BERLIN – After months of discussion, town officials approved an 18% property tax increase.
On Monday, the Berlin Town Council voted 4-1, with Councilman Zack Tyndall opposed, to approve a tax rate of $.80 per $100 of assessed value. The approved increase is lower than the 34% tax hike initially discussed but citizens continued to express frustration this week.
“The compromise you’ve reached is probably unacceptable to a majority of us, but we understand that at some point something has to be done and you guys have a hard decision to make,” resident Jeff Smith said. “Make what decisions you feel you need to make and know that we’re still watching.”
Resident Tracey Albrecht said that council members were supposed to be stewards of the town. She questioned their decision to purchase “a $3 million dog park” as well as the need for a multi-million-dollar police station. She said many of her neighbors felt the same way.
“They have lost faith in this council,” she said.
Other residents also questioned town expenses, such as cell phone stipends for employees and insurance for council members, who are not full-time employees of the town.
Resident Don Fletcher asked for more transparency, particularly as property was annexed in the future. He said that new property in town impacted municipal infrastructure.
Mayor Gee Williams said without annexations, the town would have been in worse shape financially.
“If Oceans East hadn’t been approved, we’d have been in a much deeper hole much quicker,” he said.
He said the town’s mistake had been to rely solely on developers to fund sewer infrastructure.
“That is the catalyst for all this budget turmoil,” he said.
Williams added that he appreciated the public’s input on the budget but said it would take numbers “with five or six zeroes behind” to really help the town.
Resident Cam Bunting said that she owned multiple properties in Berlin and that the 18% tax increase would mean a $2,700 increase for her. She added that paired with water and sewer increases, many citizens would be faced with significantly higher bills.
“I just want to make sure you realize how much that’s going to impact people,” she said.
A Vine Street resident questioned what level of reserve funding the town needed. Williams said the council would have to determine the proper amount of reserve funding in the future.
“I think we’re all committed to doing whatever the right thing is,” Williams said.
At the close of the public hearing, Councilman Dean Burrell said he was ready to vote on the tax rate as the council had had an in-depth discussion on it at its last work session. Councilman Elroy Brittingham agreed.
“We settled on this rate,” he said.
Councilman Thom Gulyas told those in attendance the budget process this year — his fifth — had not been easy. He added that he was always willing to meet with residents and answer their questions.
“It’s very difficult to look some of these folks in the eye and say ‘yeah, unfortunately these costs have increased,’” he said. “It’s not like this money’s been wasted on junkets, on trips or anything like that. It’s extremely difficult to make these decisions.”
Gulyas said he’d never intended to approve the 34% tax increase initially proposed but believed an increase was needed.
“It’s still difficult to sit up here and make that kind of decision but where do you draw the line?” he said, pointing out that residents wanted to see streets repaired and problems addressed.
He stressed that council members lived in town too and would be facing the same tax increase.
“We encourage the input but to sit up here some nights for three or four hours and have people screaming at you, to be threatened on the street, that’s just uncalled for …,” he said, adding that he objected to accusations that Councilman Troy Purnell had done anything wrong when he and his partners sold the Berlin Falls Park property to the town. “It’s insulting guys. We live here too. We do. We have to feel the same pain that you do. Believe me I am open for any other suggestions but for the love of God just give us a little respect too. We are not trying to shortchange you.”
The council went on to vote 4-1 to approve the tax rate. Afterward, Burrell said that the input the public had provided in recent weeks had been invaluable.
“You have provided an invaluable service to us as your town leaders and to your community in general just by coming here and saying what you think, what you would like to see,” he said.
Burrell explained that he was a social worker.
“Sometimes as a social worker you get to feel that you know what is best for your clients and you may stop listening,” he said. “It is important always to listen to your customers. I think by providing this input during this budget session, I can’t speak for everyone on this council, but I think your input and your concern and your comments and your genuine interest has made me a better council person. For that I want to thank you and I encourage your continued participation and your continued input because it can only make us better.”
In a statement provided to The Dispatch, Tyndall also thanked the public for sharing input. He said citizens had made it clear a significant tax increase would be detrimental and that he’d proposed two special meetings — one to allow them to voice their concerns and another to allow the council to make additional cuts to the budget.
“I asked for an additional work session where we could sit down and discuss ways to trim our budget to reduce the tax burden on you the people of Berlin,” he said. “Unfortunately, during that time, I was the only councilmember that presented a single cut. Listening to you and voting no to this unnecessary and unprecedented tax increase is my vote for a bright financial future for Berlin. That future isn’t lost tonight, despite four of my colleagues voting to increase our taxes by 19.81%. However, this behavior is not sustainable. I encourage those of you that have become active during this budget cycle to remain active now and into the future. The fate of Berlin depends on it.”
Tyndall’s computation of the tax increase is different than the town’s because he uses the difference between the constant yield tax rate and the approved rate.