By Donald Wittkowski
City Council on Thursday night approved a $100.1 million, five-year capital plan that includes an array of major drainage, roadway and dredging projects to address Ocean City’s critical infrastructure needs.
The plan spreads projects across the entire town and builds on the momentum started in the last few years to help the city catch up on badly needed improvements, Mayor Jay Gillian said.
“The plan commits more than $100 million to tackling long-overdue projects in every part of the island. It’s a lot of money, but I’m confident that the plan is responsible,” Gillian said in a statement.
The mayor explained that the city’s AA bond rating, low interest rates and a growing ratable base make this “an ideal time” to invest in infrastructure improvements.
“Most importantly, the work will contribute to the quality of life we’ve all come to expect in Ocean City,” he said.
On average, the capital plan would cause the local property tax rate to increase by about a penny per year. On a home assessed at $500,000, that would mean about an extra $50 annually in local taxes, said Frank Donato, the city’s chief financial officer.
“We feel this plan is manageable and affordable for the taxpayers of Ocean City,” Donato told Council.
The plan runs from 2018 to 2022 and represents a nearly $12 million decrease compared to the five-year, $112 million capital program that Gillian proposed in 2017.
Altogether, the new capital plan calls for $38.7 million in construction in 2018, including paving projects to improve the road network, drainage work to reduce flooding and dredging along the shallow lagoons in the back bays.
For the first round of projects to be funded for 2018, Council also introduced a $5.7 million bond ordinance Thursday.
A beach replenishment project in the north end and a series of improvements to public buildings and recreational facilities are among the projects funded by the bond ordinance, Donato said.
Other key projects in the funding ordinance include improvements to the Music Pier and the pool inside the Ocean City Community Center. New lighting and landscaping upgrades are also among the capital projects that are funded, Donato said.
Overall, proposed spending is down compared to the record-high, five-year capital plan submitted last year because a series of major projects were started or finished in 2017. They included road construction across the city, dredging in three bayfront neighborhoods and the Boardwalk’s facelift between 10th and 12th streets.
The capital plan proposes spending $4 million for new dredging projects in 2018. Vince Bekier, aide to the mayor, said the city still must decide which lagoons will be dredged this year. Those areas will be announced later during a town meeting.
Road and drainage projects to reduce flooding across the island continue to be a major part of the capital plan. In 2018, the plan calls for $7.7 million worth of road and drainage construction.
The single-most expensive project is the city’s proposed $17.5 million public safety building. Gillian, though, said the fate of the existing public safety building still must be decided before the city moves ahead with the project.
Gillian originally proposed tearing down the building last year and replacing it with an all-new public safety complex to house the police department and municipal court. Later, he proposed renovating and expanding the old building as the most cost-efficient option. But now, he believes the project must be analyzed even further before any decisions are made.
During the public comment portion of Thursday’s Council meeting, John Flood, a former councilman, urged the governing body to delay voting on the capital plan to allow for what he called “a reconciliation” of the city’s capital spending. Council gave its approval anyway.
Flood, who potentially is running for mayor against Gillian in the May 8 municipal election, questioned whether the city actually funded all of the projects that were proposed in the capital plan in recent years.
In an interview after the Council meeting, Flood said he wasn’t opposed to the city’s capital projects, but believes more information is needed about how much money was actually spent on construction.
“There’s never been a reconciliation, not one that I found, for the capital plan in 2015, 2016 and 2017,” Flood said in the interview. “There were supposed to be $120 million in projects, but $72 million is actually what happened. Where was the other $48 million?”
Donato, however, assured Council that “at least 95 percent” of the projects in the capital plan were funded in the past five years.
Councilman Keith Hartzell, echoing the comments of other Council members, thanked Gillian and Donato for presenting Council with a comprehensive capital plan. Hartzell noted that when he first joined Council in 2006, the city’s capital plans were never as detailed as they are now.
The full capital plan is available for the public to review on the Ocean City municipal website at http://www.ocnj.us/projects/