What Size Should It Be?

I was up north today having a conversation about Berlin, and the person I was talking with said Berlin shouldn’t be a city. It’s 10,000 people, the person said, which is more appropriate to a town. The government and expenses are disproportionate to the population, the person said, and everyone should be doing everything they can to bring those things in line.

Councilor Robert Danderson has said that numerous times. There is no good way to solve the problem, however. How do you shed infrastructure? How do you drop the expenses associated with the remains of a city that flourished a half decade ago?

I am always amazed when I walk into the city hall. It’s a classic building, with stone steps and high doorways. It fits with the city’s industrial past, but not its present.

And possibly not its future. Berlin will grow again, but it will never get back to 25,000 people. It will see a boost from the prison and any biomass developments, in addition to recreational traffic, but it will never be the draw the pulp and paper industry was. So what should the city do?

The city council, like most elected bodies, should be averse to change. Rocking the boat reduces the chance of getting reelected, so it seems doubtful they will take dramatic steps to revamp the way municipal government is run without an emergency.

Councilor Danderson is always pointing out how much more expensive Berlin is to run than similar sized communities. Berlin faces additional challenges, being the largest community in the county, but there may be some ways to cut expenses. The problem is there is no way to do that while still maintaining services. Residents are going to have to pay for services, or else accept they live in a community shackled by its past. The city will have to pay for street repair no matter what, unless they can actually close established streets in Berlin. They will have to pay to rebuild bridges. They will have to pay to maintain aging buildings, because they don’t have the funds to restore them.

That’s why the Neighborhood Stabilization Program is so impressive: it’s allowing the city to demolish houses, to reduce what there is too much of. The city could to do the same thing with roads. It could to do consolidate its footprint as houses go down to fewer miles of sidewalk, fewer stormwater drains and less pipe in the ground. It could try to reel in its infrastructure so it matches the population.

The city is already trying to play the game. It is working increase its population while reduce its infrastructure. How far can it go with it? A shrinking business, some people say, is a failing business, but with Berlin it is the key to rebirth. Now the city needs to take its success with housing and apply it across all fields. Maybe then, as a town of 10,000 or 12,000, it will be poised to flourish again.

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