City manager cautiously predicts no property tax increase

By Barbara Tetreault

BERLIN — City Manager James Wheeler had some good news for taxpayers at Monday’s city council meeting. He is predicting the city will not see an increase in the property tax rate this year but cautioned the state Department of Revenue Administration will make the final determination later this fall.

When the council passed the fiscal 2018 budget in June, Wheeler said Berlin was facing a 52-cent increase for a tax rate of $39.71. But since then, he said some positive breaks have come the city’s way that should allow Berlin to avoid a tax increase.

Wheeler said there is a $4.7 million increase in the valuation of utility property in the city. The city’s share of the Coos County tax bill is $173,000 less than what the city had projected when it put the budget together. The city will still have $1.6 million in the undesignated fund balance as a buffer.

Mayor Paul Grenier said he favors avoiding a tax increase if at all possible. He said doing large capital projects like reconstructing Route 16 while maintaining a flat tax rate keeps the city moving forward.

The mayor cited the school board for its fiscal management of the school system. He said the school district came in with a larger than expected surplus and said the board deserves credit for the job they did.

The council agreed with following Wheeler’s recommendation and using the added revenue and reduced county tax bill to avoid a tax increase.

Councilor Mike Rozek expressed his pleasure at the prospect of avoiding a tax increase, noting that possibility seemed pretty bleak when the council first started budget deliberations.

As the Route 16 project enters its final month, Jay Poulin of HEB Engineers asked if the council wanted to spend an additional $50,000 to remove the concrete on the section from 12th Street to Williamson Street. He said the original plan was just to remove the top pavement and replace it with two inches of new pavement as was done for the section from 12th Street Bridge north to Cates Hill Road.

But Poulin said it appears the $5 million project will end with a surplus of about $200,000. He said that would allow the contractor to remove the concrete under the road bed and put new pavement on the section. Poulin said they would not go down as far as they have on the section from St. Anne Church to 12th Street, where they have taken out all the old gravel.

Rozek said he thought the upgrade suggested by Poulin was a good investment. He said he liked getting rid of the old concrete.

The council agreed and voted to follow Poulin’s recommendation.

In addition to the $200,000 surplus in the Route 16 project, the city received $203,799 from the state as a result of Senate Bill 38. The bill returned money to municipalities for road improvements.

Wheeler presented the council with a list of potential projects for the funding including: 1. $300,000 to replace all street lights with energy efficient LED’s with an estimated annual savings of $60,000; 2. softening the intersection and upgrading the road at the intersection of Bridge and Hutchins Streets at an estimated cost of $332,000; and 3. using $172,000 as a required match for the river walk grant.

Rozek said he would like to see the Bridge and Hutchins Streets intersection upgraded but said the city really needs a section of private land to smooth out the turn there.

Councilor Lucie Remillard said she would like to see the city replace the street lights, noting in about five years the savings will have paid the entire cost of the project.

The city has been awarded a $688,000 grant from the federal Transportation Alternatives Program through the state Department of Transportation for the river walk project as well as a $250,000 federal Northern Border Regional Commission grant. Grenier said when city officials first met with representatives of DOT, Berlin was told it could use the NBRC grant as the required match for the Transportation Alternatives Program grant. He said he recently spoke to Executive Councilor Joseph Kenney and his recollection was the same. The mayor said he would like to set up a meeting with DOT and review the issue with Kenney present.

The council appeared to favor a proposal to do the lighting upgrade with $200,000 and borrowing $100,000 at a low interest rate available for the project. At the Bridge and Hutchins Streets intersection, they would spend $100,000 to remove and replace the top layer of pavement. After approving spending the additional $50,000 on Route 16, the council decided to wait on a final decision on how to spend the remaining funds.

Berlin Community Development Director Pamela Laflamme reported the city has been awarded a $12,000 Community Development Block Grant to hire professional services to evaluate the feasibility of installing an elevator in city hall. She said she will issuing a request for qualifications.