Tax objections continue at Town Council mtg.
By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(April 11, 2019) For the last several months, Berlin officials have fought criticism of proposed tax and fee increases by advancing the notion they didn’t know public opposition was so strong because so few people attended council meetings.
On Monday night, the latest in a recent string of well attended meetings, residents stood up and said they were here now, but still felt they weren’t being heard.
For the better part of a year, Mayor Gee Williams has said property taxes would need to increase because spending overages in the water, sewer and stormwater departments forced those self-funded utilities to borrow from the town’s general fund.
In particular, wastewater overages were highlighted on Monday night, as town officials said the spray irrigation site in Newark, while environmentally friendly, has also proved to be much more costly than originally estimated.
Residents, meanwhile, asked officials to consider phased-in increases, rather than the 29 percent figure Williams outlined during a general fund budget introduction last week.
Town Administrator Laura Allen said an $1.8 million general fund shortfall needed to be made up, this year.
Resident Jim Meckley said a recent budget listening session at Stephen Decatur High School drew about 200 people, many of whom many told heart-wrenching stories about how increases could affect them.
“People cried,” he said. “And mayor, at the first work session, you sit down and open your meeting and ask for a 29 percent raise. [That’s] irresponsible.”
“Why do we, as taxpayers, have to take care of what you guys did?” Michelle Bruder asked.
Bruder, a business owner, said she combed through the 2020 budget draft and was appalled by some of the spending items she saw.
“Small leaks sink big ships,” she said. “None of my employees have Sam’s Club [memberships].”
She said the town, among other things, budgeted $2,000 for the memberships.
“The small little things,” Bruder said, alarmed her. “I was like, excuse me? Are you f—— kidding me? I struggle here, as a business owner … I’ve struggled here for 17 years and I have to see this. And I’m sorry, [but] it makes me sick.”
Resident Larry Smith agreed.
“I have a real problem with over a 29 percent increase in my taxes,” he said. “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?”
Williams said the alternative was incremental tax increases, likely over three years.
“That would mean continuing to borrow from reserves for three more years before we stop that,” Williams said.
“Not our problem,” Bruder replied.
Smith said his taxes would go up $600 a year under the proposed increase, and that he already paid more to the Town of Berlin than to the county and state combined.
“I’m retired. I’m not made out of money,” Smith continued. “I think it’s a crying shame … you’re going to price everybody right out of this town. This is ridiculous.”
“We’re going to become a Snow Hill,” Bruder added.
Smith suggested the town get rid of “some of these white elephants you bought” and to stop expanding.
“Every time you annex something or build something else, you’ve gotta increase all the utility fees, because now you’re got extra draws … and you’ve gotta run the lines and everything else,” he said.
Councilman Troy Purnell said the developer, not the town or taxpayers, foots the bill for new hookups, and that expansion helps spread out the cost to operate the town.
“I can tell you right now any growth in this town, things like Ocean’s East, has brought revenue to this town and not had any other expenditures,” Purnell said.
Asked who was paying for the spray irrigation site, Purnell replied, “we all are.”
“We had to do that years and years and years ago, when we ran out of capacity,” he said. “Everybody wanted to get a spray irrigation facility … it was a new idea. It was extremely expensive [and] operating it has become even more expensive than we anticipated. That’s the number-one issue we got and we’re still trying to figure it out.”
Purnell said in one year the deficit at the site was more than $1.1 million.
“That’s when the wheels came off,” he said. “We’re still going to talk about that on the 15th [during a utility fund work session]. We need to know why, but we also need to fix it before it bleeds too much more.”
Homeowners continued to object to the tax increases.
Kim Holloway said her taxes could increase as much as $700, to roughly $2,800. Adding in $3,400 in annual utility fees, Holloway said it costs her $6,200, or almost $520 each month, to live in the town.
“We’ve been proud Berlin residents since 2002. We hold down two jobs. My husband has volunteered in this community since we moved here. We have two sons in college, and we consider ourselves fairly young and active,” she said. “But we are being sucked dry by this town.
“I can’t imagine what the others in this community are going through on fixed income and I don’t see how they can possibly do it,” she continued. “I get zero pleasure from this tax increase, because there are no added services, we’re not getting any new programing [and] you’re cutting events that bring revenue to this town.”
Holloway said taxpayer money has not been spent responsibly and town officials have not paid attention to the problem.
“And the only solution is to pass it onto us with this enormous tax increase,” she said.
Resident Marie Velong said town officials “complained about the participation of the citizens.”
“They have come the last several meetings and said things, and it appears like you’re still going to go about doing what you set out to do to begin with,” she said. “So, what is the point of us coming and expressing ourselves, with anguish, to you?”
Velong asked what was the big emergency that necessitated a large tax increase, all at once?
Williams said the increase would not replace all of the money borrowed from the general fund, but would stop the need to borrow. He said reserves would drop to roughly $2 million by the end of this fiscal year, and he would like to see that level replenished to $4 million or $4.5 million.
Councilman Zack Tyndall noted reserves were as high as $6.5 million in 2016.
“Maybe you have to think about continuing to borrow from the reserves and doing it incrementally, so it doesn’t hurt us,” Velong said. “From what I understand, you have five months of reserves – I know I don’t have five months of reserves to support me.
“You can’t do this all at once. It’s unconscionable to do it. You have got to rethink this plan,” she continued. “You only have working people here … We didn’t get a $600 raise this year.”
Resident and business owner Jennifer Dawicki also suggested an incremental tax increase.
“I will echo, you have told us our silence was approval to you, that you were doing the best that you could with our funds. And we have been here and we are saying, we do not approve,” she said.
Resident John Watson said he’d never been to a Town Hall meeting before, but wanted to let the councilmembers know there was “a level of anxiety and a level of frustration with the town, as far as this tax increase is concerned.”
“We elect you officials to do the good work on our behalf … and obviously you have failed in the last three or four years,” he said. “As an outsider coming in tonight I don’t feel, with all due respect, mayor, that you guys are taking this very seriously.
“You’re the ones that got us into this mess and now you’re putting it onto us to get you out of it, and I think that’s very unfair,” Watson continued. “I’m upset and I’m not happy. And I don’t mean this as a threat … but elections have consequences.”
Councilman Elroy Brittingham said he’s been on the council the longest, and people often forget that elected officials are also residents and taxpayers.
“When we consider all this stuff, we’re not just looking at [the situations] for one or two people – it’s all of us. All of us are in this together,” he said. “Don’t think we’re not listening to everything that you say. We might not be able to do everything that everybody wants us to do, but we do consider what everybody says.”
Brittingham said he was glad people were finally coming to Town Hall meetings and giving their input.
“So, act on it,” Smith said.
“Give us time, we will,” Brittingham said.
A utility fund budget work session is scheduled Monday, April 15 at 5:30 p.m. at Town Hall on 10 William Street.
The next Town Council meeting is scheduled Monday, April 22 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.