Ocean View council approves increase in police officers

Earlier this week, the Town of Ocean View approved increasing its number of authorized police officers from 7.5 officers to 8.5 officers.

“This will occasionally result in being slightly overstaffed, but it will ensure the ability to always provide our citizens with 24-7 coverage,” said Councilman Tom Sheeran, who made the motion for the increase. “In the past nine years, 11 police officers have left Ocean View, averaging more than one a year. To hire a police officer takes more than 12 months.”

Sheeran said that, in 2010, a study conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) said that the Town’s officer need level of 8.5 officers in 2004 had been correct.

“In 2012, during several critical months, the staff level was at 4.5, and we did not receive 24-7 coverage or protection. I believe the town council is responsible for providing our citizens 24-7 protection at all times.”

Council Members Michele Steffens and Geoff Christ both agreed that it would be best for the safety and wellbeing of the citizens to have an authorized number of 8.5 officers.

“As a first-responder with Millville Volunteer Fire Company, I see where there is a higher incidence of drugs. With drugs, there is most likely crime. I would like to see someone have my back in a situation, not being the only police officer at any given time,” said Steffens. “I would have to support it.”

“I know, many times — in addition to protecting the safety of our citizens — … I know our officers are often first on the scene at medical emergencies,” added Christ.

Councilman Bob Lawless said he would have no problem supporting the increase if it was completely supported by the town’s citizens and financially possible.

“I absolutely agree that it would be highly desirable for us to have at least 8.5 officers sworn into service in Ocean View. … My concern is financial. We’re talking, over a five-year period, close to $400,000. The question is, are we prepared to do that? Is that what the town wants?”

Lawless said that to pay for the additional officer would result in approximately a 5 percent tax increase.

“This is one that we’re really going to have to think through.”

Sheeran said that he had spoken to a few citizens regarding his proposed increase in officers and the associated cost.

“All of those I’ve talked to, when they hear 5 percent, they get upset. When they realize you’re talking $30 to $35 a year on average, for an additional police officer, from each individual, they are all for it.”

Throughout the discussions, Mayor Gordon Wood voiced his opposition to the increase, questioning whether the town really needs the added officer.

“We do not need eight and a half… One never knows about the timing of vacancies, but unlike the past, we have reason to believe retention will be enhanced by the recent significant salary increases and a competitive compensation management program… Why not give that a chance before we turn around and spend 6 percent?”

Wood also questioned why the council should approve the increase prior to the new fiscal year’s budget and before the next police academy.

“I fully support keeping a roster of applicants,” he said. “Quoting from the IACP study of two years ago, ‘The staffing requirements of the Ocean View Police Department are not driven by crime-fighting or calls for service. The factors that drive staffing needs are 24-hour patrol coverage and the high level of service to the community.”

Wood said he doesn’t believe the increase “accomplishes anything right now” and requested Sheeran withdraw his motion.

“Mr. Mayor, you asked me to withdraw this last month, to hold off on it, and I did. We’ve talked about it this month, and you’ve again asked me to hold off on it for a while. I’m tired of kicking the can down the road, to quote something else. I think it’s something that is needed,” responded Sheeran, who followed with a quote from the same IACP study.

“It can be argued that Ocean View enjoys a low crime rate and a safe community because the police department is and has been effective in preventing crime and providing service. The department cannot continue to provide the high level of service at this current staffing level. The department was right-sized in 2004 at 8.5 fulltime equivalence.”

Steffens asked Sgt. Heath Hall if he believed the crime rate had increased since 2004.

“I would have to say so,” Hall responded.

“With the incidents of drugs, with people stealing to support their habit, and hypothetically, if you pull a car over, you don’t know if that person has a gun or not. If you are the only person on staff at the time, and God forbid anything bad were to happen… it could be that nobody would know you were injured until someone were to come up on the scene,” said Steffens, adding that, currently, only one officer is on duty during a shift.

“Two is always better than one, to put it simply,” said Hall. “I believe, by allowing the chief to hire one more officer, we would have two people per shift during the priority hours of the day. What that means is you would have day shift, night shift and a swing shift.”

When asked if funds were available to fund the increase, Town Manager Dianne Vogel said that the Town wasn’t enough into its fiscal year on the revenue side to determine where the Town will stand at the end of the year.

“Looking at the expense side, I expect that all of the line items will fall into place. I cannot sit here and certify that there will be available funds at the end of this year… Why not wait to make it part of the FY ’14 budget?”

Town Finance Director Lee Brubaker added that there is not enough in appropriated funds currently to cover the hiring of another officer.

Sheeran said that, by approving the increase, it would allow the Town adequate advertising, selection and interview time for candidates before the next academy and that approving the motion would not result in hiring a new officer that week.

“All I’m asking is the authority to do the job, to begin it. I don’t think delaying any of it will do any good,” he added.

The increase was approved with a vote of 3 to 2, with Lawless and Wood opposed.

The council this week also discussed an ordinance amending the Land Use and Development Code that would limit the location and hours of use of outdoor seating areas and provide for the designation of waiting-area bars.

The recommended changes to the ordinance provided by the Planning & Zoning Commission would not allow for outdoor seating on a property adjacent to a residential-use property and would not allow seating after 11 p.m. It would also designate an area as a “waiting-area bar” for the purpose of accommodating patrons awaiting seating.

The waiting-area bar would not be allowed to exceed 40 linear feet from end to end or to exceed 450 square feet of patron area or to be located in any outdoor seating area, and would not be able to have seating exceed the smaller of 15 percent of the restaurant’s total seating capacity or a 24-inches-per-seat requirement.

“I hope the council really considers all of this,” said Selbyville resident Rick McGee, who is currently looking to reopen the train-themed restaurant formerly known as the Royal Zephyr. “It’ll be a benefit, not only to the town, but to the businesses that have restaurants in the future. I think it’s financially better for the restaurant, and I think it’ll have the ability to survive.”

Maria Fraser, owner of the Café on 26, said that not allowing outdoor seating for a restaurant adjacent to a property zoned for residential use could be detrimental to town businesses.

“If council wishes to eliminate it, that would be your prerogative,” said code enforcement official Charles McMullen of the prohibition on outdoor seating adjacent to a residential use. “There are a number of reviews done for outdoor seating to determine whether or not outdoor seating is permissible. There are stopgap measures in here to prohibit it from getting out of hand.”

“Typically, you don’t find much outdoor seating adjacent to residences when you have commercial activities,” added Town Solicitor Dennis Schrader.

Resident Steve Cobb asked for a clarification of what “adjacent to a residential use” would be.

“If it’s across the street, I wouldn’t consider it adjacent to residential use. However, upstairs, I would consider it to be residential use,” said McMullen.

The council voted unanimously to approve the ordinance, but to allow for outdoor seating for a business adjacent to a residential-use property.

In other town news:

• Carols in the Park will be held on Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. in John West Park.

• Wood commended town volunteers Bill Wichmann and Earl Green for their time spent at the Wallace A. Melson Municipal Building during Hurricane Sandy. As a token of appreciation, the Town awarded them two gift certificates for the Café on 26.

• The council voted unanimously to reject all bids that came in for the construction of the new public works building, following McMullen’s recommendation to do so. McMullen said that he would meet with the project’s engineer and architect to work up what items must be removed that will allow the building to stay within the town’s budget.

• Council dropped a proposed ordinance to exempt the Ocean View Historical Society from paying fees to the Town. Instead, they agreed that they would direct Town management to simply not charge the group fees.

• McMullen reported that there had recently been some acts of vandalism in John West Park. He said that his department was working with the police to catch the culprits.