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Tax hike concerns shared with council

During the Jan. 16 Catasauqua Borough Council meeting, council members heard concerns from residents about the 2023 tax increase.

Local citizens Ron Zemlansky, Mike Snyder and Jonathan Ritter addressed council about the borough’s current financial situation and the subsequent increase in taxes. Three council members were absent from the meeting, but the four-member delegation and borough Manager Glenn Eckhart addressed their concerns and said they empathized with the frustration.

Zemlansky questioned the amount of debt the borough is in and asked about past budgets and documentation. It was explained the budgets are made public and are available on the website. Council members recommended he look at past budgets to see for himself how past councils did not balance properly and reportedly overspent from the approved amounts.

Eckhart said a good deal of the overall debt is due to loans and payments for big items, such as the new borough complex. These will take years to fully pay off, he said, adding he hopes to be able to reduce taxes for residents in three years.

Eckhart noted he and borough Treasurer Catherine VanDyne are “fiscal hawks” who are committed to maintaining budget amounts and holding departments responsible for keeping costs down. He said past budget predictions “were way off,” and they are working to fix it from here on out.

According to council Vice President Howard Cunningham, the borough’s financial consultant said the deficit spending goes back seven years.

Councilwoman Jill Smerdon said previous councils borrowed large amounts of money and the interest is adding up.

Four members of the current council - President Brian Bartholomew, Paul Cmil, Cameron Smith and Gene Schlegel ­- all served on previous councils. Research into past coverage shows Bartholomew has been part of the voting process for more than 15 years. Additionally, research has shown Mayor Barbara Schlegel has line-item veto power on budget items and also served on council before becoming mayor.

Council members all noted they are feeling the strain since they are also borough residents who have to pay the higher amounts as well.

“We don’t take this lightly,” Cunningham said of raising taxes.

Eckhart apologized for the tax increase.

“I wasn’t here, but I am sorry for what Catasauqua taxpayers are going through,” Eckhart said.

Cunningham noted the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development has gotten involved to help the borough. They are working to create a plan for the next three to five years. Getting the state involved at this level helped the borough avoid declaring bankruptcy, according to Cunningham, which would have resulted in even higher tax increases.

Snyder questioned what all that money was spent on and who is being held accountable. He also commented many of the people he has spoken to are on fixed incomes and are worried about affording the increases.

Ritter asked why the borough residents have to pay more money when it was not their fault.

“Someone else messed up, so why is that our problem?” Ritter questioned.

He commented there hasn’t been a municipal pool for three years and the borough building cost a large amount of money and questioned if all the police and fire department vehicles and services are needed. He mentioned some smaller municipalities have gotten rid of their police departments and contracted with neighboring areas or the Pennsylvania State Police.

“What has this borough sacrificed?” Ritter asked. “’Cause we are all sacrificing.”

Cunningham noted the borough code requires they maintain certain services, such as the fire department. Smith shared his appreciation for the borough’s volunteer fire department and their efforts in the borough. It was also noted the new administration team has helped cut down on police department overtime to help assist with budgetary overages in that area.

Cunningham also noted there had been a study to look into the option of combining the Catasauqua and North Catasauqua police departments, but the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined the study. He noted it is resuming and is back on track.

Smerdon thanked Ritter for his impassioned speech and asked him to continue attending meetings and to stay involved in borough business.

Cunningham suggested any resident who has questions about legal action regarding the financial situation contact the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development and the state attorney general.

Ritter’s wife, Andrea, also addressed council regarding the municipal pool. She asked for it to be made functional in some way, whether that be filling it back in, creating a Splash Pad area or something else. She also requested better upkeep happen with the playground equipment.

Smerdon noted there is still work being done to analyze the pool issue and the options.

Gene Schlegel noted they will be discussing the future of the pool at the Feb. 6 council committee meetings.

In other business, council approved the appointment of Christy Schlottman as the new borough solicitor. Eckhart said this change will result in significantly lower rates, which will help save the borough money. In the past, the solicitor fees line item has been over budget. The previous solicitor will finish out some ongoing projects.

Additionally, Richard W. Luthcke was approved as the borough code official. Eckhart reported bringing these services in-house will save the borough money regarding fees for outside contracts. He also expects this appointment to help generate income.

Council members approved two resolutions. Resolution 1-2023 requests a Pennsylvania Small Water and Sewer Program grant in the amount of $348,221 from the Commonwealth Financing Authority to address two leaking filters at the wastewater treatment plant. Eckhart noted there is money in the budget for this, but he would prefer to offset some of the cost with grant funds.

Resolution 2-2023 approved the 8% contribution of employees into the police pension fund.

During the engineer’s report, it was noted the pool feasibility study is moving forward with a geotechnical study. It will take one or two weeks and will include a search for sinkholes.

Additionally, it was reported the development project at 201 N. 14th St. is moving forward. They are preparing for UGI to work on the site and for the start of construction.

In response to a question from Zemlansky, it was noted the process to remove fluoride from the water is moving along. There is a two-permit process still in the works, so it might be a while to fully implement.

Regarding large borough purchases, Eckhart said they are working to develop a capital purchase plan for the borough, so they will be able to see what is needed and when it will be needed to help the borough plan into the future.

Mayor Barbara Schlegel was not at the meeting, but her husband, Gene Schlegel, said she only had one item of concern for the meeting. She requested council, and those present, share a moment of silence in honor of Bartholomew’s late wife, Kathleen, who died Jan. 6.

Council will next meet 6 p.m. Feb. 6 for committee meetings and to discuss the 5G ordinance and the future of the municipal pool.

The next business meeting is 7 p.m. Feb. 20.

All meetings take place in the municipal complex, 90 Bridge St.