By Dan Moffett

With rising personnel costs, multiple drainage issues and a massive septic-to-sewer conversion project looming, Ocean Ridge commissioners knew this would be a difficult budget cycle.

Then the new coronavirus struck, bringing with it potential revenue losses. Local gas and fuel tax, local sales tax, building permit proceeds, state revenue sharing, even earned interest from town savings — all figure to decline because of the impact of the virus. The impact on property values could also be a concern.

“This is going to be a very tight budget year,” said newly minted Mayor Kristine de Haseth, telling commissioners during a May 4 workshop to “challenge all department heads and staff members to find ways to reduce expenses and make do with current resources.”

Martin Wiescholek, who joined the commission in March, pointed to the largest number on the town’s budget as the place commissioners might want to start pruning dollars.

“The most intelligent way to look at budget cuts is by looking at the biggest expense in the budget, our Police Department,” Wiescholek said. “I would like to get clear information as to how and why we need to have 20-plus police officers on staff.”

About 52%, or $4.2 million, of Ocean Ridge’s total annual expenses go for police and fire-rescue services. A growing number of local municipalities that once ran their own police departments are turning to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services as a way to hold down rising costs.

Last year, South Palm Beach closed its department and signed a 10-year merger deal with the Sheriff’s Office. The town is hoping to realize about $1 million in savings over the first five years of the contract.

It didn’t take long for the merger prospect to come up at the Ocean Ridge workshop, but by consensus the commission decided not to explore it during this budget period.

Officer Jimmy Pilon, the Ocean Ridge union representative, told commissioners during the discussion period that nearly 100% of the town’s police force favors joining the sheriff.

“Pretty much, we’d rather merge than have layoffs,” Pilon said. “Our town is very small. We can’t compete with the county’s benefits package.”

Matt DeJoy, a spokesman for the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association, told commissioners that a merger would almost certainly cut the town’s expenses.

“The numbers almost always come out to be a cost savings,” DeJoy said.

Ocean Ridge took a serious look at a merger with the sheriff in 2012, but residents objected to losing their own department and the idea fizzled. This time it appears to be on hold.

Said Town Manager Tracey Stevens: “I don’t expect further discussion regarding the sheriff’s department taking over the town’s law enforcement duties.”

In other business:

• By a 3-2 margin, commissioners installed de Haseth as mayor during their meeting on April 6, with Wiescholek and Susan Hurlburt voting their support. Phil Besler and Steve Coz voted for Coz, who was installed as vice mayor after serving the last 18 months as mayor.

Wiescholek said he cast the deciding vote for de Haseth because he believes in a “rotating commission” and thinks that the town will need to work more with other communities and agencies going forward.

“Given the condition we are in and the situation we are in, Kristine would be the better choice simply because she has connections with the League of Cities and with her connections can bring more to the town over the next year,” he said.

• Building and public works official Wayne Cameron resigned in April to take a similar job with the town of North Palm Beach. Stevens said she is interviewing replacement candidates and hopes to have the job filled by June.

She said the town intends to hire someone only as a building official — not also a public works director — to reduce the position’s workload.

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