Resort council president weighs in on top issues
Council President Jim Hall (Oct. 5, 2012) Ocean Council President Jim Hall filed for re-election this week, the last likely candidate to confirm that he will indeed be part of the electoral battleground over the next month.
Hall has served for almost 26 years on City Council. But the last six are the ones that will likely make the biggest difference for Hall’s record in this election. He was one of the first, by his own account, to begin pressing for reductions during the post-2006 real estate decline and the 2008 national recession.
In 2010, a new council majority was formed, further enabling Hall’s influence on city policy. Newcomer Brent Ashley joined Jim Hall, as well as Joe Hall and Margaret Pillas, in siding together on a number of major — and controversial — changes, most notably revisions to the city’s salary and benefits structure, which followed an exceptionally bitter fight amongst council.
Because Ashley had unseated former Council President Joe Mitrecic, the new majority was able to vote Jim Hall in as the new head of council, making him the de-facto leader of policy movement that has garnered similar levels of praise and scorn. nOCEAN CITY TODAY: Why do people in general, or why did you specifically, get into politics? Why are you still in it, given the volume of flak that you can catch or have caught? n HALL: Because I’m crazy. No, seriously, I had, and still have, a lot of things that I’d like to get accomplished. I like the town and I like being part of the decision-making process. It’s in my blood; it has been for 26 years.
Most importantly, I think the residents can live here and pay a lot less in taxes. I think we have enough visitors, enough guests – and we tolerate a lot from those folks – so I think the residents here could live for a lot less money. I’d like to continue on lowering the tax rate, lowering the fees and raising the benefit to the guy who wants to live and retire here. nOCT: The move to knock a penny off the tax rate was an issue earlier on with regards to how much taxpayers would actually save versus how much would be pulled from the city’s operating reserve. n HALL: That money belongs to the taxpayer. We have a very substantial reserve. I think what some of the members on the council don’t understand is that people are hurting. If you’re not on a fixed salary or fixed retirement, you might not relate to that. But I think the regular mom and pop voter who lives in Montego Bay, Caine Woods, or downtown are concerned about their 401(k), their savings, their retirement, and outliving the money they’ve saved.
I’m a plain, on-the-street worker and I’m telling you I’m hurting, and people are worried about their money. This election is all about money. They’re trying to make it about personalities, but it’s not, it’s about money. nOCT: Do you think that the city has or could have enough of a permanent resident base to make our year-round population more sustainable, given that it’s been going down a bit over the past few years? nHALL: I think some are being chased away. I think people are aggravated about the noise on the weekends. We keep inviting more and more guests here, and sometimes it’s at the expense of those who live here and came for a quiet retirement. The plus side of those visitors is that they help keep the tax rate down. But I call it a tipping point and I think at some time the council is going to have to address the tipping point. nOCT: As far as the political scene goes, how is it that you’ve come to be associated with Brent (Ashley) and Joe (Hall) and this “new regime” that people either love or hate? nHALL: For 23 years, I was on the other side, the “three side,” when Vince Gisriel was here, when George Feehley was here. Sometimes you’re on the three, sometimes you’re on the four, sometimes you’re on the six or the one. There’s no coalition per se, it’s just that since 2006 and particularly the last election, I’ve been saying, “The world’s changing” to the administration. Things are changing out there, and people are worried about gas prices and food prices. And the administration is saying, “No, everything’s fine, don’t worry, there’s plenty of money coming in, and if we ever get low we’ll just raise the tax rate.”
This is a quote from the administration, “We have something that no one else has: we have the ability to raise taxes.” I object to that. I think just the opposite, that we ought to lower taxes. We have a safe place to live, a clean place to live and we ought to have an affordable place to live.
That’s what this election’s about. You have four big spenders running for office, and you have four conservatives on the council right now. Whichever way this goes, it’s going to be the spenders versus the conservatives. nOCT: Going forward, what specifically would you want to see done other than what you’ve already gotten through? n HALL: We addressed the health benefits, the pensions and the tax rate. We gave money back and we gave bonuses to the employees. I’m going to tell you that unionizing the employees is a bad idea. And I hope you get that statement from all the Council members, it’s not just throwing it to the voters.
I truly believe some seasoned, well-trained union negotiator is going to set the tax rate for Ocean City. A guy from Baltimore City is going to come and dictate the tax rate for Ocean City and I think that’s wrong. n OCT: Regardless, it’s an issue that’s up to the voters. So if it does happen, will it be workable? n HALL: Obviously, whatever the voters do we’ll carry out their wishes to the best of our ability. I just don’t think it’s necessary, I think the employees will be sorry to have those dues taken out of their pay every week. They are very fairly paid, and they deserve raises in a timely manner, benefits in a timely manner, and I don’t think this [the union] is what they’re going to ultimately want. But right now, if that’s their desire…
For me, I made an administration change of one employee in 26 years. I don’t think there’s a great fear of everybody losing their job. I know the mayor said it last night (Monday), that the reason this is going on is this great fear factor. That just hasn’t happened. We made an administration change (removing City Manager Dennis Dare) because he was going in the wrong direction.
We made changes in pay and benefits, but we didn’t touch current employees. This is only for new employees. So what’s really changed? nOCT: The retirement and pension changes, given the financial results thus far, would you consider them? n HALL: A smashing success, yes. And we’ve gotten no credit for that. This is the most important thing: what seemed like chaos was actually planned and calm. We couldn’t get it done through other methods, so we put 10, 11, 12 ordinances up on the table and said. “Okay, here’s the motion, we’re going to second it, now you have to do something about it.” And what happened in six months? They’re almost all passed, to the benefit of the employees, and most importantly it ensures that when these folks retire, the money will be there.
It really safeguards them. This is not a defined benefit where maybe the money won’t be there at the end. Look what happened to Enron, to GM. Those people’s pensions are gone. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen. nOCT: One of the things that I hear frequently is the whole issue of actuarial studies and that there’s some sort of future progression that could go awry with this resetting of the pension system. Do you worry that the city could hit some sort of cliff in the next 10 years as we try to close out the plans? n HALL: Just the opposite. A defined benefit guarantees the employee a rate of return on their investment. If you don’t hit the rate of return, the taxpayer has to make up the difference. With a 401(k), you ride the stocks up and you ride the stocks down. The taxpayer doesn’t have to come out of his pocket with money.
The taxpayer in Montego Bay’s stock portfolio is the same as the city employee’s. Things go down, things go up. He can make a little money or a lot of money. One of the reasons the administration didn’t want us to change, is this: if you quit after 10 years and go to work for a car dealership, that money’s [in a 401(k) yours. What we put into the plan, and what you put into the plan. In a defined benefit, you can’t take the part that we [the city] put in. You only take the part that you put in. We were told that many times. That’s not proper. That money’s supposed to be yours. n OCT: One of the concerns about that, particularly from the police, is setting things up so that people can move around. Adapting to a tougher economy where people change jobs. They want people to come here and train here and make an investment. Is that something that can be remedied? n HALL: The fact is that they’re not leaving. Our administration told us – and this goes to the administration change that we made – that if you’re going to make these changes, we won’t get anybody to apply for jobs, everyone will leave, we won’t get any qualified applicants.
The opposite has happened. We’re getting more qualified applicants, hundreds of applications for every job from custodian to police chief. Everything that the administration predicted when we made these changes, the opposite has happened to the benefit of the taxpayers. You heard it from the lady that came two weeks ago and told us about the health benefits.
These were well-thought-out decisions that we made, and we said to the administration, “You make the changes and take the credit. Jim Hall doesn’t want the credit, Margaret (Pillas) doesn’t, Brent doesn’t, Joe Hall doesn’t.” But they said “No.”
And after four years of them saying no to me, I said, “Okay, then I’ll do it. Now I have enough votes and I’ll go ahead and make the changes. They’re to the benefit of the taxpayers, and that’s who we work for.”
And while we’re on health benefits, despite the rumors, my health is fine. I had a heart attack; they put a stent in and unclogged the artery. I was never even sick. I was screaming to get out of the hospital after three days. n OCT: Going back to what seems to be the linchpin of a lot of discussion, which is Dennis (Dare). I know you said before you wanted to discuss exactly what went on. nHALL: I’ve been using the word “administration.” I signed – and I’m the only one that did, because I’m the council president – a confidentiality agreement, as did Dennis. So Dennis and I can’t talk about what went down. I can only say we made an administration change.
I went to the administration and asked them to make changes, and they said “no.” So we made a change and this was the effect. I’ll tell you, if you’ve ever had to fire a family member or a cousin or a girlfriend from your family business to save your business, that’s what making an administration change was to me. I’m very sorry that I had to do it. It’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. But in my opinion, in order to change the direction of the town and save the town from intoxicating spending, I made the call. nOCT: So you can’t discuss the specifics, but you’re characterizing that administration as being openly reluctant to certain cost-saving measures? n HALL: Yes. n OCT: Is there the impression still amongst the administration that the city will bounce back and that there will be some sort of recovery to the type of government that was? n HALL: The city’s back. It’s been back. People still have their jobs, it’s safe, it’s clean, and people are happy. People will be okay. But we need to continually make decisions that make it easier for taxpayers and retired taxpayers to get by in this town. I think we can make it more affordable for people to live here. n OCT: This line of conservatism is going to have to continue for the purpose of sustainability? n HALL: Yes. And we can do more. We were able to trim 100 employees through retirement, through bonus incentives, through the DROP program. And we didn’t replace them, or all those pickup trucks or take-home cars. And it’s had a tremendous effect on our cash flow. Where did we get an extra 100 employees? Why? The administration added them.
When you look back, this all started when I found out that the administration was buying a fire truck in 2006. Covertly, they put in the capital budget that they were going to buy a fire truck. And the plan was to get rid of the volunteers and have an all-paid fire company. And that hurt the volunteers to this day. They’re reeling from that. I wrote a letter to the paper and said, “Don’t let those volunteers go.” You saw it at the Dough Roller fire and you saw it the other night down there [at Bradley on the Bay]. They were packed with volunteers.
Someone – I’ll say the “administration” – tried to go around us, hire a fire chief, hire a guy to come in an organize the change, and boot out the volunteers, and I will never forget that. From that time on, I started paying attention to these things that were not discussed in the budget, but were already in the budget.
That would’ve been a $7.5 million per year mistake. If not for a few people, that would’ve gone through and you would’ve not had volunteer firemen in this town. n OCT: And you think having an all professional fire company is symptomatic of a tendency to want to expand the city’s control and scope of governance? n HALL: What triggered that is that a lot of guy’s wives now work. So if they’re watching the kids and the fire whistle goes off, in the time before the husband or the wife, whichever one is a volunteer, jumped on the fire truck and the other stayed home. Well, they can’t do that now. The volunteer fire company went to the administration and said, “We think we should get a couple paid guys in each house, just in case. We can man it most of the time, but just in case, can we have a few fighters and a truck ready to go?”
Something that the administration was always pissed off about and lamented all the time was that they had no control over the volunteers. They wanted to control their spending, when they wanted to buy a truck, the houses, the men. That would’ve given the administration a pay raise as well. Because he or she commanded more people and thus deserved a pay raise. That’s how it works. n OCT: The discontent amongst employees that is often discussed. What’s been your take on the alleged dissatisfaction? n HALL: The bee’s nest is being stirred. You heard the mayor do it again last night. He just announces, “This is why they’re upset …” They’re being stirred by the administration. We know for a fact that the administration went into Thursday staff meetings and stirred them up, every week: “Hey, these guys just got in, but you only have to put up with them for two more years. When the election comes we’ll get rid of them.” That’s what stirs the bees up.” n OCT: The other big thing that gets thrown around is that Dennis’ firing is alleged to have taken place too abruptly and behind closed doors. That there was this sort of Soviet-esque “purge” mentality. n HALL: When Brent was new, he and Joe took Dennis out to lunch. Just to say, “We’re on the council now, and we do have a majority. We’re not nincompoops. We’re not being forceful, but please just include us in your decisions and tell us what’s going on. Not just Rick’s people, not just Mary and Doug, we’re on the council here to serve too.”
Dennis basically thumbed his nose at two sitting council members, and they left saying, “Is that the way we’re going to be treated?”
There’s a perception down there that I have a cast of characters on my side. I have a different makeup of people. Doug (Cymek) and Mary (Knight) and Lloyd (Martin), they just go together. They’re a social group, they do everything together. We don’t do anything together. n OCT: You’re saying it’s purely a policy-oriented relationship? n HALL: We go down there and we do what seems like a good idea. We did the fireworks – and this is mundane, but MGH and the fireworks are kind of the same thing – by saying, “If you haven’t shopped for insurance in the past four years, you’re stupid.” We’d been with Zamboni for a few years, why wouldn’t we look and see what’s out there? Somebody came in and gave us a good price, had done a good job [elsewhere], and we put our hands up and said, “Why not, seems like the right thing?” They gave us a better price, and the fireworks ended up being better or at least as good as before.
We got criticized like crazy for that. That wasn’t pre-planned; it wasn’t the majority trying to pull anything. The four of us thought that was a good idea. Simple decision.
Then the advertising contract comes up. We think it’s a good idea to give him notice, shop it, and maybe he’ll just end up getting it again. We thought that was a good idea. We got so much [criticism for that]. We thought, “Why one more year? There must be some hook here.” It’s a $4 million contract and they make 10 percent per year. nOCT: There’s a clear back-and-forth with the salary and benefit costs. The FOP achieves a certain level of pay and benefits, and then everyone else feels they deserve the same thing. Equality with public safety is a big motivation. So why cut it off now and say, “We’re not going to go any further with the escalation?” n HALL: We didn’t think the union was good for anybody. The voters decided on that. We were opposed to the FOP. We had fought it election after election, and the last time it came up everybody laid down and let them have it.
With the FOP, what’s it really done for them? There’s not more job security with the union. The City Manager can still fire anyone. They say that this is job security, but for what? Having a union doesn’t mean you don’t get fired.
But you’re right, if I was a general employee, I would ask why they get it and I don’t. I pick up trash, but I’m just as important. I’m a welder, but I’m as important to the town as a cop is. I agree with that completely. But I think it’s a mistake for the town in general.