields open.

Gillian is slated to meet with residents of the Fourth Ward at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church on 40th Street and Asbury Avenue on Saturday, Nov. 12 at 10:30 a.m.


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