The first Berlin budget process under Mayor Zack Tyndall has certainly been an eventful one.
This week, Tyndall was successful in asking the Worcester County Commissioners to reconsider decreasing their annual allocation to Berlin by $115,000 over concerns fire company funding has been decreasing over the years. Rather than send a tough message through a funding cut as suggested last week, the county instead this week “put them on notice that this is not going to happen anymore,” in the words of Commission President Joe Mitrecic. He added, “In the future, any municipality that cuts funding to fire/EMS because of an increase from the county, that they lose their unrestricted grant. All of them. …” It was a major deal for the town to avoid this 25% funding reduction, which looked all but inevitable last week based on tough talk from the commissioners.
Though Tyndall avoided this significant hiccup this week, the first-year mayor has dealt with some other blowback during this year’s budget process at Town Hall. In March, when the mayor proposed keeping the tax rate the same, he faced stiff opposition from town staff members who were frank with their frustrations with a perceived hardline budgeting approach – one that was supported by citizens during last year’s election, of course. Tyndall also faced some criticism from his fellow elected officials who sought more transparency on what his budget proposed at the flat tax rate. During the meeting in March, in an effort to keep town services strong, the council ultimately decided the town’s tax rate needed to be increased to .815 per $100 of assessed valuation from the current .80.
It was known at the time at least a few council members were unhappy with not being able to provide employee raises in the next budget and frowned on the mayor’s plan to cut cell phone and vehicle allowances. Consequently, there has been some talk about some last-minute changes to the budget at next week’s meeting. A public hearing is planned on the fiscal year 2022 budget on Monday night. Though details are scant at this time, there is a push among some council members to try and do more – or at least the same — for the employees and reverse Tyndall’s cuts to cell phone and vehicle allowances. Any tweaking would have to come without a change to the approved tax rate, however. It will be interesting to see if the votes are there to evaluate some internal reallocations to undo some of the mayor’s proposed cost-saving changes. It’s tough to argue for cutting employee perks, but restoring them will come with tough decisions on where to take the money from in what has been described by all at town hall as a tight budget by most.
Confusion over what is currently allowed and not permitted on the pandemic front is understandable. Last Thursday was a big day when it was announced people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks indoors. Schools, public transportation and health care facilities were excluded from the change. On Friday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan lifted the indoor facial covering requirement in the state effective the next day. Most places subsequently took down their “mask required” signs, though it’s taken some time for the public to full grasp the changes and why they have happened so fast. Low positivity rates combined with surging vaccination numbers are responsible, according to public health officials.
In his column recently, The Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik put some thoughts together on why people are generally perplexed – it’s all about the messaging. Though personally glad to see this tremendous progress, I think he’s right on the money in criticizing how the message has been delivered by many in authority. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announced last Thursday, “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic. We have all longed for this moment, when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.” I’m thrilled to not wear a mask any more than I must inside, but the skeptic in me questions whether we truly have won and if politics is playing a part here in all these sudden and sweeping changes.
In his column headlined, “CDC has done terrible job in its COVID communications, the latest example: unmasking,” Zurawik wrote, “Really? No masks? No physical distancing? … I am not saying the CDC’s guidance last week is as dangerous as the information that came out of the COVID briefings starring former President Donald Trump. Who can forget the session in which he stood at the White House podium and suggested injecting oneself with bleach would kill the virus?
“But this failure is on President Biden’s CDC and Dr. Walensky, and I think it suggests a cultural problem that has become a serious public health issue during the pandemic. Ours is a media-saturated culture with an overload of highly sophisticated information and disinformation streams competing for our attention. If you can’t communicate your message clearly and effectively, you might as well not have one.
“Medical, government and public health officials must put as much thought, money and expertise into communicating their messages as they do into formulating them. Not being clear, getting it wrong or not reaching the audience at all can be a matter of life and death for members of that intended audience. There is no excuse for that kind of failure.”