Tamaqua Borough Council has finally passed a balanced budget, however, it contains several drastic and some unexpected measures to meet the $229,000 deficit that existed prior to last night's meeting. Earlier this month, council discussed laying off one full time police officer. Despite several audience members' protests, council went ahead and approved the budget that contains that layoff. Additionally, the borough's community center is going to be put up for sale, a move that council members hope will generate $178,000, in addition to eliminating the costs of maintaining the building.
Ed Paperman, a local business owner who was also the victim of an armed robbery last year, told council that he thinks they're "making matters worse," by laying off the officer. "We need more police protection, not less," he said. The officer to be laid off was identified as Officer Matthew Bynon. Bynon's wife and daughter sat in the audience, showing obvious signs of emotion, but remaining quiet throughout the meeting.
Council president Micah Gursky expressed dismay that Bynon will be the one facing the layoff. "Matt is a fine man and a really fine police officer and, frankly, it didn't have to be this way," he said. Gursky indicated that they approached the police union on two separate occasions, requesting that the police contract be re-opened and the slated 4 percent raise for next year renegotiated. That request was unanimously voted down and although the police suggested several other cost saving and revenue generating ideas, it was not enough to save Bynon's position. Following the failure of the contract renegotiation, council asked that they be allowed to lay off based on a productivity measure, rather than seniority, however, the union also denied that request.
This year's budget contains no tax increase and Gursky indicated at a previous meeting that council was not willing to consider a tax increase this year because they needed to take a hard look at spending and rein it in. At the last meeting, Gursky said that in 1999, the borough had 48 employees on payroll and spent $1.5 million on payroll; in 2011, the borough spent $2.5 million on payroll for 45 employees. "This town is financially strapped," he said last night. "Our budget has been hammered by the police pensions over the last four years. We have been required to add an additional $150,000. That's two mills just for an additional contribution for the police pension." "They do a great job, but there is a financial limitation," he said. Gursky said that the borough will maintain two officers on patrol, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, however, they will rely on less costly part time officers to fill the gaps.
Mayor Christian Morrison indicated that he was not interested in approving a budget that contained a deficit or a layoff of personnel in one department when another position was being kept open in another, referring to the opening in the street department that remains in the budget. That is when Gursky made the announcement that the gap had been covered by the potential sale of the community center. However, the borough cannot guarantee that the building will sell.
Another cut that became official last night is the elimination of borough support for the DARE program, the anti-drug program that the police department facilitates at the elementary schools. Officials were careful to explain that this does not necessarily mean the end of the program, however, the borough will no longer support paying the officers to participate.
Gursky said that the volunteers who head the DARE committee could continue without the officers' support. It was also suggested that officers could volunteer for the program if they wished. Michelle Mehallic, of Orwigsburg Street, called the cut "devastating." Gursky said that paying the officers to participate costs the borough between $5,000 and $10,000 a year.
Justin Startzel asked council members why they did not cut the $1500 annual salary that they make for serving on council or the $2500 salary that the Mayor collects. Gursky answered that "we could, but that wouldn't get us very far."
The borough also will raise parking meter violations from $5 to $10 and other parking violations from $15 to $25. The borough will save on benefit expenses related to the police force reduction and not filling one vacancy in the street department. Additionally, council voted to raise the holiday pay from $15 to $20 for part time police officers on holidays. The borough will suspend random drug testing of the department for 2012 and sell the 2004 Dodge Intrepid.
The budget still needs to be signed by the Mayor. Gursky asked him if he plans to veto the budget. Morrison indicated that he will need more time to review the proposed changes before signing it. If Morrison does decide to veto the budget, council will need to meet again to override the veto.