General fund budget cuts total 18 percent, $1.3M
By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(April 4, 2019) Some departments were cut more than others, but the numbers in the staff-prepared draft of Berlin’s general fund budget presented to the mayor and Town Council Monday night were 18 percent lower than the previous year’s spending.
To go along with that, Mayor Gee Williams proposed a 20-cent increase in the property tax rate, from 68 to 88 cents per $100 of evaluation, for both residential and commercial properties.
Williams said the general fund draft for the next fiscal year totaled roughly $5.9 million, down nearly $1.3 million from the current year’s budget. He said discussions about increases in water, wastewater and stormwater fees would continue during a utility fund work session scheduled April 15.
“These increases are needed to ensure these three utilities no longer need to borrow from the general fund to support their operations,” Williams said.
“Neither I, or the council, fully grasped the extent and persistence that borrowing from the general fund has posed,” he continued. “I do not believe any of us feel we can continue to borrow from our general fund for the foreseeable future.”
Williams said the budget contained no raises or one-time payments for town workers, but did continue the tradition of offering $50 Food Lion gift cards to employees during the holidays.
He said the budget contained few capital items and that street projects were 100 percent funded by highway user revenues provided by the State of Maryland.
“In your judgment, during this budget process, you can, as in the past, recommend adjustments to this proposed budget, but I do ask you to adopt a final budget that puts an end to continued borrowing from the general fund reserves,” William said.
“By ending the borrowing from our general fund reserves, it will put us in a position to plan for the gradual rebuilding of those reserves over the next several years,” he added.
Town officials had ordered 10 percent cuts in spending across the board, although some departments were slashed more than others.
The elected officials’ budget, for instance, increased 0.29 percent, about $500, while the administration costs were cut almost 20 percent, by more than $317,000.
The finance department budget was lower by 7.49 percent, or about $23,000, over the prior year. Finance Director Natalie Saleh said reaching the 10 percent goal in her case was difficult, because most of her budget was tied up in employee salaries.
Saleh said she ran into the same thing in customer accounts, where the budget trimmed 4.55 percent, or about $16,800. She said cutbacks there included not buying an icemaker so public works and electric department staff could have cold drinks while working during hot summer events.
“I think [cutting] 10 percent’s a good goal, but when we’re getting to a spot when you’re sitting here saying, ‘my budget’s as tight as it can be without cutting salaries,’ that’s what I like to hear,” Councilman Zack Tyndall said.
Councilman Dean Burrell, however, suggested that Tyndall “speak to [his] understanding and not on behalf of the council.”
“Leave my understanding to me,” he said. “We have six folks sitting up and we could have six different opinions. So, I just want it clear that when you speak, you’re speaking for Zack … but you’re not speaking for me.”
Buildings and grounds had the deepest cuts by percentage, nearly 80 percent lower, with $266,650 in total spending reductions. Human Resources Director Jeff Fleetwood said that was largely because the town will postpone renovations of Town Hall to save $200,000.
Cuts in the police budget totaled just over 9 percent, or $187,058.12. Police Chief Arnold Downing said officers would have to make some sacrifices in terms of training, but the cuts would not affect public safety.
Public works reductions were 4.44 percent, or about $3,600, while sanitation costs were lower by more than 56 percent, or $477,829.29. Public Works and Water Resources Director Jane Kreiter said the latter costs were lower because the town purchased two new trucks last year.
The streets budget was reduced 4.33 percent, or about $35,000. Streets scheduled for repair in fiscal 2020 are: Tingle Road, Upshur Lane, Purnell Avenue, Middle Street, East Burley Street, Cape Circle, East Railroad Avenue, and West Germantown Road.
Economic Development decreases were more than 11 percent, about $36,000, and included doing away with the July 3 fireworks celebration and the midnight New Year’s Eve ball drop, both popular events for locals.
The council discussed instead cutting $18,000 in funding for a billboard on Route 50 and restoring the ball drop, but Economic and Community Development Director Ivy Wells said the business community would likely not be in favor of that. Still, she said the decision was ultimately up to the council’s discretion.
The planning department was trimmed 3.73 percent, or just over $7,300.
Parks and recreation spending is projected to increase more than 77 percent, or $78,250, although that’s largely because of grant funding being included in the budget.
Administrative Services Director Mary Bohlen, who oversees that department, said the town is waiting on a $114,000 grant for basketball court lighting for Dr. William Henry Park. If that goes through, the town would spend $9,000 in matching funds, she said.
Bohlen added the parks budget could decrease slightly, because she’s recommending the town no longer fund the annual Movies on Main Street serie. She said the series has been well attended, but the cost per person is unusually high.
Williams said everyone in town was “sharing the pain” in terms of cuts.
Burrell praised town staff, adding, “Overall, I think you all have done a fantastic job in trying to … [reduce] spending.”