Berlin Stormwater Project Nixed Again; Council Not Willing To Raise Utility Fee To Cover Expense

Berlin Stormwater Project Nixed Again; Council Not Willing To Raise Utility Fee To Cover Expense
The Berlin Town Council currently consists of, from left, Council members Thom Gulyas, Zackery Tyndall and Elroy Brittingham, Mayor Gee Williams and Council members Dean Burrell and Troy Purnell. Administrative Director Laura Allen is pictured, right. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN –  Town leaders agreed not to move forward with a stormwater project in the Graham Avenue neighborhood.

In spite of a request from staff, officials opted not to raise stormwater fees this fall to help cover the cost of a submerged gravel wetland on Graham Avenue.

“There’s no way in hell I’m going to vote to raise these things now,” Councilman Thom Gulyas said. “We’ve done enough to everybody in town. It’s enough. We can revisit it next year. But for right now absolutely not.”

At its last meeting, the town council voted not to use money from the general fund to support the stormwater fund to allow construction of a submerged gravel wetland on Graham Avenue. As a result of that vote, Town Administrator Laura Allen approached the council Monday to determine whether officials would consider raising stormwater fees so that the money for the project could be generated that way. While the project would be primarily funded with a $75,000 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, $37,500 in additional funding was required.

Allen proposed increasing the residential stormwater fee from $50 to $100 and increasing the commercial fee 30%. The commercial fee is currently $25 per 2,100 square feet of impervious surface (ERU). She said the increase would allow the wetland project to move forward and would also bolster the struggling stormwater fund. Allen pointed out stormwater fees had not been adjusted since the utility was created in 2013. She said that when the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center recommended fees at that time, $50 for residential and $45 per EDU for commercial had been put forth.

“So the initial setting of the commercial fee was substantially lower than that recommended by the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center,” she said. “The increase in the fee would also enable the stormwater fund to stop borrowing from the general fund.”

She said stormwater borrowed between $30,000 and $50,000 from the general fund each year. Allen said that the proposed increase, which would go into effect Oct. 1, would generate an additional $100,000 for the utility.

“I think it would be a mistake to return the (grant) funding to the Chesapeake Bay Trust,” she added.

Allen said that after the council voted not to use the general fund to support the project last month, she contacted various grant agencies seeking additional support. While those efforts were unsuccessful, Frank Piorko of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program did attend Monday’s meeting to speak in favor of the project.

“We feel Berlin is to be commended for taking steps years ago to manage their stormwater related challenges without having the EPA mandated program so many small municipalities do,” he said.

He said his organization would continue to work with the town to explore funding opportunities that could help with its stormwater initiatives.

“Those small incremental reductions really add up,” he said.

When asked about the timelines associated with the Chesapeake Bay Trust grant, Allen said the town was supposed to have the project completed by Sept. 1 but was seeking an extension. Councilman Zack Tyndall said that by the time the town received the money from the increased fees that grant’s deadline would have passed.

“The money would be coming from the stormwater utility,” Allen said.

Resident Rose Zollinger asked why residents were facing a 100% increase when businesses were not. Allen said the increase was a small dollar amount and would increase what residents paid from roughly $4 a month to $8 a month.

“We are at the $50 recommended by the study whereas commercial never even approached the $45,” resident Marie Velong said. “That’s something to me that you could consider.”

Resident Jason Walter said the town’s stormwater consultant last month had acknowledged that the Graham Avenue project wouldn’t alleviate flooding.

Allen replied that the consultant had said it would help.

Williams said that improving the stormwater situation in the Graham Avenue area would be one of the town’s most expensive stormwater initiatives.

“There’s no way we’re going to stormwater pond our way out of that neighborhood’s problem…,” he said. “There’s no way to do it on the cheap.”

So far, Walter said all he’d seen the town do was spend money to hold water on the east side of town and had not in fact done anything to expedite its removal from town.

“If we’d expedited the movement of water from the western and central part of town to the eastern part of town the flooding that was already severe there, basically houses would not be inhabitable,” Williams said, adding that the projects done on the east side of town so far provided capacity to hold the water temporarily before it was released.

He added that addressing stormwater was critical for the future of the town.

“If we don’t take care of our stormwater problem, future generations in our town will have to decide which neighborhoods to abandon,” he said. “This climate change stuff is real. Properties are just not going to be inhabitable.”

When Walter asked where most of the town’s runoff was coming from, officials said it came from impervious surface. Walter pointed out that the majority of impervious surface in town had been created by businesses.

When Williams polled the council, Councilmen Troy Purnell and Dean Burrell indicated they’d be willing to continue discussions regarding Allen’s proposed increases.

“There is no one thing that’s going to solve the stormwater management issue in the town,” Burrell said. “It is a compilation of the whole plan that is going to put us in a better place.”

He added that he thought a higher commercial increase should be considered to make the proposal more equitable.

Tyndall said he was willing to discuss fee increases going forward but not in relation to the Graham Avenue project.

“I think we voted on that in my opinion last meeting,” he said. “I think that stands as far as my vote goes.”

Gulyas agreed.

“It is real frustrating that we did vote on this last time,” he said. “I feel like this is being thrown back on us again. To the best of my knowledge in four and a half years this is the first time we’ve ever had anything brought up twice, especially back to back meetings. “

He said his vote from the last meeting stood and that he was sorry that the grant would have to be returned. He added that he’d suggested increasing stormwater fees in February but didn’t want to see them hiked now.

As Councilman Elroy Brittingham was absent and the council was split on whether to continue discussion on the fee increases, Williams said it looked like the town should return the grant and make a plan to increase stormwater fees next year.

“I think that makes sense that we look at the structure and any way to make it more equitable for next fiscal year, and that in the mean time we have the time to look at that and determine what other funding sources might be available,” he said.

Tyndall said the council might even want to start the fee discussion soon.

“If that fund’s in a financial pickle we need to start that conversation as early as possible,” he said. “It sounds like by the report that it’s maybe not in its best condition.”

Allen said she’d shared that news with officials in February.

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.