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Taxes and roads take over council public comments

Berlin resident Jason Walter confronts Town Councilman Thom Gulyas during a public meeting Monday night.

By Josh Davis, Associate Editor

(March 28, 2019) Two men familiar with the Berlin Town Council dominated the public comments portion of a meeting Monday night, hammering elected officials on issues of taxes and roads.

First was Jason Walter, a Berlin resident who in 2008 ran for the District 2 council seat. He and current At Large Town Councilman Thom Gulyas both lost their bids that year to Lisa Hall.

Walter, an outspoken social media critic of the mayor and council said he was unhappy with Gulyas’ recent behavior.

According to Walter, Gulyas called one or more Berlin residents after Walter criticized the council’s handling of the fiscal 2020 budget, and Gulyas pointed certain off-color language at Walter.

“It’s great to hear you welcome comments and criticism,” Walter said on Monday. “It’s also good to meet new people, but when you meet new people because a councilman calls them to trash your character for having a differing view than the town might have on its spending is not really appropriate.

“Mr. Gulyas, do you have anything to say about that?” Walter continued. “I’ll add I also don’t like … when I ask you budget questions and you ignore them. I think that’s your job as a councilman, is it not?”

Gulyas did not comment during the meeting, but later forwarded a statement:

“Everyone is welcome to come to the council meetings and voice their concerns – we encourage it. It’s an opportunity for us, as a mayor and council, to listen and sometimes … it’s better to listen than speak … often my votes are my voice on the council,” Gulyas said.

Asked a question about proposed property tax increases on Monday, Mayor Gee Williams said he would recommend one rate for both residential and commercial properties.

Williams added “mutual respect and civility is so important,” and the council welcomes public comments.

He said of a public hearing on property taxes and utility fee increases scheduled the following day, “Any question you have is fair game and we’re not trying to restrict anyone.”

“We’re encouraging participation,” Williams said. “The last several years … I think a lot of people basically said, ‘I just don’t want to get involved.’ And that’s not helpful either.”

Walter replied that, “A lot of people don’t feel that you really want to hear from them.”

“That’s from talking to people in my neighborhood, that’s from talking to my former chairman from the [Berlin Utility Commission]. He doesn’t think you really want to hear from us,” Walter said. “I’m still here, despite the efforts of Gulyas. I’m still going to express my opinion. And we can have a dialog. But a lot of people … don’t think that you want to hear from us.”

“That’s the impression that they formed on their own, because we have never told people that they just can’t speak to us,” Williams said.

Williams said the town is looking at new ways of getting information to people better, later mentioning the possibility of live streaming public meetings.

Walter said one problem with public participation is that meetings are not adequately advertised in advance. The agendas for Monday Town Council meetings are generally released on the prior Friday.

“We can’t be the elected public servants and the citizens too,” Williams said. “We’re … trying to experiment with trying new ways of pushing more information out by social media.”

Williams added, “rather than bemoan change, we’re going to try to adapt to it.”

“We’re trying to get information out to the public, it’s just how to get people’s attention when they’re so busy,” Williams said.

“I think the tax increases got some attention!” Walter said.

Walter and Williams later tangled on a tax rate study that included Worcester County, Snow Hill and Pocomoke among the list of comparables, as well as Salisbury and Princess Anne.

“Worcester County is not a municipality, so, in my mind, that shouldn’t be on the sheet,” Walter said. “Salisbury is small city, it’s not a small town … and Princess Anne’s a bigger town than we are,” Walter said. “I think you could pick better comps.”

Water suggested instead looking at Chestertown, where he said, “There are a hell of a lot of tax rates that are lower than ours as they are now, with similar property values.”

“This looked like a sales pitch to me,” he said. “If you broaden the horizons, it’s gonna show that our existing tax rate is already significantly higher than most small municipalities in the State of Maryland, especially if you consider the revenue generated off the assessed value of our property.”

Later during the meeting, resident Larry Smith presented photos of potholes on his street, Cape Circle, and said he doesn’t believe those who conducted a road survey last year even bothered to cross Route 113 to do inspections.

“I drove some of the roads that were on that list and they’re not even as bad as mine,” he said.

Smith said town workers eventually did respond to his request to fill one pothole on his street, but left another next to it untouched.

Addressing Williams directly, Smith said, “When I talked to you the last time on the phone, you said that you would get that pothole fixed, which you did, and you were going to see what they could do to stabilize that street, because the Town of Berlin couldn’t afford to fix that street unless you raised taxes.”

“That’s exactly right,” Williams said.

“Well, now, you’re getting ready to raise taxes – when are you going to fix my street?” Smith asked.

Williams said many of the older streets in town were originally built below current standards and were therefore costly to repair. Some of those streets need to be rebuilt from scratch, including the base layers, he said.

Town Administrator Laura Allen said there were 10 streets ahead of Smith’s on the priority list: Bottle Branch Road, Grace Street, Harrison Avenue, Showell Street, Stevenson Lane, Tingle Road, West Branch Street, Decatur Street and Flower Street.

When the Davis, Bowen & Friedel, Inc. road report was released last year, Allen said about $1.2 million worth of roadwork would need to occur to address those streets labeled “poor.” Typically, she said, the town budgets $100,000 to $200,000 for road repairs each year.

Still, Smith said some residents were being ignored.

“If you’re that side of the highway … we’re like the red-headed stepchildren over there,” Smith said. “I brought this up two years ago when I was here – it depends on who you are and where you live [before] anything gets done in this town.”

“You’re entitled to that opinion,” Williams said.

“I’m going to pay all this extra money, when am I going to get a benefit out of it?” Smith asked.

Councilman Elroy Brittingham said he and Smith had spoken about the subject for many years, and Smith said he and Williams also “go back a long way.”

“It’s so many streets right now that need to be repaved, and we took the professional advice of our engineers … and that’s what we’re going by. It’s not where you live,” Brittingham said.

“I got on the council because of streets,” he continued. “I fought streets, I fought the street I live on, and my street takes more traffic than any street in Berlin – it takes 30 school buses a day, and not counting the parents that go from school to school. You can’t even get out of my driveway in the morning and the afternoon.”

Brittingham, now the council vice president and longest-serving member, said he joined the council to fight for repairs on Flower Street.

“I know how that street is and I know how bad some of the streets were, and I know how bad my street is now,” Smith said.

He later added, “If you fixed all the potholes on [his] street, you’d have it repaved … what do I gotta do, go to [Domino’s Pizza] to get my potholes fixed?

“I just think this town is bleeding money and it’s bleeding in the wrong places,” Smith said. “They have too many white elephants that they purchased or expanded to or whatever, and it’s costing the town dearly now.”