Berlin Stormwater Utility Secures Near $2M In Grants

BERLIN — Nearly $2 million in state and federal funding for stormwater management has been awarded to the Town of Berlin since it began the first phase of improvements this year.

Officials hope that grant funding will remain on track for the next several years which would keep stormwater utility fees in check.

Since launching the stormwater utility last fall, Berlin has received grants from groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds as well as monies from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). The grants were $165,000, $800,000 and $962,000, respectively, totaling approximately $1.9 million.

“I think this is an example of where we have shown faith in trying to get a handle on our stormwater situation based on the very limited means that we have and I think that only helps us in getting these bigger grants,” said Mayor Gee Williams.

The town’s plan has always been to use the money generated by having a dedicated stormwater utility complete with fees to leverage a large amount of grant funding. The $1.9 million realized so far is more or less on pace with where the town hoped to be during the first year of the utility. Williams pointed out that the grant total doesn’t take into account some funding received at the onset that was used for a demonstration stormwater management project located on West Street.

There has been some controversy over the establishment of the utility and the fees it charges to both residential and commercial properties. Most recently Atlantic General Hospital took litigious action against the town over the fees, though the two groups were able to settle out of court and have since both said their relationship is amicable.

But the mayor was adamant that “without the dedicated utility we would not get $1” of grant funding for stormwater projects. He believes that the utility is necessary to combat Berlin’s longstanding flooding issues as well as to improve water quality from stormwater that passes through the town on its way back to local channels and bays.

Some residents are almost certainly still unhappy with the fees but Williams believes a majority of the town is onboard with the utility. The biggest problem right now isn’t people fighting against a stormwater utility, he remarked, but people fighting to have their neighborhood first in line for management projects. At recent meetings, a few residents have voiced dissatisfaction with the schedule which will have projects constructed east to west starting with Flower and William Streets as well as Hudson Branch.

“We’ll be able to tackle the first two phases of the work we planned on Flower Street and William Street along the Hudson Branch.  Both of these phases include culvert replacements coupled with the creation of several off-line wetlands,” said Town Administrator Laura Allen.  “We’re wrapping up the design and moving into the permitting stage right now.  The project will take about two years to complete.”

Residents have had “the patience of saints” so far while waiting for relief from flooding in their individual neighborhoods, according to Williams. The next few years should be busy ones with a number of projects in the pipeline. Grant funding will play a major role and the expectation is that the utility will continue to attract the attention of state and federal partners. The $1.9 million received so far is a good sign, Williams said.

“Hopefully if we continue to meet everyone’s expectations this won’t be the end of the grant making,” he said, “but the process will continue over time until we’re able to complete all three phases of the initial stormwater capital improvements which is where the big bucks are.”

If grant funding does continue at its current pace, stormwater fees aren’t expected to rise “in the foreseeable future.” There’s an outside possibility of fees actually dropping for residential and commercial property owners though the town wasn’t willing to make any guesses on if that’s likely.

“I would be hopeful that the fees, I don’t know if they’ll be able to be lowered because I don’t know what the long-term maintenance costs are but I’m going to be very surprised if the fees have to be increased any time in the foreseeable future,” Williams said.

Fees are also less likely to rise since total project costs could turn out to be lower than first anticipated. Initial estimates placed the cost for the first few phases of stormwater management projects, those that would lay down a lot of the basic infrastructure for the town, in the neighborhood of $8 million. There’s a good chance the cost won’t be quite that high and through a combination of grant funding and collected fees Williams feels the town is on a comfortable track.

“So far we’ve been able to do more with less than the original projections,” he said.

With work on Hudson Branch at the top of the list, town staff plans on delivering a status update on associated stormwater projects and the Mayor and Town Council’s Sept. 22 meeting. The public is encouraged to attend.