Ocean City has solved one of the major problems facing shore communities — how to keep waterways usable for boating residents and visitors.
The work isn’t cheap. The city and its property owners have paid millions of dollars the past several years to remove sediment from channels and around docks.
The money and planning have paid off. Ocean City seems to have the best and most effective dredging program of any waterfront tourism town in the state. Last year the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection issued its first-ever citywide dredging permit to the city. This year it extended the permitted dredging period by a month. At the end of the upcoming dredging season, all city waterways will be at least 4 feet deep at low tide.
This success is the first argument against an accusation from the civic group Fairness in Taxes that the city’s $60,000 a year contract for dredging-related lobbying is a waste.
Since 2016, the city has paid lobbying firm Tonio Burgos Associates $5,000 a month to help plan the process of securing approvals related to dredging and facilitate getting those approvals. In onerously regulated New Jersey, that doesn’t sound like a lot of money, especially when the effectiveness of spending millions on dredging is at stake.
FIT’s record searches found that Tonio Burgos “only” arranged 10 meetings with state officials in 2016 and 2017, and another with the DEP in July this year. That’s significant to start with, and it’s the nature of lobbying that what might be the most important work is conducted personally without leaving a public record.
This concern by the civic group puts it in the difficult position of trying to prove a negative — that lobbying didn’t take place or have an effect. Meanwhile, the goal of the lobbying was achieved and probably exceeded, and at a cost that is a tiny fraction of the overall project, let alone the city budget.
Give Fitness in Taxes credit for looking into it, but it doesn’t seem to have found anything sufficiently questionable to worry about.
That’s OK. That’s the nature of the gadfly function that it performs, one needed for local governments that are closely run and too often secretive.
Last year, FIT did excellent work shedding light on and slowing down a hasty and unpublicized deal for the city to pay a non-negotiable $9 million for the former Klause Enterprises car dealership property. It gathered the signatures of more than 597 residents in favor of putting the deal before the public in a referendum, which was enough to force the city to step back, rethink and be a little more transparent.
Now, despite threats from city officials that if the purchase wasn’t rushed through it would be lost and the property would be covered with housing, the city is again negotiating to purchase the lot.
City residents and owners of second homes and rental properties should be glad that Fairness in Taxes is keeping an eye on that process. It’s in favor of acquiring the large lot, but wants the deal to proceed properly and result in a fair price.
There’s more at stake for taxpayers there than in the lobbying line item of the city’s admirable dredging program.