Ocean City pulls bait and switch on memorial benches

Ocean City pulls bait and switch on memorial benches

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’s grandson Arion sitting on her mother’s bench

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

Katherine and Owen sitting on their grandparent’s bench

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.

Hagy Family Photo on 50th Anniversary Memorial Bench

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.

20 Comments on this Post

  1. Wendy weber

    I received such a letter…My thought was why couldn’t we donate the bench with our plaque on it…Is ocean city reselling the donated benches…I call it emotional hostage…Pulling on the purse strings of people whose hearts are mostly already broken as most benches are in memory…Ocean city has gotten free benches so what if everyone took their bench what would oc do……Is sad and my heart is heart again

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  2. Then why not set up a fund raiser for the benches. And have all the money go towards the maintenance of the benches. I am sure that there must be a better way then charging all these family thousands dollars. I am sure that as a community we can all come together and help make the money needed not only now but for the future as well.

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  3. Tamara

    This is raping the emotions of people for city funding. It was not a part of the original agreement upon purchase. Those that purchased before this current “fundraising” should be grandfathered in. I purchased two of said benches…in 2002 and 2008.

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  4. This is absolutely outragous. First of all where the hell are they buying these benches for 2500.00 dollars they are out of their minds.Second of all it certainely doesnt cost each one of these people 1100 dollars for restoration. What do you take these? The town of ocean city is a bunch of money grubbing idiots.Thirdly if you didnt have these memorial benches the town would have to foot the bill for benches anyway. Jerks is what I call them and thats the nice way of putting it.

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  5. Stephen Bigelow

    so if people didn’t buy the memorial benches there wouldnt be any benches on the boardwalk? really? all we should have to do is purchase a plaque and have it attached

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  6. Keith

    Since there was no mention of a ten year period in the early purchases of these benches,I think the people should get together and file a class action law suit against ocean city and the street rod events should be boycotted or moved to a friendly Wild wood or Cape May Resort. !!!

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  7. Bruce Hunter

    In response Councilman Wayne Hartman’s question if the purchasers of the memorial benches expected them to last forever, the answer is yes since we were told that the initial purchase garunteed upkeep “as long as there is a boardwalk” so this twisted turn of events only proves the word of Ocean City is simply without credibility. What’s totally awful is the option to donate the bench to Ocean City in which the bench will remain, be maintained and possibly have another plaque purchased by someone else and placed on it. The only thing I’m confused about is my determination of the Ocean City government as being tastless extortionist or sick twisted gouls… I guess simply both. What I’m NOT confused about is that when the time comes we will NOT be donating the bench to what appears to be a municipality made up of deceivers and crooks

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  8. Mariana Luce

    You spared The Town the cost of a new bench at the time. Maybe there could be a future agreement, based on the lifespan of each bench. For exampke, even it’s no longer salvageable, the owner could buy a replacement for it, or not. Years ago in Cumberland, we paid for a brick and bronze memorial dedicated to my mother, Eugenia A. Spano Sturtz Sack. After it was destroyed by vandals the City had no budget to replace it, so we would have had to pay for its reconstruction. It was hard to accept, but in our case the City had no budget to repair or replace it, and we didn’t either! In your case, wouldn’t The Town have budgeted to maintain it? I wish you the best outcome.

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  9. Renee

    You would have to expect that the bench won’t last forever. Everything needs upkeep. The cost should not fall on the town of Ocean City. But in the defense of the public that should best stipulated. The other solution would be to charge a yearly maintenance fee to help offset cost.

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  10. Gale and Seaton

    We too received such a letter, and are disturbed for many reasons. We purchased Stacey’s bench in 2005, shortly after she was murdered. It is on 17th Street, right across the Holiday Inn, where we stayed, and where we first saw the benches. As soon as we saw the benches, on May 27th, 2005 – the one dedicated to the Halls, Stacey said she wanted a bench. When we explained to her that they were for when people died, she said she wanted one. We told her that her family would buy her one in around 60 – 80 years. Five days later she was murdered, just 18 days before her 18th birthday. We bought the bench that year.
    The contract we signed was straight forward, and we really assumed it was for life, a longevity that would last longer than 10 years. To have a city council member to question whether anyone really thought a bench would last forever, is indicative of an organization who is not looking at the legality of the contract was signed, and is now questioning our judgement. Shame on them, because if THEY thought the benches would only last 10 years, they would have included in the contract, upfront, contractual obligations we bench owners would incur. But they did not.
    We reached out to the city council, and mayor, on two separate occasions, to come to a resolution. Not one person responded to us, not one of them contacted us. If this is the kind of treatment, or response, or in many cases – nonresponse to bench owners, the council believes is acceptable, what other actions or non actions will they take, and financial burdens will they place, on visitors and citizens?? If they are allowed to get away this, what next???
    We have had hundreds of people visit Stacey’s bench, and provide us photos. The peace we get from those, and from sitting on Stacey’s bench can not be overstated. I’m sorry it has come to this, not only for those of us who have been notified of us by the council, but also for those whose benches will be summarily given to other families – for the poor planning choices the city has provided. We are not only visitors, we are also property owners in Ocean City as well. Shame on the City Council, as “people first” obviously translates to “money first”, for Ocean City. Shame on you. We too believe a class action suit to stop this is appropriate for the city’s short-sited actions, and we’re sorry that it has come to this. I was advised to “be diplomatic”, back in January, when we were notified of this situation. It’s hard to be diplomatic, when you don’t get a response. We’re just very sorry that we are now having to go through this.

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    • Susanne

      So sorry for the loss if your daughter Stacey and for the anger and anguish this ill conceived idea of paying additional fees for Stacey’s bench has caused you.

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  11. OC Runner Barb

    My family has a bench on 9th St in memory of my Brother. I have not gotten a letter, but if I do it will be very disturbing. OC said they would care for the bench when we decided to do this. Actually, she said, we would care for it like it was our own loved one. Shame on OC, this is so horrible to do this to these families. And to think it costs 1,160 to maintain a bench???? Really, I could take a sander to the boardwalk, sand the bench down and restain and it would take me about an hour.

    Reply
  12. Karen

    When my family got this letter we responded by pulling our bench — which left a gap that will now be filled by a new bench that OC will sell to someone else. One way or the other they’re making money, and it sure feels like a racket.

    Reply
  13. Bruce Hunter

    Ok, it seems some people may be drifting, when we bought the bench for our mother who LOVED Ocean City, WE ASKED if there would be additional charges for upkeep, if they said yes we would have considered it and bought it anyway, BUT we were told “AS LONG AS THERE’S A BOARDWALK THE BENCH WILL BE MAINTAINED”! It is a matter of principle for the Hunter family not finances! We WILL remove it if threatened with this sick, twisted, ghoulish extortion and WILL look into litigation. Again, it’s a matter of principle.

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  14. Garry Elliott

    When we paid for a bench and plaque in 2006, nothing was said about a every 10 year renewal fee the buy a new bench. OC had already installed the benches along the sea wall. We understood that our initial fee defrayed the cost of the bench and memorial plaque.

    Reply
  15. Ken Burbulak

    I also purchased a bench at the start of the program. We had the bench placed in front of room 118 at the Quality Inn on 17th street for our aunt and uncle who rented that room every year for more than 25 years before they passed. There was absolutely no stipulation that there would be additional fees incurred later on. The bench was already there; the cost deferred the price of the plaque and a coat of paint every few years to maintain the bench.
    $2,500 for a bench?? They are not made of gold. The practical cost to maintain a bench shouldn’t run more than $50 a year as worst for a paint job and possibly replace a slat or two which is made from durable engineered lumber, like Treks. I would be agreeable to a possible maintenance fee of $100 every 5 years to defray maintenance costs. Any pricing higher than that amounts to pure extortion. Besides which, shouldn’t the original signed agreement be treated he same as a :CONTRACT” ? ? and as such, shouldn’t said contract be binding between both the Town of Ocean City and the consignee?

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    • Ken Burbulak

      Additionally, I think there should be a class action suit filed against the town of Ocean City for BREACH OF CONTRACT.
      If they continue to fail to respond to emails and inquiries, maybe the Office of the Governor and the Maryland State House in Annapolis should also be flooded with complaints as well, including threats to take our summer business elsewhere – like Rehoboth Beach, Wildwood NJ, or Ocean City NJ. where our hard-earned vacation monies can be spent and better appreciated. In unity there is strength!

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    • Gale Seaton

      Ken, Well said, and great comments. I have already actually contacted Senator Miller and Senator Peters, and will contact Governor Hogan’s office tomorrow. We have met him several times, and he is a fair man. I also have a lawyer who is interested in pursuing a class-action suit. I told him my goal was to ensure that Ocean City does not continue down this path, because this, in my perspective, is illegal. They might want to charge us each $5,000 in another 10 years. We now have the story going nationwide, and I’m frustrated that it has come to this. But if they had just communicated with us, and not ignored us, they wouldn’t have found themselves in this situation. We bought Stacey’s bench in 2005, right after she was murdered. Right in front of the Holiday Inn on 17th St, where we used to stay. Right before she was murdered, she said she wanted one.

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  16. Dennis Miller

    I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I have been going to OC for over 40 years. I thank you for the benches you provide and I applaud your spirit. I will stand with you in your cause. I to may decide to vacation elsewhere, shame on you Ocean City.

    Reply
  17. JonInVa

    A vacation town, which makes more money in one summer than most towns do in a year, cannot find 100k? What a crap hole it’s all become. Shame.

    Reply

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