Berkeley Lake OKs tax hike

BERKELEY LAKE -- Following a fourth public hearing on the issue, city leaders voted Monday to raise the millage rate in Berkeley Lake from 3.69 to 4.9 mills in 2010. The meeting room was standing-room-only again, with residents turning out in force to speak both in favor of and against the tax increase.

At the heart of the matter has been necessary repairs to the city-owned dam on Lake Berkeley. Last Fall's historic flooding caused serious damage to the structure, resulting in a temporary lowering of the lake level. Until the repairs -- totaling about $4 million -- are made, the lake level will remain below full pool. City residents who enjoy the lake are anxious to get the repairs made. The problem is that FEMA will only kick in a little more than $1 million toward the job, since an engineering study indicated that not all of the damage to the dam was caused by flooding.

That decision left some residents crying "foul," since not every home in Berkeley Lake is actually on the lake. The general sentiment of the opposition was that they should not be taxed as heavily as lakefront property owners, since their property values would not be directly impacted by repairing the dam and bringing the lake level back up.

Some of these homeowners suggested taxing property owners on a tiered basis, with lakefront property owners paying a higher tax rate than those with homes located elsewhere in the city.

Others Monday said, if that logic applies, then people with no children in school not have to pay school tax. Resident Beth Gilbert argued that establishing such a tiered system would make divisions within the city even more pronounced, encouraging the "us vs. them" (lakefront vs. off-the-lake) mindset many said is evident among Berkeley Lake residents. Gilbert volunteers at the elementary school, the chapel and City Hall, citing her dedication to the community as her motivation. "You don't move and buy a house blindly. When (my family) moved here, we knew about the lake. We knew the responsibilities," said Gilbert.

Homeowner Chris Holben agreed that city leaders should just raise taxes across the board, not on a tiered structure. He went further to thank mayor Lois Salter and City Council members for working so hard to find an equitable resolution for all residents.

Miramont subdivision homeowner Jenny Jensen admonished council members to tax property owners based on a tiered structure. "It is simply not fair or equitable to require those of us that do not live on the lake to pay the same level of taxes for the dam and restoration of the lake," said Jensen. Several homeowners later corrected the notion that taxpayers pay for lake maintenance; individual lakefront property owners and the Berkeley Lake Homeowners Association pay those costs.

Almost every property owner who spoke at Monday's hearing recognized that the lake has value to all Berkeley Lake residents in one form or another.

City Council members did resolve Monday to pursue a city tax equity study. The resolution that passed gave city administrator Tom Rozier the go-ahead to request price proposals from companies that provide such services to municipalities.