Berlin Citizens Voice Concerns Over Planned Tax, Fee Increases

Berlin Citizens Voice Concerns Over Planned Tax, Fee Increases
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BERLIN – Elected officials assured residents they welcomed their input as several citizens attended Monday’s town council meeting to voice concerns about spending.

Though public participation at council meetings is typically rare, a handful of residents were in attendance Monday to question spending as the town prepares for a tax and utility rate increase.

“I’m glad to see there’s more interest than there’s been in years,” Mayor Gee Williams said. “That’s because we’re changing the tax rate for the first time in 12 years.”

As officials asked for public comments at the close of Monday’s meeting, resident Jason Walter praised the town’s efforts to involve the public with a special budget session set for Tuesday but criticized Councilman Thom Gulyas.

“It’s great to hear you welcome comments and criticism,” Walter said. “It’s also good to meet new people but when you meet new people because a councilman calls you to trash your character for having a differing view than the town had on its spending, it’s not really appropriate. Mr. Gulyas, do you have anything to say about that?”

Gulyas made no reply, but when contacted Tuesday offered a brief comment.

“My obligation is to all the citizens of Berlin,” he said. “My job is to listen with both ears, evaluate information the best I can and speak with my vote.”

Williams told Walter Monday that elected officials were happy to answer any question citizens had. He added he appreciated everyone being civil.

“Listen, no matter if we’re celebrating good times or we’re meeting new challenges mutual respect and civility is so important,” he said. “I want to thank you again for your attendance tonight and encourage you to come again.”

Resident Samantha Pielstick said she wanted to know when the council would make a decision regarding whether to go with a single tax rate or a two-tier rate that would be higher for commercial properties than residential properties.

Williams said he’d be making a recommendation April 1.

“I’ve made the decision, and I’ve not shared it with anybody because nobody has really asked, that I’m going to recommend one tax rate across the board,” Williams said. “We have to start somewhere and I feel it’s my responsibility to set the baseline and then see if that meets the needs.”

Officials pointed out there would be a public hearing on the proposed tax rate once it was put forth. Williams added that the town wasn’t required to announce its proposed tax rate until May.

“That’s what you’re legally required to do but what we’re trying to do is have a community discussion about it so you understand — everyone understands — the whats and wherefores and why we’re considering a rate increase,” he said.

When asked what sorts of input would be permitted, Williams said the town was open to all ideas.

“Collectively we’ll just make the best judgment we can,” he said, adding that the town was encouraging participation, something that occurred infrequently. “I’ll be frank. Through the last several years — it’s happening everywhere, not just Berlin — I think it’s the pace of life. People are so caught up in just trying to get through day by day… I think a lot of people said, ‘I don’t want to get involved.’ That’s not helpful either. As long as we’re civil, we can talk about anything.”

Walter said citizens didn’t think elected officials valued their input.

“I think a lot of people don’t feel that you really want to hear from them,” he said. “That’s from talking to people in our neighborhood. I’m still here. Despite the efforts of Gulyas, I’m still going to express my opinion. And we can have the dialogue.”

Williams said if people thought the town didn’t want their input that was an impression they’d formed on their own.

“We have never told people that they can’t speak to us and that goes way beyond this administration,” he said.

He said officials were trying to find ways to ensure residents were kept informed regarding what was happening in town. He said the town was experimenting with social media and livestreaming.

“Rather than trying to bemoan change we’re going to try to adapt to it,” he said.

Town Administrator Laura Allen said that in response to Pielstick’s earlier question regarding when the tax increase would be approved, it would be introduced April 22 and adopted on May 13. The public will have the opportunity to speak at both of those meetings. She added that newspapers typically publicized what the town was doing.

Williams agreed.

“We have two newspapers covering this small town,” he said. “Most small towns don’t even have one. We have two very credible newspapers, and quite frankly, they’re not going to know everything but you’re going to be able to keep a pretty good pulse on what’s going on. They’re both online as well. You can go online and get either paper every week. I’d encourage you to do that. We’re trying to get every bit of information out. That’s the irony.”

Resident Larry Smith said citizens he talked to felt elected officials already had their minds made up regarding the proposed tax increase.

“We haven’t even discussed it among ourselves,” Williams replied.

Walter said he couldn’t believe that. Williams said the only discussion had occurred at a public meeting in February when council members had explored the impact of a variety of tax levels.

“You have to start somewhere,” Williams said. “It can’t all be theoretical.”

Walter said that when the potential increases were discussed, officials had compared Berlin’s current rates to Worcester County and Salisbury, among other jurisdictions. He said the town should compare its rates with towns that were similar in size to Berlin.

“There are a hell of a lot of tax rates that are lower than ours as they are now,” Walter said.

Williams thanked him for the suggestion. He added that while property values had increased, that would not have a significant impact on the town’s finances.

“This year we pick up an additional $28,000 from the state for rising values of property,” Williams said.

Town officials are set to listen to public comments and questions regarding property tax rates as well as water, sewer and stormwater rates Tuesday night at a special listening session at Stephen Decatur High School at 6 p.m.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.