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Berlin tax rate proposal falls a few notches

Mayor, council present plan to go from 68 to 80 cents

Berlin Mayor Gee Williams, left, Councilmen Dean Burrell and Troy Purnell, as well as Town Administrator Laura Allen, converse during a work session Monday evening.

By Rachel Ravina, Staff Writer

(May 2, 2019) After months of debate and presentations, members of the Berlin Town Council now appear to favor a tax increase much lower than the harshly criticized 29 percent.

When next year’s budget was introduced last week, Mayor Gee Williams presented what amounted to a 29 percent property tax increase. During a work session on Monday, however, Williams and councilmembers instead discussed raising the rate about 18 percent.

The newly proposed rate would come out to $.80 per $100 of assessed value for the upcoming fiscal year, according to Mayor Gee Williams. Fiscal year 2021’s rate is “to be determined.”

For $200,000 of assessed value, the new rate would figure $1,640 total per year and a $240 increase, which represents a $20-per-month increase, he said.

For properties assessed at $400,000, Williams said the tax bill would be $3,280 per year, which is a $480 increase or $40 more per month.

They agreed the 29 percent tax rate, or $.88 per $100 of assessed value, introduced during an April 22 council meeting was too high.

“It was a good place to start and got everybody to pay attention,” Williams said.

Fifty businesses cosigned a letter read by Salt Water Media owner Stephanie Fowler, and numerous residents expressed their frustrations with the proposed 29 percent increase during a three-hour meeting last Monday night.

Councilman Zack Tyndall then implored his fellow elected officials to schedule another work session.

“Because I mean, honestly, I think it’s a good foot forward, but I can’t vote for it in the way that it is right at this moment,” Tyndall said in April.

John Stern, managing partner of PKS & Company accountants said Monday night “it was unforgivable” that there hadn’t been a tax increase in 12 years.

“I apologize for not raising taxes more often,” Williams said.

Before reaching a compromise, the mayor and council reviewed several property tax rate scenarios:

  • A 30 percent increase, or $.88 per $100 of assessed value for fiscal year 2020
  • A 20 percent increase, or $.82 per $100 of assessed value for fiscal year 2020 and a 7 percent increase or $.88 per $100 of assessed value for fiscal year 2021
  • A 15 percent increase, or $.78 per $100 of assessed value for fiscal year 2020 and a 7 percent increase or $.83 per $100 of assessed value for fiscal year 2021
  • A 7 percent increase, or $.73 per $100 of assessed value for fiscal year 2020

The variation of the new proposed rate comes from the second option, which was lowered from the 20 percent increase.

“This has to be a collective decision,” Williams said.

Additionally, members of the mayor and council concurred that an aggressive approach to covering the sewer service expense would work best, going to a 25 percent increase as opposed to the recently proposed 20 percent.

“This stops further borrowing from the general fund,” Williams said.

The water utility fee would increase by 5 percent.

“No doubt about [it], the wastewater rate has got to break even,” said Councilman Troy Purnell.

Town Administrator Laura Allen also said having an expert assess the water and wastewater utility and restructure to account for equivalent dwelling units, debt service repayment and building capital is crucial.

“There is no doubt we need an expert on this,” Purnell said.

Williams said the restructuring would begin for fiscal year 2021.

Williams briefly allowed public comment from the floor, and resident Jim Meckly urged the members of the mayor and council not to impose a 30 percent tax increase. However, there appeared to be a miscommunication between the two as Williams had already clarified they didn’t want to do that.

“I think your mind is made up,” Meckly said.

Williams then pounded his fist on the desk in anger.

“I am damn tired of people telling me what I think,” Williams said. “I have to put out the word there of what our situation is financially. I think we [are] trying to come up with the best possible solution we can, and we’re not considering that proposed rate. We’ve heard the votes, we’ve said it’s got to come down. Now we’re trying to figure out what is the lowest rate actually that we can have and still meet obligations.”

Councilmen Purnell and Elroy Brittingham told Meckly they’ve listened to the public’s concerns.

“Don’t think we haven’t heard you,” Purnell said. “We’re making the best decision we can with the information we got.”

Tyndall said he had combed through the budget looking for things to cut from several departments, including BJ’s and Sam’s Club memberships, cell phone and travel expenses.

Other council members opposed the work cell phone expense because they felt the reimbursement was necessary.

“I think the cell phone thing would seriously impact services … I would hate to see that cut because when stuff breaks, it’s the staff that we have to contact and get up with and we pretty much require that they have a cell phone in those cases. So if we’re going to require, I would have to support it,” Councilman Dean Burrell said.

Tyndall also proposed ridding himself personally of a BJ’s and Sam’s Club membership, a cell phone and travel obligations.

“We already cut it, just so you know,” Williams responded.

That then prompted back-and-forth between Williams and Tyndall.

“It’s not just one council[person], we’re gonna treat everybody the same, and It’s already been done,” Williams said.

Tyndall still said he wanted to cover his own expenses.

“No, no, you are trying to be some sort of sacrifice when we’ve already made that cut in the proposed budget that’s being considered,” Williams said.

Williams said a first reading of the tax rate ordinance as well as a public hearing for the proposed budget is set for 7 p.m. on May 13 in Town Hall on William Street in Berlin.

Councilman Thom Gulyas was not present during Monday’s work session because of personal circumstances.