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Berlin delays decision on how to raise business license fees

By Jack Chavez, Staff Writer

The Berlin Mayor and Town Council tabled a motion to raise the business license fee to $150 from $75. The fee, which has been in place since 2009, will be looked at further to see if it is feasible to make the fee more expensive or cheaper depending on a business’s location and/or category.

(April 27, 2023) Businesses in downtown Berlin could pay a little more for their business licenses than a business on Flower Street. Or, perhaps, a Main Street small florist won’t pay as much as their restaurant neighbor.

The Berlin mayor and Town Council agreed to table a motion during their Monday meeting that would double the business license fee to $150 for all businesses after some councilmembers questioned whether it was fair for all businesses to pay the same amount.

“During the FY budget work session, it was recommended that we adjust our business license fees since it hadn’t been adjusted since it was established in May 2009,” Economic and Community Development Director Ivy Wells said at the meeting.

The fee, Mayor Zack Tyndall added, was designed to cover the town’s costs associated with issuing business licenses, which include the staff needed to process licenses.

Business licenses are handled by the Finance, Economic and Community Development and Planning departments.

The process starts with the Finance Department, Finance Director Natalie Saleh said, then it moves to Planning Director Dave Engelhart’s department to ensure that the building is up to code and regulations are in place. Finally, a new business will work with the Economic and Community Development Department to iron out the final details and receive its license.

Councilmember Dean Burrell asked if it would be appropriate to have “special fee areas” within the town, essentially tiering licenses based on location.

“I think that a business on Flower Street, a business on Branch Street, does not receive the same level of services as one downtown,” Burrell said.

Wells pointed out that some of the businesses in the town’s Arts and Entertainment district and along Main Street pay for extra sponsorship.

For instance, the annual “Ice Ice Berlin” in the winter is paid “95 percent” by businesses.

“I understand that but my reference is (to) the equitable delivery of town services as it relates to businesses throughout the town, and I’m under the impression that Main Street … they receive greater service,” Burrell responded.

“Let’s not make this something that is unreasonable … I’m saying that in my opinion, the fees should be different for a business in that Main Street corridor as it relates to a business over on Branch Street or Old Ocean City Boulevard.

Councilmember Jay Knerr floated the possibility of structuring the rate on other criteria, such as the size of a restaurant determining the fee, but Wells threw cold water on the idea.

“Last year, Natalie and I discussed that exact process,” Wells said. “It ended up with it takes more staff time to try and figure out how a certain business fits into a certain column instead of a (set rate).”

Wells pointed out that the town does get extra funding for having an Arts and Entertainment district.

“There are benefits of being designated Main Street,” she said. “(Those businesses) can apply for certain designated grant funding, which helps offset costs of like benches, trash cans. (That stuff) is paid for by grants. Artists have the benefit of not paying income tax on the art they sell.”

Town administrator Mary Bohlen asked the mayor and council to give staff time to explore the ideas proposed and determine if a more detailed fee schedule is feasible.

After clarification from Tyndall, they determined that the criteria should be either a geographic fee, a classification fee or a flat fee for every business.