Despite concerns, council won’t reconsider budget

By on January 10, 2018

When Ephrata Borough adopted a 2018 budget Dec. 11, Council President Susan E. Rowe voted against the proposed budget for two reasons.

One was the slim margin of fund balances, which might not be enough to cover unexpected expenses. The other is, what she considered, the paltry amount of funding apportioned to civic organizations.

Counting Rowe as the only dissenting vote, and with the prospect of no tax increases, the budget passed.

However, another council member took issue with the new budget this week.

Councilman Gregory Zimmerman asked for a vote to reopen the borough’s budget, before taking a final vote in February.

Zimmerman, like Rowe, was concerned about the less than lush fund balances and questioned whether the budget would be able to cover all bills if faced with unexpected expenses.

A recent water main break on Pine Street and severe winter weather early in the season, which puts stress on the highway budget, are two budget concerns that worry Zimmerman.

“With only an excess of about $22,000, I’m concerned that we’re not going to be able to meet those financial obligations,” Zimmerman said.

He suggested that borough staff department heads provide a list of budget reduction ideas to present to their respective committees.

Mayor Ralph Mowen said all departments had already pared down their budgets.

“They did everything they could to cut costs and I know there were things cut that the departments really didn’t want to,” Mowen said. “I just don’t know if there’s anything left to slash; it’s close to the bone already.”

Councilman Victor Richard said Zimmerman’s idea had merit, but there wasn’t enough time to put it into action.

“With the different departments, it takes several months to do their budgets,” Richard said. “I’m not disagreeing with you, I’m just wondering about the timeline.”

Vice-President Thomas Reinhold also shared concern about the time frame, saying the highway committee would be meeting in a week.

“I wouldn’t necessarily want to see it reopened, from a time standpoint,” Reinhold said.

Borough Manager D. Robert Thompson said personnel salaries and benefits make up about 75 percent of the budget; a figure that can’t be touched unless the Borough decides to downsize staff.

“The staff did reduce the cost of operating materials…and while we didn’t cut personnel, that would really be the next step,” Thompson said.

Decreasing the number of staff or raising taxes are two possible options, he said.

Council members didn’t find either option palatable, according to comments.

Last year, the borough received more revenue than expected, Thompson said, with more money coming from earned income tax payments and permit fees.

It’s possible that could happen again.

“I don’t know if there’s anything to cut, unless you want to cut services and lay off personnel,” Mowen said. “I know what the department heads went through and to come back now and say ‘slash it,’ I’m just not sure it’s there.”

Council member Linda Martin asked that council be informed on specific cuts.

“I do believe there were reductions, and I’m sure we can identify what those things are,” Thompson said.

Rowe agreed with the mayor’s assertion that cuts already made are deep enough.

At a recent highway committee meeting, Rowe learned some equipment orders needed by the borough were postponed for a year in an effort to save money.

“I’m not opposed to taking another look, but, speaking for the highway committee, we’re right up against it,” said Councilman Ricky Ressler.

Years ago, the borough would budget for “severe” snow and ice storms, but now they only budget for moderate snows in an effort to save money, Thompson said.

“I’d like to go back, take a look at it (the budget) and come back with ideas in February,” Zimmerman said. “I know that the departments are efficient, but maybe they could be more efficient. I believe the staff is doing their best…but we don’t know what’s going to happen ‘til the end of the year.”

After a vote, only Linda Martin and Zimmerman voted to reopen the budget, and with a vote of six to two, the 2018 budget stands.

Rowe thanked Zimmerman for the thought he put into the budget concerns.

Councilman Richard, who had been head of the budget and finance committee until this month, suggested that Council look into possible ways to lower fees charged to the borough by credit card companies.

When borough residents pay utility bills with credit cards, the borough has to pay the card companies a fee. That includes building permits, as well as electric, water, and sewer bills.

“Those fees have become a big ticket item,” Richard said.

In an average month, those credit fees tally more than $10,000, Richard said.

Currently, no solution is in sight for reducing those costs to the borough.

Zimmerman also commended Jim Summers, executive director of the Ephrata Recreation Center, with the fine job he is doing fiscally for the center.

For the fourth consecutive year, the rec center has made its debt payment of $150,000, hitting the halfway mark to their obligation for a loan made more than a decade ago to upgrade the facility.

This year, new flooring was placed in the aerobic room, gym wall mats were replaced, the assembly room was refurbished and a new HVAC compressor was installed, Zimmerman said.

“I’m also extremely proud of the work Jim Summers has done,” Reinhold said. “Kudos to Summers and the recreation board as they keep working to make that a viable place for the community.”

This week’s borough meeting was the first for Stephanie Fasnacht, the borough’s new executive assistant. Fasnacht has been hired to replace longtime staff member Kathleen Holzinger, who retired from that position at the end of the year.

In other matters, council approved an ordinance to add certain authorized parking for a loading and unloading zone at 333 N. State Street.

Council also approved six applications for traffic signal improvements.

The Rev. Walter Carter, pastor of First United Methodist Church, gave the invocation before the meeting.

Carter also praised Mayor Mowen and the work done by the community drug task force, which had been instigated by the mayor.

Pastor Carter said he presided at a funeral service last week, the outcome of a drug overdose.

“We’re grateful for the initiative and we’re grateful for the help with the work that needs to be done regarding the opiate crisis,” Carter said.

The Ephrata Cares initiative met Jan. 10 in City Gate, at the corner of Main and Washington streets, Mowen said.

Committees are being formed while the members look for ways to address the crisis, Mowen added.

“We want to get the word out, because we’re always looking for new people to join,” Mowen said.

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