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Tourism Consultant Contract Quizzed; Police Chief’s Salary Hike on Table

Ocean City business administrator George Savastano said Dec. 30 the city plans to use a former car lot on Simpson Avenue for open space and parking.

By Bill Barlow

OCEAN CITY – An amendment to a consulting contract drew questions from a citizen Dec. 30.
Donna Moore, one of the few members of the public to attend the early afternoon meeting of City Council between the holidays, questioned a resolution approving a change to a contract with Econsult Solutions, Inc. (ESI), an economic development and consulting firm based in Philadelphia.
City Council approved a $75,000 contract with ESI April 11. Over the spring and summer, representatives of the organization spoke with businesspeople, city officials and visitors.
Lee Huang, vice president and one of the principals of the company, addressed the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce at the Ocean City Library Dec. 10, in a presentation that called for improved public transportation and connectivity for the city.
Moore argued that the company specialized in other areas than tourism. She asked for the resolution to be removed from the consent agenda for more discussion, but it was approved in a single motion with the other resolutions.
Mayor Jay Gillian stated the Dec. 10 meeting was open to the public and announced in his regular Friday message to residents. Council members who attended the meeting said it was crowded, including with members of the public who are not in the Chamber of Commerce.
Moore also questioned a $4,000 payment to the chamber included in the city’s bill list for that meeting, questioning why the city would give money to a business advocacy group.
She had requested a similar amount from the city to fund bringing in an expert to host a public workshop in organic gardening practices.
Moore said she researched the consulting firm Econsult.
“They did mention tourism, but they seem to be more about real estate and investment,” she said. She also stated that she would have liked to have attended the Dec. 10 meeting.
The amended contract was for $76,741, changed to allow for the reimbursement of some expenses to the company. “I’m just wondering exactly what services they are providing to us for this amount of money since tourism is not their specialty noted on their website.” 
Gillian said the firm worked on citywide issues, advising on transportation and other issues, adding that the firm has tourism expertise.
“It sounds like we hired someone to talk about real estate. It gives that spin like, ‘here we are again, all we care about’s the Realtors.’ After 10 years of being here, hopefully the longer you get to know me, the more you’ll realize that I’m about the taxpayers first,” Gillian said. “I’m not about the business community. I’m not about special interest, all the things you probably hear about me. I’m not like that.”
City officials said the payment to the chamber was primarily reimbursement for a mass mailing undertaken in conjunction with the city’s Tourism Development Commission, along with funds for attendance at some chamber events.
Council members said the city’s partnership with the Chamber of Commerce has been beneficial, strengthening the city’s business community.
Councilman Michael DeVlieger said he had to park blocks from City Hall to attend the meeting because the downtown was as crowded as a summer afternoon on the day before New Year’s Eve, which he saw as a result of business initiatives.
“The town’s packed. It’s a beautiful thing for business. The people are having fun,” he said.
Many second homeowners come to Ocean City for the First Night event and events planned New Year’s Day, transforming what was once the slowest time of year downtown.
Chief’s Salary
City Council approved by resolution for a collective bargaining agreement with Police Chief Jay Prettyman, which set his salary 10% above the highest paid captain in the department.
Voted as part of the consent agenda at the Dec. 30 meeting, the contract comes almost a year after Prettyman was appointed chief Jan. 25. There was no discussion of the resolution at the meeting. It was one of 25 resolutions approved.
According to city spokesman Doug Bergen, state law requires the police chief be the highest-paid member of the department. The highest paid captain in the city makes $158,085. The agreement puts the chief’s salary at $173,894. But there is a complication.
An Ocean City ordinance caps the chief’s salary at $160,000. That ordinance is likely to be amended in 2020, according to Bergen.
Lot Still Eyed
City business administrator George Savastano also stated at the meeting that the city plans to use the former car dealership on Simpson Avenue, between 15th and 16th streets, as open space, along with additional parking for the nearby Ocean City Community Center.
The city has been working on acquiring the property for two years. A previous attempt to buy the land went off the rails, when the group Fairness In Taxes challenged the ordinance funding the $9 million purchase in 2018.
The owners have Planning Board approval to build homes on the site. The city would prefer negotiating a deal with the owners but will turn to condemnation, if an agreement can’t be reached.
The community center next door includes Ocean City’s library, arts center, museum, senior center, and the Aquatic and Fitness Center.
The parking lot is often full, especially when special events take place, with cars spilling out to the surrounding neighborhood and a dirt lot on the school property across 18th Street.
Using the car dealership property as the site of a new police station was considered. FIT representatives had pushed for the city to commit to a use before buying the land.
“We just want to make it clear and put it on the record that we are looking to purchase these properties for the purpose of open space and parking for the community center,” Savastano said.
Gillian plans to have a town hall meeting on city plans for the properties early in 2020, Savastano said.
To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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