(Aug. 23, 2013) In anticipation of a potential major revision of the project and possibly of the Ocean City Beach Patrol as a whole, city officials this week indefinitely suspended the request for architectural work on the OCBP’s proposed new downtown headquarters.
A combination of fiscal, real estate and organizational concerns seem to have shifted plans to replace the Beach Patrol’s derelict facility from high gear to a definitive neutral.
That is a surprising turnaround from the May meeting when a combination of mold, asbestos, and collective shame spurred the City Council to approve the issuance of a request for proposals to design a new OCBP building.
“That RFP [request for proposals] has been postponed indefinitely,” City Engineer Terry McGean said this week. His design specifications had originally called for a roughly $2 million, three-story, 10,700-square foot facility to be located on Talbot Street, one block north of the current Dorchester Street headquarters.
“I think [the city] is re-looking at the entire project and what it will consist of and where it is going to be,” McGean said. “Past that, there’s no point in getting an architect on board.”
In May, however, the city seemed fairly certain that the new building would go on the southeast corner of Talbot Street and Philadelphia Avenue, on a lot owned by the Ocean City Development Corporation, the city-backed nonprofit group that facilitates downtown redevelopment. The land is a gravel parking lot.
If the city gives the OCDC the old OCBP property on the southeast corner of Dorchester Street and Philadelphia Avenue to use for its “model block” project, the OCDC has proposed to surrender the Talbot Street property as a new OCBP site.
But a number of factors have called this arrangement, the entire setup of the proposed building and the Beach Patrol itself, into question. The council is slated to discuss the matter as part of its Capital Improvement Plan on Tuesday.
“That’s the reason for the slow-down,” said City Manager David Recor. “[The council] authorized the expenditure of funds, we put the RFP together, but we hadn’t decided firmly if the Beach Patrol was going to be downtown or at another location. The designer has to know what property he’s working with.”
The OCBP, as well as OCDC, continue to press for a downtown location, preferably at the Talbot Street site. Staying downtown is better for beach access and training, the Beach Patrol’s leadership has said. The OCDC also provides housing for seasonal city employees, including lifeguards, in the area, contributing to the pedestrian population needed for renewal of the streetscape downtown.
For the OCDC, moving the OCBP a block over will also go a long way towards enabling the long-discussed model block project. This would entail the city and/or the OCDC acquiring all the property in the block between Dorchester and Somerset Streets and Baltimore and Philadelphia Avenues, where the OCBP headquarters is now located, in order to accommodate redevelopment projects that would transform the space into an example for downtown renewal.
“It’s a win-win in the sense that the city gets an open lot to build on, so the Beach Patrol wouldn’t be displaced for a period of time like they would be if the old building was torn down and a new one put up in the same spot,” OCDC Executive Director Glenn Irwin said. “Plus, we get the land we need to move forward with the model block.”
But there is some friction, according to various sources, over who should assume ownership of the would-be model block properties, with the city wanting both the Talbot and Dorchester parcels. Also an issue is how the mortgage on the Talbot Street lot, which was bought three years ago by the OCDC from the estate of the late downtown businessman Bo Ruggerio, would be paid for.
The OCDC currently receives a cut of the city’s inlet parking lot revenues, which it uses to pay for its project properties.
“I think [the issues] can be worked out and we’re hoping to meet with the city soon to get the ball rolling again,” Irwin said. “It did look promising a few weeks ago when it was first brought up. Hopefully, we can iron that out.”
The ironing process, however, may be as dependent on the city’s internal political circumstances as it is on OCDC’s leveraging.
For one, the city is rapidly approaching a projected $16.6 million bond issuance for the next two fiscal years’ worth of capital improvements, per the draft version of the town’s five-year CIP. But the city officials have painted themselves into a corner by committing to a number of projects, thus leaving the OCBP building in the balance.
“Two million and 10,000 square feet is just a placeholder,” said Councilman Dennis Dare, who has floated a number of ideas to streamline the project. “What we need to do is get an architect on board and for the architect to do a needs analysis and come up with some better numbers.”
For instance, Dare said, the current design of the new facility features both meeting and storage rooms. Dare believes this is redundant, given that equipment taken out on the beach during the summer season will leave the storage space available for meetings.
“One of the things I’ve seen in successful projects over the years is dual-purposing,” said Dare, the resort’s former city manager and city engineer. “By combining the two we would save square footage and money. I think there are things the Beach Patrol can drill down on and reduce the footprint and the cost as well.”
As for the capital improvements bond issue, the largest chunk will be $8.3 million for the construction of a performing arts center at the convention center. The city has already committed to building the theater in partnership with the state, which is contributing $5.7 million for the total $14 million cost of the theater.
The bonds for the performing arts center will be paid off with money borrowed against the projected future income of the city’s food tax, which is authorized by the state to finance the convention center. Two other upcoming projects in the water and wastewater divisions also will be financed with bonds, with these to be repaid by the service fees levied by those departments.
But for the remaining $7 million in scheduled projects, the city will be borrowing against its general fund, which is supported almost entirely by property tax revenues.
This work includes the OCBP headquarters as well as the $3 million expansion of the skate park and downtown recreation fields. Also included in the bond plan are roof replacements at the Public Safety Building and the municipal garage and service center at 65th Street, and the next two years’ worth of dredging work to remove silt from the city’s bayside canals.
Canal work of about $1 million could be paid for by a fee on adjacent property owners, although that would be up to the council’s discretion and has already been met with skepticism.
“When we discussed beach replenishment in the 1980s, the option was there to charge oceanfront property owners for the work,” Dare said. “But it was decided that the beach was something everyone enjoys and everyone benefits from. I think the same argument could be made for the bayside.”
The skate park and recreation complex expansion should be done to coincide with next year’s rebuilding of St. Louis Avenue if it is to be done at all, McGean said. This would depend on the city settling issues with the renewal of its lease of part of the property, which is owned by the county.
The roof repair on the Public Safety Building presents a further landlord-tenant issue if not done soon, given that part of the leaking roof covers the District Court annex that is leased from the city by the county.
The roof repairs have already been “forward-funded” for about $850,000, meaning the city will pay for them now out of the general fund and reimburse the money with proceeds from the bond sale, which typically takes place at the end of the calendar year.
City Finance Administrator Martha Bennett had also suggested last week that the council could do the same with the $165,000 in design costs included in the OCBP building budget, but no motion to that effect was made.
“We would still have to fund a design and at that point in time we could tweak what we’re looking for,” said Councilman Joe Mitrecic. “It’ll be up to the council if they want to bite that off. I’m just one vote.”
The current political environment, however, may not be conducive to doing so. A number of sources in City Hall have said they fear any large bond measure will be taken to referendum by those who object to the city’s budgetary expansion.
Although he has voted against any increased borrowing, Councilman Brent Ashley said this week that he would be hard-pressed to support any impediment to the OCBP project. He would rather the city lower its bond issuance by simply paying for things outright and reducing operating expenses.
“Scaling back this project (Beach Patrol headquarters) would be a mistake,” Ashley said. “I’m all for less spending but this facility is a must. I’m embarrassed that the Beach Patrol employees have had to work in that environment while we’ve funded other less essential projects.”
The roof replacements, it should be noted, were originally slated in the 2013-2014 budget to be paid for out of the general fund, but were moved to the bond measure after the city’s operating expenses increased due to employee raises.
Nevertheless, the anticipated $7 million in general fund bonds will bring the city significantly closer to one of its self-imposed borrowing limits. By City Hall’s own policy, it can spend no more than 8 percent of its general operating expenses on general obligation debt service. Last year, that level was at 6.9 percent.
Further uncertainty also lies in the recent announcement that the city’s Parks and Recreation Director, Tom Shuster, will be retiring next year. This leaves the city with an opportunity to re-organize the Parks and Recreation Department, which has a number of ancillary functions, including the OCBP.
It has often been suggested that the Beach Patrol should be a function of public safety, a change of oversight that could have great bearing on how and where the OCBP’s headquarters is laid out.
“Any time we have an employee separation, particularly at the department head level, it presents an opportunity to evaluate our structure, and we will be doing that with Tom’s retirement just as we would with any other separation,” Recor said.