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Lehighton budget passed with no tax hike - for now

Published December 22. 2009 05:00PM

Lehighton Borough Council last night gave approval to its 2010 budget without raising taxes.

The council indicated, though, that the borough is facing some serious financial problems, and it might revisit the budget in January.

"It would be safe to assume at some point in time we may have to raise millage," said councilman Scott Rehrig.

While taxes were not increased, the council agreed to a slight increase in electric rates.

There will be a $5 per month increase in the account charge and a 1/2-cent increase in the kilowatt hour charge.

Borough Manager John Wagner said the borough is paying higher rates for the purchase of electricity, which is the reason for the increase to residents. Depending on cost increases in the forthcoming year by the electricity supplier, more rate increases are likely to occur.

Borough residents don't have the option of shopping for electric rates under deregulation that goes into effect Jan. 1. The borough purchases electricity at wholesale rates and sells it to borough residents and businesses. It has its own distribution system.

The total budget is nearly $11 million ($10,995,025) for the borough, with about 60 percent of that total in the Light and Power Fund ($6,074,757).

This is actually less than the 2009 budget, which was balanced at $13,602,817. Even the 2008 budget was higher, having expenses and receipts at nearly $12 million ($11,993,432).

The budget is based on 4.25 mills.

Trash collection rates will remain at $300 per year for residents and $360 for commercial properties. The borough has no bag limit on trash collection for its residents.

There is no increase in water rates for 2010.

Ann Wilhelm, borough treasurer, told the council, "The General Fund budget anticipates a reduction in state and federal subsidies. Current wage and benefits are expected to increase as defined in respective union agreements. Benecon has advised us that health care costs will increase by 8.5 percent."

At times the council showed frustration when discussing its budget.

For example, it noted that during the past year new sidewalks were installed on North First Street under a Streetscape project and the community swimming pool was renovated, but in both cases some of the promised state grants still haven't arrived. "That could be five years down the road to get this money, if we even get the money," said Rehrig regarding the Streetscape funds.

Also, the council indicated that the borough has no funds in its general account to meet payroll and other expenses, and won't until tax revenue begins arriving in May.

The council briefly discussed a potential tax anticipation loan, but instead decided to borrow money from its Light and Power Fund.

Chief of Police Matthew Bender said there had been funds placed in the 2009 budget for purchasing two new police cars. Last night, the council said that presently it doesn't have the funds for such a purchase.

Bids were received for purchasing two cars, but the council delayed making the purchase until possibly next month.

"I feel we should hold off," said Council President Grant Hunsicker. "We have to borrow money to operate the borough the rest of the year."

Mayor Donald Rehrig countered, "The police department has to operate. You've been putting this off for three months."

"We have to look at the finances of the borough," said Hunsicker.

Darryl Arner, a councilman, asked, "Wasn't this budgeted?"

Wagner agreed they were, but added, "As of Thursday of last week, I was informed this borough is under dire straits right now."

Arner, who is chairman of the borough's financing committee, agreed to call a committee meeting to determine if there is a way the two new cruisers can be purchased.

Scott Rehrig said besides the police cars, the borough has also postponed buying a bucket truck for the Light and Power Department, and also put off purchasing a truck for the borough work force.

"We can't operate without money," said Hunsicker, "but we can't operate without machinery, either."

The council will reorganize on Monday, Jan. 4. There's a possibility that the Jan. 4 meeting might also be held for general purposes.

The next regular meeting of the council will be Monday, Jan. 25, at 7:30 p.m.

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