BERLIN — Berlin officials approved a $15.2 million budget, highlighted by tax and rate increases for citizens, for the coming fiscal year.
On Monday, the Berlin Town Council voted 4-1, with Councilman Zack Tyndall opposed, to approve the fiscal year 2020 budget. Mayor Gee Williams said the approved budget and the 18% percent property tax increase included in it would improve the town’s financial position.
“By adopting a new property tax rate and increasing water and sewer rates, the town’s general fund reserve balance will not be diminished but will gradually increase over time,” Williams said.
The $15.2 million budget is nearly $3 million less than the town’s fiscal year 2019 budget. It raises the town’s property tax rate from $.68 to $.80.
“Even with the increased rate most Berlin taxpayers will be paying about the same amount in property taxes that they paid 10 years ago,” Williams said.
The general fund budget for fiscal year 2020 is $6.2 million, a decrease from the current year’s $7.2 million general fund budget. The electric department’s budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is $5.3 million while the water fund’s budget will be $915,500. The sewer fund’s 2020 budget is $2.4 million while the town projects spending $454,550 in the area of stormwater.
Though dozens of citizens shared their concerns about the town’s spending and officials’ plan to increase taxes as well as water and sewer rates during the last three months, just a few residents spoke during Monday’s public hearing on the budget. Resident Jim Meckley commended town staff for their efforts to cut spending but said he was disappointed that council members hadn’t gone line-by-line through the budget during work sessions.
“The only suggestion of line items to be addressed were from Councilman Tyndall and he was berated for that,” Meckley said. “That sends a message that most of you did not spend time outside the work sessions going through the presented budget and did not question any expenditures. Does that mean that there are no other items that could have been reduced or eliminated to keep the tax rate lower? How the budget is analyzed and revised needs to be addressed.”
Meckley suggested the town reduce its dependence on consultants and instead use local resources when possible. He also addressed Councilman Dean Burrell’s comments from past meetings regarding the increased citizen interest seen during this year’s budget process.
“You have said multiple times how nice it is to have so many people at the meetings,” Meckley said. “One thing that I think you misunderstand is we are not here at the meetings to please you. We are here because we are losing faith in how the town’s being operated and we are here as guardians, caretakers and providers to see that the council is doing their job in the best interest of all of us residents.”
He said he also hoped the town would reduce its spending.
“Use what we have. Stop the excessive buying,” he said. “Live within our means and be frugal and use common sense.”
Meckley closed by offering advice to the mayor.
“When someone differs with your opinion they are often recipients of verbal, written or public abusive lectures or rants,” he said. “I find this distasteful and not befitting a public official. If you disagree with someone or something that’s fine but listening and showing some empathy for another’s opinion without a negative or explosive reaction would get you farther, save you a lot of energy and gain you a lot more respect from the community.”
Resident Marie Velong said she wanted to see the town’s economic development spending cut back.
“That does not benefit the residents of this town,” she said.
Velong added that officials needed to come to the realization that Berlin was a small town.
“Roads, sidewalks, safety,” she said. “Those are the things that people are interested in in a small town.”
Resident Don Fletcher said he wanted to be sure that the town’s department heads were following the budget.
“We should be able to catch these those things before they get out of line,” he said.
Town Administrator Laura Allen said the town wasn’t in its current situation because of staff overspending. Councilman Troy Purnell said the issue was that the town should have raised taxes in years past.
Resident Deborah Fletcher asked officials to be more cautious with their spending.
“I’m concerned about creating more debt for things that aren’t essential,” she said.
Resident Jason Walter told the council he objected to the fact that the town had posted “disingenuous” graphics on its website regarding the tax increase. He said officials were trying to justify the tax increase in spite of the fact that just 16 municipalities in the state had a rate of $.80 or higher. He believes the town still needs to cut roughly $2.5 million to “right-size” its budget. He thanked Tyndall for being receptive to the public’s suggestions during the budget process.
“He listened,” Walter said. “The rest of you should have.”
Purnell objected, citing the fact that he’d spoken to Walter regarding his concerns. He also said that if citizens went through their records, many would see that even with the new increases they were still paying less than they paid in 2009.
“You’re right but that’s not unique to Berlin,” Walter said.
Purnell said he was only concerned about Berlin right now. Deborah Fletcher pointed out that comparative studies could be useful.
“If you can’t take a critical look at how you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re in a bubble,” she said.
The council voted 4-1, with Tyndall opposed, to approve the budget. When town staff moved on to departmental reports, Finance Director Natalie Saleh addressed this year’s budget development.
“It’s been a very specific and very interesting process for this particular budget year,” she said. “I do appreciate everybody’s input and support. I do however ask, specifically of Councilman Tyndall, to have a better communication tool in place.”
She said that she needed Tyndall’s suggestions prior to the last minute if she was going to be able to provide citizens with the information they requested.
“Going forward I would like better input,” she said.
Burrell also shared his thoughts on the budget. He said this year’s budget process had involved more public participation than he’d ever seen in his several terms as a councilman.
“I do believe that is a good thing,” he said. “Regardless of what motivates you to come I’m glad to see you here. If you come back enough you will understand and come to realize how much time and effort we put into managing this town. All of our decisions might not be what you think but as a council it is what, and I know, it is what each of us believe is in the best interest of this town that we all love I implore you to keep coming back.”