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City to form subcommittee for potential skate park solution

(May 10, 2013) Local skateboard enthusiasts will likely be on ice until the end of the summer, as the City Council decided this week to form an exploratory committee to study the controversial service reductions imposed on the Ocean Bowl Skate Park, but stopped short of restoring funding for the slashed hours.

Debate is likely to continue, however, as the city’s own attendance records show that year-round pass holders constitute the bulk of the park’s business.

“I would ask that we leave [the skate park] as closing in the budget, but do a summer study … and make a determination in the fall,” Councilman Joe Mitrecic suggested at this week’s session.

Mitrecic’s idea was endorsed by five votes, with Councilman Brent Ashley opposed and Councilwoman Margaret Pillas absent. Ashley said he objected to leaving possible expenses out of the budget.

“If you’re going to fund it, you should put it in the budget as funded,” Ashley said. “This is just balancing the budget on the backs of the kids.”

“That might get you your name in the paper, Mr. Ashley … but that’s not what we’re doing,” Mitrecic retorted.

The compromise offer came after weeks of criticism from local skateboarders over the city’s proposal for the upcoming 2013-2014 budget year to cut out skate park service during weekdays when county schools are in session and to close the park entirely in January and February.

Opposition from the park’s users has been intense, with an online petition started by Worcester Prep senior and local skateboarder Mike Durkin having amassed nearly 500 signatures as of press time.

The closings are expected to save the city $20,000 in personnel costs, factoring in the expected loss of revenue from the closings. However, savings were not the original intent of the reduction in skate park service. That came about because of a citywide policy to cut employee hours in order to avoid insurance liability.

Early this year, the city indicated that it would be facing a considerable financial and personnel crunch from the federal Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare.” The law will require, as of January 2014, that any employer with 50 or more employees provide health insurance to any worker who is considered to be full-time and non-seasonal.

Under the ACA, the definition of such an employee is one who is “reasonably expected” to work 30 or more hours per week. The IRS has advised employers that any employee who works a total of 1,560 hours or more in 2013 – i.e., 30 hours for 52 weeks – will thus have a reasonable expectation of getting insurance for 2014, unless they work less than four months.

The Town of Ocean City already offers health insurance to what it considers to be full-time year-round employees. But what the town sees as full-time is no longer what the federal government sees as full-time.

To get around this, city department heads have been instructed to use “management initiatives” to keep uninsured employees’ hours under the 1,560 limit, in order to skirt around having to add them to its insurance pool.

The city identified 40 employees who worked close to or over the annual limit last year and are on track to do so again this year. Three of these employees work at the Ocean Bowl, and thus their hours will be drastically scaled back in the coming budget year in order to avoid providing them with insurance, an motive that has not sat well with some.

“The employees there [at the Ocean Bowl] work really hard without benefits,” said Debi Cook, who identified herself at the council session as having several family members with annual skate park passes.

“To my knowledge, there’s no other employee who has worked for the town for over 20 years and gets no benefits,” Cook said, referring to Skate Park Manager Dave Messick, who has run the facility for two decades as a part-time employee, even though city records indicate he worked far beyond what would be considered a full-time schedule.

“The kids that are working there now under his [Messick’s] tutelage are doing well just as he always has,” said Anne Cook, who said her husband and son are annual pass holders. “I think something has to be said here about the skate park employees.”

But if the city were to maintain the park’s service with the same pool of employees, most of whom give skate lessons and provide other skilled services, it would be looking at providing at least three additional insurance policies. The city’s share of employee premiums run several thousand dollars per individual and upwards of $15,000 for family coverage, according to a breakdown provided by city Human Resources Director Wayne Evans.

What the city – or the yet-to-be-formed skate park subcommittee – may find, however, is that the key to keeping the park solvent is in year-round business.

Although some members of City Council have previously maintained that the park would not lose that many annual pass holders due to winter closures – and that the city Recreation and Parks Department’s own revenue loss estimates were over-stated – others have challenged this assertion.

“You will lose the income from the year-round pass holders if you close the park for a good chunk of the year,” Debi Cook said.

Many local skaters, including Durkin, have maintained that the appeal of a winter activity is what drives the annual pass sales, which constitute the bulk of the park’s visitorship. By the city’s own numbers, this appears to be correct.

According to Susan Petito, assistant director of Recreation and Parks, the Ocean Bowl received 10,000 visits in 2012. Skaters are recorded each day they enter the park, even if they are pass holders.

Altogether, 1,017 single-day weekday admissions were purchased last year, as well as 537 weekend single-day admissions. These cost $12 and $15, respectively. Unlimited week-long passes cost $42, of which 56 were purchased.

The skate park had 237 annual pass holders last year at a cost of $60 for city residents and $110 for non-residents.

Even assuming that weekly pass holders came to the park all seven days, the total number of possible visits by weekly and single-day attendees is still under 2,000, meaning that 80 percent of the facility’s business comes from annual members.

Given their typically heavy use, the price of an annual pass would seem quite low.

“The annual pass is generally considered to be a really good deal,” Petito said. “The rates for single days are already fairly steep. If we were to look into raising rates, it would probably be the annual passes.”

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