Parking meter issue expires in Ocean City

June 09, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

OCEAN CITY -- Out here, parking meters are hot and memories are long.

Monday night, the issue of 700 new parking meters drew about 150 people to the City Council meeting. -- a substantial showing in a town of 4,559 registered voters. It generated newspaper ads, angry speeches, rebuttals, booing and even an emotional speech from the mayor.

But for now, the meters will stay stored in boxes at City Hall -- where they've been for seven years.

"I have witnessed in the last two or three weeks this council torn apart, and I have watched the public torn apart," said Mayor Roland E. "Fish" Powell during the Monday meeting.

"We look over about $40 million a year, and we're talking less than $100,000 here [from the parking meters]. In my opinion, it's not worth tearing this council apart, or this town apart. It's not good for the town of Ocean City."

At issue are 1,000 parking meters that have been stored in the City Hall basement since 1987 -- "They've never been used, not even on Sundays," said City Manager Dennis Dare, who would like to have the meters installed to provide additional revenue for the city budget.

"We only have 2,100 . . . parking meters, and we have a thousand in inventory."

But the parking meter plan, which would have installed about 700 meters on the north side of town, drew heavy opposition from hotel and motel owners, several of whom attended Monday's meeting.

One dedicated opponent of the meters is Hale Harrison, whose Harrison Group is the largest owner of hotels in Ocean City.

"The business community feels that additional parking meters are unnecessary and send the wrong public relations message to our vacationers," Mr. Harrison explained after the Monday night meeting where he was scolded harshly by two council members.

"We think to put these meters up in the hotel-motel-condo area is to send a message to the vacationer that the municipal government is nickeling, diming and quartering them to death at every twist and turn. I would rather have my real estate taxes raised than infuriate the guests that stay at our hotels and motels."

At Monday night's meeting, the parking meters never even reached the ordinance stage. After a heated discussion among council members, including angry speeches from Councilmen George Feehley and Lee Duggan, the meter ordinance died because no one would introduce it.

The meeting capped several weeks of increasing public and private anger over the issue. Mr. Harrison ran advertisements in local papers opposing the meters and encouraging public comment. The ads, which showed a beach bag and hat, and a lot of coins, angered some council members, and prompted Mr. Duggan to tell Mr. Harrison, "There's a double standard in this town, and it's called 'Harrison's Law.' "

Mr. Harrison acknowledged the ads were his during the council meeting, and said in calm tones, "I'm not going to explain it. . . . I'm just going to take responsibility for it." After the meeting, he said that he stood by the ads.

The parking meters have some acrimonious history that predates recent ire. Mr. Dare said his predecessor purchased them after the council voted to install new meters in 1987, but then, as now, the council shifted its vote in the face of public opposition.

The city manager was unable to return all the meters, so 1,000 of them are still in original boxes and paper in the basement, Mr. Dare said.

Mr. Dare estimated that the town's 2,100-plus parking meters bring in about $1 million a year, with the busiest meters -- those downtown -- generating as much as $500 each season.

The parking meter issue dates to at least 1980, when he sat on the council, Mr. Harrison said. "It got nowhere at that time, but each year it would pick up a little more steam."

Although there was talk of selling the unused meters to provide revenue, Mr. Dare indicated that no action on the meters is likely until after the fall's election, when the council will reconsider the issue.

"They can determine what they want to do then," he said Tuesday. For now, the meters will stay in their containers in City Hall, he said.

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