Berlin Budgeting For ‘Less Vigorous Year,’ But Not A ‘Collapse’

Berlin Budgeting For ‘Less Vigorous Year,’ But Not A ‘Collapse’
File photo by Chris Parypa

SNOW HILL – Town officials are expecting at least 5% less revenue in the coming fiscal year as a result of the ongoing health crisis.

The Berlin Town Council met Monday to begin reviewing the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget. As proposed, the budget projects a more than $310,000 drop in revenues in the coming fiscal year.

“We’re taking a very conservative approach with revenues,” Town Administrator Jeff Fleetwood said.

The proposed budget includes revenues of $5,856,759. While the town is set to see roughly a $153,000 gain from assessment increases, a variety of other income streams are expected to be reduced as a result of the impact of COVID-19.

“The news is not really bright out there,” said Finance Director Natalie Saleh.

She said municipalities had been advised to expect a reduction in highway user revenues. The town is also expecting to see slots revenue reduced $150,000 in the new fiscal year. The town has also abandoned plans for a previously discussed tax increase in an effort to ease the stress on citizens during a time when much of the economy is shut down.

Mayor Gee Williams added that the revenue projections were estimates.

“It’s not likely that it’ll get better but it might get worse,” he said.

As far as expenses, most departments were able to cut costs. Fleetwood said the administration budget, estimated at slightly more than $1 million, was expected to decrease nearly 40%, primarily because there was no capital outlay.

The building and grounds portion of the budget is also set to experience a substantial decrease, as Fleetwood is recommending cutting the expense of having town hall cleaned by a cleaning company. Instead, he said town staff would handle the cleaning of town hall while a contractor would still be used to clean the town’s public restrooms as well as the police station.

Councilman Dean Burrell praised the fact that town hall employees were willing to take on additional duties.

“To have your staff step up, it really says a lot,” he said.

While the police budget is set to increase $54,017, or 3%, Chief Arnold Downing said that was primarily due to the addition of the building maintenance expense to the budget and the inclusion of a 9% pay increase for officers. Fleetwood said he was advocating for the pay increase after studying police salaries in the region and determining that Berlin officers were paid less than others.

“They need this pay raise,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind about that… I’m concerned if we don’t do something for our pay some of our younger guys and gals will leave.”

While the public works budget initially presented Monday was set to increase from $71,110 to $133,872, or 85%, to allow for the hiring of a new director, Fleetwood told the council he’d rather postpone hiring a department head and instead use that funding to provide town staff with a 2% salary increase. Williams pointed out that existing staff were currently taking care of public works needs and that the town would not have any capital projects in the coming year.

Councilman Thom Gulyas said he supported providing employees with a pay increase.

“I think they’ve gone a little too long without something…,” he said. “The most important aspect of any business is going to be your employee.”

He added that police absolutely needed a pay increase.

“If the town is not safe nothing is worth being here, not our homes not our businesses, nothing. I think it’s prudent we move forward with this.”

The proposed budget includes few changes for economic development and finance. As for the streets budget, the town is anticipating a 26% reduction in expenditures. Fleetwood stressed that some streets would still be paved, as prioritized by the street study the town had done several years ago.

Planning Director Dave Engelhart presented a departmental budget with few changes.

“You’re budgeting for a less vigorous year than this year for sure but not a collapse,” Williams said, referencing the permits and new development the town would review.

Engelhart confirmed he did not expect a “collapse” and expected development to continue because borrowing money was cheap at the moment.

“I don’t anticipate that changing,” he said, adding that COVID-19 would however affect all industries, including those that supplied raw materials to builders. “It’s a matter of … will they have the supplies they need to build. I think those costs will rise because supply’s going to get tighter. It’s a guess right now where we’re going with the economy.”

The proposed budget can be viewed on the town’s website. Officials are expected to hold another budget work session focusing on utilities April 27. While the public cannot attend due to COVID-19 restrictions, Williams encouraged residents to submit questions in advance of the meeting and to watch the discussion live through Facebook.

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.