LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. - Final approval of Lower Macungie Township's 2014 budget is still nearly two months away, but three of five township commissioners support imposing a property tax on residents for the first time in 12 years.
On Tuesday night, Commissioners Doug Brown, Ron Eichenberg and Jim Lancsek voted to direct Township Manager Bruce Fosselman to prepare a budget that includes the property tax.
Commissioners Ryan Conrad and Roger C. Reis voted no.
Eichenberg, who is president of the commissioners, said he is a proponent of the tax. "We have to step up and be leaders and do the fiscally responsible thing,"
Lancsek said he does not like the new tax, but agreed with Eichenberg.
"This township was fat and happy for many years," said Lancsek. "It has offered a way of life that's pretty good for zero taxes. It's time to pay the check."
Brown said he is not yet prepared to adopt the tax, but added he's "fine with it for now" and it "makes good financial planning sense."
Said Reis: "I don't think I can support it at this time."
Conrad was the only commissioner who did not offer an opinion before the vote.
But after the meeting, Conrad explained he has opposed the tax ever since the township manager proposed it in September. Conrad called property taxes a regressive form of taxation that is not based on people's ability to pay but on the value of their homes, "which you have little control over."
Conrad added: "I don't think it's the right thing for our township."
He said other forms of taxation should have been more thoroughly explored.
Conrad also said no board member who voted yes was committing to approving the tax, only to including it as part of the budget presentation.
Based on the 3-2 vote, the proposed budget with the tax increase will be formally presented to the public at next week's commissioners meeting.
The township manager said Lower Macungie is facing a deficit in its capital fund of more than $1 million. He said $6 million worth of public works equipment has to be replaced.
"We can work magic, but we can't work miracles," said Fosselman. He added implementing the property tax "will not be the most popular thing to do, but we think it's the right thing to do."
Lower Macungie residents have not paid any township real estate taxes since 2002.
Fosselman said the proposed one-third-of-a-mill tax will generate about $1.1 million, which will be used to pay for capital improvements.
He said that increase will cost average homeowners in Lower Macungie
$33 to $99 a year, depending on the value of their homes.
The township manager said many Lower Macungie residents assume they already have been paying a township real estate tax for years.
He said others are saying: "This is going to tax me out of the community."
Fosselman said the owner of a $300,000 home in the township will pay a
$99 township tax, compared to a $4,800 school tax to East Penn School District.
"I don't think it's fair to say this tax will burden township residents," he said.
Concurred Lancsek: "This is minimal."
Fosselman also said implementing the tax does not mean it will increase in future years.
"Does this tie us into a tax forever?" said the manager. "No. Nothing is forever."
He said a total of about 2,200 municipalities, school districts and counties are in Pennsylvania, and Lower Macungie was one of only two that does not have a property tax.
Eichenberg said having no property tax has made it difficult for the township to obtain grants. He also indicated the tax will have a positive impact on the township's bond ratings.
The commissioners, along with seven members of the administrative staff, wrestled with the proposed budget for about 2.5 hours at their third and final public budget workshop Tuesday.
Commissioners did make cuts in a number of budget requests, eliminating one completely. But they did not cut enough to eliminate the need for the same property tax proposed by Fosselman last month, before they began reviewing the 2014 budget..
Less than 10 people attended the meeting, including at least two candidates for township commissioner and two township employees.
"Where is the outrage about this tax?" asked Eichenberg. "We have a very vocal community. They're not shy. They come and tell us when they are unhappy about something. No one has come out and said ‘you can't do this'."
Just before the vote, one resident expressed concern that commissioners are cutting "many, many things that we may need, that are more important than what we're keeping in there. We're cutting many things, especially in the capital projects, that have been put on the back burner for years and years. So many projects still are being put off, even with the implementation of a possible tax. That is disturbing to me."
And, despite Fosselman's assurances, another resident questioned whether the new tax will just be the starting point for more increases in future years. He also noted the township has not yet decided if it needs a police department, which could cost the township millions of dollars.
The proposed budget will be formally introduced to the public at the
Nov. 7 township meeting.
The "first reading" of the budget will be at the Nov. 21 meeting. The commissioners could make additional changes to the budget until they vote to advertise it that night.
Final adoption of the budget by the commissioners will happen at the
Dec. 19 township meeting, after a required 20-day period for public inspection.
Still paring down the budget
The proposed budget totals more than $18 million. At the beginning of the meeting, Fosselman reported the staff had cut $112,000 from the general fund and $516,200 from the capital projects fund since the last budget meeting on Oct. 9.
"Our staff has done a phenomenal job of paring down this budget," said Eichenberg.
Commissioners made additional changes Tuesday night:
• A request for $19,736 from the Community Action Committee of the
Lehigh Valley was eliminated. Fosselman said the township has not funded that human service organization in the past.
• The township library requested $502,692, up from $467,620 it
received for 2013 because it hoped to add another member to its staff.
Commissioners agreed to give the library $477,000 in 2014.
• The Lower Macungie Youth Association will get $62,000, $3,000 less
than it requested but $2,000 more than it is getting this year.
• Commissioners allocated $7,000 to Lower Macungie Senior Citizens but
only $2,000 to Lehigh County Senior Citizens. The township's seniors organization asked for $6,000 and the county's group asked for $3,000.
• The Alburtis Fire Company requested $10,000, but commissioners
decided to keep funding for that company at the current $6,500.
Alburtis requested $10,000 to replace outdated firefighting gear.
• The township's Environmental Advisory Council requested an increase
from $3,000 this year to as much as $10,00 next year, most of it to do an inventory of ash trees on township property that are threatened by a metallic green beetle called the emerald ash borer. The insect is moving into 46 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties and is only 25 miles south of the township. After much discussion, commissioners decided hiring a consultant to do the inventory should be a separate $7,500 line item in the budget. They are allocating only $2,500 to the EAC.
Allentown, PA 18102