Jim Thorpe Borough Council members came together Wednesday night for a special budget workshop to try to pull a $3.6 million budget into balance without having to ask residents for more in taxes next year. When the meeting ended, the general fund budget was balanced, the water and sanitation budgets both showed a modest surplus, but borough sewer customers are likely to be asked to make up a deficit of more than $88,000.
The borough's general fund is used to operate the borough offices, pay for its administrative and staff expenses, run the police department, emergency services, public services and its buildings. In all, the borough expects to spend $1,536,175 to cover these expenses next year.
When the members came together for this meeting, the general fund budget was in the red nearly $60,000. To bring it into balance, the borough trimmed a number of budget line items, including cutting $3,000 out of the police department's budget for part-time help, reducing the budget for supplies and small equipment by $1,000 and other highway care by $3,000. The budget for on-lot inspections was cut by $2,500.
On the revenue side, the general fund budget was increased by $14,000 through a plan to double parking meter fees from 25 cents to 50 cents, and by increasing the expected real estate revenue from $547,000 to $560,000.
The 2010 sanitation budget was in the black by $16,313 after expected expenditures of over $613,500. That surplus was shifted into capital construction and landfill expenses.
The water budget for 2010 was also in decent shape, showing a $6,500 surplus by year's end. Those funds were shifted into the miscellaneous expense line item to balance that budget.
The problem spot in the 2010 budget was the sewer department, primarily because the borough took on an expensive sewer project last year.
The original budget called for an increase in sewer user fees of 5 percent but would still result in a budget deficit of $73,773. During the course of the meeting, the council discussed raising rates 10 percent and reducing the deficit to about $28,000. Some members argued that raising rates by 8 percent sounded better and would result in an increase of less than $3 for customers, who currently pay $30.88 per month.
In past years, the borough has pulled funds out of the water department's savings account to cover budget shortfalls. Councilman Justin Yaich pushed to balance the budget and not go back to that fund this year. The sewer department's savings account currently carries a balance of about $557,000, but some members of the council worry that those funds could be required if anything breaks down at the borough's water treatment plant.
"You can't keep depleting what you have in the bank," Yaich argued. "It's going to hit people, but people have to understand the sewer project we took on. It's pay now or pay later."
Yaich pointed out that residents of nearby boroughs are paying significantly more for their sewer service than Jim Thorpe residents. Council President John McGuire agreed.
"Most people are paying $50 or $60 bucks a month," McGuire said. "I know I've talked to people down near Trexlertown who have told me they pay $58."
Yaich suggested, and the three other council members in attendance agreed, that the borough raise the fees to cover the budget, which will result in a 14 percent increase in sewer user fees next year. Customers will see their sewer bills rise by $4.20 per month and the sewer department expects to see a modest surplus of about $3,000 in its budget by year's end.
Because the meeting was advertised as a general purposes workshop and not as a meeting to approve the preliminary budget, the council did not vote to approve the budget, but all agreed that if they had believed it was legal to do so they would have. The 2010 budget will now be advertised and acted upon at a future council meeting.