Town threatens to remove memorial benches if families don’t cough up extra dough.
On May 5, 2017, a conversation began in the 15,000+ member Facebook group Ocean City Cool owned by Robert Banach, regarding a new letter that has gone out to current Ocean City memorial bench owners. In it, owners were told that they needed to pay an additional $1,160.00 refurbishment fee for their benches else they would lose ownership. Almost 100 comments were generated, many from upset bench owners and would-be buyers, concerned with the ten-year term cost on top of the initial bench fee. One of those owners is Linda Halbritter.
When Linda Halbritter retired to Ocean City, Maryland, she brought with her the memories of her childhood spent alongside her mother and sisters playing in the ocean, building sand castles, and wandering the boards. In honor of her late mother who passed away unexpectedly in 2011, she purchased a memorial bench on the boardwalk to celebrate her memory.
“We were very close and her injury and untimely death caused me a lot of grief,” said Halbritter.
Since Halbritter’s mother was cremated and she has no grave to visit, the bench brings both a sense of peace and a place to create new memories with family. Halbritter brings her grandchildren to visit the bench where they can take part in the memory of their great-grandmother in Ocean City.
Halbritter purchased the memorial bench in October 2012 for $1,700.00. She received a purchase of agreement that included the information being written on her mother’s memorial bench plaque, where to make the check payable to, and where the bench would be placed.
So, when Halbritter received a letter in the mail five years later stating that she needed to fork over an additional $1,161.00 to keep ownership of the bench, she was astonished.
“Imagine someone you love passes away and you bury them. The cemetery calls and says you have to pay an additional fee to keep the headstone on the grave,” she said.
Council says ‘Sorry for your troubles’ to surprised families
Halbritter took her frustration to the city council and after contacting each member, one returned her emails and calls. Councilman Wayne Hartman advised that he would look into the situation and get back to her but there was no rush since there was plenty of time before her ten-year restoration term was up in 2022. I spoke with Councilman Wayne Hartman about the matter.
Hartman said that he wasn’t on the council when the Memorial Bench Dedication program began. Public works came to the city council with the issue of benches not lasting as long as they had originally expected. He said the benches needed refurbishing due to salt water and graffiti. Hartman also said that the ten-year term letter included three options for bench owners:
- To keep the bench on the boardwalk: where the cost to do so is currently averaging $1,161.00. “It is important to note that the ‘cost of restoration’ will be specific to whatever the actual cost is at the exact time of restoration.”
- To not fund the cost of the restoration: you can remove the bench for personal use. Note, there is no help from the city for removal of benches.
- Donate the bench to the town of Ocean City: the city can keep the bench, but they will return the memorial plaque to you as a keepsake.
New 2016 memorial bench owners were notified of the ten-year refurbishment term at the time of purchase, but previous owners weren’t notified until spring 2017. The term letter was sent from Deputy Director of Public Works, John VanFossen who I was unable to reach for commentary. VanFossen is the Manager of Maintenance. Thomas Dy, however, contacted Linda Halbritter.
“In response to your letter sent last week and as you stated, there was no ten-year term assigned when you first purchased your bench however, to try to address your concerns, the Mayor and City Council are now faced with the reality of budgeting $100,000 + annually just to cover current restoration charges for all the dedicated bench program participants,” Dy said. ” Note, this amount does not include the Town’s in-house Public Works costs for general maintenance support which we still provide.”
He goes on to say that there are 900+ benches to maintain and that, “…it’s become such a large amount the Town could not continue to fund each year alone. Basically, the program couldn’t survive without the financial help from its participants.”
If the costs of the program were superseding the amounts charged for the benches, it is unclear as to why the program wasn’t halted until a solution was found.
“If you purchase a bench do you think the bench will last forever? No. Do you want a memorial on the boardwalk that has been defaced by salt water and graffiti or do you want it pristine like the other benches?” — Wayne Hartman
According to Councilman Hartman, the benches are sold pretty close to acquisition costs from the manufacturer and the current purchase price for memorial benches are around $2,500.00. Information for how to purchase them can be found online at: https://oceancitymd.gov/oc/departments/public-works/boardwalk-bench-dedication/. The current price does not include the ten-year term restoration fee that will be assessed after the restoration period is over.
No guarantees against future blind increases offered
In 2008, Brian King and his brother-in-law purchased a memorial bench for their wives as a gift to honor their deceased parents. They didn’t expect to receive a letter in 2017 asking for an additional $1,160.00 to restore the bench. King spent his college years as a Salisbury student working in Ocean City. As an adult, he and his family visit four to five times a year.
“It frustrates me to no end. We had an agreement. The bench itself becomes a memory where kids take pictures on it every year, now the city is playing on people’s emotions. How can they just change the rules? What’s next? And where does it end? I don’t trust them at all.”
Hartman claimed he will make sure that the ten-year term is the only one enforced during his time on city council as long as he is still voted in by constituents. There is no plan at this time in place to ensure that no additional fees are assessed for the memorial benches.
Sharon Hagy and her husband were gifted a memorial bench for their 50th wedding anniversary last year from their four daughters, only this time the daughters knew about the ten-year term because it was stated in the new bench memorial agreement. When Sharon found out about the additional upkeep fees that would come down the road, she and her husband started putting money aside to help defray the costs on their children. “When our daughters got us the bench, they were also looking ahead to future years, planning to visit the ocean as a family, even after we may be gone. The memories will always be a part of them and this bench represents all the love and good times we have shared there. I can’t imagine having our memory bench removed, or donated to someone else because our children or grandchildren can’t afford a refurbishing fee,” said Hagy.
Hartman added that any bench that belongs to a deceased couple will have its plaque removed if the new refurbishment fee isn’t paid.
“Who is taking care of the benches for the couples who are gone?” asked King. “Are they just throwing those plaques away?”
Essentially, the current cost of a memorial bench is not $2,500.00 but is actually $3,660.00 for ten years when you add on the cost of the ten-year term at the end of the refurbishment period. For customers like Halbritter, King and Hagy, priceless memories are made on the Ocean City memorial benches. But the city is holding those memories hostage until the owners pay up or give back their boardwalk property.
To contact Ocean City’s City Council or Mayor for comment please visit: https://oceancitymd.gov/oc/city-hall/mayor-and-city-council/.
Photos courtesy of Linda Halbritter, Brian King and Sharon Hagy.