Stormwater Fixes, BFC Relations Among Berlin’s 2014 Priorities

BERLIN — Members of the Berlin Mayor and Town Council looked back this week on 2013 and discussed their priorities for 2014.
Buckling down on the town’s new stormwater utility and repairing the frayed relationship with the Berlin Fire Company (BFC) were high on a lot of lists, though town development and annexation followed a close second.
Mayor Gee Williams characterized 2013 as a good year but one with a lot of growing pains. He rated it a six out of 10, acknowledging transitions in town staff, the new utility and a burgeoning downtown as adding a little bit of chaos into the year. But Williams also feels that the foundations have been laid and will be easy to build on in 2014.
The mayor is excited about stormwater progress in particular, despite some resistance to the program. Most notably, Atlantic General Hospital (AGH) has taken the town to court seeking an exemption from the new utility’s fees. Williams criticized the decision and the AGH Board of Directors for being “adversarial.”
“I think AGH has handled this very poorly. To end up filing a civil suit to become exempt from these fees is very short-sighted and is not going to benefit AGH or the town over time,” he said. “But I’m confident that we’ll prevail regardless if they continue this approach.”
Claiming that “there’s never been anything but threats” from the board while the town sought to establish a partnership, Williams added that he still hopes to see the hospital come on board.
Councilman Troy Purnell, a member of the hospital’s foundation, noted that, while AGH does have its own stormwater management practices in place, the problem of flooding and runoff in Berlin is universal and the utility is built around receiving fees from all properties.
“We’ve got a budget set forth of ‘these are the projects that we’re going to do,’” he said. “And if you start giving everyone an exception, especially people who are the biggest impacts, I don’t know how you justify it fairly.”
Besides ironing out the kinks with the utility, Purnell put mending fences with the BFC at the top of his priorities for 2014.
“Personally, I want to resolve the issue with the Berlin Fire Company. That’s probably the biggest thing on my radar screen right now,” he said.
Starting back in 2012, the running fight with the BFC over how much the town should be involved in company operations has resulted in a funding cut and created a lot of bitterness among residents. Saying that at this point all of the fighting is “for no good reason,” Purnell would like to see the town and company back in step within the first three months of 2014.
Addressing that bad blood with the BFC was also one of Councilwoman Lisa Hall’s targets as well. Like Williams and Purnell, she also has a keen interest in seeing stormwater issues resolved. But future development in town is what Hall spent the most time discussing, singling out the proposed annexation of land adjacent to Seahawk Road and possible uses of the Tyson property as the areas she is focusing on.
“I hope that people start looking more seriously to the Tyson plant. I would really like to see the town do a feasibility study and see about purchasing that piece of property and annexing it into the town. There’s a lot of potential there for long-term for the town in regards to another destination point,” she said.
Anything from a skate park to offices for area non-profits could be placed on the property and supported by the town, said Hall. Annexation would be a big effort but one she’d rather see directed toward the Tyson property on Old Ocean City Boulevard than another proposed annexation on Seahawk Road. That annexation would bring several dozen acres into Berlin where developers are proposing a mixed residential and commercial use.
“Purchasing the Tyson plant and making it a destination point and also facilities for the town to use, to me, is more important in the future than building a bunch of apartments with no amenities,” Hall said.
Williams and Purnell also said they have some questions about the Seahawk Road annexation.
“I’m for growth. I’d like to see the right type of growth occur. It just has to make sure it makes sense for the town and brings something to the town,” said Purnell.
The mayor took a similar view and asserted that “benefits have clearly got to outweigh any potential downside, hands down” before the council would ever even consider annexing in the Seahawk Road property.
All three spoke at length about how pleased they are to see town events growing every year and downtown businesses growing. Purnell gave praise to Michael Day, Berlin’s director of Economic and Community Development, for his work in improving town/merchant relations through 2013.
For next year, Hall plans on casting her net outside of Berlin at times. She is hoping to take point on a statewide push for improved mental health care laws after experiencing some personal tragedy with the issue with her family last year.