BERLIN — Mayor Gee Williams proposed a 29% tax increase as staff presented an overall budget featuring reductions of 18% at a work session this week.
On Monday, Williams and the town council met with Berlin’s department heads to go over the proposed fiscal year 2020 budget. Williams kicked off the session by recommending an increase of the property tax rate from .68 per $100 of valuation to .88 per $100 of valuation. Under this proposal, the owner of a property valued at $300,000 would see a $600 tax hike in the next fiscal year. He said the $5.9 million proposed budget included no raises for employees and very few capital projects. Utility rate fees, which will be discussed at a work session April 15, are also projected to increase for residents this year as the town works to ensure the general fund doesn’t continue its practice of supporting utility operations.
“Neither I or the council fully grasped the extent and persistence that borrowing from the general fund has posed,” Williams said. “I do not believe any of us feel we can continue to borrow from our general fund for the foreseeable future. An 18% reduction in general fund expenses combined with a tax increase to 88 cents will enable the town to stop borrowing from the general fund reserves to support town operations.”
He stressed council members could make adjustments to the proposed budget but asked that they address the borrowing issue.
“I do ask you to adopt a final budget that puts an end to the borrowing from the general fund reserves and puts us in the position for the gradual rebuilding of those reserves over the next several years,” he said.
The proposed $5.9 million budget is 18% lower than the current budget, which is slightly more than $7 million. Because the budget presented by staff was based on the current tax rate, it shows a shortfall of slightly more than $130,000. Town Administrator Laura Allen said that shortfall would be eliminated if taxes were in fact increased. The proposed increase–which will mean an additional $400 a year for a $200,000 home–will bring the town an additional $856,750 in revenue.
Because of the latest reassessment, property tax revenues to the town are expected to increase 7.3% in the coming year even if officials didn’t approve a tax increase.
While the overall budget is down 18%, cuts among town departments vary in the proposed budget. Proposed budgets for elected officials and customer accounts did not decrease, while the finance budget decreased 7.5%. The administration department’s budget is set to be cut by 20 percent. Allen said a substantial cut there was elimination of the second phase of the town’s parking and mobility study, a $26,000 expense. The town’s budget for building and grounds was cut by $266,650, as plans for the renovation of town hall have been put on hold. By eliminating some training and capital expenses, the police budget has been reduced by $187,058, or slightly more than 9%. When Councilman Thom Gulyas asked if the proposed cuts for police would impact public safety, Chief Arnold Downing said they would not.
In presenting a budget 11% lower than the current year’s spending plan, Economic and Community Development Director Ivy Wells said she’d eliminated the town’s fireworks show around the Fourth of July and the New Year’s Eve ball drop for adults. She pointed out that the town would still offer the kids’ ball drop but not the midnight ball drop geared toward adults.
When Councilman Zack Tyndall suggested eliminating the $18,000 expense of a Berlin billboard instead of getting rid of the two events, Wells said the billboard was considered effective in bringing people to town.
“That brings people to our town 24 hours a day seven days a week all year,” she said.
She added that while the ball drop was one of her favorite events it took a lot of staff time and had issues in recent years.
“It’s a very labor intensive event,” she said, adding that in recent years there had been issues with teens drinking and attendees bringing in their own alcohol.
Williams said he didn’t want to see the fireworks show, which costs $10,000 ($5,000 paid in advance and $5,000 after the show) struck from the budget.
“That event is really for residents,” he said.
Councilman Troy Purnell — who at the start of the meeting announced that he’d missed last week’s budget session because of a vacation he’d had planned six months in advance — said he thought the billboard had outlived its usefulness.
“I think everybody knows where Berlin is,” he said.
The council agreed to cut the billboard and the ball drop from the budget but to keep the fireworks event.
In an effort to curb public works expenses, staff said street repairs would be limited to $213,172 — the amount set to come from the state in highway user revenues. Top priorities are Tingle Road, Upshur Lane and Purnell Avenue, while other streets listed to be addressed are Middle Street, East Burley Street, Cape Circle, East Railroad Avenue and West Germantown Road. Streets already set to be repaired in the current year’s budget include Bottle Branch, Grace and Showell.
Allen said many of the streets were near each other and so the overall cost would be reduced.
“We think this package maximizes the funds available,” she said.
While recreation and parks expenses increase in the proposed budget, much of the increase relates to a grant that will fund lights at the basketball courts in Henry Park. The budget eliminates funding for the town’s outdoor movie nights.
“I think it’s one of those things that won’t really be missed,” said Mary Bohlen, the town’s administrative services director.
Officials praised department heads for their efforts in developing a budget that featured reductions but didn’t compromise important issues such as public safety.
“Overall I think you all have done fantastic,” Councilman Dean Burrell said.