Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Note about comment policy

Because of some recent spam passed off as comments, I have instituted a policy of moderating all comments. I will receive an e-mail when you comment and will review to ensure they are appropriate. For the record, this is not an effort to censor anyone except spammers hawking offensive websites and inappropriate and unrelated content. I pledge to post all comments, regardless of whether they are critical of me and my writing or not. Thank you for your cooperation.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Council passes 2010 budget with no tax increase

Borough Council passed the 2010 budget on Dec. 17 with no tax increase. The vote was 4-2, after a prior motion to increase taxes by two-tenths of a mill resulted in a tie. Mayor Robert Brain, in his last meeting before leaving office, cast the deciding vote in opposition of raising taxes.

The action means the borough has a budget of nearly $4.8 million for next year, just about $2,100 carried over from the current year. By all accounts, that is a razor-thin balance to start the year, which is in part why Councilman Dale Treese and I voted against a no-tax increase budget.

I believe that we need to look out for the long-term health of Elizabethtown, and while the economy is running roughshod over people the .2 mill increase was just $20 out of people's pockets. That would have generated $87,000 in additional revenue to give the borough a better cushion going into next year. The increase also was, in my mind, a good compromise and minimal enough to prevent a large increase next year.

But other council members felt otherwise, and we have a budget in place for 2010 that will maintain services. And for that, I credit all of council and the borough staff for working hard to ensure that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Track outage scheduled for tomorrow at E-town Train Station

Elizabethtown borough officials received notification this morning that a track outage will take place between 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. tomorrow, Thursday, Dec. 17, at the Elizabethtown Train Station.

The outage is part of the ongoing construction and renovations of Amtrak station. It will allow the contractor to pour the concrete walls for the north side of the platform. This will be a one day outage. As they have this fall, riders are advised to follow the signs to enter the proper platform. All trains will operate on the existing schedule.

A second track outage is planned for next week, on Wednesday, Dec. 23, to allow the contractor to pour the concrete walls for the south side platform. While Amtrak officials are still reviewing the request, borough officials expect it will be approved. This track outage will not affect the train schedule and will be for one day only during the times as stated above.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Borough Council reviews budget cuts

Two posts ago, I said that revenue sources for Elizabethtown are like an orange that's been juiced. After reviewing the 2010 budget at Borough Council's Dec. 3 workshop meeting, it is an apt description for the borough.

Faced with a $375,000 deficit in our first version of the budget in November, Council directed the borough staff to find 5 percent more to cut from each department. And to the credit of Borough Manager Pete Whipple and Assistant Borough Manager Roni Ryan, they did. The bottom line is they found cuts totaling $377,190. Both Whipple and Ryan said these cuts are not ideal, but they will allow Elizabethtown to maintain a level of service to which resident are accustomed.

Brutal fact: However, this means the borough will carry an unappropriated balance of $2,136 into 2010. Under good economic conditions, that balance might be about $300,000.

What does this mean for the borough? One snow storm in January that would require removing snow from the downtown area would easily push the budget into the red. And this doesn't figure any other emergencies later in the year.

Brutal fact: Ryan presented council with a budget whose expenditures were less than last year. The problems with the deficit exist solely because revenues have dried up. Because of the employment picture, we are receiving less in the earned income tax. Because housing sales are down, the borough has received far less in the real estate transfer tax. The budget issues have nothing to do with excessive spending or a bloated government. Elizabethtown runs a lean operation -- in fact, Whipple said there are fewer borough employees now than when he was hired as manager more than 30 years ago.

How is all of this going to shake out? Last night, three council members clearly voiced their opposition to an increase in taxes. Three others voiced opinions favoring a small increase in taxes.

I am reluctant to raise taxes because I am sensitive to the impact it would have on residents, especially during the recession. That said, we are living in extraordinary times -- and I am not certain that forgoing an increase is in the best long-term interests of Elizabethtown. As one councilman, I believe that we need to be watching out for this town not just for next year but 5 or 10  years from now.

Among Borough Council and the borough staff, the conventional wisdom is that we will be facing a similar budget a year from now, and as one councilman said, we might "face the music" and pass a significant tax increase rather than trying to ease the pain this year. This is the kind of gamble that we take as your elected officials.

My question is, if we face the music next year, how loud is that music going to be?

I sincerely doubt that Borough Council will end with a 3-3 tie vote on the 2010 budget, throwing the deciding vote to the mayor. I encourage all interested residents to attend the Dec. 17 council meeting to find out how this plays out.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Work at train station progresses

Work at the Elizabethtown train station is progressing, starting again today after a holiday break for the contractor.

All of the shoring work for Phase I has been completed. There will be no need for track outages until after the Christmas holiday. The next track outage is planned for the week between Christmas and New Year's Day for the installation of the platform planks on the north side. The borough and the contractor remind train riders to adhere to the signs directing them to the proper platform during this track switch.

Work in a wide range of areas is continuing. Water, sewer and electric service trenching has been completed as well. Conduit was set in place for the gas service to the train station building, but UGI Utilities has not performed the work as of today. The trailer for the construction management firm was set in place in front of the station this past week. Hazardous materials abatement will conclude inside the station building once the proper permits have been received for the disposal of these materials.

In the weeks ahead, additional site storm sewer work will continue. The footings for the temporary steps on both sides of the platform have been poured. Weather permitting, the new slate roof on the building should be installed before the end of the year. Demolition of the exterior piers on the platform will be performed in December.

The borough and the construction manager are fielding shop drawings and submittals on a routine basis on a host of items for the project. All parties, including our contractor and Amtrak, are communicating effectively and coordinating the work to improve the overall project schedule.

Finally, borough officials has provided Amtrak with the architectural renderings for the project to display in the kiosks on the platform. The renderings were available at open houses held in late summer -- if you didn't see the views of the new platform then, this will give you a glimpse of the finished project.