BERLIN – Calls for the town to cut expenses and sell Berlin Falls Park highlighted a town council meeting Monday.
Dozens of Berlin residents attended a Berlin Town Council meeting this week, primarily to voice their concerns about the potential 34-percent tax increase being discussed by elected officials.
“Berlin Falls Park is a boondoggle,” resident Jim Meckley said. “It is dragging this place down.”
Mayor Gee Williams told those in attendance this week that the budget process had only just begun. Expenses had been greater than expected in recent years, he explained, and the town had been forced to use its reserves to supplement utility operations. He pointed out that 57 percent of the town’s costs related to public safety and capital expenses.
Williams added that while the town did need to replenish its reserves, it was not in dire straits yet.
“The town is not going to run out of money,” he said. “Not in five months, not in the foreseeable future.”
He also acknowledged a rumor that Town Administrator Laura Allen would be getting a raise when other employees were not.
“This is not true,” he said, adding that Allen had specified in a statement signed Feb. 28 that she was unwilling to accept a raise outlined in her contract this year.
Nevertheless, concerns regarding town spending and the plan to raise taxes as well as water and sewer fees dominated the public comment portion of the meeting.
Jeff Auxer, a merchant and resident, said he thought the town’s finances should have been addressed before they got to this point. He said his livelihood was being jeopardized by Berlin’s administration.
“We clearly need change in Berlin,” he said, comparing the town to a football team. “Change starts at the top with the head coach. In Berlin’s case that head coach is our town administrator. It’s never personal but a business decision that’s best for that organization. I feel it’s time to start over and fix Berlin’s problems from the ground up.”
When Councilman Zack Tyndall asked Auxer for his views on a two-tier tax system, which would implement one commercial rate and another residential rate, Auxer expressed apprehension.
“The property owners are going to take that cost and put it onto the renters,” he said.
Broad Street resident Cindy Krempel asked if the town leaders were truly considering the 34-percent increase described by local newspapers.
Williams said that was one of the possibilities being reviewed.
“If I was writing the headline or lead for a story, I would use the same fact,” Williams said. “It gets everybody’s attention. The range is anywhere from 20 percent to 34 percent.”
The mayor pointed out that the town’s reserve funding levels varied through the years and would be boosted when they were no longer being used to supplement the sewer fund.
“We’re not in a crisis,” he said.
Krempel suggested that the town focus more on cutting expenses, such as the one approved earlier in Monday’s meeting — the $124,000 price tag associated with demolishing some of the smaller buildings at Berlin Falls Park.
“We’re at a place right now where you’re looking at a 20 to 34 percent increase — $124,000 to knock down buildings on a worthless piece of property at this point is not responsible spending,” she said, drawing applause.
Resident Betty Hudson said the town simply spent too much money. She said she supported spending on vital services such as public safety.
“We don’t need to go out and spend money on a chicken plant that sits there no use to us whatsoever,” she said.
Resident Kim Holloway said the town had wasted money on fire company studies when in fact it wasn’t the fire company that needed improvement.
“It seems like they’re doing the smart business here…,” she said. “They’re the ones having a reserve fund that keeps their fire company running for over 100 years yet you criticize them for having a reserve fund. You’re pulling from your reserve fund and going broke. Well the fire company is only going broke because you’re putting them there.”
Resident Jim Meckley expressed concern for the town’s proposed tax increase, citing the fact that there were many seniors on fixed incomes that would be affected. He also criticized Berlin Falls Park and the fact that the town was spending money to tear down buildings and paying a project manager to study the park.
“Where has it gotten us?” he said. “It has gotten us nowhere. For God’s sake sell it. I’m sure there are a lot of people that would love to have that property.”
Middle Street resident Jason Bratten expressed concern about town spending and the effect the proposed tax increase would have on residents.
“If there is an increase it should be in phases…,” he said. “There are a lot of hardworking average income families that live here. We and other families may be forced to move if the increases continue to come which would be eventually devastating to Berlin by losing that family friendly small hometown feel. That to me is what makes Berlin special.”
Bratten also suggested the town take a closer look at spending and potential revenues.
“Charge parking fees if we have to,” he said, adding that he believed there should be a different commercial and residential tax rate.
Williams told him that all town departments had been instructed to cut their budgets by 10 percent.
“That’s not chicken feed, “Williams said. “That means to cut the budget for next year by $1.8 million.”
Resident James Manley questioned the impact of recent annexations.
“Is that adding too much stress on the infrastructure?” he said.
Williams indicated annexation was not the problem and said expanding the tax base by annexing spread the cost of operations.
“That’s a good thing…,” he said, adding that the fees required from developers reduced the debt of the wastewater treatment plant and that spray irrigation, which was costly, had to be done regardless of new development. “If we had not one additional home, not one additional development, the costs are still there.”
Williams did say he thought it was a mistake when he’d suggested the town lower its tax rate in 2012. He added, however, that criticism regarding the park hadn’t been shared with the council until now.
“All these years I’ve heard almost nothing,” he said.
Councilman Zack Tyndall said he disagreed with his colleagues regarding annexation.
“I’m of the belief that if we have a problem we should fix it, stop the bleeding now, fix whatever’s going wrong before we continue to annex,” he said. “I’ve said that from day one. I’ll continue to say it as long as I’m allowed to sit up here.”
Resident Grayson Mayne said he knew taxes had to go up but suggested it be handled the way the sewer losses had been handled. He said the general fund had supported the sewer fund for 15 or 16 years.
“You can put it back over 16 years instead of taking 34 percent,” he said.
He added that if the town was in a hole it should stop digging.
“You just said Gee, that this is the first time you’ve really heard from people like this,” Mayne said. “Well we kind of trusted you to spend our money like it was coming out of your pocket. Obviously, that’s not the case. [Former long-time Mayor] John Howard Burbage spent our money like it was coming out of his pocket.”
Krempel asked if the council would admit that buying the park had been a mistake.
“No,” Councilman Dean Burrell replied. “The room is full now but if a seafood processing plant had moved there this room would be running over. We bought that place so we could control what goes there. To ensure and help build the quality of life and the air we breathe here in the town.”
Hudson asked if the town would have bought the park if the previous owner (Councilman Troy Purnell’s Berlin Properties North) hadn’t been on the council.
Williams stressed that the former industrial property had been a detriment to the town since the 1940s but that now that the town owned it, it was not.
“That was a mistake … buying that, throwing us in debt, spending our money and now you want us to pay for your mistakes,” Hudson said.
Longtime Councilman Elroy Brittingham said the town had spent years fighting the former chicken plant that was there.
“I think eventually that plant’s going to benefit the town,” he said.
Resident Bill Todd said now that the town did own the property it had control over who to sell it to.
“We’re just trying to be realistic,” he said. “There’s a huge piece of property over here that is completely underutilized especially at this moment. There’s not a definitive plan as to what’s going to happen. What I’ve heard the whole time is you bought it to make sure there’s not a seafood company coming in to run it. Well now we own it we can be secure that there’s not a seafood company coming in. Let’s sell this damn thing.”
Williams said that Monday’s meeting was the first time that had been suggested.
Longtime resident Marie Velong said that in recent years, Main Street and the commercial area in town had been improved while less visible residential neighborhoods had been neglected. She said the town needed to focus on what it had, particularly in its residential areas.
“I don’t care if we’re the coolest town in America I just want it to be a nice town,” she said.
Jennifer Dawicki, owner of The Globe, told the council she understood the need for some sort of tax increase.
“I think myself and any other business owners are here to listen and cooperate and collaborate and figure out a way we could afford an incremental tax rate increase…,” she said. “Folks that come to my establishment one, two times a week are saying that if they can’t handle a rate increase they’re going to leave the town, which is going to trickle down to small business, which is going to trickle down to the way I earn a living.”
She added that merchants would be meeting next week to determine best how to communicate their concerns to the town.
Williams said town officials welcomed informed ideas.
“Citizen participation has taken a nosedive in the last 25 years,” he said. “We’re all for it. We have to operate a lot of times on the minimum amount of citizen input.”
He reminded the concerned citizens that it was the elected officials, not the town administrator, who implemented policies.
Tyndall said he thought the town should schedule another public meeting to discuss the proposed tax increase. Burrell said citizens were welcome to speak at the council’s next meeting.
“We have these meetings every other week,” Burrell said, adding that it was up to residents to attend them to share their concerns. “I heard some statements in here tonight that would have changed my mind when I voted to approve the expenditure for that place out there. We can’t read your minds. Come and share with us what you think. A dollar to a donut hole we will try to address your concerns.”
Tyndall, however, was adamant about hosting a special meeting. His motion to host a special meeting for public input on Tuesday, March 26, passed with a 3-2 vote. Burrell and Purnell voted against the motion.