Ocean View rally to call for audit of town finances

Concerns about finances in Ocean View and financial decisions made by the Ocean View Town Council have been the subject of heated debate for several years. But even this spring’s elections and change in the mayor and town council positions have not quelled the fire around the topic. Resident Susan White and husband Richard still have questions, and concerns, and they want the State of Delaware to investigate.

White, who had previously served on the council and ran unsuccessfully for the District 3 council seat in April, is formally petitioning Gov. Ruth Ann Minner to order an audit of town finances, arguing that a variety of apparently inconsistent figures related to the town’s fiscal health were cited during the period prior to the elections and since the new council has begun to consider major changes to town policies and its budget.

The Whites will host a rally this Sunday, Aug. 10, from 4 to 6 p.m. in the town’s John West Park, to kick off a petition drive that aims to encourage the governor to intervene and order an audit of Ocean View’s finances, and requesting her to place the town’s taxes in escrow “until we have been assured that our town is financially sound and being run by a competent town manager, under the direction of an ethical town council.”

“We asked [Mayor] Gordon Wood to straighten it out, and he won’t,” Susan White told the Coastal Point earlier this week, expressing deep frustration with financial cutbacks that hit the town’s police department particularly hard while White says she suspects town finances aren’t in as poor condition as have been indicated at times.

“I want to know if we spent too much money on that building,” she said of the town’s new public safety building, where the police department is headquartered.

White said the town’s financial documents initially indicated the town’s police department was $57,607 over its budget last year but that a subsequent audit showed that the apparent overage was due to grant funding related to the police department being credited to the town’s general fund, rather than to the public safety budget.

“Really, they made the town $26,000,” she said of the police department. “It was the way the funds were put together” in the budget that caused the reported $57,000 overage, she said.

White alleges that error has been kept quiet by town officials since it was discovered and that town employees have been advised not to talk about that and other issues with the Whites and other citizens, or fear to do so. She cites that as just one of several areas in which the morale of town employees is currently suffering.

Cuts strongly affect police department

A continued slow real estate market has reduced the amount of transfer tax and other revenues the town took in last year, as well as what it anticipates receiving in the near future.

Prior to the end of the most recent fiscal year, the town was estimating a $200,000 shortfall on the year. An $800,000 shortfall projection was mentioned during the council campaign, but White said the picture suddenly got rosier once the new council came in, with a $250,000 surplus being reported. Then, a $1.2 million, five-year deficit projection was released.

Financial concerns have kept strong pressure on town officials to reduce spending. A marathon council session June 11 changed plans and policies with an expectation to save more than $2 million in town funds over the next five years, by some accounts.

But White said she feels the council’s cost-cutting and spending decisions have been inconsistent, especially if finances are really in as dire straits as some town officials have indicated.

“Why didn’t they table purchases? Why was a resolution passed to look at getting a new generator when the engineering report said it was OK?” White asked this week.

She cited cuts made by the council that strongly affect the police department while the council has OK’d spending for a town museum and has already received $7,600 in bills for work in recent weeks by one of three new outside attorneys hired in addition to Town Solicitor Dennis Schraeder.

Though the construction is complete and the building now occupied, the town’s outlay of more than $2 million to construct the public safety building has remained controversial. Space planned for expansion at the department over the next two decades has now been targeted for a move of town administrative offices to the building’s second floor, in lieu of expansion or reconfiguring of the existing town hall and other town property.

White said this week that she is also suspicious of the numbers cited for the cost of that move. She said the $170,000 figure previously cited is now being estimated to balloon to around $300,000, by the time final changes and needed alterations to the building are made to permit it to serve in both public safety and administrative functions, including the addition of air conditioning and placement of firewalls on the second floor. She said Wood acknowledged that escalation in cost was possible.

The town had previously considered a variety of ways to acquire needed additional administrative space, including an addition to the existing town hall, a move of some town offices to otherwise unoccupied property the town already owns and a reconfiguring of the town meeting room at town hall to serve as offices — something White favors, since she says the public safety building provides adequate space as a future location for public meetings.

The town had also discussed the idea of leasing a portion of the public safety building to another law enforcement agency and even met with Delaware State Police officials to explore the idea.

But White said she doesn’t believe those discussions were serious on the town’s part, since the town had already moved to consider the administrative move to the building by the time that meeting was held. She alleges state police officials were even told upfront that they could not lease the entire second floor, because town offices were to be moved there.

The council allocated $150,000 for additional administrative space in this year’s budget but did not decide which option they would pursue until July 8, when they approved on a 4-1 vote a plan to reconfigure the public safety building with 6,500 square feet of space for town offices, leaving 8,500 square feet for current police operations and expansion.

The police department has also taken a hit in major changes made to their previous take-home car policy for officers. Proponents considered the policy a major attractor for top hires, as well as a way to encourage better care for patrol vehicles and ensure that officers responding to an emergency while off-duty can arrive fully prepared and equipped, and quickly.

But the policy was cited during this spring’s budget talks as costing the town as much as $420,000 per year. That was later streamlined to $265,000 per year as the budget was finalized.

Then, with a new council in place on June 11, it was slashed dramatically further in a reversal of the previous council’s vote, now permitting officers to take cars home only between consecutive days on duty and prohibiting any personal use.

White said she questions the timing of the decision to change the policy during the height of the summer season, as well as why the council did not also take that opportunity to reclaim use of a town car from Town Manager Conway Gregory, whose daily commute from his home in Denton, Md., has also been controversial as an expense for the town.

Overall, White said she fears the cuts and changes made to the police department are compromising public safety, by reducing the security of the public safety building, cutting back the take-home car policy and placing the police chief under the supervision of a town manager with no law-enforcement background.

White said she is further concerned that Wood and council members will eventually move to reduce the police department from eight or nine officers to just five — a level she believes will not allow adequate service at 24-hour-a-day coverage.

White wants clear of ‘smoke and mirrors’

White, who had previously expressed concerns about the town’s decisions regarding a central water system and resigned her council seat in protest of the rejection of a proposal to create a private-public partnership to build a central water system, said she also has questions about how the town is financing the system.

The town has previously said it expects to clear in 40 years the loans used to build the system, with about $2,000 taken in above the loan and servicing costs. The town is paying about $40,000 to $50,000 per year for billing services for the water system, she noted.

“I’m concerned they will want the town to make a loan,” White said of any potential shortfalls for the water system, once maintenance and employee costs are fully realized over time.

White said she also believes the council’s decision to convert overtime hours by town department heads, including the police chief, to increased salary was incorrect. As she asserted in her campaign, White said she believes “comp time” should have been considered instead, if the town was really trying to cut costs.

“I think it’s smoke and mirrors,” she said of town officials’ presentation of financial information during recent months.

In addition to the financial concerns, White said this week that she’s also looking at what she calls “questionable behavior of town councilmen,” citing an alleged threat by Councilman Roy Thomas to exact retribution on former Mayor Gary Meredith through the police department and the removal of some citizens from Councilman Perry Mitchell’s post-meeting e-mail “newsletter” mailing list after they were critical of him and the council.

The Whites are also raising concern about how much input citizens are being permitted, noting, for example, that no citizens were members of the recently convened Citizen’s Participation Committee. Instead, Wood, Gregory and the four council members made up the group.

While White said she’s not sure an outside audit will reveal systemic problems with Ocean View’s finances, she is hopeful that it could clear up the lingering questions she and other citizens have about where the town truly stands.

“Let’s get to the truth,” she emphasized this week, in advance of Sunday’s rally and a planned door-to-door campaign to collect signatures on her petition to the governor. The rally is set to include several speakers, including the Whites and Meredith, who has publicly opposed the move of town offices to the public safety building.

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s office was to formally receive a copy of the Whites’ petition on Wednesday, Aug. 6, as that campaign got under way.

The Coastal Point was unable to reach Gregory before press time. Wood declined comment on the rally.

For more information on the petition or the rally, call Susan or Richard White at (302) 541-0678.