(March 12, 2021) Ocean City Council members on Tuesday unanimously approved spending $1.5 million on capital improvements in 2022, while also agreeing to get the ball rolling on the design phase of burying utility lines under Baltimore Avenue between N. Division Street and 15th Street – a project that could eventually cost more than $20 million to complete.
City Engineer Terry McGean met with council members during a work session on Tuesday to review staff rankings of capital improvement projects as a follow-up to a previous discussion that took place between the parties.
Previously, council members had ranked the projects on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being critical and 5 representing projects for future consideration. But after the council reviewed their findings, Councilman Tony DeLuca asked McGean to have his staff provide their opinions on the projects.
While many of the projects – like street paving, Boardwalk re-decking, storm drain cleaning, and expanding the City Watch program – were ranked critical by both the staff and council members, differences of opinion did arise concerning other projects and how they were ranked.
Two projects in particular – replacing the uninterrupted power supply system in the public safety building and creating a mid-town fire station – were ranked more than two steps apart, meaning, the staff ranked replacing the public safety building as critical, while council members ranked it as “important,” which on the scale of 1-5 was a 3.
Several other projects were only one step apart, but clearly showed a difference of opinions.
Staff members ranked things like replacing failing storm drain outfalls, the Chicago Avenue bulkhead and fire headquarters elevator as “critical,” while council members ranked those projects as “very important.”
And vice versa, council members ranked canal dredging and the burial of utilities along Baltimore Avenue as “critical,” while staff members ranked those projects as “very important.”
“We agree it’s important,” McGean said, referring to the Baltimore Avenue project. He went on to say the road will be repaved whether the city buries the lines or not, but it’s a $20 million project, and there is a concern at the staff level of what that does to debt availability for additional projects.
“We believe it is very important, but did not consider it to be failing,” McGean said
The canal dredging was also important to the staff, though it was not critical.
“Personally, I would not consider canals as failing infrastructure,” McGean said.
What is failing currently, he said, are the storm drain outfalls that allow flood waters to discharge into the bays, and the Chicago Avenue bulkhead. In fact, McGean said a giant sinkhole is forming under the sidewalk by the bulkhead, and at some point, the city will have problems with the street collapsing. Up to this point, the structure has been bandaged, more or less, although how long that will last remains to be seen.
There were seven projects totaling $1.5 million that the staff thought were most critical for 2022: $500,000 on street paving, $450,000 to replace the Chicago Avenue bulkhead; $110,000 to replace the public safety building power supply; $170,000 to repair the fire headquarters elevator; $100,000 to clean the storm drains; $80,000 to replace the deck at Sunset Park; and $150,000 to replace the west gym floor at Northside Park.
DeLuca raised concerns earlier about adding canal dredging, calling the project one of the “three sacred cows.”
“We’ve never wavered on it,” he said. “It improves property values.”
DeLuca said he wanted to see canal dredging included as one of the critical projects but agreed with McGean that it can be revisited in the fall, since dredging only takes place during the off season.
Councilman John Gehrig repeatedly pushed to have a new sports complex included as a critical project, saying the indoor facility would attract visitors to the area and bring a steady stream of revenue.
The project was not ranked by the staff, McGean said, because there were many unknowns – including whether the project would be a partnership with the county government.
“We spend all this money for people who are already having a good trip to see a couple of bottle rockets go up,” Gehrig said. “We’re losing our families because we aren’t taking it seriously.”
Councilman Mark Paddack agreed with Gehrig that a sports complex is needed in the area but noted if the county and town cannot have a good partnership, the town will need to move forward with the project on its own at some point.
No motion was made on the sports complex, though Paddack said it will need to come up during a work session in the future.
As for the Baltimore Avenue project, council members agreed with McGean that the ball needed to start rolling on the project.
Councilman Peter Buas said paving the street is “Priority number one.”
Director of Public Works Hal Adkins advised the board that it needed to commit to giving Delmarva Power the money it needs – estimated to be $200,000 – to begin the design phase of the project, and council members agreed. Although the board did not vote on the matter on Tuesday, it is expected to at a future meeting.
On a cautionary note, McGean told the board that the project could cost more or less than the $20 million he previously estimated.
“If they come in at $20 million, we could be looking at something in the $25 million range,” he said. “$15 million is a million a block, which is not outrageous for undergrounding utilities.”
The board agreed to adopt the staff rankings as presented, with the exception of Baltimore Avenue, which was moved from “very important” to “critical.”
The board also agreed to accelerate the timeline of a project to widen the sidewalks and add streetscaping to Somerset Street, between Baltimore Avenue and Philadelphia Avenue, while also making it a one-way street.
The Somerset Street project did not rank very high by either party, and it was slated to take place from 2023 to 2024.
The Ocean City Development Corporation – or OCDC – has offered to pay for a portion of the project, with the city paying $125,000. But OCDC wants to start planning the project and asked that it be accelerated forward for 2022 and 2023.
On Wednesday, Glenn Irwin, the executive director of OCDC said OCDC offered to pay half of the project, or $125,000 of the $250,000, which consists of enhancing the pedestrian nature of the new street segment.
“The long-term intent is to eventually have further street improvements extend on Somerset Street to the Bay,” Irwin said. “These physical improvements will include wider sidewalks, landscaping and other items. Somerset Street would be changed to a one-way street.
“The removal of one of the vehicular lanes will allow for increased flexibility to provide improved pedestrian amenities,” he added.
Gehrig asked why the Somerset project should take precedence over adding lights to soccer fields at Northside Park or, again, the sports complex.
“To me, the lights out there are more important than having a one-way street at Somerset,” he said.
Still, all seven board members agreed to accelerate the Somerset project, spend $1.5 million – potentially $1.9 million – on capital improvements around the city, and bump the Baltimore Avenue project to critical status.