Berlin’s city parks are unmowed. Its gardens are full of weeds. The past may be bleak, but the way forward isn’t much brighter.
The city cut its budget by $13 million this year. (Correction — the city didn’t receive $13 million in grant money this year, which made cuts look bigger than they actually were. The council tried to cut each department by 7.5 percent, resulting in about a $3 million reduction.) Every department got hit. At the public hearing last Thursday several people spoke up for the parks and recreation department, saying it couldn’t sustain with the proposed cuts — $30,000 less than last year. The kids, people said, will be the ones who lose out.
And they made another point: What do people want the city to look like? What image does the city want to project? Should parks match foreclosed houses, with overgrown lawns and weeds? Should the city round out its image of burned out remains, boarded up relics and abandoned industrial sites with its city parks’ lawns?
It’s hard to make cuts. The city asked for reductions across the board for fiscal year 2010, which starts on July 1. Every department had its supporters and detractors, and the city was stuck making tough decisions. The councilors and the mayor defended their cuts one at a time at the public hearing, citing their reluctance to increase taxs. But several residents looked at the resulting budget and announced they would prefer a tax increase to what they saw.
The city’s tax base is eroded by years of decline. With more than 100 empty homes and few taxable employers the city has no one but homeowners to turn to if it wishes to increase revenue. But when councilor McCue called the city depressed he got sharp words from the audience.
Councilor Goudreau said he didn’t care if people don’t like the word, Berlin is depressed. It’s understandable the word draws criticism, but to call Berlin something else would be euphemism. The question is whether the city is closer to 1934 or 1940. Or even 1944. With buildings around town that look like they were in the firebombing of Dresden, it’s hard to understand just which direction the city is moving.
City manager Pat MacQueen said he didn’t used to get complaints about the burned out buildings around town; people were so accustomed to these eyesores they didn’t even take notice. But now, with an interest in renewal, people are letting him know they care.
Still, progress is lateral. According to Dave Morin, owner of Morin’s Shoe Store on Main Street, when one building gets redone two more burn. It seems to him sometimes the city is sliding sideways, not moving forward.
And now there isn’t enough money to cut the grass. Perhaps the city is continuing on its decline. Perhaps its 1934.
Or maybe the city is making hard choices to so it can forward. The councilors don’t want to discourage growth, either in business or homeowners, so they are unwilling to raise taxes. And they don’t want to spend money that isn’t their, so they have to cut programs. They plan on spending $11 million on capital improvements over the next five years to rebuild the infrastructure that has sat untended for so long. Like the National Recovery and Reinvestment Act today, or the CCC and the WPA 70 years ago, the city is investing in its future. The short term pain may wind up trumping the long term value.
A house in Berlin cost $30,000. That’s either a steal in a city coming back into its own or a waste of time not worth the money; it depends on where in the depression Berlin really is. Either way, there is one thing the citizens and the city both would like you to do: cut the grass.