Residents vote to establish town of Berlin


When the community center reopened after the vote count, Patrick Bates, who has led the two-year effort to incorporate Berlin, spoke briefly to reporters. / W.C. Mann

BERLIN – On a foggy and slightly soggy Tuesday evening, polls closed on 12 hours of voting at the Berlin Community Center, and three poll workers began hand-counting ballots in Berlin’s incorporation vote.  Of 309 registered voters within the proposed town limits, only 68 turned out.  All it took, though, was a majority vote, and the majority voted in favor of incorporation, 45-23.

The vote was the outcome of a two-year effort by resident Patrick Bates, who began distributing information brochures and hosting information meetings early in the spring of 2016.  He himself had begun as an opponent of incorporation, when he first encountered the idea in 2015 at a community meeting with members of the Cullman County Commission.

“I left this meeting thinking this shouldn’t be done, this couldn’t be done,” Bates said. “But I had some lingering questions that, when I did my own research on it, I found out that, no, we actually can make this work.  We probably should give a go of it.  Through my research and looking into things, I ended up kind of taking over the effort.  I don’t know how that happened, to be honest.”

With incorporation, Berlin will receive a portion of county sales tax and other revenue.  All municipalities in Cullman County get a share of the County’s sales tax revenue, based on population.  According to an estimate by Bates last year, in 2016 an incorporated Berlin with a population of 750 could have seen $308,440.36 in revenue, with more than 80 percent of that coming from county sales tax.

“Whether or not we have a town,” said Bates, “we’re still paying the taxes that support towns.  We’re just seeing that money leave the community and go to these other places, to support them.  If we incorporate, that money will come back to us, with no additional taxes on anyone in the area.”

He estimated that in 2017, about $400 per Berlin resident left Berlin, being distributed to incorporated towns.  An anonymous resident at an April 2017 community information meeting seemed to sum up several conversations buzzing around the tables after Bates’s revenue presentation: “It’s our money!  It should stay here!”

The exact amount Berlin will receive is not known, and will be based on the results of a Cullman County Probate Office census of the incorporated area over the next few weeks.  The money the town receives, according to incorporation advocates, could fund a park, walking trails and improvements to the community ball field.  Most importantly, though, it could allow Berlin to repair and repave its own roads without having to wait on a county list.

Said Bates last year, “The primary advantage (of incorporation) is the sole responsibility of towns under our state law, and that is that you’re responsible for your own road maintenance.  We have sample budgets that show that we can take care of our own roads.  The County does as good a job as it can with what it has, but it appears that we will be able to do a better job of resurfacing with our own funds.”

According to Bates, the proposed municipality has fewer than 10 miles of roads (excluding US Highway 278, which would not fall under the town’s jurisdiction), with some subdivision roads not having been resurfaced since their initial installations more than 25 years ago.  Under a sample budget, up to $90,000 per year could be dedicated to roads, allowing all roads in the proposed municipality to be repaved or chip sealed every 10 to 12 years.

What now?

On Tuesday evening, Bates and two other incorporation supporters waited outside the community center while election officials Tony Duke, Marie Sanford and Mary Sue Freeman hand-counted the ballots.  The results were posted quietly: handwritten numbers on a pre-printed form, taped to the center’s glass door for the outside observers to see.  Bates immediately took to his cell phone to get the word out.

Afterward, he came inside, a little overwhelmed and trying to take the moment in.  After a short exchange about the two-year process, his statement was brief:

“The main thing is, I guess now the real work begins.  Like you said, it’s been two long years, but I’m ready to get started.”

When congratulated, Bates responded, “Thank you, I think.”

After Tuesday’s successful incorporation vote, the County Probate Office will shortly begin a census of the incorporated area to determine the exact population of the new town.  This process, which will determine Berlin’s slice of the county revenue pie, could be completed in as little as two weeks, after which the town can be officially incorporated.  Once everything is official, the town will have 30 days to elect a mayor and town council.

According to Bates, who plans to run for mayor, the probate office has indicated that it hopes to have the process concluded ahead of the June 5 general election primaries.

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