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Ocean City

911, liquor funding system gives preference to county, city says

(April 19, 2013) Budget discussions in City Hall this week have indicated that the city will likely continue to go toe-to-toe with Worcester County in the coming fiscal year regarding continuing decreases in municipal funding.

As they have for decades, city officials continued to lament over the county’s dominance of public safety dollars, despite the fact that Ocean City’s own municipal services cover the bulk of Worcester County’s public safety work.

“If it means telling Worcester County that we can’t afford to provide that service any longer, we may have to do that,” said Councilman Dennis Dare.

Although the Ocean City Fire Department’s extensive service to West Ocean City has been a long-recognized matter of contention, the city’s other two public safety entities – the Ocean City Police Department and the city’s Emergency Services Department, which manages the town’s 911 dispatch system – identified areas this week where they have been placed at a legal and financial disadvantage to the county as well.

As is the case throughout Maryland, all 911 calls made in Worcester County, including its municipalities, are routed to a central county dispatch center, located in Snow Hill. Calls originating from municipal jurisdictions are then re-routed to those call centers.

Given the volume of emergency service in Ocean City, however, the ratio is somewhat lopsided. The town handles roughly 95,000 calls per year, according to Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald. The county, as a whole, handles around 120,000.

Theobald hires a crew of seasonal dispatchers to help with summer calls, but he reported this week that he is having difficulty coping with a temporary staff.

“It’s getting to the point where we cannot rely, on a complete basis, on part-time employees,” Theobald said. “Each dispatcher here handles twice the volume on an annual basis that a dispatcher does in the county. The call volume [in Ocean City] has increased almost 25 percent in the last few years, but we have not increased staff at all.”

The city, however, receives no funding through the state’s 911 service fees. As the primary provider, all of these monies go to the county. Only Baltimore City is recognized as its own primary provider, given that it is chartered to be almost entirely independent from Baltimore County.

“That’s a legislation change, and the only other jurisdiction in the state I know of for a precedent is Baltimore City,” Theobald said. “If the change were to come where we were the primary, we are then entitled to some of those 911 fees on your phone bill that we [the city] never see. We’re talking somewhere in the area of $400,000 on an annual basis.”

Further, OCPD Captain Kevin Kirstein said that the county’s health department has completely axed the $15,000 to $20,000 it has typically given for the city’s Reducing the Availability of Alcohol to Minors (RAAM) program.

“We’ve now lost all funding for the RAAM program. We will continue with it because it’s a worthwhile initiative, but the cost will come out of our overtime budget,” Kirstein said.

Mayor Rick Meehan pointed out that, when the state relinquished control of the county Liquor Control Board in 2011 and turned it into a county-run Department of Liquor Control, the city’s share of alcohol proceeds dropped off a cliff. The county no longer shares its wholesale proceeds.

“The funding we receive has been reduced dramatically,” Meehan said. “The only money we receive from the DLC is our percentage of the profits from the retail stores that are in Ocean City.”

Proceeds of around $200,000 per year from the old LCB have dropped to an anticipated $39,000 this year from the DLC.

Meehan said he would request a grant from the county to cover the OCPD’s cost for RAAM, 14 additional Electronic Control Devices or “Tasers,” and the training budget for officers learning to use intoxication meters to process drunken driving arrests.

“All of that relates to the sale of alcohol and the problems associated with it, and I think it would be a fair … request,” Meehan said.

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