BERLIN — The town of Berlin introduced its proposed operating budget for FY15 this week, and grant funding for the Berlin Fire Company (BFC) is not included, but the Mayor and Council signaled an intention to amend the budget to add funding in the near future.
The budget, totaling $15.1 million, represents a 15-percent increase over last year and includes an employee raise and several increased department funds but no property tax increase.
Mayor Gee Williams introduced the proposed budget, which is still subject to a public hearing June 9, on Monday night. It accounts for a spending increase of $1,933,721, or 15 percent, from last year’s operating budget of $13,251,902. The electric, water, wastewater and stormwater funds all saw increases. Employee salaries are also scheduled for a 3-percent increase as well as a one-time payment of $500 each at Thanksgiving.
“The proposed FY15 budget ensures that the town remains financially sound and continues to provide dependable services while continuing to make incremental improvements to our town’s infrastructure and municipal properties,” the mayor said.
Conspicuously absent from the FY15 proposed budget is any funding for the BFC. The town and fire company experienced a fracture two years ago over employee and management issues. At that time, the council severed all funding, over $500,000 annually, that the town provided the BFC. Last year the council voted to restore $200,000 of that.
Williams confirmed this week that the council is planning on funding the fire company this year to some degree but are waiting on an audit of the BFC’s finances before settling on a number.
“It remains the desire and intent of the Mayor and Council to provide funding for the Berlin Fire Company in the current budget,” said the mayor. “But as has been stated publically for several months, the town cannot make a fully informed decision on the level of funding until we receive an audit of the fire company’s prior year income and expenditures … an audit which has been paid for by the Town of Berlin.”
That audit is expected any day, Williams added. He blamed the delay on a simple “bureaucratic snafu” and said that the relationship between the town and fire company has improved over the last two years though the council still remains a bit divided, by his estimation.
“I think that the relationship has improved with some members, I think that some members aren’t quite sure how they feel about things yet,” Williams said. “They’re opened-minded, and I think that there are a few members who still feel that the money should have never been withdrawn in the first place. And I think that covers the full range of it.”
While the council is almost certain to restore a chunk of the roughly $500,000 cut, Williams said that restoring all of the original funding was “just not financially feasible,” but that it’s probable the council will increase support above the $200,000 last year.
Next year, the council hopes to work with the BFC early on to have funding allocated in the FY16 budget without needing to amend it as will have to be done this year. The earlier the numbers are plugged in the easier it is to find money for grant funding, noted Williams. The council expects the results of the audit within a week and will then review the information with the town’s auditor before offering an amendment to include funding.
The property tax rate for Berlin is proposed to stay at $.68 per $100 of valuation of real estate, which is the same level as the last three years. The FY15 budget increases will require that the council transfer $280,000 from General Fund reserves to balance revenues with expenditures. However, the town’s reserve balance is at a healthy $4.9 million and will be dipping to $4.7 million after the transfer. The FY15 proposed budget also contains a contingency fund of $207,476.
“The proposed budget is one of the toughest in terms of finding a balance between our current financial resources and the real promise of putting the town of Berlin in the best possible position to benefit in the immediate years ahead as our local economy begins to improve,” Williams said.
While a 15-percent increase over last year’s budget is significant, Williams pointed out that the proposed FY15 operating budget is still about 3 percent shy of the town’s FY10 budget, which spent $15.5 million. The operating budget saw a big dip in the years immediately following the national recession but has since risen to be almost back to the former baseline. It is evidence that Berlin is on a strong track, maintaining property values and attracting new business, according to Williams.
“The proposed budget also continues to promote economic development through the expansion of the town’s property base,” he said. “The town continues to encourage private investment in commercial properties and housing as well as the active promotion of visitors to our community year round.”