**SPECIAL NOTICE: Due to a procedural error at our last meeting, the vote to advertise the budget was never formalized, because it was never officially stated that the motion carried...so there will be a "Special Meeting" on Wednesday, November 20th at 7pm to vote on advertising the budget. We will be conducting the remainder of business that night and the meeting scheduled for Nov. 27th will then be cancelled. Please make this change on your calendars! DB 11/15/13
Thank you once again for taking the time to read my blog. I want to start today by thanking the good people of McSherrystown in their support of my re-election. I was at the polls all day, and had the chance to meet with many of you and discuss the various situations facing our community. Not a day goes by that someone doesn't mention how much we could use a leash law in our Borough, or how glad they are that someone is representing the "little guys" and defending their rights. It is true; I have faced some staunch opposition in my first two years on Council; from the proposed dog leash law, to my opposition of government infringement on your right to use the furniture you want on your private property, and my stance to bring voter referendum to our polls. Although I may have "lost" on each of these and other topics, I am filled with a sense of accomplishment in knowing that I have made the voice of The People heard, even if we were defeated by the long-standing figureheads with whom I serve. I will continue to serve YOU as the Vice-President of the Adams County Boroughs Association, the Legislative Committee Chair for Adams County to the PA State Association of Boroughs, on the Hanover Regional Economic Development Committee, and other assignments to come.
Today, however, I put any celebration aside, and am now ready to focus on the next four years of service to you. It appears that the very figureheads I referenced above have specific plans for how our community government will be run during that time, and are opposed to implementing any suggestions that are not in-line with what "they" want for McSherrystown. I speak of the Municipal Budget for 2014.
I will be brief in my explanations of such, and as always, I am available to elaborate on anything that is not clear, for which I will back up my views with numbers and statistics, not opinion and personal fancy.
The first draft of the Municipal Budget allowed for a $28K deficit, of which I had addressed on Facebook previously (www.facebook.com/CouncilmanDavidBolton). In efforts to be a responsible steward of the community, I engaged on a week-long trek to find and eliminate any overspending to bring the budget to balance, as I had made it very clear that I would not vote in favor of any budget that is not so. I am happy to report that the subsequent draft of the budget eliminates the "red", and I would like to thank Borough Manager Scott Cook and Secretary Luanne Boring for contacting the County Assessors, and for their investigation into the matter, which resulted in the discovery of additional revenues which were not accounted for in the first draft. These new numbers created a balanced budget, and as such, I will be supporting its adoption.
However, the reason for my blog today is not to gush over how good we, as administrators of the public trust, are doing a great job for The People, but to inform you of the instances of yesterday's Council meeting, and the subsequent recess to discuss the budget, followed by a re-convening of the stated meeting, in absence of the public or press, where the Council made motions to advertise not only the Budget, but also a change to the Tax Ordinance (with an increase of 1/2 mill for 2014) AND an increase in sewer rates within the same calendar year.
I will say this to begin: I do not want to increase any fiscal burdens on The People of McSherrystown unnecessarily, but I do recognize that our antiquated sewer system, which is well over 80 years old, is in dire need of repairs. These repairs are necessary if we are to provide adequate infrastructure to our community. The Council has been very frugal in their upkeep of this system, and with increased I&I each year (146% increase in 2011) contributing to the costs incurred by our residents beyond their actual water usage, it is imperative that we identify and mend the parts of our sewer system that create these increased costs, which will only become more of a burden the longer we ignore it. As such, I investigated the systems in place in our neighboring municipalities to fund such projects and devised a plan to generate the funds necessary for our system's improvements.
Currently, we have a two-tier system. A base rate of $35.60 for up to 4k gallons of usage per quarter, and then a $4.20 charge per 1k gallons thereafter. It was very important to me that we do not increase this base amount, as we have a large percentage of homes with fixed incomes and which do not generate a surplus of usage. We also have some very conservative homes that are conscientious of their usage. Therefore, I proposed two base rates: the first, being our current base rate, as a discounted base rate, so that these folks did not see an increase in their quarterly bills. The second tier base, which models that of Hanover Borough, would be set at 7k gallons for a flat rate of $54.00. Thereafter, the "per 1k gallon" cost would be set from $4.20 to $5.80 (which is $.95 less than Hanover Borough and in line with their 2007 rates, prior to their last increase). This rate would apply to usage up to 25k gallons, while the last tier would discount the "per 1k" rate to $5.70 (again, nearly a dollar less than Hanover Borough, from where our water comes and to where our waste goes). It is important to keep these rates competitive in order to attract new homeowners and businesses into our Borough, which will expand the tax base and lessen the tax burden on the individual (which is why I am so active in the Regional Economic Development Committee). These increased user rates would then fund our sewer repairs. The burden of the cost of the repairs would be on the shoulders of those who use the system the most, and would safe-guard our elderly and our conserving citizens. This plan would generate an estimated $80k to be used for this purpose, as the funds would be ear-marked to the Sewer Reserves account for the work to be done, which would include continuation of the camera work to identify sources of I&I, engineering fees to develop the plan of attack for the repairs, and of course the manpower and project costs to fix the system.
It was argued by a non-Council member in the meeting that he is "tired of hearing about a user-based fee. Yes, there are people with fixed incomes in town, but they should have to pay for the system also, regardless of how much they use. Are we going to strap the costs on a family with two or three kids that are already struggling just because they use more water?". My rebuttal was, "I AM one of those people you mention, and I would rather pay for it than to have someone on a fixed income give out more of their money, especially when they are keeping their usage to a minimum, which does not contribute to the wear and tear of the system as much as those who use more water." Obviously, I lost the argument that we were undercutting our sewer rates and that we should follow my plan to generate revenues for the repairs, because the Council decided to increase the base rates from $35.60 to $42.40 on EVERYONE, while not increasing the "per 1k gallon" rate of $4.20 a single cent. This plan creates less than $9k in additional revenues and burdens those who have the least in our community. (In comparison, Conewago Township charges $.67 more per 1k gallon over 8k, and Hanover Borough charges $6.75 per 1k gallon over 7k gallons). So, how were we going to generate the remainder of the funds needed for the repairs?
It was suggested by the Finance Chairperson that, in addition to these sewer base-rate increases (which he proposed), we should raise our taxes in the Borough by .5 mills to generate the remaining funds, but not only for the sewer repairs, but to put more revenue into the General Fund for "other future endeavors". My argument was that if we were raising funds for the sewer repairs, then the sewer rates should generate those funds. However, those funds would be placed in sewer reserves and would not be accessible to the Finance Committee to fund the other "endeavors" without a full, public vote from the Council. Those "endeavors" were not specifically named at this time.
I was NOT the only current Council member to oppose this increase. If we do not have a current deficit, and we have an adequate amount of reserves currently, why do we need to raise taxes on EVERY property owner under the guise of sewer system repairs? The funds to be raised by his proposal would generate roughly $70k-75k in new taxes that would NOT be specifically earmarked for anything in particular, although I was "re-assured" that monies would be placed into the sewer reserves for the repairs.
My apprehension to this idea is this: If these funds are not being raised and reserved for a specific purpose, with no restriction on what they can be used for, how can we be reassured that these funds will not be kept from their intended purpose of sewer system repairs? An even larger question than that: What happens when we do need to raise taxes for a specific purpose in the future?
I believe that my proposal, whether you agree and want to call it a "user-fee" or not, is the most reliable and sensible plan to generate the funds needed for our sewer repairs. Once the repairs are completed, we can easily reduce the rates back down to a "maintenance" level, if you will. However, what municipality has EVER reduced their tax rates, especially when they raised them under the guise of a repair project?
Our next meeting is Wednesday, November 27, the day before Thanksgiving. This will be the day that our leaders will vote on whether to raise your taxes and whether to burden our elderly and other responsible water users with increased base rates. If you have never been to a Council meeting, this is one that should start a trend for you. YOU have a say; YOU can stand before Council and tell them what you think. I am out here voicing your concerns and defending those in the community that cannot defend themselves. I asked for your support in my re-election, and you gave generously. I now ask for your support in upholding my promise to represent each one of you in finding the best ways to make our community better for the future. The power of government lies in the hands of the governed. Let's join those hands. PLEASE join me at that and all other meetings and make your voices heard!
David "Scotty" Bolton
McSherrystown Borough Council and Citizen