Just because the Town of Berlin released numbers this week on revenue projections from potential property tax increases doesn’t necessarily mean they will happen. It does seem highly likely, however.
Town officials all but assured property owners another tax increase was coming this year on the heels of last year’s 18% hike, but they indicated last year it would not be as large. At this week’s meeting, the reality of a smaller tax increase seemed to play out with data being provided on what it would mean for the town’s revenue if the current property tax rate of 80 cents per $100 of assessed valuation was raised to 83 cents $130,879 in new revenue), 85 cents ($218,132 in new revenue) and 87 cents ($305,384 in new revenue), respectively. The annual tax bill for a property assessed at $275,000 is currently $2,200 at a tax rate of 80 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The property tax payouts at the proposed new tax rates of 83 cents would be $2,282.50; at 85 cents would be $2,337.50; and at 87 cents would be $2,392.50.
My nickel bet would be property taxes are headed up at least five cents this year – which would be an increase of 6%. The bigger question and unknown at this time is what utility fees will be increased by the town this year. I would bet another nickel the town’s residential and commercial stormwater fee will see major increases this year to help make it self-sustaining rather than needing general fund dollars to stay solvent every year.
On the budget front, Berlin Councilman Thom Gulyas was active on social media this week. He has been frequently reacting with laugh emojis on this paper’s Facebook page when citizens post comments in response to stories about the town. Though the emojis were deleted later in the week, Gulyas posted on his councilman Facebook page about the ongoing budget process.
“I just want the citizens of Berlin to know that while the Mayor of the Town of Berlin must, by charter, create a budget each year for the town, it’s not cast in stone,” Gulyas wrote. “Anyone who has ever worked on a budget knows that you’ve got to have a starting point somewhere. Well, respectfully, this is where the Mayor feels the starting point needs to be. That’s all this is. A starting point. It is ultimately up to the Council Members to review these recommendations from the Mayor and then act upon them. This Mayor and Council will be more than welcoming to hear any positive input from the public.”
While he’s right it’s a fluid process in its early stages, the property tax rate is going up this year. If it’s needed to repair roads while stabilizing reserves, then so be it. The town has been clear there will be two years of property tax increases. Nobody likes spending more money than the year before if what’s coming in is not increasing too. This seems to be the source of concern for many in largely blue-collar Berlin, which has a high senior population on fixed incomes, derived mostly from Social Security payments.
What I seek throughout this budget process is an assurance this property tax hike trend will not continue next year. Some town officials have called this process a rightsizing of the tax rate because it should have been gradually increased over the years to keep up with rising costs rather than remaining flat. It’s a debatable position, but clearly three consecutive years of property tax rate increases coupled with utility fee hikes would be unfair and too much to ask of the property owners.
Though Berlin and legislative officials as well as residents have been advocating for changes to the intersection of Route 113 and South Main Street, it would be wrong to think a stoplight will be a result of the current evaluation by the State Highway Administration (SHA).
Senator Mary Beth Carozza confirmed this week SHA officials are reviewing accident data and traffic volume for the intersection. When the assessment is complete, SHA will reportedly weigh in on recommendations for possible safety improvements if funding is available. With last week’s fatality putting a spotlight on the intersection, it’s a worthwhile review by SHA. Similar evaluations have been done in the past and volume numbers did not support a new traffic light be added. Therefore, it stands to reason expectations should be tempered somewhat unless traffic volumes have surged. An argument could be made traffic has become more robust in recent years.
Those favoring a light be placed at the intersection only need to look to the south 12 miles though for hope. After years of concluding accident data and traffic volume didn’t warrant one be constructed, SHA did just in 2013 approve a traffic light at the Routes 113 and 12 intersection after years of hearing from the community about safety concerns. Back in 2013, SHA reported about 8,000 vehicles passed through the intersection each day and 60 accidents had occurred at the intersection in about six years.
Many in Berlin, especially school bus drivers and parents of students at nearby schools, are hoping SHA will see fit to add a light like it did in Snow Hill. I hope I am wrong, but I don’t think it will happen. A more reasonable expectation may be lighting enhancements and other safety measures to improve visibility.