Legislators balking over sand money

January 26, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun Timothy B. Wheeler of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

EASTON -- State Sen. Laurence Levitan, opening his mail from an Ocean City resident, read this message: "No new taxes."

He didn't think twice before jotting down his pointed reply: "No new sand."

In its own small way, Mr. Levitan's zip-for-zap reaction underscores how many budget-badgered lawmakers feel about the state's role in funding future Ocean City beach projects.

When state Department of Natural Resources officials go before a joint legislative budget committee Tuesday in Annapolis to discuss the effects of the Jan. 4 storm that pounded the shore, they will face strong opposition to spending more tax dollars on beach protection measures.

DNR officials are expected to argue that while the northeaster's hurricane-force winds and waves destroyed or damaged much of the Ocean City beach project, oceanfront buildings were protected and about $93 million in property damage was averted. That shows the $44 million beach project did its job, the officials say.

Restoring the beach to pre-storm conditions will cost $12.2 million. While state officials hope the federal government will pay most, if not all, of the tab, it's possible they may have to ask legislators for state money.

Indeed, Charles M. Hess, a deputy district engineer in Baltimore for the Army Corps of Enginers, said last week that Maryland could pay as much as 47 percent of the repair costs. The decision about the state's bill depends on how a federal emergency law and the beach project contract are interpreted, he said.

Both state and federal officials last week praised the project for literally standing in the way of the storm that knocked over house trailers in Worcester County south of Ocean City and tore apart a boardwalk and damaged homes and shops along Delaware's beach resorts.

But the actual performance of the Ocean City beach project -- an 8.6-mile stretch of sand dunes, grass, snow fencing and a shorter span of concrete seawall -- could get lost in a political sandstorm of debate over who's on what side of the issue to resolve Maryland's budget crisis.

Mr. Levitan, the chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and a leading supporter of increasing taxes to ease Maryland's budget problems, said he's received numerous letters from residents in and around Ocean City opposed to increasing taxes.

The mail didn't exactly create a soft spot in Mr.Levitan's heart for the state's most popular beach resort.

"I'm not going to dip into my pocket to pay for sand when they won't vote to raise revenues to bail out the rest of the state," said the Montgomery County Democrat. "As far as I'm concerned, we don't have any more obligation."

Similar sentiments were expressed by Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, vice chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

"We won't pay for any of it. No sand," she said. "I've got constituents sleeping on the streets," she added, noting the city's lack of funds to care for its homeless. "How can I justify spending money on sand?"

Sen. Hoffman said she does not regret previous state aid to the resort town, but suggested that Ocean City residents should bear more of the financial burden for the beach since the state is in dire financial straits.

"Let the people who benefit directly pay for it," she said.

jTC While Ocean City and Worcester County each paid $5.6 million )) for the beach project, the state's portion amounted to about $13 million. The federal share was almost $20 million.

Lawmakers point out that sympathy for Ocean City may be scarce during the legislative session. The Eastern Shore delegation, which might be counted on to support beach projects, is known for its conservative outlook on new taxes. And the Shore's most powerful representative in Annapolis, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., is viewed as the anti-tax spokesman among legislative leadership.

The sand-for-tax argument leaves Ocean City officials frustrated.

The resort town, whose winter population of 5,000 soars to 250,000 people during some summer weekends, is a state resource that deserves continued state protection, according to Ocean City Manager Dennis W. Dare.

With $3.5 billion worth of real estate, the 20,000 jobs it creates each summer and the stream of tourists who throng to the resort, Ocean City more than gives the state a return on its financial investments to the beach project, said Mr. Dare.

Ocean City generates between $85 million and $100 million annually in tax revenues and is responsible for 40 percent of Maryland's tourism revenues, according to state data.

PD Mr. Dare said the opposition to spending tax dollars on beach re

plenishment comes mostly from people who feel that Ocean City, built on a fragile barrier island, should never have been allowed to grow so large.

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