By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(Feb. 7, 2019) Ocean Pines Director Esther Diller said she’s furious with General Manager John Bailey’s handling of the budget process thus far, and will not support the proposed $127 assessment increase that she said caught the directors off guard last week.
In an interview last Saturday, Diller said she wanted to address certain misconceptions about the budget process that have been aired publicly and through various social media.
“Obviously, people feel the need to share everything,” she said, adding that apparently includes certain segments “attacking the board.”
“That just infuriated me … because it’s so grossly wrong,” she said.
Diller became involved in local politics last year when she hosted an informal town meeting focused on outsourcing some Ocean Pines Association work.
After that meeting, she said, “I did a lot of soul searching and I said to my husband, ‘Well, I guess if I’m going to bitch, I need to stand up and try to do something.’”
She was named chairwoman of the Stop Taxing Ocean Pines (S.T.O.P.) political advocacy group originated by former director Marty Clarke and launched a successful Ocean Pines Board of Directors campaign.
Diller said she’d hoped to see more people in Ocean Pines working together, but that has so far not been the case.
“This community, unfortunately, is becoming so divided,” she said. “It’s the members against the board, the board against the members, the GM against the members, the GM against the board.”
In her opinion, public rancor over the fiscal 2020 budgeting process can be traced to the Jan. 4 publishing of General Manager John Bailey’s “proposed” budget.
The Ocean Pines Budget process calls for a series of drafts to be released prior to final adoption, first starting with the general manager’s “proposed” budget and later including the board of directors’ “recommended” budget.
“J.B. went out on Jan. 4 with a press release … stating no proposed [assessment] increase,” Diller said. “That was a terrible, terrible decision he made.
“Number one, his budgets weren’t done,” she continued. “He sent it out without having all his numbers in front of him. He sent it out without having discussions with B&F [the budget and finance committee] and the board. It was foolish to put something like that out there without having all your facts.”
She also said the budget was developed without much input from individual department heads, which is unusual.
All of that led to a Jan. 7 public meeting with the budget and finance committee, when Diller said committee Chairman John Viola and herself both voiced their frustrations.
During the meeting, she specifically called out Bailey on his bulkhead calculations, calling them wildly inconsistent.
“I said, you have a $400,000 swing here – he doesn’t know his numbers,” she said. “I don’t know how else to put this.”
The process continued, and committee and board members made a number of suggestions, but Diller said she was shocked when she learned the results of those discussions.
“I was absolutely blown away when I got the budget last week showing $127 increase – there is not a chance in hell I am voting for that,” she said. “Absolutely not.”
Diller went on to say she does not have confidence in some of Bailey’s numbers, nor does she appreciate his approach.
“J.B. has basically put it out there that the increase was from the board and B&F,” she said, adding that a number of important items, including necessary parts of the fire and EMS budget, had apparently been left out.
“Just because B&F is saying, ‘Hey, you’re missing this, you need to add this in,’ is not B&F telling you, ‘Go raise assessments,’” Diller said.
“When you’re a … GM, you have to have the understanding and knowledge to find ways and cut and cut, and not put everybody in front of the bus. And that is what I’m tired of,” she added.
Diller said the perception by some is that the board is “rolling the bus over the GM.”
“It is the exact opposite,” she said. “By releasing that premature press release [on Jan. 4] without having numbers that actually made sense, by having a budget that was missing things, by not working closer with your department heads who know what the hell is going on with your budget, you threw this board and the B&F committee under the bus with this community, and I’m not going to sit back and allow that.
“We are not happy with this proposed assessment of $127,” Diller continued. “We were given no warning that it was coming. We found out the same time that [the public] did.”
During several weeks of public budget meetings last month, budget and finance committee and board members several times asked to see planning and spending justification in areas such as roads, drainage and bulkheads.
“I can tell you, that’s pretty much the last I heard from [Bailey],” Diller said.
“We’re not voting for this $127,” she continued. “What’s upsetting me is … we’re all volunteers. I did this because I wanted to make a difference, because I didn’t want to just be a homeowner who was going to scream and not put time, sweat and energy into fixing the problem.”
Diller was elected last August to fill one of two vacancies created by board members who resigned before their term was up. She’s eligible to run again this year, but said the current political climate is disheartening.
“People are asking me, you know, run again,” she said. “Why would anybody want to run for this board?
Diller added, “It’s terrible and it’s worse when you can’t get the GM on the same page.”
She said in her real world job as a business owner, she trusts her managers “to give me real projections, real numbers, not pipe dreams, so I can make the right economical decisions for my company.”
“I’m trying to do the same thing with the board. I’m trying to do the same thing with the community,” Diller said.
She again pointed to bulkheads, where Diller does not believe Bailey’s spending projections will come true with so much work left during the remainder of the fiscal year.
Moreover a pay study used to justify spending, she added, “isn’t worth the paper it was written on.”
“I know that we’re different than other HOAs. I get that, which is why some of the comparisons are done with states and counties. But, we have a lot of positions that other HOAs do have. Why would you not compare that?” Diller asked. “Why would you not at least include them?
“I want the employees to be happy. I don’t want people to be underpaid. But, I also have an obligation to this community, to the homeowners, to myself as a homeowner – I’m not going to do an 18-percent increase in salary. That’s not happening,” she added.
“When you get these types of numbers and then you have to stand before an angry community … it’s not fair, because you have a GM who, in my feeling, threw us under the bus [and] threw B&F in front of the bus,” Diller said.
She said,it’s the general manager’s responsibility to “stand up and take responsibility” for the budget.
“I’ve just reached my limit,” Diller said. “You can imagine I’m getting attacked all over the place on my email. I [even] had someone show up at my house.
“I try to be very open and candid with people,” she continued. “We are here to tell the GM we expect to see A, B and C. It is not our job to tell the GM to do it. That is why we have a GM. It is our job to give recommendations and oversight. That is it.
“The fact that the GM wants to constantly blame B&F and the board is insulting, and I’ve had enough,” Diller said.
On the budget, Diller said she’s asked for another public work session to trim the proposed $127 assessment increase.
“My goal is not to increase assessments,” she said. “That’s the platform I ran on, but I am one of seven.”
To do that, she said, everyone has to work together.
“We need to come together on this, we really, truly do … the GM, the board, the committees and the community,” Diller said. “And the staff needs to be involved.
“The GM should have never went out with that press release,” she continued.
Bailey, reached for comment on Monday, said only, “Board members have the right to speak their minds.” He declined to comment further.