District 2 storms Town Council meeting
By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(March 14, 2019) A crowd of Berlin District 2 residents showed up at the Monday night Town Council meeting to protest proposed property tax and utility rate increases.
By the end of a lengthy public comment period, District 2 Councilman Zack Tyndall, who apparently encouraged his constituents to attend, asked for and was granted an additional public meeting on the subject of the next fiscal budget.
Mayor Gee Williams told the audience that property taxes were likely to increase anywhere from 20 to 34 percent. Also presented during the meeting was a Davis, Bowen and Fridel Inc. study that proposed raising sewer rates 15 percent and water rates 10 percent, over a five-year period.
Jeff Auxer said the large turnout underscored how large the problem was. He compared the situation to the NFL, where change at the top is made when expectations are not met. In Berlin, he said, “that head coach is our town administrator.”
“It’s never personal, but a business decision is best for that organization,” Auxer said. “I feel it’s time to start over and correctly fix Berlin’s problems from the ground up.”
Tyndall said the town is considering a split tax rate for residential and commercial property owners. He asked Auxer, a business owner, if a higher rate for businesses would be detrimental.
“I think that that will be passed through to those individual businesses in the form of rent increases and things of that nature, and I’m afraid that we don’t have [adequate] cash flow to be able to substantiate that.”
“I agree with that,” Auxer said.
Jennifer Dawicki, also a local business owner, said talk of a 34-percent tax increase “scared me and got me here tonight.”
She said business owners were willing to work with the town on an incremental increase.
“I’m pretty proud of being of being part of ‘America’s Coolest Small Town.’ I’m pretty proud of everything Berlin has done since I transplanted here from New Jersey seven years ago, but there are things that are super scary other than a tax rate increase,” she said. “Folks that come to my establishment one [or] two times a week are saying that if they can’t handle a rate increase, they’re going to leave the town.
“It’s just going to trickle down to small business, which is going to trickle down to the way I earn a living,” Dawicki added.
Jason Bratten said he emailed several concerns to Williams and Tyndall two weeks ago.
“I haven’t got a response back from the mayor, but we did verbally talk to Zack, because we are neighbors,” he said.
Bratten said he was concerned by reports of tax increases.
“I was outraged when I heard that Berlin may increase their taxes up to 34 percent … and possibly raise their sewer and stormwater rates as well,” he said. “If there is an increase, it should be in phases from at least three-to-five years … not all at one time.”
According to Bratten, if the increase is approved and his mortgage was paid, he would have to budget $350 per month to live in the town. He added other towns were charging for a quarter of a year what he pays monthly for water and sewer.
“My family and I are proud to call Berlin our home and we’d love to continue to say that,” Bratten said. “There are a lot of hardworking, average-income families that live here and other families may be forced to move if the increases continue to come, which would be eventually devastating to Berlin by losing that family friendly, small hometown feel, and that to me is what makes Berlin special.
“I want to continue to live here, but it will be very, very hard to do so,” he added.
James Manley asked if new annexations were adding too much stress to town infrastructure.
Williams said expanding the tax base spreads the cost of operating the town to more taxpayers, which is a good thing. He added if there was less development “there would be even more pressure on fewer people.”
“This is one area where I happen to differ from my colleagues, and it’s not a secret any time you look at the voting history,” he said. “I’m of the belief that if we have a problem, we should fix it, stop the bleeding now, [and] fix whatever’s going wrong before we continue to annex.
“I’ve said that since day one. I will continue to say it for as long as I’m allowed to sit up here,” Tyndall added.
Williams said the town welcomed informed ideas and desires, and he encouraged continued public participation. He added, “citizen participation in democratic government has taken a severe nosedive in the last 25-30 years.”
“We welcome it,” he said. “We’re not a town where we’re trying to say, ‘Well, you don’t have anything to say about it.’ Quite frankly, we have to operate a lot of times on the minimum amount of citizen input.”
On that note, Tyndall moved to schedule a public hearing on the budget and proposed rate increases.
As it is, according to a flyer near the door to the Town Council chamber, the town already has advertised five upcoming public budget meetings, beginning with a general fund work session scheduled April 1 at 5:30 p.m. at Town Hall. Tyndall, however, said that was not enough.
“I want to hear from the people of Berlin,” he said. “We know the fire department’s going to come with more increases. We know that certain things need to be met. And I want to understand from the public, not just through a phone call – not me sharing my experiences that I’ve had – but I want to be able to hear from everybody in a formal setting before we start sitting down with our department heads.
“I want to hear it and, if the rest of my colleagues don’t want to, then I think that’s fine,” Tyndall added.
Councilman Dean Burrell replied that there were already plenty of opportunities for the public to make its voice heard – if people bothered to show up.
“Folks can come just like tonight,” he said. “We have these meetings every other week and it is incumbent upon you and express your opinions. We have ample opportunity for you to express your opinions.”
He said some of the opinions expressed Monday night could have changed his mind when the council voted several years ago to purchase the former Tyson’s chicken plant, for example.
“Unless you say what you think, we think nonparticipation is your approval, so it goes both ways,” he said. “Come and share with us, please, what you think … and I’ll bet you a dollar to a donut hole you will be surprised at the impact your statements have.”
Burrell said the council is in session every second and fourth Monday at 7 p.m. at Town Hall on 1 William Street.
He said anyone could be recognized during any meeting at any time, simply by raising their hand.
At that point, one woman in the audience yelled the town waited too long to take action and was now in financial trouble.
“The town is not in financial trouble,” he said. “We don’t want to get in trouble … we are trying to head that off.
“The trash truck, was it to your house, picking up your trash? Or that police car … it didn’t get that way by magic! It costs money,” Burrell said.
He moved to adjourn, but Tyndall’s motion was still on the table.
Council members voted 3-2 to set a special meeting on March 26 at 6 p.m. at the Stephen Decatur High School Auditorium. Burrell and Councilman Troy Purnell were not in favor.
Tyndall, on Tuesday, emailed the following statement regarding the meeting:
“Many of the people that I have talked to, and those that spoke last night, were unsure of when they could express their concerns publicly. Pertaining to the budget process the mayor and council have budget work sessions where we invite the public to watch us work with each department as we craft our overall budget but unfortunately, these meetings are not designed for public comment.
“Following these work sessions there is a hearing where we offer the opportunity for the public to express their input about the tax rate but by this point, much of the budget has begun to fall into place. Then there is an opportunity before the budget is voted on by the mayor and council where the public can voice concerns before it comes up for a vote but by this point, things are usually more set into place and it’s more difficult to make major changes.
“Knowing this and hearing the concerns expressed last night during public comment, I wanted to allow people to have an opportunity to express their concerns early in the process. This way we can hear from the people of Berlin before we start meeting with department heads and crafting the budget. This is also the time when adjustments are the easiest to make to help meet the needs of our constituents.”