Merchants Q&A with Councilman Gulyas
By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(March 28, 2018) “Our chief of police does not make $175,000 a year, councilmembers do, in fact, pay taxes and I’ve got the bills to prove that, and the sky is not falling and we’re not running out of money,” Berlin Town Councilman Thom Gulyas said during a merchant meeting last Thursday evening.
Gulyas addressed those and several other rumors during a session at The Globe restaurant that included several dozen downtown business owners.
Globe owner Jennifer Dawicki said people were concerned by reports of significant property tax increases. She pointed to a recent letter mailed to citizens and business owners in which Mayor Gee Williams indicated tax increases would be higher for commercial properties than for residential ones.
She also recalled a March 11 Town Council meeting, when Williams and other elected officials said they had not heard many citizens weigh in on the big issues.
“Our … absence at Berlin Town Council meetings is approval that our local government is serving us 100 percent correctly,” she said.
Dawicki compared not speaking up during council meetings to not calling out a barber for a bad haircut. She also used her own restaurant as a metaphor.
“If you don’t tell me your cheeseburger isn’t cooked right, I’m going to think you had the best meal of your life,” she said.
During the last merchant meeting, Dawicki said business owners were angry.
“We were pissed,” she said. “We were mad and angry and didn’t understand and didn’t know what to do, and everybody said it out loud. As a business community … we cannot conduct ourselves that way, in my opinion … you have to present yourself kindly and respectfully and participate, and I think that’s how this process might move forward better.”
Gulyas said he’s not just a councilman, but also has run a Berlin business, Ace Printing and Mailing, for more than three decades.
“Like you guys, I’ve got a lot of vested interest in this town,” he said.
He said many of the recent rumors posted on social media were “just way out there.”
“I even heard when I came in here the mayor’s selling his house [and] the town’s gonna buy it,” he said. “None of that is happening.
“Just like Jen said, you guys need to show up and we need to hear you,” Gulyas continued. “There’s five of us [on the council] and the mayor – five people to make the decisions … but if no one shows up … we figure you guys are happy.”
He said the audience during public meetings generally includes “the same five or six people,” including two reporters and a handful of spouses of department heads and elected officials.
“That’s it. That’s all that comes,” he said. “I’m not trying to chastise anybody … but we need your input. We don’t have all the answers.”
Gulyas said misinformation is swirling about the proposed property tax increases.
“I promise you, I am not voting for a 25-cent increase – I’m not going to do that. I have to pay just like you guys do and I don’t think it’s right to do that to any of us,” he said. “I’m also not voting to split the tax rate to make it different for corporations … and lower for residents.
“We’re too small. It’s not going to do anything except drive businesses away, especially the small businesses like yours and mine,” Gulyas continued. “But, unless you come and you tell the four other [council] members sitting up there, I’ve got one vote. You guys need to show up.”
Wooden Octopus owner Matthew Amey asked how the town got to the point where fees were now projected to increase so drastically.
“Why now? Why hasn’t it been incremental?” he asked.
Gulyas said when the town sewer plant was expanded – at a cost of about $18 million – “the company at the time that helped [the town] with that to come up with, these rates missed the target.”
“What they’ve been doing is they’ve been taking money out of this pocket to pay the bills out of this pocket. That’s all that’s happened,” Gulyas said. “We’ve got to put money back into this pocket to pay back the general fund.”
He added, “I don’t think it needs to be done overnight – I don’t want to see it done overnight. I think it’s too much of a stress for all of us.”
Gulyas said the town has been covering utility losses with money from the general fund for several years now, and the blame rests on the mayor and council.
“This is why we’re trying to rectify this now,” he said. “Taking care of sewer and water – especially sewer – is expensive … but as I say to some folks, when you hit that little handle you don’t want that coming back. It’s gotta go somewhere, and we can’t keep dumping it into Kitts Branch, which goes back into the bay.”
He said the State of Maryland years ago ordered the town to stop discharging into Kitts Branch.
“They came in and they said, ‘You will do [something different] or we will shut you down,’” he said.
Asked about annexation, Gulyas said he initially voted against adding the Ocean’s East apartment complex to the town, because “residential annexation does not pay for itself.”
Gulyas said the town is considering two separate commercial annexations, and that when new utility lines need to be run the developer and not the town or taxpayers must pay for that to happen.
“I know a lot of people are scared about annexation,” he said. “If you don’t grow in the right directions, you’re going to die. Costs are going to continue going up [and] we’re going to continue having these kinds of meetings. If you don’t spread the costs out in some way, what are we going to do? What are the alternatives?”
Salt Water Media co-owner Patty Gregorio said there was a rumor the town is planning to charge business owners and their employees to park downtown, and that “there is going to be a special surcharge on businesses to pay for a parking lot.”
Gulyas said it’s obvious the community has parking issues – namely, not having enough space.
“That shouldn’t be government’s job to take care of that,” he said, adding “some type of a metering system” similar to Ocean City was likely. Gulyas said he would favor special parking permits or exceptions for business owners.
“There was a parking study done. It has not been released yet, but I can tell you there is a ton of information,” he said.
Gregorio said Town Administrator Laura Allen told her the two options being discussed were business owners being charged for parking permits for their employees, or face “a special assessment for businesses only” for a new parking garage.
“With all due respect, Mrs. Allen does not make those decisions,” Gulyas said. “We’ve not even discussed anything like that. It’s not even come up. We’ve not even looked at the parking study, except individually on our own, so I can’t say where that information is coming from. But, I can honestly tell you I’ve never heard it before.”
Gulyas said the town is constantly looking for ways to increase public participation, including live streaming future Town Council meetings and adding some level of interaction for people watching at home.
“There’s a lot of folks that can’t attend and they want to attend, and I understand that,” he said. “We are going to take a good look at that real soon.”
Dawicki again encouraged business owners to attend Town Council meetings and make their voices heard. She said anyone at any time can asked to be recognized and to speak.
The next Berlin Town Council meeting is Monday, April 8 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall on 10 Williams Street.
For a list of upcoming public meetings, including budget work sessions, visit www.berlinmd.gov/maryland-government/council-meetings.