There is much work to do in Berlin on police pay. It’s nothing new. It’s been a problem for many years. It just has not been made a priority by the town’s elected officials. While a couple raises have been given in recent years, the fact remains Berlin pays its police officers far less than comparable size municipalities and the result is several ongoing job vacancies within the department. This needs to be addressed.
At this week’s meeting, emotions came into play as two former town police officers and a current police officer’s wife urged the Mayor and Council to act on these matters after years of similar requests from Police Chief Arnold Downing, who spoke from the heart as did former officers JB Bunting and Michael Hickman and Christina Bireley, a current police’s officer’s spouse. In her eloquent comments, Bireley maintained Berlin’s police force was larger 25 years ago than it is today. “With all the growth and annexation over the last 25 years, how does this make sense?,” she asked.
Though the comments from Bunting, Hickman and Bireley were impactful, it was Downing’s comments that stayed with me days later after hearing them in person. The chief was blunt, emotional and sincere. It’s going to take more money to improve the situation. Until the council admits and commits to allocating more funding – likely through some sort of property tax increase – the situation will continue to be a concern in Berlin. “No one has ever retired (non-medical) from this agency. Think about it. It’s ridiculous. … If we want to make it a priority, it will happen. I have been at the doorstep more than once. I have heard it before. We will believe it when we see it,” Downing said. “LEOPS is the ghost. We were promised and listen to this statement. In January, we made the statement, if we sign the paper in February, it could have been done and we could have it in 2022. Period, so again we are going to have to go all the way around the circle again and wait for the vote. As soon as someone says it’s going to cost another dime, what’s the priority? You’re not going to have good schools, you’re not going to have a good business community, you’re not going to have anybody want to be here or live here if they don’t feel safe. … When somebody wants to complain that we’re too slow and we’re not there when they want us to be there, there’s a reason. … Folks are going to come here because of the dollars, they stay because of retirement. You have to fix both those things. You can’t do one and not the other.”
While the council was clearly moved by all the speakers, no promises were made. Mayor Zack Tyndall said, “We have some things to overcome. We’re aware of those, we’re working through some of those … None of us want to see anything bad happen to any of our officers.”
A clear first step is agreeing to move ahead with the required study of the LEOPS (Law Enforcement Officers Pension System). It cost money to study – funds are included in the budget — and will probably carry a new annual cost of approximately $250,000 for the town’s budget. The town is dragging its feet on this issue because of the funding. Downing is right when he maintains this process should already have happened, but now the earliest this pension will be available for town officers is next July at the start of the new fiscal year. It will come with a cost and could result in a penny or two being weighed as far as a property tax increase. It’s a discussion that must move forward. I think most town residents will accept an incremental bump up in taxes when it’s properly explained why the new revenue is needed.
The Board of License Commissioners handed down one of the heftiest fines and suspensions in recent history this week. The punishment seemed to fit the crime, as it was clear the Seaside Deli Beer and Wine store was beyond sloppy with its underage drinking checks.
Seven teenagers, who brought beer and wine at the store, told their stories of how they purchased the booze. Each acknowledged there being a known awareness “you can purchase alcohol there without an ID.” In fact, an 18-year-old woman testified she had been buying alcohol at the store for at least the last two years. Police had reportedly been hearing from parents and teens about the store’s sales to minors.
The BLC slapped a 60-day suspension (meaning no summer sales) and $12,000 in fines on the store owner after this week’s hearing. It was the egregiousness of the offenses that merited the heaviness and understandably so.
In what could be a sign of the times, Ocean City has shelved a proposed redevelopment of its downtown park between 3rd and 4th streets. The first phase of the project – including paths, utilities, stormwater management, landscaping, lighting, the relocation of the basketball courts, the expansion of the Ocean Bowl skate park and the construction of a new skate park office and restroom – was budgeted for $2.2 million. Only two bids were received – one at $3.8 million and the other at $5 million. The council ultimately decided to put the project on hold, but officials are hoping to inch forward with the skate park expansion and renovation in the meantime.
Due to these rising costs stemming from inflation and supply issues, there could be more of these types of situations where projects are stalled moving ahead, especially if a recession is on the horizon as feared by many.