When campaigning City Council candidates knocked on doors in Ocean City this past spring, the main complaints they heard were about deteriorated roads and constant flooding.
Newly elected councilman Michael DeVlieger said it was clear people want repairs immediately, but he said finding a long-term way to make improvements will take time.
“We need to have a comprehensive plan that addresses these things and need to accelerate the work that needs to be done,” he said, “but we have to do it in a prudent way and not waste the funds that we have.”
With a focus on infrastructure upgrades, Ocean City is beginning its annual capital project planning process months earlier than normal.
In the city’s most recent capital plan, $2.4 million is allotted for paving and drainage work this year — nearly a third of the entire capital budget. Recent plans, such as those proposed by Councilman Keith Hartzell, would seek to double that annual allotment.
“I don’t think we have an aggressive, active enough plan for repairing the roads and flood mitigation,” he said.
By finding the money, though, Hartzell said the city may find out just how badly residents want improvements.
“I want a 50-foot Hatteras (yacht),” he said. “I don’t think I want to pay for it.”
The fact that the islands are surrounded by water makes them constantly subject to tidal flooding and storm surges. The muddy soil under some sections causes roads and utilities to slump and presents drainage issues because the water does not seep in as easily as sand or dirt.
Those issues — combined with a crowded summer season that makes extensive roadwork too disruptive and frozen ground in the winter that makes work too difficult — make managing island infrastructure a challenge.
Matt Doran, a principal at Pleasantville-based Doran Engineering, oversees projects on island communities such as Brigantine and Ventnor and mainland communities like Northfield and Port Republic.
He said that salt water, flooded streets that can freeze and crack asphalt and a lack of stable dirt makes maintaining roads and pipes much more difficult on islands.
“Anywhere you have standing water, the life expectancy of any improvement you have is less,” Doran said.
Hartzell said he is just trying to show residents what needs to be done if they locals want roads and drainage to improve more quickly.
“The people are going to tell us what the expectation is once you tell them what it costs,” Hartzell said.
His original idea was a special tax assessment of $125 on every home in the city that would generate an extra $2.4 million annually. He wanted to put the proposal in the form of a non-binding referendum on this year’s ballot, but he decided against it because it was not clear what the question would be.
Michael Hinchman, the president of the local taxpayers advocacy group Fairness in Taxes, said he applauded Hartzell’s aggressive push to address the issue.
“I give Keith Hartzell lots of credit because he galvanized attention in town,” said Hinchman, even though he disagreed with the special assessment idea.
Hinchman said that whatever the plan it is, he would advocate getting repairs done sooner than later in order to save money through low interest rates and likely lower bids since some contractors are still desperate for work.
Hartzell’s latest idea would be a long-term plan to increase spending on road improvements. He said that through a slight tax increase of about 0.25 cents and reduction of overtime in the fire department by using more part-time EMTs the city could start dedicating more money toward the capital plan.
However, he stressed that the city is in the very preliminary stages of this planning.
“I’m trying to say, if you want to increase spending on roads and drainage, here’s a bunch of ways you can do it,” he said. “Do you still want to do it?”
City Finance Director Frank Donato said the administration is now getting capital project requests from different departments and it plans to make a presentation of its preliminary plan at a special meeting in October.
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