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Health insurance savings could help Berlin fund emergency services

Unexpected insurance savings are expected to help Berlin address needs within the municipality’s proposed budget, namely for fire and EMS services.

Berlin fire trucks

File photo

By Charlene Sharpe, Associate Editor

Unexpected insurance savings are expected to help Berlin address needs within the municipality’s proposed budget.

In a work session this week, staff presented the council with updated cost estimates for health care and workers compensation. With those figures significantly lower than expected, the town should have savings of more than $300,000 that can be used elsewhere. Officials agreed to use some of it to address the funding requested by the Berlin Fire Company for fire and EMS services. 

“Everybody here, we’ve got a lot of different levers we need to pull. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of doing that,” Mayor Zack Tyndall said.

At the start of a utility fund budget work session this week, staff updated Tyndall and the council regarding projected insurance costs for the coming fiscal year. While staff projected a 10% increase in health insurance costs as a budget placeholder, they said Monday the cost was actually only going to increase about 2%. Workers compensation costs, which were projected to increase 8%, actually decreased, meaning the town’s workers comp costs will drop from a budgeted $273,000 to $180,000. 

Later in the work session, council members said they wanted to use some of the unexpected savings to increase funding to the Berlin Fire Company for fire and EMS. The department requested $200,000 for fire operating expenses and $150,000 for fire capital. The department is seeking about $605,000 for EMS from the town. 

Councilman Jack Orris said he felt increasing the town’s proposed fire operations allocations from about $117,000 to the requested $200,000 was a good goal to reach. Councilman Steve Green agreed. 

Finance Director Natalie Saleh noted that would cost the town $83,000 more than included in the proposed budget. Green said he was confident the money would be there once the budget was updated to include the insurance savings outlined earlier in the meeting. 

Saleh said the council had asked staff to continue reviewing ways to compensate staff for longevity. She asked if providing the fire company more funding came before employees’ longevity.

“We took a huge step for the employees already,” Councilman Jay Knerr said, referencing the salary and step scale created as well as the step and cost-of-living adjustment employees were going to see in the coming budget. Town employees are expected to raise a 4.5% salary adjustment between the step and COLA.

Councilman Dean Burrell pointed out that raising the tax rate by a penny would generate an additional $55,000 in revenue. 

“Didn’t I see in the news where some town’s tax rate was going to increase 47%?” Burrell said. “We do not want to get the Town of Berlin in that type of situation. As unpopular as it is this is something that we’re going to have to discuss not only with us but the public in general… If we did a penny every other year, or two cent every other year, it would put us in a better situation and avoid not having to say hey this year we have to increase our tax rate by 15 cents or some ridiculous number. We’ve planned for everything else and we have strategies for everything else. We need to be looking at this tax rate.”

Staff also spoke in support of developing plans for incremental tax increases.

“We’re very limited in the options we have for revenues sources but same as everywhere else our costs keep going up. One way or the other someone has to pay…”  Town Administrator Mary Bohlen said. “We’re not going to balance the budget with speed camera tickers. We look at the revenues sources we can, but the reality is they’re limited.”

Green said he’d supported small tax increases in the past but felt this wasn’t the year to do one, when the town’s property tax revenues increased $300,000 with a constant tax rate and health insurance and workman’s compensation savings had been realized. 

As far as the EMS allocation, the fire company requested about $605,000, up from the roughly $409,000 the town had budgeted. Berlin Fire Company President David Fitzgerald said 93% of the EMS operating budget was spent on personnel. He said the company’s billing rates were already at the level they needed to be so the organization needed more revenue from the town. He said if there was insufficient funding, staff wouldn’t be getting laid off but that empty shifts would not be filled. 

Orris pointed out most of the proposed increase would be spent on a new EMS supervisor. Officials pointed out if that position was removed the increase was considerably less. Burrell suggested the fire company look at potentially reducing the planned cost-of-living adjustment of 3% to 2%, which is what town employees are getting. 

“I really would want to see that number, what the one percent on the COLA would save,” he said.

At the end of the work session, Orris, said officials did their best during the budget process.

“It’s all important and we, I believe, do not make decisions with the intent of slighting anyone in particular or any group or any department or anybody,” he said. “I believe and I know that we are up here looking out for everybody that is under our stewardship as elected officials.”

Green agreed and said being an elected official was about balance.

“A lot of tonight was great news,” he said, referencing the insurance savings and the fact that the town wasn’t passing the slight increase in health insurance on to employees. He said this marks the fifth year in a row employees have not had to cover the cost increase. Green added that there were a number of good infrastructure projects included in the proposed budget but that it was clear that a long-term funding solution needed to be identified for the fire company. 

Tyndall praised town department heads and said officials were still committed to reviewing potential longevity rewards for staff. 

This story appears in the April 18, 2024, print edition of the Bayside Gazette.