Ocean View discusses healthcare costs, possible tax increase

Ocean View officials are in the process of finalizing their budget for the 2015 fiscal year, which is scheduled to be approved on April 8. In reviewing the budget at their council workshop this week, the council members and Town Manager Dianne Vogel discussed the difficulties the Town is been facing in dealing with increasing health insurance costs.

Vogel said that Town received increased price projections from Blue Cross/Blue Shield ranging from 22 to 46 percent for a comparable plan to the existing one. She added that, because the Town has less than 50 employees, the new rates are based on age, the number of members in a family group and tobacco use.

The same day as the workshop, the Town had also received rate quotes from Aetna that looked to contain a similar increase; however, she could not state then whether or not the plan was comparable to the Town’s current coverage.

Finance Director Lee Brubaker said the highest increase for a town employee is projected to be 158 percent.

Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin said that, as a married man, with three kids, with no tobacco use or health issues, his coverage was projected to increase by 114 percent.

“Family coverage right now for his is $985…” With the new insurance estimates, “the monthly premium is $2,110,” said Brubaker, noting that McLaughlin would pay $25,320 per year in health insurance for himself and his family.

McLaughlin said the new healthcare costs put his department at a disadvantage when it comes to officer retention.

“It puts us at a very unique disadvantage when town X has the state healthcare plan that is not going up and you’re coming here and getting, if you’re lucky, when it’s all said and done,” the kind of costs he could soon be paying.

Vogel said she would review the estimates presented by Aetna and present them to council at a workshop later this month. The Town will need to have a new plan chosen by May 1. Currently, the draft budget is set to cover a 6 percent increase in premiums.

Dealing more generally with the 2015 budget, after some debate, the council decided to change the budget to reflect a 2 percent property tax increase, as opposed to 3 percent. Additionally, they drafted 3 percent compensation increase on total departmental salaries, with the exception of the town manager and police chief, which were reduced to a 2 percent increase.

“What I am proposing is not inconsistent with what we have done budget-wise, salary study-wise,” said Ocean View Mayor Gordon Wood. “Why should we give salary increases greater than the preponderance of what our town is getting in their retirement income?”

“If we even decrease it or leave it at 3 percent, my understanding is some of these people will get less take-home than what they do today,” said Councilman Tom Sheeran, noting that projected increase of health care coverage costs.

“We do need to increase our revenue stream, and 3 percent is as reasonable as anything else,” said Councilman Bob Lawless. “My thought is we kicked the can down the road last year and the year before in not doing a tax increase, and I think that was applauded by our community. At some point, the can stops being kicked and we have to start increasing our revenue stream.”

Brubaker said that, on a property assessed at $400,000 — most of the properties in the town are assessed at a lower value — the property tax is currently $635 per year. With a 3 percent increase, Brubaker said, the property tax on that property would be increased by $19 on an annual basis.

“The theory I have is our operating costs continue to go up, and at some point in time the property taxes have to keep tabs on that, if in fact what we’re spending money on today is being paid out of today’s income,” said Brubaker.

“I’d like to see the tax rate, instead of 3, go 4 percent, and not reduce the salary increase,” said Sheeran. “You can’t even go out to dinner with that. Let’s be honest.”

Wood said he would not be in favor of a 3 percent or higher increase in property tax.

“Our taxpayers are paying more for insurance; therefore, they have limited take-home. Is it fair to ask them to allow our employees to get bigger increases than they’re getting? I don’t think so.”

Moving on to other business, after some discussion, the council agreed to allow the Ocean View Police Department to apply for a grant application for a K-9 unit.

Councilman Geoff Christ said that he has seen a drug problem in both his professional career as a pharmacist, as well as in general locally, and was in favor of having a K-9 unit for the department.

“I know I’m a different demographic than the rest of the council. I have two small children,” said Christ. “I want to do my best to keep these drugs out of my town and out of our community.”

Sheeran said he, too, was in favor of having the department grow by one canine officer.

“I think that the cost is minimal compared to the advantages,” he said. “Once word is out that a dog is in town, they stay away.”

“Having a dog in a car multiplies the effectiveness of the officer and provides significant additional safeguards for our cops. We have cops operating alone at night,” added Lawless, noting that officer safety would be improved. “The question that occurs to me is, can we afford it? I just don’t think we can afford not to.”

Wood said that, although he had not made up his mind, he knew there would be concern that the dog would not be available to the department when the handler-officer is off-duty.

“Let’s talk about the timing of a dog,” he said. “One of our officers, the dog is with him when he’s working… That dog is in town less than one-fifth of the time… One officer, protected by one dog. It’s not a 24-7 dog.”

Wood said he had spoken with Dagsboro Police Chief Floyd Toomey, whose department has an explosives-sniffing dog, because of the two nearby schools and area shopping centers.

“It kind of blew my mind,” said Wood, adding that he had also spoken to a neighboring town manager who had previously worked for the Delaware State Police, who said their police department always requests in its proposed budget a K-9 unit, which has yet to be approved by that town council.

He said that, in speaking with Dagsboro Town Administrator Stacey Long, that town’s K-9 unit is called to be used outside of town limits most of the time.

“‘Who pays for that?’ ‘Well, nobody.’ That’s a direct quote,” he said.

Wood said he was concerned that, if the dog was called to assist other departments in the county, that cost would in turn be pushed onto the taxpayers of Ocean View.

“We took three heroin dealers off the street and got a dog from the City of Delmar,” said McLaughlin. “That was just last week. Those kinds of calls — we can tell them we’re not coming. That’s our prerogative. There’s no legal requirement to go.”

McLaughlin added that it may, however, not be in the best interest of the Town to not offer the dog as a resource to neighboring municipalities.

“We can certainly set geographic boundaries and say we’re not going to go any farther. We can say we won’t go anywhere outside of Ocean View. I think the other towns will reciprocate… We have a really crazy, unique law-enforcement situation here in Sussex County,” he said, noting that all the agencies work together.

McLaughlin said the town is facing serious drug issues, and that this is the department’s attempt to be proactive in combating the issue.

“We do have a serious drug problem in this part of Sussex County. We’re missing a lot, and we know we’re missing a lot. We’re asking people for consent to search and, subsequently, we have no probable cause. This is an attempt by us to try to regain some control of the local drug problem. I think this will make us more efficient.”

McLaughlin said that, aside from its narcotics-sniffing abilities, the dog will help in other aspects, such as tracking missing persons, apprehending suspects, crowd control and protecting its officer.

The K-9 unit will cost approximately $6,200, from a grant for which the department has already applied. McLaughlin said that the department is also looking into various ways to continue to fund the unit.

“We’re trying to think outside of the box in terms of fundraising,” he said. “We have a couple really neat ideas out there that would be really positive, not only for the town, but supply a revenue stream to solely support the K-9.”

The 2015 budget will also include a one-year line item for two part-time dispatchers for the summer season. The financial impact for the year would be $12,300 for the two dispatchers, who would work 40 hours per week in total.

McLaughlin said the dispatchers would work four to eight hours each day and be available on weekends and at busy times during the summer season.

“This essentially gives the citizens of Ocean View quicker response during peak,” said Lawless.

Following the end of the summer season, the need for dispatchers will be reviewed, to see if the positions would be beneficial in future years.

“We don’t have a history on this. This would be your pilot year,” said Vogel.

The budget will also include a new position for a field supervisor in the Public Works Department, who will help Town Administrative Official Charles McMullen in the field, as well as administratively.

Over five years, the position is budgeted to cost the town $400,300 in total — with salary, benefits, insurance and taxes. The yearly salary is estimated at $50,000.

Monies to contribute to the town’s sidewalk improvement projects will remain in the budget.

“I just think that makes just an extraordinary amount of sense,” said Lawless.

As for park improvements, the Town has a five-year plan for additional play equipment and shade shelter, costing a total of $107,000.

“I think John West Park is such an extraordinary asset to our town,” said Lawless. “I think what we do to improve it, I think we get back many-fold.”

The Town will hold a public hearing on March 25 at 5 p.m., followed by a budget workshop at 6 p.m. The budget must be adopted at the April 8 council meeting.

District 3 incumbent Tom Sheeran will remain on the town council come April. Sheeran, who filed to run for the seat in January, was unopposed by the March 12 filing deadline. Sheeran will join Ocean View resident Walter Curran, who ran unopposed for mayor, to be sworn in at the town council’s April 22 workshop, at 5 p.m.