Council president talks capital spending at FIT meeting

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OCEAN CITY — The city’s priorities have changed since Hurricane Sandy ripped across the island in October, City Council President Michael Allegretto said at a Friday, Dec. 7 meeting of the civic group Fairness in Taxes.

With so many pieces of the budgetary puzzle still “moving,” he said the city would have to borrow money to continue operating through the New Year.

“The top priority is getting the town together,” he said.

Allegretto, an invited guest at the meeting, touched on many topics, including the five-year capital plan presented to City Council on Dec. 6, the possibility of a new public safety building, roads, drainage and flooding issues, decking for the boardwalk, the city’s marina deal at Second Street and what the city learned from Sandy.

FIT President Michael Hinchman said he was impressed by the city’s capital plan presentation as it was the “first serious presentation I’ve ever seen.”

He said the plan to ramp up spending to $10 from $7 million in order to include more road and drainage projects put the city “in the major leagues of capital investment.”

“It was the first sincere, serious presentation and it was fundamentally flawed,” he said.

“Roads are the easy part, drainage is the difficult part,” Hinchman said.

“The drainage issue is enormously complicated. The town was designed wrong,” he said.  “We’re dealing with problems that were created 40, 50 and 60 years ago. It was not done in the best way when they did it.”

While the crown of the island should be in the middle of it, instead, the middle is a bowl, he said. Some areas sit at a low elevation.

“Merion Park will flood forever more,” he said.

Allegretto said $10 million is a lot of money, but “doesn’t go too far” when attempting to tackle flooding and drainage issues. Those in attendance discussed various low-lying areas. Many said remedies tried in the past have only made a bad situation worse; what helps one neighborhood often harms another.

Allegretto defended the city’s current road rating program, which is used to determine which roads will be paved first, but Hinchman said he felt it was flawed.

The city uses a rating system combining the condition of the road with the frequency of use. Hinchman said he felt it was a “two dimensional” situation that should also involve drainage and there should be a subjective factor involved. He said alleys should also be considered. He said he wanted to see a topographical map of the island become a factor.

“It’s a two variable problem with a one variable map,” he said.

Allegretto said that if frequency was not included in the determination that “some roads would never, ever get done.”

“That’s why frequency became a variable,” he said.

If the city planned to spend more money, Hinchman said they needed to invest in more manpower.

“My fundamental challenge … they need to set it up right,” he said. “They need to hire more people if you’re going to spend that much money. Line ‘em up, you need to line up more people.”

The possibility of a new public safety building, at an estimated cost of $10 million, caused some concern. The new facility would be constructed at the existing fire house at Sixth Street and would include a new police station and court.

“That was new to all of us,” said Allegretto of the capital plan line item.

Hinchman said he was concerned about the cost of the building. Moving the requisite equipment and the municipal court, which is also in the current police station, would be “cost prohibitive,” he said.

Hinchman said he maintains that the current building, which was built in the late 1890s and for more than 60 years served as a school, could be renovated for a lot less money.

“Why would you move?” he asked.

He said the bricks on the outside of the building are in good shape, but it needs a new roof and new HVAC system. The shingled roof would be easy to replace, he said, and replacing the HVAC system would be far less costly than building new.

“The biggest gripe is that it doesn’t heat and cool properly,” he said. “If there is a structural deficiency then all bets are off.”

He suggested the building needs a new front entrance. Hinchman said it would be “the height of irresponsibility” to knock down a building that didn’t need to be.

Hinchman said that there are flaws in the current building. Prisoners and the public enter through the same main door. The workout room on the first floor might not be necessary, he said, since police officers are afforded free memberships at the local community center.

Allegretto said the police station has serious issues with a leaky roof, and the issue of replacing the facility is complicated by the fact that the 29th Street firehouse may need to be replaced after it was severely flooded during Sandy. Allegretto said he was concerned about the bottom line and was withholding judgment until the formal budget presentation next month.

Decisions about staffing and replacing the damaged firehouse had yet to be made, Allegretto said.

Hinchman asked Allegretto to recommend to the administration that they consider a retrofit rather than a new public safety building.

As for Merion Park, some suggested a pump station be installed to reduce flooding, but Allegretto said a bulkhead surrounding the area would be needed or the water would come right back in.

Lessons learned from the storm, Hinchman said, are “dunes, dunes, dunes, dunes.”

“The dunes flattened, but they worked,” he said.

Big rocks, though “tremendously expensive,” would be a more permanent solution, Hinchman said.

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