A 2013 budget that is about $45,000 lower than this year's but carries an 8.5 percent property tax hike was adopted in Upper Mount Bethel Township Thursday night. The supervisors' vote was 3-1.

A handful of residents at the meeting had more than the budget on their mind, however.

With much persistence, they pried scraps of information from tight- lipped officials about two rumors they say are circulating in Upper Mount Bethel -- the filing of a sexual harassment lawsuit by a township employee against a township supervisor and the possibility that the state auditor general might be investigating township officials.

The $3,200,019 budget adopted by the supervisors is $44,759 less than this year's, but it requires a .75 mill increase to balance it because of decreased state funding. With the new 5-mill rate, the tax bill for a property owner with a home assessed at $50,000 will go from $212.50 to $250, said township manager Maureen Sterner, who had put together a budget with no tax hike.

The township last raised property taxes in 2008, when the rate went up by 1 mill, Sterner said.

Supervisors Judith Henckel, Jerry Geake and Bob Gerwig voted in favor of the budget.

After the vote, Gerwig said he felt comfortable supporting the spending plan because "cuts were made in a lot of places ... and we were judicious how things were reduced."

Supervisor Larry Hallett, who voted against the budget, felt otherwise. He said raising taxes was inappropriate when the township crews are providing free topsoil to some township residents as well as contractors.

"You have five to seven people working to provide free topsoil and then you raise taxes?" he said, explaining his vote after the meeting.
"Contractors got multiple loads, and they were taken to where they were working. I had the zoning officer take pictures. How do you raise taxes with that type of operation?"

Sterner said the township has given topsoil to residents for years.
She added that the supervisors have debated the issue several times, and as recently as last spring, they decided not to charge for the topsoil.

Hallett also said he voted no because money from the state liquid fuels tax was missing from the 2013 budget.

However, after the meeting, Sterner said the money was not missing, just placed in a separate fund. The fund has a balance of $252,000 at the moment, she noted.

Supervisor Joe Battillo was absent from Thursday's meeting.

Before and after the budget vote, township officials rebuffed questions from some residents asking about a possible sexual harassment charge against a township employee. Sterner said, "I will not comment on a personnel matter at a public meeting."

When township solicitor Ronald Karasek asked for an executive session on a personnel matter a short time later, the crowd became suspicious, and Hallett asked Karasek if an allegation of sexual harassment had been made against a supervisor.

An exasperated Karasek said the executive session was "about a union matter involving the [township] office. There's nothing about sexual harassment."

When the supervisors reconvened 25 minutes later, Hallett pressed Karasek again, asking if his previous question about sexual harassment was appropriate.

Karasek repeated what Sterner said earlier about discussing personnel matters in public. "A road crew employee is personnel, and I'm not going to comment," he added.

Under questioning from the crowd, the supervisors denied knowing anything about an investigation by the state attorney general. "I haven't heard about it until tonight," Henckel said.

Henckel, Geake and Gerwig also denied knowledge of an investigation by the state auditor general. Hallett said he "heard something about it,"
but declined to elaborate.