Even split on Town Council leads to default decision
By Rachel Ravina, Staff Writer
(July 11, 2019) There will be no wetland construction on Graham Avenue and no stormwater fee increase this year to pay for it, after an evenly divided Berlin Town Council agreed Monday to revisit the situation next year.
The non-decision that led to the postponement came after Town Administrator Laura Allen suggested that the mayor and council consider boosting the stormwater utility fee to cover what turned out to be the higher-than-expected cost of the Graham Avenue Submerged Wetland Project.
That endeavor to help control flooding in the area was rejected on June 24 because of the unexpected higher cost and the unwillingness of the council to address that by transferring $37,500 from the water fund to the stormwater fund.
“Increasing the stormwater utility fee will enable the town to complete this and other critical stormwater projects,” Allen said, but with Councilman Elroy Brittingham absent Monday night, the council was evenly split on whether to wait or to proceed.
Complicating the issue was a $75,000 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust for the Graham Avenue project that would have to be returned if the project isn’t completed by Sept. 1.
“It would be a mistake to return the grant funds to the Chesapeake Bay Trust,” Allen argued. “This would send a signal to the state of Maryland and our federal funding partners that we don’t have the capacity to complete critical projects, making us less attractive for additional grants.”
But Councilmen Thom Gulyas and Zack Tyndall, who opposed the addi- tional spending, said they would not change their positions.
“My vote will still stand as well not to do anything with this particular project,” Gulyas said.
Allen proposed increasing the stormwater fees from $50 to $100 per year, or $4.16 to $8.33 per month, for residential properties, and upping the commercial fee from $25 to $32.50 per year, which represents a 30 percent increase.
Several residents opposed higher fees for residential properties than commercial.
Mayor Gee Williams and Berlin resident Jason Walter engaged in a verbal tussle over this issue.
“Are we here to punish people and make their situation worse?” Williams asked.
“Financially, it seems you are,” Walter said.
Williams stated that “this climate change stuff is real,” but Walter then interjected and said “don’t boogeyman us into something.”
Williams also encouraged Walter and other citizens to think long term for the overall benefit of the town.
“We’re all in this together,” Williams said.
“Not really,” Walter replied.
Conversely, Councilmen Dean Burrell and Troy Purnell backed the change in the fee structure.
“I really do think some consideration should be given to a greater increase to that commercial recommendation because I don’t think it is equitable,” Burrell said.
Tyndall, however, saw it differently. “I wouldn’t mind an early discussion of the way that the stormwater utility is structured and the fees that are coming in,” Tyndall said. “We start that process now, we’ll be well on our way for whatever decision we want to make by the time the next fiscal year rolls around.”
Gulyas also reminded council members that he suggested raising the fees in February, but now thinks they should wait until the next fiscal year.
“There’s no way in hell I’m [going to] vote to raise these things now. We’ve done enough to everybody in the town,” he said, apparently referencing this year’s tax increase and utility fees.
“It is enough,” Gulyas said. “We can revisit it next year. For right now, absolutely not.”