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Resident backlash hits Berlin Falls park

Berlin Falls park became the focus of a lengthy public comments period during a council meeting on Monday night. Residents said they were not in favor of spending $124,000 to demolish several small buildings while the town was facing significant property tax and utility rate increases.

Public park purchase questioned

By Josh Davis, Associate Editor

(March 14, 2019) In approving $124,000 to demolish seven small buildings and a digester at Berlin Falls park on Monday night, the Town Council gave an angry mob a focal point in its objections to town spending.

The 5-0 vote came after months of research by town staff on whether the buildings could be repurposed. The vote also was preceded by several months of debate by the Berlin Falls Park Advisory Committee on potential alternate uses.

When none were deemed worthwhile, the committee recommended demolition and the Town Council awarded a contract to Coastal Site Works LLC.

Funding for the project comes from a $3 million bond to buy the property, with $2.5 million earmarked for the property itself based on the appraised value, and $500,000 set aside for park development.

The topic dominated the nearly two-hour public comment period at the end of the council meeting.

Jordan Pippin asked if any of the buildings being torn down could be converted for commercial use.

“The question that I’m asking [is], is there any room for negotiation to do something with the buildings that we’re talking about tearing down before we tear them down?” he asked.

Planning Director Dave Engelhart said of the seven buildings marked for demolition, perhaps one could be used for something else.

“And that would be with major work,” he said. “They don’t have water [and] they don’t have electric currently … it’s not hooked up into town utilities.

“At one point, they had wells and septic that were abandoned years ago that you can’t reconnect to [because of] state standards,” Engelhart continued. “That would be a large expense of infrastructure to service the property for even one restroom – that’s why we don’t have a public restroom there yet.”

He added, “We’ve had those discussions internally for quite a while now.”

Resident Cindi Krempel asked if reports in local newspapers were true that the town was considering 30 percent or greater property tax increases. Mayor Gee William said that was the high end.

“I was a journalist for 30-some years. If I was writing a headline or a lede for a story, I would’ve used the same, exact thing. It gets everybody’s attention,” he said. “But the range is anywhere from 20 percent to 34 percent. Anything less than 20 percent wouldn’t [be enough].”

Krempel asked to make a suggestion.

“I think the first place you should look is spending,” she said. “I have a question about the $124,000 we’re paying to knock down buildings on a property we have no plans to do anything on.

“We’re at a place right now where you’re looking at [a] 20 to 34 percent increase, and I say $124,000 to knock down buildings on a worthless piece of property at this point is not responsible spending,” Krempel added, drawing applause from the large crowd in attendance.

Grayson Mayne said he understood the need to raise taxes, but said he was angry the town has been “operating the water and sewer at a loss since 2006.”

“If you take it out over 15 year or 16 years, you can put it back over 16 years, instead of taking 34 percent – or even 15 percent,” he said.

He added, “When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you do is stop digging. Stop spending $140,000, or whatever it is tearing them buildings over at the chicken plant.”

Mayne said town officials earlier during the meeting commented it was the first time they’d heard such objections to Berlin Falls park.

“Well, we kind of trusted you to spend our money [wisely],” he said. “Obviously, that’s not the case.”

Krempel asked if Williams and the council could now agree the Berlin Falls property purchase was a mistake.

Councilman Dean Burrell did not. He indicated the property was at one time on the verge of being sold for another industrial use. It was formerly a Tyson’s chicken plant.

“The room is full now, but if a seafood processing plant had moved in there, the room would be running over,” he said. “We bought that place so we could control what goes there, to ensure and help build the quality of life and the air we breathe here in the Town of Berlin – that was the major reason.”

Jim Meckley called Berlin Falls park a boondoggle that “is dragging this place down.”

“In 2015, a person asked what if we cannot sustain this property, will taxes go up? And your answer was, ‘If we are that incumbent then, yes, taxes will go up.’ We’ve arrived,” Meckley said, adding “One hundred and twenty four thousand dollars to tear down a bunch of buildings – for what?”

He said David Deutsch was paid $50,000 as the park coordinator “to study about this boondoggle, and where has it gotten us?”

“I understand why you bought [the property]. You didn’t want another commercial property going there … but for God’s sake, sell it,” Meckley said. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who would love to have that property.”

Bill Todd asked if the property could be sold to a responsible business.

“You said you bought this property to secure it, to make sure somebody doesn’t come in here. I think that’s done,” he said. “Can we pursue selling this property now, as a town, and bring money back that we need?”

Todd went on to say the town should work with other businesses to better utilize Berlin Falls, perhaps moving the farmer’s market to that site to save parking spaces downtown.

“We’re just trying to be realistic. There’s a huge piece of property over here that’s completely underutilized, especially at this moment,” he said. “There’s not a definitive plan as to what’s going to happen, and what I’ve heard the whole time is you bought it to make sure there’s not a seafood company coming in to run it. Well, now we own it, we can secure it, there’s not a seafood company coming in, let’s sell this damned thing.”

One woman, who did not give her name, asked if the town would have bought the property if a town councilman, Troy Purnell, had not owned it.

“That property, since the ’40s, has been a major detriment for the northern part of the Town of Berlin,” Williams said.

“I still say that was a mistake – buying that Tyson’s [plant] and going up in debt, spending our money, and now you want us to pay for your mistakes,” the woman said.

Councilman Elroy Brittingham, the longest-serving person on the council, replied, “I’ve probably spent more time on this council fighting that plant. I think eventually that plant is going to benefit the town.”

“I probably won’t live to see the town pay for it, and neither will you,” the woman said. “If the town paid that much money for that property … I would be ashamed – and I said a-shamed – to tell the people in Berlin I’m going to raise their taxes.”

Marie Velong said she’s lived in Berlin since 1976. She said changes on Main Street meant little to her, as streets in her neighborhood were neglected and she felt her voice was not heard.

“You’ve got to stop spending on frivolous [things] … Berlin Falls was a frivolous purchase and if it’s nothing else, don’t develop it now,” she said. “Quit spending on it, close it off. It’s dangerous back there [and] you shouldn’t be using it as a park anyway, as far as I’m concerned.”

Velong said she was not in favor of “annexing anything else until you get a handle on what’s going on in our town, on our streets, our sidewalks.

“That’s what we want. We don’t need all this fancy stuff,” she said. “I don’t care if we’re the ‘Coolest Town in America’ – I just want it to be a nice town.”