Save? Yes, but include saving lives

04/11/2014

Budget hearings at City Hall this past week became so misguided as to be almost farcical, which would be amusing if the well-being of the city’s employees, residents and visitors were not dependent on them.

Out of the plethora of expenses and revenues presented by city staff for council review, the one that caught Councilman Joe Mitrecic’s eye was the $8,800 spent by the Ocean City Beach Patrol on the salary of its public relations coordinator, Kristin Joson.

As Mitrecic explained, he found it unnecessary for the Beach Patrol to have its own PR person, and favored moving all public relations toward a “one voice” approach under city Communications Manager Jessica Waters.

Waters does an excellent job, but there is more to the Beach Patrol’s public outreach efforts than the one voice method can accomodate.

Even if city officials did wish to centralize communications in Waters’ office, there are better ways to do it than to fire other departmental spokespersons during a budget meeting.

As Beach Patrol Capt. Butch Arbin tried to explain, Joson is not simply a PR person. She performs a number of duties, which include mounting a major public education campaign every year that teaches water safety and rescue. Someone without lifeguarding experience, which Joson has, would be less capable of doing this or may not even have the time.

Arbin had discussed the matter with Waters and, based on that conversation, explained the situation at the budget meeting. Recor, however, accused the 40-year Beach Patrol veteran of misrepresenting his talk with Waters and said publicly that Arbin’s account was “not entirely accurate.” He also maintained that Waters was ready to take over Joson’s role as Mitrecic had requested and failed to see how Arbin’s “takeaway could be otherwise.”

After several minutes of tense discussion, Mitrecic’s final justification for his desire to eliminate Joson’s position was that “it’s something we have to look at. It’s $8,800 dollars.”

If either Mitrecic or Recor genuinely believe that Joson’s salary is a budget savings worth pursuing, they are deluded.

The city’s 2014-2015 budget, and the tax increase it contains, are driven by more than $1 million in additional salary and benefit costs brought on by last year’s union contracts and the equivalent raises subsequently given to non-union employees.

As a seasonal employee (who nevertheless represents the OCBP year ‘round), Joson did not receive a salary increase, nor does she collect pension or medical benefits.

Even as per-person benefits in the Fraternal Order of Police, which staunchly backed Mitrecic’s 2012 election, continue to balloon (unfunded pension liability is now 122 percent of payroll), positions such as Joson’s are apparently the center of scrutiny.

Even more disconcerting, the day after the Beach Patrol budget was presented, Recor informed the council that an error in the transportation budget would result in $979,000 of revenue not actually being there.

The city now must cut a half-million dollars from its street paving budget and a quarter-million from canal dredging, along with generating additional revenues, to help close the gap. This is on top of an already-planned tax hike. Yet, for some reason, this revelation created almost no discussion.

While the OCBP will spend another year in its ramshackle headquarters, the police department’s budget contains $14,700 for new furnishings and “window treatments” for the executive conference room in the Public Safety Building. Apparently, a recent roof leak has rendered that space unsightly for the groups, such as the Police Commission, who meet there.

This faux-conservatism within City Hall is political theater that accomplishes nothing beyond giving the public the appearance of fiscal responsibility. Worse, it comes at the expense of a dedicated employee who has undoubtedly saved lives through her beach safety campaigns.

Here’s why the OCBP deserves the highest level of support: its services benefit everyone. Young or old, rich or poor, rural or urban, everyone comes to Ocean City for the beach and uses what the OCBP provides.

Yet, while the Beach Patrol’s $1.4 million budget meets the axe, the city stakes more than $8 million in taxpayer debt on the Performing Arts Center because it will enhance the resort’s prestige.

While we sincerely hope the center is successful, the city has pushed the project’s image by boasting of possible big-name acts such as Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis. Given the venue’s small 1,200-seat capacity, base ticket prices for such acts will top $100, out of reach for most families. Even if it is wildly successful, the center still would need to sell out somewhere between 100 and 200 shows to reach as many people as the Beach Patrol does in one weekend.

The gist of this year’s budget process seems to be that it’s not financially prudent to spend a little extra on the wide-ranging appeal and family-friendliness of services offered by the OCBP and people like Ms. Joson … not to mention preventing people from drowning.

Instead, let’s stake the whole works on unsustainable pensions and “window treatments.”

We’re not sure how the takeaway could be otherwise.

 

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