Council whittles tax hike down to 1.5 mills, takes mayor to task

In a rebuke of Mayor Derek Slaughter’s first budget — one that city Councilman Adam Yoder called the “largest tax increase in more than 15 years” — council took out about $766,500 of the proposed spending plan Thursday, passing on first reading a revised budget for 2021, with an eye toward more cuts.

“We’re inching up on 1 mill of tax savings,” Council President Randall J. Allison said after nearly two hours of grinding through Slaughter’s $29.7 million proposed budget.

“Your starting balance is at $960,496,” said Joseph Pawlak, city interim finance director, after the cuts and income adjustments were voted on.

One mill of city tax brings in $860,000, he said. The city began with about $178,000 in reserve.

Council agreed in a 4-2 vote, with one councilman absent, to reduce the size of the tax increase. The proposed tax rate is now 17.22 mills, and the tax increase is at 1.5 mills rather than 2.5 mills.

It is not a final product, Councilwoman Liz Miele said.

The vote was Allison, yes; Miele, yes; Councilman David Banks, yes; Councilman Jon Mackey, yes; Councilwoman Bonnie Katz, no; and Yoder, no. Councilman Vincent Pulizzi was absent.

In an extraordinary year with COVID-19 slamming businesses and individuals financially, council members blasted the mayor over being given the task of minimizing the proposed budget previously calling for a 2.5-mill tax hike.

Council is looking at contracting out information technology, repairing Memorial Pool and closing it for the year ahead, and eliminating positions such as the assistant controller and potentially outsourcing jobs.

Yoder took the mayor to task for not preparing council in October for the proposed hike.

He said it was not “fiscally responsible” for making council minimize the tax increase in two weeks.

He challenged the administration to put in a budget with more details in line items and suggested it review the City of Lancaster’s budget as a model.

“We can’t keep deficit spending,” Yoder said. “We have got to figure out how to live within our means rather than raise taxes repeatedly on a declining tax base.”

Yoder went further in his rebuke and reminded the mayor of the mandate he was given by those voting for him and asked Slaughter for feedback on how he intended to cut the proposed budget.

Joining the chorus of indignation was Katz, who was incredulous as she asked the mayor how he thought the 2.5-mill tax increase was okay when, as a councilman before being elected as mayor, Slaughter would not pass a quarter-mill increase.

“I know how many people are suffering and how much they will next year,” Katz said. “Business people are suffering. People are on fixed incomes in their homes asking how will they afford this tax increase?” she said.

Slaughter said in the next week he would get with the council and administration.

“This is your budget … why did you bring this to us?” Katz asked. “We discussed going through contracts and how there could be layoffs. This is a lot for everybody to digest. These justifications should have been done before this was brought to us.”

Miele said she agreed that discussions this year about getting the budget out there earlier didn’t actually happen.

“We have a budget where departments submitted what they thought they need,” Miele said.

“What do we got?” she asked. “We all need to have a part in this. Let’s get down to work, guys, OK?”

The proverbial scissors were then taken out.

Councilman David Banks proposed and council eliminated $40,000 from information technology mapping software.

Supplies for information technology were then reduced by $13,500 and council computer supplies by $12,000.

Mackey proposed and council eliminated $125,000 from street reconstruction for streets and parks department.

Mackey proposed and council took out $50,000 on brick street resurfacing construction.

Mackey asked Mark Killian, city fire chief, if he could have the department do without a tool to work on newer vehicles, and Killian agreed.

Killian said the department could remove $27,000 from support equipment line item in total for self-contained breathing apparatus. That is because the department will receive COVID-19 federal pandemic relief funding from the state fire commissioner’s office.

Mackey asked Killian to take out $12,400 for fitness equipment.

Killian asked for a compromise. The total was dropped from $63,000 in support equipment to $28,000 leaving room for fitness equipment repair.

Police also were either seeking one or two vehicles instead of three purchases.

In 30 minutes, council removed $465,000 from the mayor’s proposed spending plan.

Council took out $130,000 in natural gas funds for street reconstruction and dropped it to the general fund bottom line of $200,000 available for use on multi-municipal stormwater sewer and pollution reduction plan needs.

“We keep funding pollution reduction but using the money that was for streets and parks and Grafius Run flood mitigation,” Miele said.

Meanwhile, that creates a fund for the Chesapeake Bay Pollution Reduction Plan over the next five years.

“We don’t have to spend a cent of that for the next five years,” said Jon Sander, city engineer.

The city, however, needs to foot the bill for 35 percent of the pollution reduction plan best management practice improvements, Miele said.

The decision also removed $45,000 from Grafius Run flood mitigation and made the line item zero.

That doesn’t mean council isn’t going to fix the continuing flooding issue for residents.

Gov. Tom Wolf has indicated he wants to provide grant funding for municipalities in need of flood control money, Katz said.

The city has spent $156,000 on flood mitigation of Grafius Run to date, finance records said.

Anticipated revenue from cable franchise fees is expected to be $340,000 next year compared to $120,000.

The codes department agreed to $22,000 in a program to remove blighted properties and give it enough for emergency demolition.

There were discussion items, too, which were not voted on.

Miele asked if the city can do without one records clerk in the police department, a potential $50,000 savings.

She asked if a person would be designated and appointed by the controller to be an assistant when the controller is not in office.

Norman Lubin, city solicitor, said that is possible and that contracts must be signed by the controller office. It would be a savings of $15,000, Miele said.

Police Chief Damon R. Hagan said he was willing to trim the training budget by $20,000.

“In a year like this, in an effort to work together as a team,” Hagan said.

More officers not in training can result in lower overtime, which is a costly issue council reviewed in its second budget work session.

Mackey, a retired Philadelphia police officer, said he did not feel comfortable taking out suicidal persons training and use of force training for officers.

Killian said he was willing to take $20,000 out of fire facility maintenance and would work with streets and parks on repairs such as roof and other building fixes.

Killian said he would be willing to have subscription and dues reduce to $3,000 from $6,000

Miele, before the Zoom remote broadcast stopped, reminded taxpayers the 1.5 mill increase is not the end product.

Council will continue to work with the mayor over the course of the week to get more details on its budget session questions as it looks to vote to adopt the budget Thursday. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. and is on YouTube.


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