It’s been compelling to watch the happenings at Town Hall in Berlin of late. Mayor Zack Tyndall appears to be on an island these days over the budget with staff, division heads and council members disagreeing with him on key aspects of his budget, namely the fact his spending plan does not include any salary increases for staff. Tyndall’s initial budget retained the property tax rate of 80 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. Town council members overruled him, agreeing to a tax rate of .815.
This week the division was even more evident, as town council members unanimously teamed up to blindside the mayor with major amendments to the budget. There were 85 line-item changes made to the budget, but the highlights were a 1.5% salary increase for town employees, transferring some money from the contingency fund and eliminating a couple expensive studies as well as a pricey utility request. The council is within its right to move some money around within the budget, but the changes had to take place within the same tax rate structure approved back in March.
Berlin Councilman Jay Knerr, elected to the at-large seat last fall, led the charge to amend the budget. He felt giving the employees a raise was critical as they have been flat for two years. Of the need to give employee salary increase, Knerr said, “It’s more than necessary, especially in these times when jobs are readily available. We want to do everything we can to retain our employees.” Additionally, Knerr and other council members appear to have philosophical differences with the mayor on how budget funds should be allocated. The only way to improve and address these ideological divides is for the mayor and council members to work through the next budget together before the mayor proposes a tax rate. Armed with knowledge about what the council members feel is important, the mayor can then set his own tax rate with an awareness of what the council will support. The process of setting the tax rate so early in the budget process is something the town needs to take a deep dive at because it’s not practical. The tax rate is being set before council members truly know what it’s in the budget under the current process.
Reacting to the blindside this week, Tyndall believes the altered budget is “not in the best interest of the town.” He remains adamant his budget – the one without employee raises — is best for the long-term financial stability of the town. One of Tyndall’s main talking points when running for office last year was keeping a lid on property taxes and looking out for the property owners on fixed incomes. He ran as a voice of change for the town and was elected with 69% of the vote in an election with the highest turnout in recent memory. Tyndall will veto the budget, but he needs two council members to change their votes to avoid a swift override. It’s unlikely to happen, making the veto largely symbolic and a matter of record.
On the eve of another June, it’s important to review what has taken place in the court system since last summer. By and large, the sentences imposed for those charged with the most serious of offenses have clearly been tougher than in the past. It was one of the tough talking points expressed after last summer. The idea being police could not arrest the resort out of the problem. The arrests needed to lead to convictions and more important max sentences. In this case, there appears to be some substance behind the tough talk last year.
There were periods last June when businesses were closing early because they feared for their employees’ well-being. The Alaska Stand wrote on its Facebook page on a Saturday in mid-June, “We are closed! … we have had more than enough this weekend dealing with a whole new level of disrespect to our staff, our business and our town and we are tired of being the brunt of undeserved verbal abuse by the public when ordering and picking up … we will regroup and try again … get it together OC … we apologize to our beloved and well mannered customers, we cherish and appreciate you to no end.” There were similar sentiments expressed by other business owners. At that time, Mayor Rick Meehan said, “We’re caught in a perfect storm this year for a variety of reasons. We could talk all night about the reasons, but we really need to talk about solutions. It’s ugly out there, we all agree. We expected June, but we didn’t expect June on steroids.”
Whether this June will be a repeat of last year is unknown, but it would be unrealistic to think there will not be similar issues. Many of factors – such as high unemployment payouts and high rental availability — at play last summer remain the reality today. Hope for the best, expect the worst is probably the best approach for law enforcement as police head into a difficult period of the summer.
A positive that has been noticed in recent months is the cases from last June have been adjudicated in the court system with a heavy hand. Though there are exceptions here and there, a review of most serious crime cases from last June show prison sentences have been handed down to the culprits. For example, one of the more heinous acts of violence occurred when a group of teenagers were involved in two serious assaults on the Boardwalk on June 9. One incident involved a suspect hitting a man in the face with a skateboard and in the other – a few blocks away – an individual was stabbed in the back fleeing a brawl. The stabber plead guilty to second-degree assault earlier and was sentenced to 10 years. The 19-year-old man who assaulted the victim with a skateboard pleaded guilty in April and was hit with a 10-year sentence yesterday. Two other individuals involved in lesser roles in the assault were also sentenced to six and three years, respectively.