Ocean View candidates make their cases

Candidates for mayor and District 3 councilperson in Ocean View had their chance on March 19 to make their cases to potential voters, with the town’s official Candidates’ Night, held before a capacity crowd of partisans and undecided voters at town hall.

Election Commissioner Bill Olsen hosted the event, which touched on issues ranging from the candidates’ experience to citizen involvement and all-important questions surrounding the town’s budget and future fiscal priorities.

For the most part, candidates worked to stress their desire to get along with their potential peers and avoid personal attacks, starting with mayoral candidate Vinnie Esposito’s first listed priority should he be elected: “To restore a climate of mutual respect.”

But candidate for District 3 Joe Martinez closed the evening by using his two minutes of summary time not to promote his own candidacy but instead to question the leadership record of rival Perry Mitchell, whose candidacy for the three-year council term Martinez said was his chief reason for running.

Likewise, some of those in attendance at last Wednesday’s event were unable to leave partisanship at the door as easily as they did the event’s stated protocol. Ignoring Olsen’s repeated requests to hold applause and other indicators or support or opposition for the end of the two-hour event, they participated with hearty applause for some candidates’ answers to Olsen’s questions while they booed and laughed at other responses.

Candidate Susan White even encouraged her supporters to ignore Olsen’s admonitions to hold their applause until after the event had concluded. White also elicited a mixed response from the audience as a whole when she closed the event and her final summary by inviting the women of Ocean View to a women-only coffee at Kool Bean café on March 29, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.

“Women in this town haven’t been represented in seven years,” said the former councilwoman, who last served in 2001. One male resident later questioned the need to “divide man and wife” with such an event, while the White’s statement elicited vocal support from some of the women in attendance.

Partisanship and personalities aside, much of Wednesday’s subject matter focused on the town’s budget, which ties together concerns over a proposed public works building, the town’s new public safety building, police vehicle take-home policy, recent raises for some town employees and the council’s decision to grant Town Manager Conway Gregory a vehicle and fuel allowance for his commute to and from his home in Denton, Md.

Police budget, space, policies debated

Council candidate Wally Brown, who has served as head of his police union, said he felt the town never really needed the 15,000-square-foot police building and might never need it, but he labeled it as a “fait accompli” and recommended the town deal with the excess space and space needs for town administration by moving all town government functions to the new building.

On the issue of the town’s police vehicle take-home policy, he said he felt that the enough of the town’s police officers live close enough to be responsible for their own vehicles.

“Why are you providing the car for them to transport themselves home and back?” he asked, while questioning the spending of further money on studies of the issue when opinions abound.

“You can give me the money, and I’ll tell you what I think,” he quipped.

Martinez, a member of the Citizens Auxiliary Patrol (CAP) that supplements the paid police force, emphasized that while the currently under-utilized second floor of the public safety building could be leased to the state police or other police agencies, security concerns meant it would not be suitable for use by other elements of town government.

As for the take-home policy, he said he favored it, giving a unique reason for that position. “If we didn’t do it, we’d be depriving officers’ wives of a car.”

“Oh, Joe,” came one lamenting response amidst some mirth at the statement.

“I’d rather see an officer have a car to take home versus the town manager,” said Martinez, who has been vocal in his criticism of the raise and vehicle given to Gregory within his first year of work managing the town. Martinez said he felt the need to expand at town hall was the result of a lack of planning and a need for more public input.

Council candidate Perry Mitchell said he believes the town needs to allow Gregory to complete a space-needs study for the town that could more concretely answer how much more space town administration needs and whether the unused space above the police operation could be utilized. “That won’t cost us any money,” he emphasized. “I want to know what the facts are before we make any decision.”

Likewise, Mitchell encouraged more study of the take-home policy, with close attention paid to mileage logs to ensure officers aren’t making excessive personal use of the vehicles and analysis of emergency response times that are argued to be shorter when the officers use their police vehicle for their travel to and from home.

White objected to any notion of town administration leaving the existing town hall location, citing what she said was a requirement of the deed to John West Park that the town maintain official use at the site in order to keep the public park. She said she supported further study of the use for the second floor of the public safety building but recommended that outside resources be used instead of Gregory, who she later noted had performed the salary study that resulted in a recommendation for his own salary increase.

“As a former probation officer, I can tell you you want your officers to take their cars home,” White added. “It deters crime.” She said she also believes the town’s crime level has remained low because it has sufficient officers to cover the town for 24-hour service that was not previously provided when the department had three officers instead of the eight currently employed. Additionally, she said, the take-home policy’s crime deterrent element functions in the larger community of coastal towns.

Among the two mayoral candidates, Esposito — himself a CAP member — offered the most support for police expenses. Like Martinez, he suggested the second floor could be rented to another police agency until needed by the Ocean View department and rejected other uses as jeopardizing its security.

In reference to the size of the police building, Esposito called the decision for a small-scale expansion at town hall several years ago “short-sighted,” noting that the public safety building had been built with a 40-year life based on town council recommendations and guidelines developed by Chief Ken McLaughlin.

“Let’s rent it out and grow into it,” he said. “At least we won’t have to add onto it.”

He supported the take-home policy but allowed that mileage expenses may need to be better tracked. But on the core benefit, he was adamant. “Officers need their equipment when they respond,” he said.

Mayoral candidate Gordon Wood, who has said he would exclude no expense from potential cuts, was another person last Wednesday who recommended a space-needs study for the town before a decision is made. He also expressed support for renting the second floor of the public safety building to emergency management or police agencies.

Wood said he had concerns about the town’s police staffing, citing a figure of 2.6 officers per 1,000 people average nationwide for 24-hour coverage.

“We don’t need eight people, with the chief,” he said.

Wood also cited problems with the vehicle take-home policy, questioning whether the need to call officers back from their homes four times in one year justified the estimated $400,000 cost of the program over the course of five years in the newly adopted long-range capital plan. He suggested other options, such as a designated duty officer, be investigated in lieu of the take-home policy for all officers.

“The average is one car for every two officers, not nine cars for eight officers,” Wood emphasized.

Candidates aim to trim Public Works building

On the subject of expanded space for public works, candidates were also divided, but a lean budget ruled the evening.

Martinez proclaimed a lack of knowledge on the history of the issue, which has battled between a $300,000 amount available for building a new public works facility in this year’s budget and a $1.4 million estimate for what sitting Councilman Bill Wichmann has termed the “right” building, with weather and long-term future needs in mind.

“We should not look at this point at $1.4 million,” Martinez said. “Times are tough.” He said he instead favors utilizing the $300,000 with hopes that the town can add on to a new facility in the future.

Mitchell said he also favored using the $300,000 in the budget, noting the need for some kind of building to house and protect five or six pieces of town equipment.

White said her discussion of the issue with public works employees had yielded a recommendation for a new maintenance building.

“I’m appalled at the amount of trucks we have,” she added, saying each employee was designated with one that could be used to plow snow. “It doesn’t snow here that often,” she said.

White said she believed that looking at the town’s needs would enable it to cut back “a little,” but she questioned the move to cut back a budget for a public works facility from $1.4 million to $300,000 without consulting an engineer. “We need more information on how to reduce the cost.”

But White said suggestions that the town needs to lock up its equipment to avoid theft or vandalism ran contrary to suggestions by the same candidates that the town had very little crime. “Either we have a crime problem or we don’t,” she said.

Esposito said he objected to spending money for a building to put a vehicle in. “They’re not going to melt in the weather,” he argued. “How many of our vehicles really need to be in the garage?” He recommended looking at a pole building to provide minimal shelter.

Wood was in agreement on that, saying that spending $300,000 or less on a pole building was something he would support. “$1.4 million doesn’t seem to pass the laugh test,” he said, recommending some sort of structure with doors. “It’s a good idea to keep the equipment out of the weather.”

Brown, too, supported the notion of a pole building, saying a low-cost option was available and that the building didn’t have to be hurricane proof, since equipment could be moved inland in case of a storm. “We don’t need $1.4 million. We don’t need $350,000,” he said.

Budget a concern for all

While conservative spending was the theme for the evening, candidates offered only a few specific cuts that they would support.

Mitchell repeated Gregory’s frequently-made statement that the town’s finances would need to be looked at carefully in the coming year and that members of the Long-Range Financial Planning Committee would be called in early if revenue projections are not met. He also pointed to the town’s $1.1 million contingency fund, should revenue fall significantly below budgeted amounts.

He said he favored perhaps deferring the $300,000 allocated for a new public works building and pointed to $60,000 in cost for every new police vehicle. “We can find a lot of fat in our budget,” he added.

White emphasized that the entire nation is in a financial crisis — not just Ocean View. “We may have to pull from our reserves,” she allowed, suggesting that salary increases given to department heads recently might have been one area from which funds could have been recovered if strategies such as flex time had been used instead.

Addressing the anticipated shortfall in transfer tax revenue projected for the town, White said she favored an immediate moratorium on spending and annexation in Ocean View, with an eye toward a more frugal budget but one that would not even consider cuts to healthcare coverage for town employees.

Brown said his view on transfer taxes was, “It’s like counting yours eggs before the chicken lays them. They never should have been the budget before they come in,” he said. “We cannot put anything more on the backs of the people,” the vocal opponent of taxes added.

Brown said he was also worried about the town’s openness to development. “We need to look at development as revenue and not give developers carte blanche,” he said.

Martinez found major fault with the town’s handling of finances. “If I ran my home the way we run this town, it would be terrible,” he said. Martinez pointed to the $1.1 million contingency fund, $450,000 in reserves locked for five years, $2 million allocated for special projects — roughly $4 million in total cash assets.

“Who is telling us we’re out of money?” he asked, questioning why there was even talk of raising property taxes with that much money in the bank. He again questioned a $12,000 raise given to the new town manager last year, saying that making sure the town manager makes more than the police chief wasn’t a good enough reason for the raise.

Esposito, too, was opposed to talk of tax increases.

“We cannot ask people for more taxes when we’re putting money aside,” he said, suggesting the town’s allocation of funds for drainage projects is too large. “We are at the shore. We’re going to have floods in places,” he said.

Wood, however, sounded a clear note of alarm about the town’s finances. “We have a financial problem in our town of a magnitude few of us understand,” he said. “The percentage of the budget from transfer taxes is bigger (in five years) than now.”

The not-yet-purchased or -annexed Canal Landing property is not likely to bring in transfer taxes to the town for four to five years, Wood said, based on his recent discussions with developers.

“We still need one good year of zero-based budgeting,” Wood added. “I don’t think we’re doing as good a job of managing Public Safety as we should be.”

Gas station, sidewalks, town manager residency debated

Council and mayoral candidates also weighed in on March 19 with their positions on a proposed gas station and retail center on Route 26, on sidewalks and beautification plans, and on the possibility of restricting the residency of the town manager to the town or within a radius thereof.

With the area of District 3 — including the Savannah’s Landing community — the intended site of the gas station project, the issue was notably a sore one for council candidates — all of whom live there or nearby.

White noted the issue, commenting that the presence of two of the community’s residents on the town’s Planning Commission might be perceived as a conflict of interest, and she again proposed the idea of a local fuel tax that could bring revenue into the town, if permitted by the state. Esposito confirmed that the issue was a sore one for him and said he didn’t believe additional traffic woes were something the town could handle now.

Traffic was the main area of concern with the gas station, as noted by White, who favored a relocation to the area of existing traffic light at West Avenue. Esposito also noted his concerns about traffic. Brown said he had no opinion on the issue either way, citing concerns about possible environmental issues and traffic but also potential benefits to the town’s coffers.

Martinez said he was opposed to the project and didn’t think the gas station was needed. He said he also believes that, contrary to stated plans, a gas station chain like Royal Farms would have no interest in a gas station that would likely have its hours of operation limited by the town.

Mitchell refused direct comment on the subject, since he is one of three members of the Planning Commission, but he referenced his line of questioning to the applicants before the commission, which focused on possible contamination and other concerns.

“Who can be against sidewalks?” was Wood’s first comment on that subject — a view shared by most of the candidates last Wednesday.

Candidates noted that it was anticipated that the state would pay for sidewalks along Route 26 when that road improvement project finally moves forward in the years to come. Esposito focused on the potential for grants for other areas of the town.

“The time has come. We are growing,” Brown said.

Martinez cited conflicts on the existing council as one reason projects such as sidewalks have not previously been tackled. “This council should not be a game,” he said.

White, meanwhile, stated her concern over the potential draw on town funds when town-controlled streets in older developments come due for maintenance in the coming years. Citing her talks with former Town Manager Joe Lobb, whom she described as her mentor, White said, “We’ll be hard pressed to upgrade all the roads we own.”

But White did champion the “Old Town” concept circulated on the council some nine years ago.

Candidates were divided on the issue of the town manager and the current town manager’s long commute, but most said they wished he lived closer to the town even if they wouldn’t require it.

Wood noted the price of homes in the town, saying it would make it hard for a new town manager to buy a home nearby in the future. Brown said he feared a restriction would eliminate qualified people. Martinez said he blamed the town council for not knowing better where applicants for the position lived and providing that information to the public. “This is government money. This is my money,” he said.

Mitchell, however, noted the salary study done by Gregory that showed 10 of 17 nearby municipalities provided a vehicle to their town manager. “Is this town manager worth the salary and car we give him? He’s very competent,” Mitchell added. “He’s saved us a lot of money.”

White said she favored a “reasonable” radius for future hires, citing her own experience as a business owner when employees have a long commute. “It’s too much wear and tear on the employees,” she said, also criticizing the council for allowing Gregory to do a salary study on his own job.

Esposito was also critical, noting a raise given to Gregory for additional duties that he subsequently hired a finance director to perform. He also pointed to the advertised salary for the position, which had not included the 7 percent raise and perquisites given three months later.

“We need to ask the citizens if they want to pay that price,” he said. “Eventually, you’re paying it, one way or another.”

The Coastal Point will publish the Ocean View candidates’ answers to its traditional question-and-answer series, with these topics and more, in our April 11 pre-election issue and online at www.coastalpoint.com that week.