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Berlin looking at ‘painful’ year ahead as budget work steps up

By Jack Chavez, Staff Writer

The proposed FY24 Berlin budget includes $100,000 for West Street, which has been plagued by drainage and safety issues for years. JACK CHAVEZ/BAYSIDE GAZETTE

(April 6, 2023) Berlin Mayor Zack Tyndall and the Town Council praised their department heads for submitting fiscally conservative requests during an FY24 budget work session on Monday, but after most items discussed in the nearly four-hour session, one troubling question continued to persist:

How are we going to pay for this?

There is an obvious answer, of course, but that answer, raising taxes and fees, is one that town officials indicated over and over again they consider with regret.

“We don’t get joy (out of this),” said Tyndall said at the end of the meeting. “We don’t take any of those things lightly. On the other side of the equation, we want to keep Berlin as affordable as possible. “

The shortfall between revenues and spending faced by the town comes to about $342,000, against a requested $11.3 million.

By keeping the real property tax the same, the town can expect an uptick of 7 percent in revenue, or about $275,000.

But the town is also looking at other ways to maximize its revenues in ways that could soften the blow for residents.

One idea was to create a fee for business licenses in the downtown area, which Councilmember Dean Burrell suggested in a question to Town Finance Director Natalie Saleh.

“My business license should not be the same for Flower Street as downtown Berlin,” Burrell said at the end of the meeting.

Saleh didn’t exactly endorse the idea, saying that in such a small town — Berlin has about 4,500 residents — categorizing businesses is complicated.

But she didn’t condemn the idea, either.

“If you’d like to establish a special fee for downtown versus outside of downtown, it’s up for discussion,” she said.

Tyndall pointed out that he and his colleagues would need to move quickly on such an idea, as it’d need to be in place by July 1 to have any effect on FY24.

The mayor and council also discussed restructuring trash pick-up fees.

Even with a deficit to overcome, Berlin is still looking for ways to move on long-sought projects, such as improvements to West Street, which were included in the budget at $100,000.

Tyndall said that town administrator Mary Bohlen suggested in a closed meeting that the town’s reserve impact fees could be used to fund the project. For years, residents and pedestrians alike have complained about drainage and safety issues, respectively, along the road.

Councilmember Shaneka Nichols said she supports the idea of looking at how impact fees are used and set up.

“It’s something that we need to think about with the growth and I’m hoping that with all this talk of the growth development … that those things are brought up,” she said. “Not just that it’s coming from us but that it’s seen from a larger scale that with growth and development comes with increased cost.”

Ultimately, the mayor and council know there’s likely no realistic scenario in which residents won’t have to pay more.

“This is going to be very, very difficult,” Councilmember Jay Knerr said. “You can take a surgeon’s knife to this budget and it’s just not going to go anywhere. It’s very hard.”

Tyndall, reiterating that the fact the budget has already been pared down from what it was just a couple of months ago, lamented the rising “cost of doing business” and the cost of “going into the digital realm.”

He pointed out that he comes from a generation of Berliners that have long struggled with the rising cost of living, many of whom have left Berlin for more affordable destinations.

“This position we’re in, I hope it changes,” he said. “But it’s going to be a painful year.”