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OC skate park cutbacks risk employees; opposition mounting

(April 26, 2013) Budget sessions at City Hall have yielded even further service cuts to the town’s historic Ocean Bowl Skate Park, although efforts to cut expenses and reduce federal insurance liability now face both the risk of losing employees and incurring public wrath.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep this place running, however the city wants it run,” said Skate Park Manager Dave Messick. “I understand the financial situation they’re in. But I also know there are people already trying to start up things to appeal [the service cuts].”

Online petitions and Facebook campaigns have been launched by local skateboarders to contest the city’s decision to avoid insurance costs by slashing the park’s hours. The current proposal will have the park open only on weekends and holidays when school is in session, and closed entirely for January and February.

One of those petitions, started by Worcester Prep senior Mike Durkin, had amassed nearly 200 signatures as of Wednesday. Durkin said winter closings would likely devastate the park’s local following, most of whom purchase annual passes to the facility.

“A lot of people surf in the summer and they join the skate park when you ask, ‘Well, what are you going to do in the winter?’ That’s our major selling point,” Durkin said.

The decision to cut hours has less to do with raw expenditures and more to do with the city’s fear of its insurance responsibilities under federal mandate.

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 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 for less than four months.

The Town of Ocean City already offers employer-subsidized health insurance to what it considers to be full-time year-round employees. But what the city 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-hour limit to avoid having to add them to its insurance pool.

“It means we may lose some of the employees that we have,” Budget Manager Jennie Knapp said in a recent session at City Hall.

The city has identified 40 employees who worked close to or more than the annual limit last year and are on track to do so again this year. Most, including Messick and several of his employees at the Ocean Bowl, are slated to have their hours drastically reduced. Hours at the skate park will not be compensated for, although other areas such as public works and convention center maintenance will make up the difference with additional part-time employees.

Messick said he could not speculate whether he or any of his high-hour employees would be amenable to committing to a full-time schedule if the city were to offer guaranteed hours and benefits.

“The question for us is ‘could I get somebody to work 15 hours on weekends only?’” said Susan Petito, assistant director of Recreation and Parks, in reference to staffing the limited hours. “I can’t say if it’ll be a problem and we won’t know until we find staff willing to work a short schedule.”

The city will save roughly $20,000 to $25,000 in personnel costs with the skate park reduction. This number includes an estimated $6,000 in annual pass revenue lost because of the service cuts.

“With the closure of the park for that period, we have to assume that some of the people who are annual pass holders would no longer continue to be so,” said Recreation and Parks Director Tom Shuster.

However, the city’s elected officials have doubted those figures.

“My guess is that that’s a highly overstated number,” Councilman Joe Mitrecic said at a budget hearing last week.

“My guess is that you wouldn’t lose that many,” agreed Council Secretary Mary Knight.

A rough review of attendance numbers in the off-season taken by Messick and Petito shows the park averages roughly 30 visitors per day.

“Obviously it’s always crazy in summer, but you can get a day where it’s 20 degrees outside and all the sudden it goes off and you have 25 people show up in the middle of January,” Messick said.

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