Berlin residents are fired up for good reason. The reality is they are going to be spending a lot more to live in their homes next year.
Exactly how much more is still unknown, but Mayor Gee Williams revealed his intentions this week, announcing a proposal to increase the property tax rate by 29%, from 68 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to 88 cents. The proposed fiscal year 2020 budget needs the new tax revenue, despite town department heads slashing their budgets, resulting in the total budget for the town decreasing 18% to $5.9 million.
To make the proposed tax increase understandable for residents and businesses, I crunched the numbers this week. A piece of property valued at $400,000 will see its annual tax bill jump $880. A citizen with property valued at $300,000 will owe the town $600 more in the next fiscal year. A homeowner with an assessed value of $200,000 – close to the average in Berlin — will see taxes jump $440.
On the commercial side of things, it’s more complicated as far as figuring out what it means for the individual businesses because there are unknowns. While it’s tricky dealing with hypotheticals, it’s safe to assume a commercial property owner is going to pass the entire new tax burden onto the tenant in the form of increased rent. Therefore, for a commercial property valued at $500,000, the increased tax for the next year would come to about $1,000, resulting in an increase in monthly rent to the tune of $85 for the tenant.
It will be interesting to observe over the coming weeks whether the mayor’s proposed tax rate is adjusted by the council. What will be equally compelling is what town decision makers will do with planned fee increases for utilities. A 5% increase for water has been discussed with a 10% jump in sewer fees on the table as well as a potential doubling of the current stormwater fee.
Back in February, when the town kicked off its budget process and it was revealed the town was in serious financial trouble, town officials reminded citizens taxes had not been increased in Berlin for 15 years and the rate was even lowered a few years back. While that may be true, it provides little solace to residents now. It was expected the town would back off the concept of raising taxes by 34%, which sent shockwaves through the community when it was reported in February. I wrongly assumed the town would play the political game of outlining the worst-case scenario and then ultimately come back with a much palatable increase. While that could still occur, I think the mayor’s proposed budget will closely resemble the finished product.
Dozens of individuals roasted the town council last week about these unprecedented increases. The impact of all the criticism appeared to be minimal. It’s not because town officials didn’t hear the concerns. They did but the mayor’s budget and planned 29% tax increase for residential and commercial properties speaks to the severity of the town’s fiscal problems.
Clearly, there were many inexcusable mistakes made by town decision makers in recent years. Like many households, the town was simply living beyond its means for many years. It was wrong to be using general fund dollars to supplement struggling utility funds. It was bad governance. The town has also been foolish in not keeping its reserves at a healthy level. The bill has now come due, and it’s going to hurt all aspects of the town. There will be be consequences for the town’s mismanagement. I suspect people considering buying in Berlin will be scared away, and current homeowners on fixed incomes could see fit to sell and downsize elsewhere. There will also be major political fallout, but the next town election is not until October 2020.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but it’s been nice the last two years to see Worcester County Public Schools celebrate two teachers who choose to work with students with special needs.
On Wednesday, Snow Hill Elementary’s Gina Russell, who works with special needs kids in the 3- and 4-year-old program, was surprised with word she had won the county’s teacher of the year honor. Cedar Chapel Special School teacher Karen Holland won top honors last year in the county.
At an event on Friday in Ocean City, when the school system announced the four finalists, Russell delivered some well-regarded remarks that bear repeating.
“If you’re exhausted and you feel like you’ve lost the magic, please take the time to research new strategies,” she said. “How amazing is it in education that we get a multitude of opportunities to grow stronger and to sharpen our path and learn something new. Our students deserve marigolds as teachers and you deserve to be one … I challenge each and every one of you to plant a seed and watch it grow as there is nothing more rewarding and motivating than this.”