Berlin, AGH Settle Stormwater Utility Dispute

BERLIN — Atlantic General Hospital (AGH) and the town of Berlin have reached a settlement over stormwater fee requirements that spent months in dispute bouncing around the legal system.

The settlement will be a restructuring of the fees that the hospital pays to Berlin’s Stormwater Utility as well as a new annual grant between the town and AGH. All agree the resolution was amicable and the town at least hopes that the settlement represents the last of community pushback against the fledgling utility.

The initial lawsuit began when AGH balked at the amount of stormwater management fees the town leveled upon it. Noting that they are a non-profit hospital and already modern with their internal stormwater management practices, AGH took the issue to court this winter claiming that it was being charged approximately $9,000 in unjustified fees.

A settlement was finally reached in July that will set the hospital’s annual stormwater fee at $3,200 for the existing grounds. Should the hospital campus change the additions will be subject to a different fee structure.

Along with agreeing on the hospital’s fee, the town has promised an annual grant of at least $10,000 to AGH. This is in keeping with Berlin’s goal of growing existing community partnerships, according to Mayor Gee Williams. He acknowledged the fee dispute was a rough patch between the town and hospital but is confident that fences have been mended.

“We’re satisfied with the results of the settlement. But, more importantly, we’ve re-opened the channels of communication with the town of Berlin,” said Michael Franklin, President and CEO of AGH. “We’ve been able to talk about the significant investments that the hospital has made in stormwater management efforts over the years and help town officials understand that. It’s crucial that the unique circumstances, especially those of not-for-profit organizations such as Atlantic General Hospital, are considered when making decisions that have a profound impact on the community’s businesses.”

Though the hospital seems to have made out well from the settlement, Williams believes that the town also emerged in a strong position. More important than any of the dollar figures was the underlying question of whether any properties in Berlin could be excluded from the Stormwater Utility.

“What our line in the sand was, we couldn’t and wouldn’t allow exceptions to the stormwater utility fee,” he said, adding that if one non-profit was allowed to opt out all likely would, raising the cost of the utility to home and business owners.

The settlement creates a precedent for other properties in Berlin that might feel that they should be exempt from fees. Non-profits and public properties like schools in particular have similar characteristics to AGH. However, it is the town’s opinion that now that the hospital case is out of court sailing should be relatively smooth.

Williams said that he would be “very surprised” if either the Worcester County Board of Education, which has multiple schools in Berlin, or the private Worcester Preparatory School, took the town to court over stormwater fees. He pointed out that the schools all advocate for environmental stewardship in the classroom and that taking part in the town’s stormwater utility is a real-life application of that education.

There’s also optimism in the town that a recently adopted stormwater fee credit program for non-profits will help quiet any remaining sabre rattling. The credits can cover up to half of a non-profit, non-residential property’s fee if they meet certain criteria regarding the modernization of their own stormwater management systems.