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Tax rate increase gets first reading

Business owners, residents again storm Town Council meeting to voice opposition

People sit waiting the start of the Town of Berlin’s Mayor and Council meeting Monday evening.

By Rachel Ravina, Staff Writer

(April 25, 2019) Despite strong opposition from residents, organizations and businesses, the Berlin mayor and Town Council presented a 20-cent increase in the property tax rate on the first reading of the enabling ordinance Monday night.

Nearly every seat in the Town Hall room was filled, as several people expressed their staunch opposition to the proposed rate of $.88 per $100 of assessed value.

The 29 percent increase from 68 cents to 88 cents won’t become official until a second reading of the ordinance occurs and the council votes to approve it.

Representatives of 50 Berlin businesses signed a letter written by Salt Water Media owner Stephanie Fowler, who read the letter to the town officials during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“We are here because we see the incredible potential of this town,” Fowler said in the letter. “You have asked for our input and claimed that our absence from Town Hall is a silent approval. Let us fix that now: we are asking that you do not make it harder to live and work in Berlin.”

Cameron Drew, a member of the Coastal Association of Realtors’ Board of Directors’ also presented a petition with approximately 200 signatures from real estate professionals, businesses and residents.

“The real estate industry is a huge factor in your town’s overall economic health, and you are scaring away both prospective homebuyers and current homeowners,” Drew said.

At times, comments seemed to be directed at the mayor and council as individuals, prompting Councilman Dean Burrell to respond to a charge that he did not take his job seriously.

“When someone questions my integrity as to why I and how I cast my vote, I have to take exception to that,” Burrell said. “You may not agree with how or when I vote, but rest assured my votes are my best vote at that time and I would never improperly cast a vote for anything that’s not above board and not ethical.”

Fowler said she was asked to write the letter at a meeting of Berlin merchants on April 11. She then sent out a revised copy of the letter last Friday, which quickly drew support from other businesses.

“The residents deserve better. The business owners deserve better,”Fowler said in the letter.“Please do better.”

The tax increases would also amount to a $600 increase on the annual tax bill for a home assessed at $300,000.

Resident Laura Arenella who has lived in Berlin for 12 years, said the proposed tax increases would make it difficult for her family to stay.

“I’m disappointed. I’m scared. I don’t want to move, but I’m going to have to move if this goes on,” Arenella said.

Town officials said during a March public meeting the tax rate must be raised because the town has been borrowing from its general fund to subsidize water and wastewater utility rates that have been well below the cost of operation for years.

Initially, the council had said the tax rate could go as high as 98 cents, but later indicated that it might not happen, as Mayor Gee Williams urged the council to stretch out replenishing the general fund as long as possible.

The council’s attempt to explain itself during its April 8 session, however, did little to mollify tax increase opponents.

“I have a real problem with over a 29 percent increase in my taxes,” resident Larry Smith said during the April 8 meeting. “The council and you, mayor, are the ones that screwed this all up. So how come we’ve got to make it up at one time? How come the taxpayers’ backs are being broken to fix your screw-up?”

Still, many residents appeared to have reservations and took a stand against the elected officials’ decision.

“We have heard [the mayor and council] will consider every possibility and all we have seen from this mayor and council is the proposal unprecedented tax increase, and the same mentality that the burden of fixing the mess that you made falls on us,” said Berlin resident Jeff Smith. “I say no.”

Despite having several work sessions, Council member Zack Tyndall asked Williams for more time to discuss the matter.

“What would it take for us to have another work session where we could sit down as a group and discuss the budget?” Tyndall said. “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’s motion to hold another work session at 6 p.m. next Monday was unanimously approved.

A public hearing for the tax rate and constant yield rate is scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 13 at the Town Hall on William Street in Berlin.