(May 15, 2015) In a move he said was a point for discussion, County Administrator Harold Higgins on Tuesday told the county commissioners that he and other members of the budget committee had added $200,000 to its annual grant to Ocean City, but that gesture didn’t survive the day.
That additional money was an acknowledgement of the disparity between what Ocean City delivers to the county treasury as compared to what it gets in return.
It also was a nod to the resort’s argument for a tax differential for services it provides internally that it maintains the county duplicates. Arguing that Ocean City property owners pay county taxes for services they don’t use, resort officials have contended that the county should give the resort a tax break of about $17 million.
The county countered earlier this year that number is more like $3 million, even though the commissioners took no action on Ocean City’s latest request that the county award it 3 percent bumps to its grants per year for the next five years.
Higgins said Ocean City had “presented a compelling argument,” which led him to include the extra money in the municipality’s grant.
Commissioner President M. Jim Bunting and Ocean City Commissioner Joe Mitrecic also found “some merit” to the claims. Bunting said there was no time to do anything during this budget cycle, but thought the $200,000 increase would work as a gesture to keep the conversation moving.
Commissioner J. Bud Church said he hasn’t liked all the rhetoric he’s seen surrounding the issue, but joined Bunting and Mitrecic’s call to approve the funding.
The other commissioners, however, were unmoved.
“County government is for the entire county … everyone pulls together for the whole county,” Commissioner Ted Elder said. Elder thought playing favorites would pull the county apart at the seams.
“If we’re going to flat fund, we have to flat fund everyone. I don’t think we can put Ocean City above everyone else,” Elder said.
“Ocean City would be fine if 4.5 percent of taxes were returned to each municipality,” Mitrecic responded, referring to Ocean City’s ratio of return for what it sends to the county. “We could cut Berlin’s share to 4.5 percent.”
“We all agree Ocean City is an asset,” Commission Vice President Merrill Lockfaw said, adding that he didn’t like the idea of “sitting here and starting to divide up the county.”
“I understand the emotion and what a benefit Ocean City is to the county. This $200,000 is money well spent. It’s a carrot and better than sitting in court over a tax differential,” Church said.
Elder, Lockfaw, Chip Bertino and Diana Purnell, however, voted to eliminate the extra money from Ocean City’s unrestricted grant and to keep all municipality’s’ grants the same as fiscal 2015. Bunting, Church