There was a healthy discourse Monday night over the property tax rate at Berlin’s Town Hall. It had a bit of everything, including a few awkward silences, unsuccessful motions, some raised voices and a handful of harsh comments pointed at the mayor.
New members of the council are clearly feeling their way through their first budget process, while Mayor Zack Tyndall is following through on plans he outlined during his successful campaign to unseat former Mayor Gee Williams last fall.
It should come as no surprise Tyndall submitted a budget plan keeping the property tax rate the same. He said that’s what he would do. Retaining the 80 cents per $100 of assessed valuation rate actually means most property owners in Berlin will be paying more because the town property values increased over last year by 3%. Tyndall, as he pledged last year, kept the tax rate the same. In fact, each of the five mayoral candidates last fall said they would not increase taxes this year during budget plans.
Tyndall got roughed up big time at Monday’s meeting, but he stood his ground amid a clearly orchestrated stream of blunt criticism from department heads for his budget and concerns from his council colleagues about excluding them from his budget creation process. Councilman Jay Knerr took specific exception to Tyndall’s latest budget for review being shared on Friday night at 9 p.m. Councilman Jack Orris called the town’s current budget process “flawed,” a word Councilman Dean Burrell used to describe Tyndall’s vision for the town.
Though the opposition to a flat tax rate from staff was predictable, it was startling to hear the level of angst thrown the mayor’s way. Though there were plenty of “respectfully” and “with all due respect” precursors made before launching into criticism, the department heads’ agitation with Tyndall was obvious. It was clear last fall the hope at Town Hall was for Williams to be re-elected. Staff members were simply more comfortable with him after 12 years in the mayor’s office. It was thought Tyndall was going to be more challenging to work with than Williams. It was also known Tyndall wanted to bring change to the town government. This platform of change was given the ultimate vote of confidence when he scored 69% of the votes in a five-horse mayor’s race.
Tyndall is right to want to hold the property tax rate the same. He was given a mandate by town citizens who clearly wanted a change in leadership and soundly voted out former Williams largely because of the 18% tax increase in 2019. Tyndall campaigned on keeping taxes the same and addressing spending. His message resonated. His position is popular in the community but frowned on at Town Hall.
Where the first-year mayor potentially ran afoul was in making the cuts himself rather than instructing departments heads to make their own reductions and being more inclusive with his fellow council members. He felt well versed enough to make the calls on every line item in the budget through meetings with the departments heads. It was said this week department leaders would prefer to cut their own budgets a certain amount rather than having the slices made for them. The argument goes the departments leaders know what’s critical in their budgets and what’s not. It’s an understandable point.
Tyndall took numerous jabs this week from staff and his colleagues, but he was unwavering in his belief the tax rate should remain flat. Referring back to his predecessor who often lambasted critics in town chambers, Tyndall said, “I don’t squash a difference of opinion. If somebody disagrees with me — every single department head in here has said they disagree with what I’m doing. And that’s ok. I don’t hold a grudge. We disagree on something and we can have debate on that issue. That’s all I’m asking for this evening.”
Compromise won out this week with a 1.9% increase in the tax rate (from 80 cents to 81.5 cents). The result seems to be nobody is happy. I am just fine with it because it’s probably the best outcome for Berlin property owners looking to achieve financial stability this year.
How hot is the real estate market? The numbers confirm it’s a seller’s market, but concerns have been bubbling up privately among some veteran Realtors who been through the ups and downs cycles including the 2008 disaster. Time will tell how the market will perform, but a look inside the numbers in Worcester County confirms demand running high and supply low. It’s not unlike the vaccine situation. Here’s some interesting real estate data for February.
•Ocean City: There were 157 closed sales in the month, which is up 57% from last February. There are 164 current listings compared to 170 last February. The median sold price was $322,500, up 38% from February 2020. Compared to the five-year average of 111 days on the market for properties, February’s sold properties were on average on the market for 43 days. There were 173 active listings in February compared to the five-year average of 696.
•Worcester County: There were 219 closed sales in February, representing an increase of 45% over last February. The median sold price was $311,000, up 33% from February of 2020. Properties in the county in February remained on the market for an average of 40 days compared to the five-year average of 99.