BERLIN – Finances, growth and short-term rentals are among the topics to be tackled by Berlin’s elected officials in the coming year.
As 2020 approaches, Mayor Gee Williams shared what he expects to be the key issues facing the town in the next 12 months. While Berlin’s financial situation remains a primary concern, Williams says there are plenty of other issues that will keep town leaders busy.
“There’s this responsibility we have to prepare for the future,” he said.
Williams acknowledged the “excruciating” budget process the town went through in 2019, when officials approved an 18% property tax increase after months of heated discussion. In light of the difficult process, officials approved a tax rate review policy last summer that requires regular reviews of financial projections that will ensure future tax rate increases are discussed early on in budget deliberations.
Williams expects budget talks to begin early in 2020.
“First, we’ll need to establish a reserve policy for the Town of Berlin so we know how much money we’ll be setting aside,” he said. “Next we need to take another look at raising stormwater fees for residential and commercial.”
He said that while the town was making progress with stormwater improvements, it still needed grants to accomplish the work yet to come.
“The amount of money we put up is critical to getting grant support,” he said.
While several stormwater projects have been completed, Williams said there was at least $3.3 million more in improvements that needed to be done.
“That’s a lot more than what the town was told it would take almost a decade ago,” he said. “But it’s no different than what other governments are finding.”
He said he thought the town needed to press forward, however, and that by doing at least one project a year would remain competitive in getting grants.
“The worst thing we could do is throw our hands up and expect it to cost less,” he said.
Williams said officials would revisit the property tax rate again in 2020 and would give “serious consideration” to a minimal increase.
“That’s something we’ll have to talk about,” he said.
Williams said another financial issue on the horizon was EMS funding.
“It’s not just Berlin,” he said. “It’s not just Ocean City. The cost of providing really good, timely EMS services has gone up significantly in the last few years. It’s just the way it is. We don’t want the level of service to be diminished. It’s not something that can be solved unless municipalities, fire companies and Worcester County all sit down and work together.”
Williams expected a tax differential to be a point of discussion among county officials in 2020.
“This may be the year a tax differential seriously has to be considered between the municipalities and Worcester County,” he said.
Williams is hopeful another long-discussed idea that will come to fruition in the coming months is the excursion train. The concept of a tourist train utilizing the freight track that goes through Worcester County was initially brought up five years ago.
“I anticipate this’ll be the year for an excursion train,” Williams said. “I think this is the year it comes together or fades away.”
He believes an excursion train would fit in with historic Berlin and provide tourists with another reason to visit.
“It complements what we’ve been doing for a decade in making the town an attractive destination community,” he said. “We don’t want to change the nature of the town.”
Along the lines of not changing the nature of the town, Williams wants citizens to readdress the concept of a greenbelt around the town next year. The idea of limiting the town’s growth to some extent is mentioned in Berlin’s comprehensive plan, which is set to be reviewed in 2020.
“All the change the community’s gone through, and the greater awareness property owners have, I expect them to be supportive,” Williams said. “We have to decide what’s right for us.”
Another zoning hurdle the town is expected to address in the near future is short-term rentals. The growing popularity of Airbnb has prompted the town’s planning commission to begin drafting an ordinance limiting short-term rentals in Berlin. A proposed ordinance is expected to be reviewed by the commission early next year.
“I think having nothing (in the code) is not responsible,” Williams said. “We want to accommodate Airbnb because it’s part of the 21st century hospitality environment but I think we need to have these operations in the right places.”
He said that while short-term rentals could change the nature of a residential neighborhood, he felt Berlin should make some effort to accommodate them in certain areas.
“Due to our proximity to Assateague and Ocean City we need to do this very thoughtfully,” he said.
Other issues town leaders are likely to address include cleanup at Heron Park, transfer of ownership of the Flower Street Multi-Purpose Building and revisions to the bulk waste policy.