At last night’s City Council meeting, I delivered my annual State of the City address. This is a tradition that coincides each year with the start of the municipal budget process. My remarks are copied here:
Members of City Council and citizens of Ocean City, good evening.
At this time last year, we were looking forward to a full calendar of special events. We were ready for a blockbuster summer. The city maintained a record fund balance of $8 million.
Who knew that “shelter in place” and “social distancing” would become part of our vocabulary within the next few weeks. It’s been a year since COVID changed our world.
But I can tell you now that Ocean City survived a very difficult year.
We were very careful, and we protected the health of our citizens and our budget.
The city team had to make a lot of tough decisions. From closing the beach and boardwalk in the spring, to purchasing masks, to canceling all the events we love. None of that was easy. Not much of it was popular. That’s part of being a leader. You have to serve in good times and bad. My job is to do what’s right, not what’s easy.
There were a lot of emotional calls to shut down the bridges. But we kept calm. We stuck to the facts. We made reasonable decisions.
The public health restrictions impacted us – just like everybody else. Revenues fell sharply in many areas and expenses increased in others. With so many people out of work, we revised our budget in June. For the second year in a row, there was no increase to the tax rate. Meeting with stakeholders in town, we vowed to keep Ocean City “clean and safe.” We purchased hand sanitizers, increased our cleaning budgets and invested in other measures to protect our community.
Parking revenue decreased. The Aquatic and Fitness Center was closed for five months. But if we had listened to the calls to lock up the city, the revenue picture would have been worse.
Our fund balance also helped us weather the storm. Our ratable base continues to increase year after year. The fiscal responsibility that gives us an AA bond rating helped us to maintain capital improvements.
Tonight, I’m proposing a budget that maintains everything Ocean City residents have come to expect in services, improvements and quality of life.
The proposed budget includes detail on revenue and expenses, and a tax rate increase of 2.2 cents. The owner of a half-million-dollar home would pay an extra $110 under this scenario.
This budget is based on what we know today and on the real impact from COVID. This does not take into consideration the municipal aid that is part of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package announced yesterday. Ocean City expects to receive $7 million. This could entirely change our budget and proposed tax rate.
Our federal legislators played an instrumental role in bringing this relief package to New Jersey. However, the rules for how cities can incorporate the money into budgets have not been determined by the state. It would be premature to assume that we can do whatever we want with this money before we know all the facts.
Our auditor, Leon Costello, is heading to Trenton tomorrow, and he will provide information on how this money can be used. It is a statutory requirement for me to present this budget today, but the plan will change once we learn more about the aid package. This will be good news for our taxpayers.
For the benefit of those not familiar with our Faulkner Act form of government, I want to take a moment to explain the budget process. The budget you see today is the first step of a work in progress. It’s the mayor’s budget, and again, it does not include the impact of the relief package. At the next meeting, Finance Director Frank Donato will give a brief presentation to further highlight details and break down the numbers. Council will then formally introduce the budget and hold a public hearing and final vote at later meetings. I look forward to your involvement in the process, and as always Frank and Leon will be available to answer your questions.
Despite the challenges of the past year, we were able to accomplish a lot. I want to take a moment to outline some of what we have achieved and what we have planned.
From beach to bay, Ocean City continued to improve every part of the island.
- Federal and state agencies paid almost the entire cost of massive beach replenishment projects for the north and south ends of the island.
- For the first time in decades, Ocean City has a sustainable bayside dredging program that allows access and recreation at all tides.
- Ocean City continues to be a leader in finding solutions related to coastal flooding on barrier islands. While other towns, agencies and nonprofits continue to study and talk about coastal flooding, Ocean City is actually doing something about it.
- At a Dec. 5 town hall meeting, the city presented a comprehensive flood mitigation plan to address all major areas of concern within the next five years.
- Drainage work for the bayside corridor between Ninth Street and 18th Street is scheduled to begin in the fall. New flood mitigation measures for Merion Park are under design. The city is seeking bids for design work on West 17th Street.
- One of the hallmarks of my administration has been public engagement. Not just to build consensus but to make sure we build the right projects.
- Through town hall meetings and direct engagement with individuals, property owners and neighborhoods, the city team and its consultants gather the information necessary to design the most effective and efficient projects and programs. The city consulted with leaders of the Ocean City Flooding group and Fairness in Taxes before making the town hall presentation on flood mitigation. Each of the major drainage projects has included extensive interaction with the people who actually experience the flooding in their neighborhoods.
- We always respond to feedback from the public. Based on our town hall meeting, the city was able to take many measures to provide immediate relief to neighborhoods.
- At an Oct. 24 town hall meeting, we introduced plans for a new public safety building. We are still in the planning stages. This facility will replace a century-old structure and serve the community into the next century. I want to thank council for their unanimous support in advancing the design of this building. I want to remind Council and the public that due to careful planning, this project will have no effect on the 2021 budget.
- Public safety will always be a top priority for me, and the commitment of our first responders to serving the community is outstanding.
- We were reminded of the professionalism of our public safety teams during a four-alarm boardwalk fire on a frigid Saturday morning in January. Despite the extreme conditions, our team saved the boardwalk and neighboring businesses from further damage, and nobody was injured.
- We were also reminded of the difficulty of public safety jobs with so many new executive orders in effect during the pandemic. I could not be prouder of how our community and the police handled themselves.
Some other accomplishments I would like to note:
- The city acquired the former American Legion property at 33rd Street and Bay Avenue, and this location will help us meet our affordable housing requirement.
- The Speitel Commons building at Sixth Street and West Avenue is expected to be completed this summer and provide 32 new units for Ocean City seniors. I toured the building this week, and it is a first-class facility.
- By the end of the month, I expect the city to own the entire city block next to the Community Center where the car dealership was located. While future court proceedings will determine the final cost, we will control the property and it will remain open space.
- Our Class 4 rating in the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System took effect this year. The new rating means Ocean City’s policy holders collectively save more than $3 million every year.
- FEMA last month awarded $3 million to elevate 52 condo units in Ocean City. I want to thank Frank Donato and his team for the extensive work they did in coordinating this effort on behalf of Ocean Aire Condominiums at 43rd and West.
- We expanded our beach mat program to increase accessibility for everybody. We plan to have mats at every beach entrance this summer.
- As of yesterday, our Community Services team has secured COVID vaccination appointments for nearly 300 seniors in town. I’m proud that we have been able to provide this important service to those who have been frustrated by the online scheduling systems.
At this time, I want to thank the entire community for working together and making so many sacrifices this year to keep everybody safe and healthy. Now I ask you all to join me in a moment of silence to reflect on the lives impacted by COVID and the memory of those we’ve lost.
Thank you and please keep these families in your thoughts and prayers.
From the start, my administration has been about “Unity in the Community.” These are unprecedented times. We must do everything we can to help our residents. That starts with our budget and our planning.
We are always conservative and responsible. We are proposing a budget that delivers the most services for the least money.
Our success is due to an exceptional city team. I could not be more proud of every department and their commitment to Ocean City. They all know that working for me is not a 9-to-5 job. It’s 24/7.
My senior staff is here tonight. I’d like to introduce them to the public:
- Business Administrator and Municipal Engineer George Savastano
- Finance Director Frank Donato
- City Solicitor Dottie McCrosson
- Aide to the Mayor Mike Allegretto
- Operations and Engineering Director Vince Bekier
- Community Services Director Dan Kelchner
- Human Resources Director Liz Woods
- Police Chief Jay Prettyman
- Fire Chief Jim Smith
- Public Information Officer Doug Bergen
I want to publicly thank them for everything they do.
This is your team. Trust them to do what’s best for Ocean City. They always do.
From hurricanes to pandemics, I have dealt with many challenges in the 11 years of my administration. I have been tested, and I have delivered for our taxpayers. Thank you and I look forward to a great year in 2021.
Mayor Jay A. Gillian