Berlin Council Foes Weigh In On Current Events

BERLIN – The Dispatch posed seven questions on relevant current events this week to the three candidates for the Berlin Council’s District 2 seat.

Candidates Thom Gulyas, Lisa Hall and Jason Walter will compete for the spot, currently held by retiring Councilwoman Ellen Lang, in the Oct. 14 election. Here’s how they responded to the questions in writing.

Q. The Berlin electric rates and electric system have come under a great deal of scrutiny lately. What is your take? What would you do to resolve the issue?

Gulyas: The consultants we hired, Booth & Associates, certainly have a better insight – that’s why we hired them – I believe we need to listen to what they have to say and create a comprehensive long-range plan to rectify the current problems. I am also interested in what the BUC and town staff has to say for input as well. It is only then that the finance director can meet with the Mayor and Council to help formulate a plan that will serve all residents well.

Hall: Due to the burden of the increasingly high energy rates in our town, this has required all of us (mayor, council and citizens) to take a closer look at the operations of our town-owned electric utility. Hopefully, on Oct. 7, when the professional engineering group hired by the Mayor & Council, Booth & Associates, gives its assessment, we will be able to move forward and develop a plan of action to deal with the electric issue. Furthermore, the Maryland Energy Administration is offering their assistance and we should continue to work closely with this agency. Strong attendance at council meetings, Berlin Utility Commission meetings, Planning & Zoning, etc. is critical if we want to keep the Mayor and Council accountable for their decisions.

Walter: With more than 15 years experience in the energy business, I have an understanding of utility operations, contract development and hedging and a strong knowledge of the complexities of the energy market. These tools are necessary in collaring today’s volatile energy markets. I will work diligently and cooperatively with other town leaders, Booth and Associates and the staff to implement an effective plan to bring our rates back within reason. We must keep our eyes open to new energy opportunities, especially where state and/or federal grant monies may become available to fund greener and less expensive alternative energy projects.

Q. How should Berlin handle growth related to the expansion of the wastewater system? How should Berlin pay for the expansion and improvements? Should Berlin continue to pursue more capacity than granted?

Gulyas: Basically the same as the previous answer. We know what we need in terms of size and we should not build beyond that point at this moment. Again, we’ll need to work with URS (consultants), the BUC, town staff and of course the finance director to determine the best course of action. The theory of “build it and they will come” is not a management style that should be employed with this particular situation. That simply will not work.

Hall: Some growth is inevitable and needed, i.e. commercial district, in-fill lots to meet current demands, although under the current economic conditions, I believe there will be less than expected. With the anticipated release of approximately 280 EDU’s under our current system, an extensive expansion is not needed at this time. However, the necessary upgrades must be done. Our lagoon is in need of repair and increased spray land is necessary to comply with Worcester County requests. Furthermore, we should be getting a report from URS any time now showing what we really need – and, most importantly what we can really afford. With no expansion, the burden of payment will be on the current ratepayers.

Walter: Berlin should anticipate a much slower growth rate than it has experienced in the recent past. Water and wastewater system improvements are inevitable but should be pursued in a manner that preserves system integrity while protecting the wallets of its customers. Where possible, grants should be pursued. However, new growth must pay its own way to both the wellhead and the treatment plant.

Q. People often say Berlin needs to be run more like a business. What do you think of this approach? How would you do this?

Gulyas: Although government cannot be run exactly like a business, business principles can be applied at most times. Employees and volunteers need to be trained and cross-trained. Commission members need to be better prepared and more knowledgeable. We need customer service orientation for all employees – from department heads down. When financial decisions need to be made, the extras need to be cut – the fluff has to be cut – all department budgets need to be reviewed and scrutinized. Quarterly financial reviews between the Mayor and Town Council, along with the finance director, need immediate implementation so we can keep expenditures under control.

Hall: Absolutely. The Town of Berlin is a business and needs to be run like a business with realistic goals and actions. There should be strong oversight of expenditures and this should be initiated immediately. Fortunately, the citizens can help in this – by regularly attending meetings and communicating with their elected council representatives about their concerns. We are all in this together.

Walter: The concept that government should mimic private enterprise is not new in America; I believe it dates back to Woodrow Wilson. Berlin ‘management’ should seek to emphasize responsibility and efficiency in budget with thoughtful consideration in the implementation of policy. Our citizens deserve respect and our role as elected leaders is to represent their needs as best as we can.

Q. What would you like to see in the new Berlin Comprehensive Plan? What are the biggest issues for the future of Berlin?

Gulyas: It needs to address growth and make sure “that growth” fits the community per our plan. I would like to see growth that will complement our town; not distract from it. Infill and redevelopment should be encouraged that will help enhance the town. We also need to take a look at how we are going to handle the repairs and upgrades of all public infrastructures that may have been neglected for so long. The biggest issues for the future of Berlin are water and wastewater, electricity, taxes and smart growth.

Hall: Again, we are awaiting a final draft of the new Berlin Comprehensive plan. Once presented, the citizens will have another opportunity to state their needs. The two recent public meetings on this issue were very beneficial resulting in a long wish list including stronger police accountability in certain areas and improvements to our infrastructure. However, this will again depend on what we can actually afford. Certainly in this economy, we cannot afford higher taxes.

Walter: The concept of comprehensive or land use planning dates to the colonization of this country. As a tool designed to address change, Berlin’s comprehensive plan is a living document that will require regular revision as our community evolves. To be effective, the comprehensive plan must identify and preserve historically significant structures while addressing growth and infrastructure needs. The comprehensive plan must provide for the current and future needs of the entire community while encouraging balance between environment, housing, education, recreation and industry.

Q. What should be done to attract more businesses to Berlin? Is Berlin unfriendly to business?

Gulyas: The Mayor and Council and staff, Chamber of Commerce, CDMA, Art League and Main Street Group need to find and encourage business owners to come here. By use of incentives such as tax credits, promoting economic development, properly promoting the Town of Berlin and making the town more user friendly. Perhaps a facilitator could help us by to coming in and helping discuss improvements, a long range plan to entice businesses and an easy-to-follow, friendly-business plan to help new business owners and current ones with questions and/or problems through the “red tape” of the town.

Berlin is not friendly to business due to the complexities of starting or expanding a business here and that needs to change. I do believe that with the hiring of superintendent of planning and zoning, Chuck Ward, this will make a drastic improvement as how things are handled.

Hall: To the best of my knowledge, our town has not gone out and actively sought to attract business. In fact, it seems that various town actions have discouraged several people seeking to locate businesses in Berlin. So, this attitude of “unfriendly to business” has developed. On the other hand, the Arts and Entertainment designation granted by the State of Maryland has created a friendly environment with its tax incentives for arts-related business. Perhaps, moving forward, a coming together of business leaders and town representatives can foster new ideas. Again, the current economy will have a strong bearing on attracting business to Berlin.

Walter: The charm of downtown by itself attracts both residents and business alike. To become friendlier to potential business, Berlin must offer outstanding public utilities at reasonable cost and tolerable tax rates. We must explore methods that not only help our existing businesses thrive but also encourage new business to take root in Berlin.

Q. Should the historic district be expanded? What criteria should be used to decide on new historic areas?

Gulyas: The historic district needs to be left to the historic planners. They should come to the Mayor and Council with their plans after making sure that they meet all requirements and mandates that are involved (as directed by state and federal guidelines). After that, the property owners need to be notified so they understand what an expansion would mean to them and how their property would be impacted.

Hall: Again, the present economic situation has a large bearing on expanding the historic district. I personally do not believe we need to expand Berlin’s historic district at this time. There are residents who cannot afford to comply with the requirements of having a home in the historic district, i.e. window air conditioners are not allowed, the expense of converting to central air, etc. We have many more pressing matters at hand and we need to prioritize.

Walter: The restrictions of historic district designation can be highly controversial. I believe the issue should be put to a vote. We need to hear from the citizens, most importantly those who live in the historic district who are the ones who will be most effected by any changes. We are fortunate to thrive on the charm and nostalgia of our town and whatever direction the town takes on the issue we must take care to treasure Berlin’s historic properties.

Q. How should Berlin’s elected officials handle the economic downturn?

Gulyas: We can walk through this economic downfall together. We need to stay very positive about Berlin, support our local businesses, encourage others to come to Berlin. This is locals supporting businesses. Perhaps create a Berlin handout touting the benefits of Berlin from both a resident and business owner viewpoint (ex. AGH, schools, etc). Work closely with AGH – they create a lot of jobs, which bring a lot of “trickle down” to the community – both as employees and residents. The Mayor and Council should host a Town Hall Meeting at least once a year to allow an open forum platform for discussion of both the rights and the wrongs of Berlin.

If a problem arises that we do not have an answer to, I promise to work towards a solution with the rest of the council. I promise to be there, be available and support our town. Berlin is our hometown – I was raised in a small town and I want to raise my family in a small town – we should be proud to call Berlin our home. We need to make Berlin a destination where folks are eager to come visit – or spend a lifetime. 

Hall: Like any municipality in this financially unstable market, our elected officials need to be extremely diligent economically. Town citizens must conserve. It is important that our newly elected Mayor and Council prioritize the major issues of our town and move forward with making critical decisions in regard to the electric plant, wastewater expansion, and new comprehensive plan in a timely manner. Going forward the Mayor and Council must decide before money is appropriated: Is it a want or a need?

Walter: The economic downturn will create a negative impact on revenue requiring increased efficiency in all areas of municipal operations. Budgets, staffing levels and all aspects of town management must be thoroughly reviewed to realize an overall improvement in municipal finance. We must act to adequately meet needs with a conservative control of expenditures, an essential requirement of good government. Our budget must be transparent, accurate and without waste.