Berlin Eyes $300K For Stormwater Utility

BERLIN — Residents irate at heavy flooding after storms in Berlin may see relief soon, as the Mayor and Council decided Monday to move forward with the process of establishing a dedicated stormwater utility for the town.

Flooding after rain events in Berlin has plagued residents for decades. Within the last few years, a push to mitigate the problem led the council to allow the University of Maryland’s Environmental Finance Center (EFC) to conduct a stormwater feasibility study for Berlin.

The utility’s purpose will be to oversee the construction and maintenance of a number of stormwater relief projects in the parts of town most vulnerable to flooding. One of the first things the council touched on with the new utility is how much it will cost.

Suggestions made by the EFC would have the town charge residential property owners $50 a year and non-residential $45 a year per Equivalent Residential Unit (ERU). An ERU represents how much impervious surface is on a property. The total funding from those fees would be $4,618,460 in a 10-year period.

However, Town Administrator Tony Carson told the council that public comments have been clearly in favor of a lower non-residential rate since it would represent a major expense for larger commercial entities in Berlin.

“That was one area where we have heard from in public meetings and we’ve heard just throughout the last month that the $45 per ERU is pretty significant for some of our larger area projects,” he said.

For the largest non-residential properties, the $45 fee per ERU would equal between $5,000 and $9,000 annually.

The town came up with an alternative recommendation to what the EFC proposed, continued Carson. The second plan would call for the same residential rate but cut the non-residential to $25 per ERU. The discrepancy would then be made up with a $300,000 annual contribution from the town’s general fund. The new method would actually result in higher 10-year revenue for the utility at $5,700,000.

Carson explained that the residential rate never changed between the two proposals because public comments seemed to support the idea that a flat $50 annual fee was tolerable.

“By and large, most of the residential customers felt that $4.17 a month was well worth it, if their stormwater needs would be addressed. So we feel that the $50 a year for the residential is fair and equitable,” Carson said.

The second change between the EFC recommendations and the town’s plan would be an increased timetable on several construction projects in Berlin. Carson acknowledged that many residents were worried that their flooding issues would not be addressed until a few years after the beginning of a utility. The town’s new schedule would designate three priority construction projects in the first year and would include Nelson, Franklin and William streets as the first project; Flower and Showell streets as the second; and West Street and Abbey Lane as the third. The second year of construction would then encompass Henry Mill and Henry Green as the first project and Decatur Farms as the final.

Grant funding will play an important role, Carson added. But with a strong utility and plan in place, he was optimistic about Berlin’s chances of receiving attention.

“We’ve already started the preliminary process of contacting these agencies to identify some possible funding sources throughout the next year-and-a-half to two years,” he said.

After being briefed on the town’s adapted stormwater recommendation, the council had a few questions, mostly involving finances.

“I think cutting the recommendation of the university almost in half is a little much,” said Councilman Dean Burrell of the town’s plan for non-residential fees.

Mayor Gee Williams responded, telling Burrell that many of the large non-residential operations in Berlin, which include non-profits like schools and hospitals, would feel burdened by a $45 per ERU fee. Instead, he felt that it was fair for the town to supply some of the money through the general fund.

Williams recommended tapping into resources in the town’s contingency fund that would traditionally be given to the Berlin Fire Company (BFC). Over the summer, Berlin severed all funding with the BFC. Williams asserted that the money is only collecting dust at the moment and could be committed to a project like the stormwater utility.

“We’d be using some of the money that for a long, long time has been dedicated and granted to the fire company,” he said. “Well, we’ve got a long ways to go to get back on track so I want to put the money to work. We’ve held it in reserve. I’m not optimistic that we’re going to work something out soon.”

The council motioned unanimously, with Councilman Troy Purnell absent, to move forward with the $25 non-residential rate and a $300,000 annual commitment from the general fund. The proposal will still need to be voted on officially at the next council meeting. If accepted, a public hearing on the utility will follow two weeks afterwards.