By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
BERLIN – The city of Berlin faces dire budget cuts next year without the state returning the education stabilization money it took away, the mayor and school superintendent told a packed public hearing Wednesday night,
“New Hampshire has a constitutional responsibility,” said Corinne Cascadden, superintendent. “We have the lowest equalized property value in the state, yet we are expected to pay the same ” as other school districts with a better tax base.
Several hundred people packed City Hall to hear impacts on the city when it will be forced to eliminate two police officers, two firefighters, a public works employee and eliminate all local funds for federal matching programs just to keep taxes from going up.
“Our bacon is in the fire,” Mayor Paul Grenier said. “We’re up against it. This is the beginning of the end.”
A lack of taxable property is at the heart of the problem. More than 60 percent of the property in the city is tax-exempt and the mills closed in 2008.
Grenier said the $32.5 million proposed budget will mean major service cuts. The funding to restore stabilization grants and disparity aid in the second year are in the House-passed budget with a study commission to determine the real cost of an adequate education.
Senate leaders have not committed to any of it yet.
Grenier said at a minimum, the state needs to return at least $1 million of the $1.2 million it owes Berlin from a loss of education stabilization revenue over the past three years, and that would be enough to get through to a plan for the future.
Anne Kopp of Berlin was out walking with her three-month-old son, Riker, in a baby carriage Wednesday when she talked to InDepthNH.org about the impacts of the proposed cuts.
She is a sixth-grade school teacher in the middle school, a taxpayer and the mother of a future student.
She said it is really a great community with a lot of services and she is returning to the Granite State to raise her son with an eye to the future.
The budget calls for a reduction in staff at the fire station and Jason Vien, president of the Professional Firefighter’s Local 1088, said it will impact two young firefighters who are among the best-trained.
The proposal has been to reduce the fire budget by $95,000 which will result in more overtime for the staff.
Vien said a lot of the effort is now on getting lawmakers in Concord to see the plight of the state’s largest northern city.
At the Police Station, the cuts will impact a lot of ongoing efforts to battle drug addiction and community policing services.
Lt. Barney Valliere has been with the Berlin Police Department for 39 years and he said these budget cuts are significant. The city has a budget for 21 sworn officers, but they now have 19 officers. Instead of hiring three the city will only hire one and it is hard to find officers willing to even apply, he said.
State Sen. David Starr, R-Franconia, whose district includes Berlin, attended the hearing and promised he would work to see efforts to restore 100 percent of the stabilization funding for property-poor communities in the next state biennium budget.
The Senate is currently working on that budget and will hopefully have something passed and signed by the governor by the end of June.
Rep. Larry Laflamme, D-Berlin, said he feels confident there is a lot of bipartisan support in the legislature for the restoration of stabilization funding not just for Berlin but for other property-poor school districts across the state which counted on that money to help level the playing field.
Justin Hale of Berlin said the city needs to do more to keep the costs of government down because each dollar spent on taxes means someone else does not get it.
The taxpayer, he said is “running out of willpower.”
Craig Melanson, the parent of two students, said if these cuts continue he will have to look to move, even though he grew up here and went to the public schools, here.
“We’ve fallen on hard times,” he said of the city’s financial situation. “Our kids aren’t going to have the same experience as we had, going to Berlin schools. I want the best for my kids,” he said.
Amanda Cassidy, who works at the fire department, agreed that the budget situation is going to force more out-migration at the same time the city loses basic services.
Tony Valliere, thanked the city council for their service and said they have to make a hard decision. He suggested the council “keep our services. raise our taxes,” to applause.