BERLIN – About 60 people came out on a cold Tuesday evening this week to hear what the Berlin Council candidates for District 1 had to say for themselves at a pre-election forum sponsored by Assateague Coastal Trust.
The seat was left vacant by the election of Gee Williams as mayor earlier this fall. The special election will be held Dec. 16.
Political newcomers Phil Cropper and Troy Purnell and former mayor and council member Rex Hailey faced questions from ACT and the audience on varied topics.
During his opening comments, Purnell said he is a lifelong area resident and has lived in Berlin for the last 12 years.
“I think I’ve got a very good knowledge of the town and its inner workings,” said Purnell, who has worked with town staff and officials to develop local property and attends most council and commission meetings.
Concerns over his business interests are unfounded, he said. “I do understand honest ethics. I do know when to step down,” Purnell said.
Cropper, who moved into town a year ago, described his background managing The Globe and the Hobbit restaurants and that he currently works in the interior design and medical fields.
“I have no personal gain. I don’t want to increase my influence in the town,” Cropper said.
He said he is concerned about Berlin’s lack of direction and that he would offer a fresh voice and new perspective to council decisions. He would like to create a strategic plan for the electric utility and wastewater services, create a more open government and increase financial oversight.
Hailey described his resume, with two terms as mayor and seven years previous on the town council in the district one seat. He also was active in the Maryland Municipal League (MML) and held several posts in that organization, including nine years on the MML board. Professionally, he has managed hotels all his life, Hailey said. He has also pursued education in smart growth and other municipal matters through MML.
The following is a selection of the candidates’ answers from the forum.
Cropper: Berlin needs an economic development plan, and needs to make sure that industry and business are adequately included in the new comprehensive plan, now under construction. Smart growth principles that protect the residents and taxpayers should be followed. Property outside Berlin should only be annexed into town if doing so is necessary for current residents. Berlin needs to think about growth before it happens, he said, and create long-term solutions instead of quick fixes.
Hailey: “Smart growth means keeping the town looking like it is today,” he said.
Any changes should be harmonious with the historic look of Berlin. “I’m not looking towards a lot of growth for Berlin. The more we grow the more different we will be,” he said. “I think we ought to have a nice slow pattern of growth.”
Purnell: Growth is good for the town’s tax base, he said. New residents could provide tax revenue to allow Berlin to fix roads and other infrastructure that has been neglected.
“The existing residents just can’t bear all that cost,” said Purnell.
The citizens should tell the town how to grow, through the new comprehensive plan, he said.
Purnell said that growth should pay for itself, and that sprawl costs more.
“Growth does pay for itself if done properly,” he said.
Purnell: Smart growth means trying to contain sprawl, which creates more roads, parking lots and other impervious surface, which in turn create more stormwater run-off. Any expansion should be concentrated around downtown. A lot of downtown properties could accommodate growth, Purnell said.
Cropper: Smart growth means a walkable Berlin, with useful facilities and retail like banks, pharmacies, and food stores in walking distance of homes. More density, such as turning larger homes into triplexes or adding apartments over stores, would reduce sprawl.
“We have a lot of businesses and a lot of space in downtown Berlin,” Cropper said. “We need to use it to our best advantage. There’s a lot of Berlin we’re not using to advantage.”
Hailey: Under smart growth, houses should be built at the front of lots, with alleys behind, to fit in with historic Berlin. “The minimum thing you do is just keep it looking the same,” said Hailey.
Cropper: “I don’t think we need to annex any property for residential growth into Berlin,” Cropper said.
Instead of annexing the Tyson chicken plant into town, it should remain industrial property, Cropper believes. The town should attempt to attract green industry there to provide jobs and add to the tax base.
“There’s a lot of houses for sale,” he said. “Right now we can’t sell what we have.”
Hailey: The Tyson plant property is the only piece of property he would like to see annexed, Hailey said, because he would rather it be redeveloped than remain industrial.
“We should be able to control what goes on in that property,” said Hailey.
Purnell: “I’m going to agree with Mr. Hailey 100 percent,” said Purnell, owner of the Tyson plant through his company Berlin Properties North.
Purnell said he has been trying to do something with the property for years and would not like to see it go back to an industrial use. Berlin would benefit more from a mixed-use development with retail and commercial there.
Berlin Electric Plant
Purnell: Originally a proponent of selling the electric plant, Purnell said that he has learned a lot since consultant Booth and Associates came on board.
“It’s going to take an awful lot more work,” Purnell said. “I don’t know the solution yet…the ratepayers deserve better than what we’ve had in the past.”
Cropper: Hesaid he has been following the Berlin Utilities Commission’s work with the consultant and he has not made a final judgment yet.
“It’s obviously a problem we need to solve,” said Cropper, pointing out a desire to end $500 monthly electric bills and the need for a long-term power purchase agreement.
Hailey: Booth and Associates are correct to recommend keeping the electric utility. “When I left office we had the cheapest power in the state and now we have the most expensive,” Hailey said.
Recession, Budget cuts
Hailey: The town should reconsider spending millions of dollars for additional sewer capacity. “I think we need to put that off,” he said.
Purnell: Grants and state and federal funding will be less available. Some capacity is still available in the sewer system, which Purnell said he does not foresee being used up quickly. “As far as an expansion of the plant, I think Berlin has some time,” Purnell said. The upgrade must be done by order of the state of Maryland, he said.
Cropper: He does not agree with waiting to work on the wastewater treatment plant, as the effluent is too high in ammonia. The current available EDUs will not last when the economy normalizes, he said. The town needs to restrict small expenditures, such as the home use of town vehicles by employees, he felt.
(Editor’s Note: Next week we will continue outlining the candidates’ positions including how they see Berlin in 20 years.)