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Unpopular two-mill tax hike approved

Published December 16. 2009 05:00PM

Tamaqua residents will be facing a two-mill tax increase in 2010. Borough council approved the tax hike and the 2010 budget at last night's meeting.

At least one council member and the borough's mayor disagreed with the increase.

"The people of this community are hurting. I don't think we should hurt them more," said Councilwoman Cathy Miorelli, who also stated that it was "sneaky" to put the budget out after election day.

"When I get up in the morning, I put an amount of money in my pocket," said Mayor Christian Morrison. "If I want to go get something different for lunch, it's a matter of crunching the money I have in my wallet, not reaching into the guy in front of me's wallet to get what I'm looking for, I don't think it's right to reach into the wallets of our community."

Morrison called on council to "go back to the drawing board." After the meeting, he said that he plans to veto the budget when it is presented to him for a signature. That meeting will send the budget back to council, which will need to vote on it again before the start of the new year.

The decision did not sit well with several other members of council, including councilmen Steve Tertel and Ken Smulligan. Tertel questioned whether the budget could be opened when the new council comes in in January. Borough solicitor Michael Greek said that it could be re-examined at that time.

Smulligan gave a "reluctant yes" vote on the tax resolution.

Despite what council president Micah Gursky called "a large amount of cutting," two items in particular will be costing the borough a significant amount of money. Gursky pointed out that 1.5 mills of the increase is dedicated to the Owl Creek dam rehabilitation project.

"That was decided on election day," he said, referring to the referendum that had been on the ballot, and was approved by the voters.

Additionally, the borough's obligation to the pension fund also increased from $59,000 last year to $175,000.

"That pension obligation really killed us. We would not have had to have a tax increase if it weren't for the pension fund," said Gursky.

Gursky cited one full time position cut, the dropping of the dedicated half mill to the Wabash fund, a decrease in the equipment fund, and cuts in the police department budget. "Just right there, it's $200,000 worth of expeditures that we won't be making," he said. Gursky also noted several money saving projects, including a bulk energy purchase and the acquisition of the borough's street lights as other areas where the borough will save money in the upcoming year.

Based on the recommendation of the police pension committee, council also voted to deny 5.8 percent COLA raises for four of the borough's retired police officers for 2009.

Bob Knepper, a resident, asked why the borough continues to "bear the burden of Owl Creek."

"We need to make Owl Creek into an asset, not a liability," he said.

Another resident, Joe Griffin, called the ballot referendum "misleading."

"I don't know if we got a fair shake with that on the vote," he said. "I'm confused on it myself. I don't know what I voted for."

Gursky said that regardless of whether the dams are rehabilitated or breached, the borough will be on the hook for the bill.

"It is a big expenditure, it's a $6 million project. Right now, we have $5.2 million in state funds to help, but we're on the hook for the remainder," he added.

Knepper also asked if the borough has looked into other means than the property tax to raise money. Gursky responded that the borough's alternatives are limited.

After the meeting, Morrison floated several ideas that he feels the borough should consider to help reduce the budget, including a regional police force and the privatization of water and sewer services.

"I'm alright with fixing the dams," he said, "but we need to be fiscally responsible. It's okay to want something new, but you've got to make cuts." He also cited an overlap in police schedules, that if eliminated, could reduce the police budget by approximately $96,000.

"If we're coming up with that kind of revenue and waste in the police department, what's in the other departments," he asked.

During the public comment session, resident Tony Rodrigue also asked the borough to have the strategic planning committee review the possibility of the becoming a bulk purchaser and distributor of energy.

"If the borough itself is able to see a 10-15 percent reduction, perhaps we could see that as well," he said. Rodrigue also asked the borough to investigate bringing in a public utility such as natural gas, so that residents would have another alternative to heating oil.

The borough's millage rate now stands at 17.25 and the 2010 budget contains approximately $8.6 million in estimated expenses.

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