By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(April 19, 2018) The Town of Berlin introduced the first draft of its fiscal 2019 general fund budget Monday by unveiling a $7.05 million package that contains a projected decrease of almost 9 percent.
General fund spending covers elected officials, administration, finance, customer accounts, buildings and grounds, police, public works, sanitation, streets, economic development, planning, parks and recreation and debt service.
Town employees look to get a 3 percent across-the-board pay increase, along with a one-time $500 per-employee payment, to be given on Thanksgiving.
Among the significant projects funded in the preliminary budget were a parking study, $20,000, and comprehensive plan update, $10,000, both of which would be booked to administration.
The buildings and grounds budget listed $200,000 for a Town Hall renovation and $70,000 for a Town Hall elevator.
A 95 percent drop in spending for capital projects accounts for most of the projected decrease, and the bulk of that, $1.7 million, was for equipment for the new police station, which was covered in last year’s budget.
Utilities for the much larger standalone station near Flower Street and Assateague Road are projected to increase about $29,000 more.
Ten body cameras at $10,000 and a Chevy Tahoe for $40,000 were also listed in the police budget.
A more than 1,200 percent increase in the sanitation capital outlay equipment request was because of a new automated-arm garbage truck, $280,000, and a recycling truck at $190,000.
Parks and recreation budgeted $133,000 for permanent restrooms at Stephen Decatur Park, $20,000 for playground equipment at the new Oceans East apartment complex and $5,000 for improvements to the tot lot at Dr. William Henry Park. The majority of the restroom cost, $120,000, could come from a state Community Parks and Playgrounds grant.
Separate from the parks and recreation budget was $100,000 earmarked for Berlin Falls park capital projects. Town administrator Laura Allen said allocation of that money would be up to the Berlin Falls Park Committee.
The budget includes $250,000 for the Berlin Fire Company and $150,000 for EMS services. Allen said that number is consistent with recent years and unlikely to change, although fire company personnel are expected to discuss the funding request at the next Town Council meeting, April 23.
Much of the discussion during a budget introduction meeting Monday night at Town Hall was on the rising cost of health insurance.
Employee health insurance was projected to increase about 24 percent, while health insurance claims look to rise 80 percent.
However, Human Resources Director Jeff Fleetwood said those numbers were skewed because the town was forced to switch carriers last September when Evergreen Insurance went bankrupt. He said actual health insurance costs were projected to increase about 3.68 percent and could be as low as 3 percent when the budget is finalized.
He said the change in carriers also affected health insurance claims, because the plans were structured differently.
Chris Carroll, vice president of Atlantic/Smith, Cropper & Deeley, said demographics were the biggest factor in employee health insurance costs, and Mayor Gee Williams added a large percentage of town employees were within retirement age.
“They’re very experienced, but I think we have to keep in mind … 10 or 12 years from now we’re going to have a very young workforce,” Williams said.
Williams said workers’ compensation at the police department was the highest in memory and is projected to more than double from $93,000 to almost $200,000.
Fleetwood said overall workers’ compensation is expected to grow from $242,000 in fiscal 2018 to $372,000 in 2019.
He said he could discuss the matter further during closed session, but added in the police department there were “two very expensive claims, one of which there’s not a thing on God’s earth we could’ve done differently” to prevent.
“The good news is, that particular officer is now back to work,” Fleetwood said. “To call it like it is without using names, he’s had two spinal fusions.”
He said those costs would likely decrease over time, because workers’ compensation is determined by a three-year average and several anomalous years were due to come off the books.
A utility fund work session is scheduled for April 30 at 5:30 p.m. at Town Hall.
Allen said introduction of a full budget draft would occur in May, with adoption likely during council meetings on June 11 or June 25.