BERLIN — A last-minute pushback from town residents, businesses and non-profits worried about annual fees did not halt the Berlin Mayor and Council’s decision to establish a new stormwater utility department.
During last night’s public hearing, people in the town were not unanimously against the idea, however, with some encouraging and praising the council for finally making a move to combat stormwater and flooding, a decades-old issue in Berlin.
With a few exceptions, battle lines were starkly drawn between businesses and residential or environmental interests in the debate. Many area business owners, including accounting firm owner Jay Bergey, criticized the stormwater utility fee structure, which would have non-residential businesses paying based on their property’s impervious surface at a rate of $25 per ERU. While the $25 rate represents a significant reduction from the $45 suggested by a University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center (EFC) stormwater feasibility study, Bergey and many others still felt that the annual cost to the nearly 300 non-residential property owners, including non-profits, in Berlin will be unreasonable.
“It’s not right to put it on the businesses and especially the hospital and the school system,” he said, adding that he had a petition of more than 60 businesses that agreed with him.
The average annual cost to a non-residential property owner in Berlin will be over $600, according to Town Administrator Tony Carson. However, that number is largely driven by the largest properties in town, including Atlantic General Hospital (AGH), Worcester Preparatory School and four Worcester County public schools. Under the formula approved last night in a 5-0 vote, the estimated annual cost for AGH will be $5,025, Worcester Prep will be $3,750 and the combined cost of county schools in Berlin is $14,825.
“It’s going to be a mess when you do that,” Bergey said. “The hospital is not going to take this lying down, I can tell you. The school system is not going to take this lying down.”
Instead of charging a variable fee for non-residential properties, Bergey suggested that the council extend the flat $50 residential fee to every property in town. However, Councilman Troy Purnell immediately pointed out that such a system wouldn’t generate nearly enough funding for the major infrastructure overhaul projects the town believes are necessary to combat stormwater.
To reach the minimum funding called for in the EFC study, all of the nearly 1,700 properties in Berlin would have to be charged $160 annually, which would produce $270,400. Coupled with a $300,000 contribution from the town’s general fund, the flat $160 rate would keep the utility on track.
“I think that makes a lot more sense,” said Bergey after hearing the numbers.
But the council appeared hesitant to more than triple the proposed fee for residential customers, many of whom spoke at the meeting in favor of the current stormwater utility rates.
Other residents, like Carol Jacobs, asked that the council consider putting a cap on the total fee that a non-residential property could be asked to pay, an idea that resident Jim Hoppa agreed with, at least in the case of non-profits like AGH and county schools.
Cam Bunting, a realtor and non-resident property owner in Berlin, suggested that the council consider lowering rates and replacing the revenue lost with money the town receives from the Casino at Ocean Downs.
“The town has received approximately $400,000 of casino money and I suggest we use that,” she said.
Currently, the council plans on using that money for projects like a new community center and police station.
Andrea Gilbertson, vice president of Jamestown Place, spoke on behalf of her development in favor of Berlin establishing a stormwater utility with a flat residential fee and a variable non-residential fee. Flooding problems in town can be catastrophic after even moderate storms, Gilbertson reminded the council, and a solution needs to be put in place immediately.
“We suffered over $48,000 worth of damage last summer,” she said, adding that the residents in her area want to be a part of the town but that it’s “not fair to be part of the community and be afraid.”
Dave Wilson, executive director for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, told the council that he wasn’t “going to debate the rate structure” for the stormwater utility but that he does believe a dedicated utility is absolutely necessary to combat flooding in town and address runoff into local tributaries.
“All of the town of Berlin, with the exception of the extreme western portions, drains into the coastal bays, a very shallow system that basically upholds Ocean City’s economy,” Wilson said.
Tom Simon, owner of Superfun Eco-Tours, agreed that a utility is necessary to serve as a bulwark against pollution, a point also mentioned by Councilwoman Lisa Hall. Simon added that he supports the ordinance moving forward even though he does business in Berlin. He does not own non-residential property in town, however, and is not subject to the fee.
“There are some businesses that do support you guys doing this,” he said.
But Simon was in the minority, with most non-residential property owners in attendance speaking against the utility, at least with its current fees. Like Bergey, several felt that the rates were unrealistic.
Attorney Hugh Cropper, speaking on behalf of AGH, also noted that there were no incentives for properties that took care of their own stormwater problems and thus contributed little or no flooding to the town at large.
“Now, AGH wants to be a good corporate citizen in the town of Berlin but they have no impact on the stormwater system really to speak of in Berlin,” he argued. “All of their stormwater has been designed under regulations and they have a functioning stormwater system that actually stores all the water on site and treats all of the water on site.”
Other business interests, like Taylor Bank President and CEO Ray Thompson, were unhappy with the original EFC stormwater study, which he claimed misrepresented his business and others in terms of how much they participated while the study was being conducted
“We were not active in this process,” he told the council.
Taylor Bank representative Stacy Schaffer, who was invited to participate in the study, agreed with Thompson and said that while she did attend one stormwater meeting that she in no way lent the bank’s consent or that of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce, of which she is a member, to the EFC process.
“I wasn’t representing either entity,” she said. “I was asked as what I thought was a citizen and a lover of Berlin to help with this project.”
While the opposition to moving forward with the utility was passionate, Councilman Dean Burrell questioned why they had waited until the utility was on the verge of passing before raising an outcry.
“Where were these people and these businesses and these opinions when we were at the stage where we were soliciting input from the public?,” he asked.
The council echoed Burrell while Mayor Gee Williams pointed out that, even with a $50 flat residential and a $25 per ERU non-residential stormwater utility fee, businesses and residents in Berlin will only be paying the town about what they did last year. In the last 12 months, property taxes have been lowered from 73 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to 68 cents and non-residential electric rates were reduced by between 7 and 11 percent.
Even with the new utility fee, both groups will be doing a little better than breaking even compared to what they were paying last year, explained Town Finance Director Lynn Musgrave.
“It’s basically a wash for them,” she said of non-residential property owners.
Residential property owners, noted Musgrave, will still see about a $50 annual reduction on what they were paying a year ago to the town.
After all of the testimony, the council was unanimous in its decision to establish a stormwater utility with the current rates. However, Bergey made a final plea for them to re-consider the rates and the immediate need for a utility as it was outlined in the EFC study. He argued that Berlin lacks the population to make a utility such a priority.
“The average of a municipality and a community that does a stormwater utility is 79,000 people,” said Bergey.
Lisa Hall chimed into the discussion, telling Bergey that she believes all cities and towns, no matter their size, will one day have a stormwater utility. Berlin, she said, is just getting in on the ground-level.
“I’d like to say something about the 79,000. That’s right now, but Mr. Bergey, this is the way of the future,” she said. “We’re getting ahead of this train. In the future, every town and municipality in this country is going to have to have a stormwater utility. This is the way it’s going.”
Bergey, however, felt that Hall was off-base with her statement.
“You put stuff like that on the record and we will overturn you in court because that has got to be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard,” he said. “That is absolutely absurd. You’re making a statement that you know that’s going to be a fact?”
After Hall reiterated that she thinks stormwater utilities will eventually become standard in towns across the country, Bergey restated his intent to see the matter before a judge.
“We’ll see you in court because that is nuttier than a fruitcake,” he said.