Finances generate friction in Ocean View
Financial concerns dominated Tuesday night’s meeting of the Ocean View Town Council, as council members wrangled with falling revenue, an increasing need for space for town operations and questions about how much value to place on a public safety program championed by the town’s police chief.
Anticipated drops in revenue for the last fiscal year were confirmed in a report Feb. 5 from auditor Jean Schmidt. Transfer tax revenues had dropped by 49 percent from the prior year, she told the council. But that news came with a small silver lining — the number was above the figure in the town’s budget. Meanwhile, property taxes had come in 8 percent above the prior year.
Cash in hand for the town was down more than 13 percent from 2006, Schmidt said, but the positive side of that figure was shown in the town’s assets, as a substantial portion of the spent cash had gone toward the cost of the town’s new public safety building. The town had also increased its assets with $1 million worth of streets dedicated to it by private developers, she said.
However, for the first time in history, Schmidt noted, the town had gone into debt in its general fund, with $661,000 in loan costs for the construction of the public safety building. She noted that the town’s public works department had been virtually self-sustaining, but that part of the plus side of that segment of the budget included the assets brought to the town by those new streets.
The general fund and public works had come in under budget in 2007, she said, with the town’s public safety department coming in above budget — not uncommon in the area as gas prices have remained high and growing populations have strained police coverage.
Schmidt found only one major flaw with how the town handles its finances: too few people involved in financial functions — also not uncommon in the area, with most towns having a single financial officer with assistance coming from other town staff. That, she said, is unlikely to change.
Council members accepted Schmidt’s report with a unanimous vote Tuesday.
Public works situation elicits strife
After an absence from a Jan. 22 council workshop for which he had sent a written statement for the record, Councilman Roy Thomas requested several of the items discussed at the workshop be raised again at Tuesday’s council meeting so that he could continue his dialogue about them before the public and respond to a recording of the meeting.
Thomas delivered a lengthy critique of the Jan. 22 council discussion of expanding room for public works and the administrative operations by Administrative Official Charlie McMullen. That discussion had dealt with a proposed $1.4 million public works building, a potential stop-gap move for McMullen and his staff to the town-owned Lampe house and a $300,000 figure allocated in the town’s current draft budget for expansion for public works in 2008.
The councilman took issue with any suggestion that “everyone has signed off” on the $1.4 million building proposed by members of the town’s public works building committee. As a member of the committee and the council, he said he had not signed off on the project and felt it had fallen by the wayside as a result of “sticker shock” over the estimated $1.4 million price tag.
Thomas faulted fellow councilman and public works building committee chairman Bill Wichmann — with whom he has repeatedly butted heads on various issues — that the project had not been pursued actively. It was a delay Wichmann himself had laid at the doorstep of town staff, who he said had not provided the committee or council with a requested financial study until January, about nine months after the committee had requested it.
Thomas argued that Wichmann should have been the one to be the prime mover behind the project and that the subsequent time had been spent in town officials inquiring about the availability of various parcels and subsequently purchasing the Lampe property.
Citing Wichmann’s Jan. 22 statement that he would “have nothing to do with” a $300,000 public works building, Thomas requested the council consider at their February workshop what Thomas termed as Wichmann’s “resignation” from the public works building committee.
Thomas also faulted the council as a whole for failing to anticipate the town’s future need for space, saying they had misjudged those needs, despite a “40-year plan” that spurred the construction of a large police building. He suggested the council pursue a wider 40-year plan beginning at their February workshop.
Mayor Gary Meredith objected to that criticism, saying, “I take issue with the accusation that we didn’t think ahead.” He said they had looked at the time at adding space at the town hall property but had been unable to do so due to limits on the size of structures they could build there.
Thomas recommended the council consider temporarily moving public works and related administrative functions to the new public safety building’s second floor, versus the Lampe House, which he said would then free the town to demolish the house and build a new public works facility there. He asked that the issue be considered at a future council workshop as well.
Finally, having praised Councilman Richard Nippes for his Jan. 22 recommendation that a needs study on the public works situation be done, Thomas recommended that the council put such a mandate on their agenda for their February workshop.
Police take-home policy supported, cost questioned
Councilman Norman Amendt and Wichmann spoke out strongly on Tuesday in favor of the Ocean View Police Department’s vehicle take-home policy for officers, which generated considerable criticism from Thomas over the potential costs involved in continuing the program.
The program allows officers in the department to drive their patrol vehicles to and from their homes. Wichmann noted that the program means off-duty officers can respond directly to an emergency scene when called in for assistance after-hours, when it is common that only one officer is on duty in Ocean View.
Without their patrol vehicle at home, he said, officers would either arrive at the scene without necessary equipment and their radios to update them on the situation or would have to stop at the police station to pick up the vehicles and equipment. The change would make a difference in response time and public safety, he argued. The policy was instituted in Ocean View at roughly the same time as the town added 24-hour police service.
Police chiefs throughout the area — and the nation — have expressed support for such programs. They are in place in 12 of 18 Sussex County jurisdictions, including Laurel, Greenwood, Georgetown, Millsboro, Dagsboro, Selbyville, South Bethany, Bethany Beach, Dewey Beach and Lewes, and are considered an advantage when departments are hiring new officers.
Sgt. Heath Hall, who represented the department at Tuesday’s meeting — Police Chief Ken McLaughlin being away for training with the FBI — said South Bethany and Bethany had limited their policies to allow officers to take home their cars only when they were scheduled to return to duty the following day, but he said that limitation was only in place due to a lack of enough vehicles for both on- and off-duty officers.
Ocean View currently has eight officer positions and nine vehicles. Both of those other departments, he said, would prefer to have a full take-home policy.
Town Manager Conway Gregory had added the issue to the January council workshop agenda after the town’s Long Range Financial Planning Committee had requested a study of the costs and benefits involved. He emphasized that the presence of the agenda item had not been intended to directly elicit a vote on whether or not to end the policy.
Thomas presented a two-sided approach to the issue on Feb. 5, saying on the one hand that he supported it and was unaware of any acceptable alternative to using it. On the other hand, he said, the costs of the program needed to be paid for.
While Thomas had faulted McLaughlin’s report to the council in support of the policy for a lack of concrete numbers, Thomas presented the council and those in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting with an extrapolation of figures related to the program’s cost. It suggested that the program nets the town $420,000 in costs over five years to maintain the existing fleet of nine cars at a normal replacement rate.
Gregory’s draft budget and long-range financial planning cut that rate from 1.8 cars purchased every year (based on a five-year lifespan) to just two cars purchased in the next five years — in 2009 and 2010. The latter number is figured into the budget under dramatic cost cutting measures.
But Thomas said he was skeptical that it was realistic and that he could not vote to continue a policy that would cost the town $420,000 over the next five years, by his calculations, without the council finding the money to cover the expense.
Wichmann took issue with the presentation of that number as an added cost, since the program is already in place.
Thomas also said he couldn’t vote against the policy. “That would indicate that I don’t care about the health and welfare of our citizens,” he said, adding that he planned to abstain on any such vote unless council would sit down and figure out how to pay for the program.
With strong support for the program and an acknowledgement that its costs would have to be paid, council members voted unanimously to do so on Tuesday.
Water nearly ready to go
Also on Feb. 5:
• Council members voted unanimously to adopt fees and regulations related to the new central water system. Construction of the system is now complete and it had been approved for operation for emergency purposes as of Tuesday. Property owners will have to wait to hook up to the system, as town officials worked mid-week to iron out a quarterly billing schedule with Tidewater Utilities, which will run the system.
Expectations were that the go-ahead for hook-ups will be given as of March 1, according to Gregory, but official word from the town was expected to be sent out by mail late this week or early next, with information on licensed plumbers, procedures, the official hook-up start date and an application for the needed utility connection permit from the town.
Property owners would be required to hook up to the system before Feb. 28, 2009, to avoid added fees.
• Hall reported that officer Mary Rehill had completed her Delaware certification after months of training with the department and was now on patrol duty. Rehill is a 21-year veteran of the Philadelphia police, where she worked mostly with a special investigations unit that was later relabeled as a narcotics unit. “I’m thrilled to be here. I love the department. I love the town,” Rehill told those present at the Feb. 5 meeting.
Ocean View police are in the process of filling one last vacancy at the department.
• Gregory noted plans to meet with property owners living in the area of Longview Drive, Hudson Avenue and Woodland Avenue on Feb. 12, to discuss plans for a drainage project there. Council members voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve up to about $211,000 for the two phases of the project.
The first, covering Longview and Hudson, is nearly ready to proceed, at a cost of $132,000. The second, is on hold pending agreements with property owners about the town’s ability to access the property for construction and future maintenance. Gregory said a standard maintenance easement had been refused by some of the Woodland Avenue property owners, who had cited concerns about a loss of property value. A “maintenance agreement” has since been proposed. If the agreement is not signed, Gregory said that second phase will be shelved.
• Council members voted unanimously to give a six-month trial to a new policy on distributing information to the public at meetings. In an effort to reduce staff and copying costs, the town will supply only copies of the agenda, ordinances up for public hearing at a given meeting, and any documents specifically requested by the mayor or a council member.
The public will be able to fill out a form to request any other documents referenced in the meetings. During the trial period there is to be no cost for those copies, but council said they would consider using their standard copying charges if the costs for requested documents proved too costly after six months, at which time the policy itself will be re-evaluated.
• Gregory reported plans to proceed earlier than anticipated with reconstruction of a sidewalk and parking area at the public safety building, due to severe flooding problems. He said state transportation officials had refused to extend an existing permit that would have allowed the work to be done later in the spring. The work is now slated to begin in the next two weeks.
• Council members unanimously approved an amendment to the site plan for the Fairway Village RPC, which details and slightly alters the layout of planned recreational areas, as well as separates the areas into a third parcel owned jointly by the planned condominium and single-family home owners’ groups. The approval was recommended by town planning commissioners.
• Council accepted unanimously and without comment an addendum to the town’s salary study for staff, which was extended to include the town manager position, chief of police and public works director. The study indicates that the mean salary for a town manager in the area is $72,950 annually, with a median salary of $67,550.
The salaries ranged from $49,500 in Millville to $118,389 in Seaford. Gregory’s salary is $77,800 annually. He is the third-highest paid town manager among those cited when comparing towns with similar populations. Slightly more than half of the cited towns provide the town manager with a take-home vehicle, as is the case in Ocean View. Only two have geographic limits on the manager’s residency. Gregory lives in Denton, Md., where he also serves on the town council.
• Council members unanimously voted to adopt a resolution supporting Senate Bill 4, which calls on state legislators to be accountable to the Freedom of Information Act, from which they are currently exempt.
• The council agreed to create a form by which emergency responders could apply for grants from the town. They agreed to provide that form directly to the Millville Volunteer Fire Company and to allow other emergency response agencies to apply for grants if they so choose.
There is about $2,000 currently in town coffers for such a grant. The deadline to apply for grants would be Feb. 29, with a decision to be made by a committee comprising two council members and the town manager sometime in March should there be more than one applicant.
• Council members unanimously approve a package of Web site policies drafted by Finance Director and Web site designer Lee Brubaker. He received praise for his work on the project from Nippes and Gregory.
• The council unanimously approved police procedural policies on the use of force and firearms and on background investigations. They also approved the police department’s endeavor to become accredited with the state police, which Hall cited as a stamp of professional status and superior service. He said it would also reduce the department’s liability costs and potentially make it eligible for significant grants that are being proposed by state legislators.
The town will pay a $100 application fee for the process and the department will be required to maintain certain standards to retain the accreditation. The flurry of police procedurals approved by the council in recent months has been part of the effort to qualify for accreditation.
• The council approved about $900 in filing fees to be paid for the town’s Historical Society to become incorporated and apply for federal non-profit status. Nippes said that without the 501(c)3 costs paid by the town from the existing historical committee budget, the society would be ineligible to pursue any kind of fundraising activity as it prepares to start up a town museum.
• Council members also approved a $500 hole sponsorship for the April 26 Golf Classic Tournament and Silent Auction at Bear Trap Dunes Golf Club. The event is a fundraiser that will support Beebe Medical Center this year.
• The council also approved this year’s participation in the state’s mosquito control program, which is set to begin in mid-March.
• Finally, McMullen proposed council members consider at a future meeting an amendment to the town’s new rental tax code, designed to ensure that all owners of rental properties file a rental receipt tax form with the town. Filing of the forms has been spotty, McMullen said, with most professional management companies filing them while many individual property owners have not.