BERLIN – While none of the town’s mayoral candidates believe a tax increase is necessary in the coming year, they have varying ideas on how to keep the rate steady.
At last week’s online candidate forum, hosted by The Dispatch, each of the town’s five mayoral candidates were asked how they would approach the budget process. Several advocated for cuts as incumbent Gee Williams touted the services the town provides with its current level of spending.
“The idea that you can somehow cut these essential services and still have the same level of service, it’s dreamland,” Williams said. “It’s not real.”
In the wake of last year’s 18% tax increase, and knowing that one was proposed earlier this year before being nixed as a result of COVID-19, candidates were asked how they’d approach the budget process. Candidate Bill Todd said he’d start with cost reductions.
“I’m not about to sit here and say that if I was elected mayor that raising taxes is completely out of the question…,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a necessity. Of course I’d like to cut spending first. There’s a lot of things we could get into that maybe we’ll save a couple bucks on.”
He said a tax increase would be a last resort.
“If I did I’d make sure it’s in an incremental rate and it wouldn’t be something I’d just smack people on the head with because I made a mistake a while back,” he said.
Candidate Jennifer Allen said residents were always asking her where the town’s money had gone.
“I think the town needs transparency as to where the money has gone,” she said. “So I plan to do an extensive review of the budget to determine what is allocated and if there are items that can be eliminated or reduced. I plan to have a monthly report sent out to all the citizens on town expenditures.”
She shared plans for a 12-year review of Berlin’s budgets as well as reviews of salaries, equipment/vehicles, town contracts and town departments.
“I want to do a full process review of every department where I will look for inefficiencies that can be corrected and will ultimately save money,” she said.
Allen said any tax increase would be on hold until budget audits were completed.
Candidate Zack Tyndall said he hadn’t supported the last tax increase.
“I think it’s important for the people to understand that the role of the mayor is to one, set the tax rate, and two, present a balanced budget to the mayor and council,” Tyndall said. “As the mayor you really have a lot of control over the amount of spending that’s done by the municipality. Granted there is going to be council review and input you have to take into consideration but I didn’t see the necessity of the previous tax increase.”
Tyndall said that as a councilman he’d proposed $100,000 in surface level cuts last year that would have allowed the town to stay in its existing tax structure and that two years ago he’d asked for a comprehensive review of the town’s contracts.
“The follow-through for a procedure like that is essential and something I will be doing as the next mayor,” he said. “We don’t have to look very far for like a secret sauce. The Government Finance Officers Association has several pathways we can go down to be able to look at the cost saving measures for the town of Berlin. That’ll allow us to be able to take some of that overspending and direct that into replenishing our reserves. I don’t see the town as having a revenue problem per se I see it more as a spending problem.”
Candidate Ron Bireley agreed that the last tax increase wasn’t needed.
“I would tell you I am not afraid of raising taxes if it is necessary however my personal feeling is that the budget, the tax increase we had last year was unnecessary,” he said. “I firmly believe there is enough fat in that budget we can reduce that and I have promised the people of Berlin that if elected I am going to reduce the taxes.”
Williams defended the increase instituted last year.
“No one wants to raise taxes at any time, anywhere, but the reality is that just maintaining a level of service expenses go up not down,” he said. “The Town of Berlin, we’ve not just been maintaining services for the last several years, we are clearly improving them.”
He said the town had not increased the tax rate for 12 years.
“Our folks work very hard, they do a very good job,” he said. “When we compare the level of services and response time to communities even larger than us we’re doing really well.”
He said that the town was currently safe, economically viable and charming.
“I think that any idea that you’re going to come in and cut let’s say $100,000 or more, is just not realistic,” he said. “It’s a dream. It’s a nice idea but it’s not reality. I think new residents and families are moving to Berlin like never before. I know they are. They’re not choosing Berlin because it has the lowest tax rate. They’re choosing it because … the quality of life here is unmatched in this region. That quality of life is to be preserved, protected and enhanced by your mayor. That is the message I’ve been getting loud and clear for years. I do not see that changing in the foreseeable future. I also do not see a tax increase being needed in the foreseeable future. Eventually yes but right now the idea we’re in some financial crisis is not true.”