NEW BETHLEHEM – Hours after approving a preliminary 2020 budget that raised property tax and per capita tax rates, as well as garbage collection rates, New Bethlehem Borough officials issued a statement to explain the reasons for the rising rates.

“New Bethlehem Borough Council members struggled with the 2020 budget and cut as much as reasonably possible while trying to maintain sound fiscal policies,” the statement begins. “The proposed budget includes an increase in real estate taxes of $17,325 equating to a 1.75 mill increase which should amount to about a $38.50 increase for the average property owner in the borough. In order to share the burden with all residents, the per capita rate was raised from $5 to $10 to raise another $2,304.”

Officials noted that “overall, the borough remains in good condition.”

As was pointed out at the Nov. 19 meeting during which the preliminary budget was approved, officials pointed to the July 19-20 flash flooding which “took a toll on the borough, as well as many residents and businesses, with almost $14,000 in debris removal and road repairs, not including overtime for police and street department employees.”

“Costs were paid out of reserves,” the borough’s statement noted. “More expenses will be incurred to get grants or contracts to remove the immense amount of debris that was washed from Leasure Run into Red Bank Creek and to make repairs to the Leasure Run bridge on Penn Street.”

The statement explained that the largest expenses in the budget are for personnel, vehicles, equipment and insurance, including health, property and liability insurance.

“Wage increases are very minimal in the 2020 budget after larger increases in 2019,” borough officials said. “The street and solid waste departments are lean. The borough is fortunate to have longtime employees who work hard to maintain the borough, supplemented by two part-time employees, one to help with garbage collection on Wednesdays and two for lawn maintenance in the growing seasons.”

Officials also pointed out that the borough received a grant and low interest 10-year loan, which required a “substantial contribution,” to purchase a new pick-up truck which arrived on Nov. 19, and a refuse collection truck that should arrive in about May to replace an 11-year-old truck.

“The pick-up is equipped with a plow and salt spreader and will be used to supplement and extend the life of the 12-year-old dump truck and the tractor,” the borough’s statement notes. “Plowing and salting should be done more efficiently in normal snow events by our two employees with the dump and pick-up trucks than can be done using the tractor for plowing. Increased heavy rain events, sink holes and drainage issues, requiring new inlets and pipes, are being addressed as much as possible.”

Solid waste collection fees are going up by $3 per quarter as a result of higher insurance costs on the new truck, but primarily because of a $6 increase per ton in disposal fees at the county transfer station from $66 to $72 per ton of refuse, officials said. That increase went into effect on Sept. 1.

A lengthy debate about the borough’s police force was held at the Nov. 19 meeting, with councilman Stewart Bain questioning the viability of contracting services to Rimersburg, East Brady and Hawthorn boroughs. Council president Sandy Mateer stated that the borough had increased the costs charged to those other communities each of the past two years, and that New Bethlehem was no longer subsidizing police services in those communities.

“The borough has transitioned the Police Department from primary reliance on two or sometimes three full-time and many part-time officers, to four full-time officers and a very limited number of part-time officers,” the council’s statement explains. “This required an increase in wages to retain officers, stop the revolving door, and promote longevity, knowledge of the communities and consistent enforcement, including of ordinance violations.”

The statement also addressed the police vehicles and equipment, noting that two older police vehicles required many repairs and necessitated the purchase of a new vehicle.

“Equipment, training and vehicles have all been improved, but additional equipment, ongoing training and continued improvements are still needed,” the statement notes. “The loss of school and other municipal contracts, and less than expected fine revenue, required budget adjustments. These steps were needed to put the borough in the position of being able to provide 24-hour protection and to avoid the per resident fees that the state may be considering for state police coverage.”

The council’s statement concludes with: “The borough council sincerely appreciates the impact of higher taxes but hopes that residents can appreciate the efforts that council is making to provide services.”

Formal adoption of the 2020 budget is expected to come at the council’s Dec. 17 meeting.

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Other Business

• After asking the council to apologize for an incident with the police department that took place more than a year ago, Tammy Kellogg returned to the council meeting Nov. 19 to state that she still had not received a response from the borough.

Mateer told Kellogg that the borough’s solicitor had recommended that the council not issue a letter of apology, and that “We take the position we did nothing wrong.” Both Mateer and Mayor Tim Murray told Kellogg that they would offer no further comment on the matter.

• The council moved forward with a noise ordinance that will be enforced by the local police department. The issue was raised when a representative of the Moose Lodge asked the council to adopt such an ordinance so that local rules, and not rules established by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, could be enforced in the community. The Moose said it was hoping to have several music-related events throughout the year on its back patio area.

• Action was also taken on a new nuisance ordinance, modeled after East Brady’s ordinance, that would deal mainly with property conditions.

“It will at least give us a fighting chance to get some things cleaned up,” Mateer said, noting that the borough’s current ordinance is vague.

• At the request of the Redbank Valley School District, the council agreed to advertise a school crossing guard ordinance that puts the responsibility of hiring and directing crossing guards on the school district, and not the borough.

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