By Jack Chavez, Staff Writer
(March 2, 2023) The Town of Berlin is making it clear that casino funds should not be the sole funding source for the Law Enforcement Officer Pension System (LEOPS) that the mayor and Town Council signed up for two weeks ago.
Before Monday’s regularly scheduled meeting of the mayor and council, town officials and staff met to discuss how to divide the money it will receive in local impact grants from the Ocean Downs casino.
The town is forecasted to receive $418,142 in FY24, $458,284 in FY25 and $502,279 in FY26.
The initial intent of the meeting was to focus on LEOPS, a Flower Street Community Center, the Town Hall building, a public works facility upgrade or replacement, infrastructure needs, capital reserve funding for fire and EMS services, defibrillators, geographic information systems and radios.
Perhaps the biggest question the town regarding LEOPS is just how it will pay for it — an annual expense of $340,000.
Councilmember Jay Knerr and Steve Green suggested using the grant money to free up funds for some of the aforementioned projects.
Greens said that to start, the town could use $150,000 for LEOPS and $100,000 for the community center.
“In my mind, I see (us committing to) as many uses as possible (for this money,” Green said.
One idea that came out of the meeting was the possibility of hiring a code enforcement officer.
“If there’s a rule on the books and it’s just not being followed in terms of zoning or whatnot or tall grass, I think (someone to address such issues would be a benefit,” said Councilmember Jack Orris.
Councilmember Dean Burrell said the town needs to be more proactive with code enforcement.
“As it stands now, we are (for a large part) dependent upon citizen complaints,” he said. “That’s OK but we should not strive to put our citizens in those situations to snitch on their neighbors … We need to be out there looking for ourselves.”
Mayor Zack Tyndall said that there was once such a position in the Planning Department — and that the town code says the town “shall have” a code enforcement officer — but, again, the duties had been passed off to the “busy” Planning Department.
“I think there might be some better ways to tackle similar challenges, whether that’s full-time or part-time, we don’t know,” he said.
An idea of Tyndall’s to address code enforcement was to establish a citizen’s reporting system, but Councilmember Jack Orris said that, regardless, they would need to create a new position within the town to oversee such a project.
Another idea touted by Green and Orris was either to eliminate or reduce the water and sewer capital fees, but town Finance Director Natalie Saleh said that she would need to look into whether casino revenues within the general fund could be used as a replacement.
At one point, Knerr asked Saleh if it would be worthwhile to take a look at the impact fees the town charges, whether they should be raised and have the burden put on incoming developers to raise funds for future expansion of water and sewer.
Saleh said that she couldn’t recommend raising impact fees, which are “very specific and dependent on how many new developments were going to have” and how much the town would raise them in comparison to other municipalities.
“Just to look at the impact fees, what we have projected, for example, F(Y23), we’re not near collecting them. And we will not with the cost of construction materials and everything. I don’t think we’ve progressed enough toward the end of the year to complete the goal we set for FY23 … Impact fees are up and down.”
When it came to radios, Tyndall said the town could commit $125,000 to buy 20 of them, something that the town needed last year but ended up being a budget casualty.
Ideally, he said, the town needs 40 of them, but 20 is a good start.
“There is such a thing as too few because then you can’t use them,” he said.
Another big goal for the town that could tie into casino revenue use is finally addressing West Street problems, an improvement project that town staff said could cost millions of dollars. While Green suggested the town start saving for addressing West Street, Tyndall suggested that the town could address it incrementally.
Tyndall said that the discussion for allocating casino funds will resume after budget work sessions are held.