OV to cut police, raise taxes?

Highlights of the proposed Ocean View annual operating budget for the 2010 fiscal year, as presented this week by Town Manager Conway Gregory, include a 22 percent tax increase over the next four years and a resizing of the town’s public safety department, which would equal the loss of two employees.

The draft budget suggests that no such reduction will be made for one year, with any affected employees to be notified in writing of the intent to reduce within one year.

Other items addressed in this first draft included paying off the existing loan on the Public Safety Building, because of the need for Ocean View to “get this behind it” and because the cost of interest paid out by the town on the loan is now surpassing the interest being received by the town on the banked monies for the project, by $25,000 to $30,000 per year. Councilman Bill Wichmann has repeatedly advocated the repayment of the loan.

Other cost-saving measures in the draft budget include substantial budget reductions in other areas of town spending, such as not offering employee pay raises for the 2010 fiscal year and only minimal ones for fiscal years 2011-2014, for a savings of $330,000 over five years; and a “pay as you go” philosophy for capital expenditures of more than $50,000.

No funds are budgeted for a new public works facility, but the budget proposes that, if transfer taxes come in higher than planned, there could be enough cash to build such a building by 2013 or 2014.

Gregory cautioned that the proposed budget was much like a jigsaw puzzle and needed to be looked at as a whole.

“In order to have a clear view of the picture,” he said, “it is necessary that each piece be put into place and be considered ‘part of the whole.’ The budget is impossible to analyze by its individual pieces,” he emphasized. “If there is a change to one part of the puzzle, it has an affect on another part of the puzzle. Nothing stands alone. Any significant change to this budget will require that the whole budget be re-analyzed,” Gregory added.

Gregory also reported to the council this week that 865 people had responded to the survey recently sent out by the town on the issues of town finances and services. He said 38 percent – the majority – of those responding had wanted to reduce the number of town employees instead of raising taxes. He noted that he had received 111 more surveys that had come in after this first draft of the numbers that were not accounted for in those figures.

Some of the comments survey respondents had added at the end of the survey included the options of freezing and cutting salaries, postponing capital projects, comments about the public safety building, cutting jobs, reducing the town’s police force, eliminating the town manager’s car and/or position and eliminating or reducing police cars.

A reduction of the town’s workforce was not recommended by the Human Resources Subcommittee of the Long Range Financial Planning Committee during draft budget preparations.

As they wrote in their report, “The institutional knowledge and commitment to the town of the current employees should not be underestimated or undervalued in making budget decisions.

“For this reason, the Human Resources Subcommittee does not recommend a reduction in force as a temporary remedy to the budget crises. Reductions in force are very expensive in terms of unemployment compensation, possible litigation, etc. … reductions in needed staff do not reap benefits to the organization.”

The committee did, however, recommend revising the pay scale for employees and researching options for benefit plans.

Resident Dan Colella spoke out at Tuesday’s meeting, saying that he had secured 32 more signatures – from teachers and the principal at Lord Baltimore Elementary School – agreeing with the original petition that he and Richard Birkmeyer shared with Ocean View business, all supporting leaving the town’s police staff as it is.

“They don’t have a vote, but they have a voice,” said resident Elaine Birkmeyer of the businesspeople and their frustration over any talk of reducing police coverage.

Colella added that he had found a way to save the town $750,000 with no firings and just a 2 percent tax increase, and he said he felt the survey had offered respondants little in the way of choice.

“But, you have made your minds up,” he told council members. “Why waste our money? There were only two options: raise taxes or fire people. I won’t talk about how much you disgust me.”

Resident Steve Cobb offered similar sentiments, saying that the survey sent out was too little, too late.

“The four department head had great ideas [on how to reduce the deficit],” said Cobb. “[The council members] choose to be contradictory to what the department heads said and they have known since last year. If they had listened to staff members, we wouldn’t be here.

“And then you have a councilman that goes on TV about firing two public safety officers,” he added, referring to a recent television appearance by Councilman Perry Mitchell. “We have grave concerns about how the process was handled. They are trying to take the high road now.”

Cobb reiterated Colella’s finding of a flaw in the survey of having only two choices: taxes or a reduction in the town’s police force.

“Everything comes with an expense,” said Cobb. “There are more than just four choices,” he added, referring to the A,B,C and D options on the final survey – with B,C and D offering both an increase in taxes and a reduction in force and one choice – A, offering simply a 54 percent tax increase over five years but with no force reduction.

He also had issues with the fact that there was no return deadline for the survey responses – even though the issue is certainly time-sensitive as the town now prepares its 2010 budget.

“How can they do that? They’ll just pull what they need? What’s a survey without a deadline? It’s all contradictory and could have been prevented,” said Cobb.

Council members did not comment on the draft budget Tuesday evening, as they had just received it Tuesday afternoon. Updates to the first draft will be made by Feb. 20. Two public hearings will be held – one on Feb. 26 and one on March 3 – for public input and inquiries. On March 10, as required by the town charter, the final budget will be presented to council, with the expectation that they might vote to adopt it that night. If no vote is made that night, they will have to adopt the final budget in April.