Written by Dan Miller
Middletown’s proposed 2017 budget is good news for borough residents, who can expect to receive more services from borough government without having to pay more.
The 2017 budget that borough council tentatively adopted on Nov. 15 adds one new public works employee and one new police officer; without increases in the property tax, the electric rate, or the trash rate.
The borough can add these two new positions without raising taxes or rates largely thanks to reducing spending by about $160,000 in 2017 by bringing financial administration in-house, and by cutting spending on information technology, said borough Finance Director Bruce Hamer.
The borough had been paying outside consultants a little more than $200,000 a year to handle financial administration. This year, council decided to bring financial administration in house by hiring Hamer. The net savings after accounting for Hamer’s salary and benefits is about $105,000 a year.
Council also expects to save at least $50,000 this year by hiring a new outside company for IT consulting services in 2017 to replace the one that had been costing the borough about $8,800 a month in recent years.
Parks can also expect more attention in 2017, as the budget increases funding for maintenance and repair of parks from $15,000 to $75,000. Most of this increase is for the borough to hire an outside firm to mow the grass in the parks, freeing up more time for borough employees to attend to the parks themselves, Hamer said.
The budget also sets aside money for a list capital improvement projects, with paving Ann Street at the top.
The list also includes replacing an air-conditioning unit at the library, buying a new dump truck/snow plow, new equipment for repairing potholes, improvements to borough hall, money for holiday decorations, and funds to install video cameras in police vehicles.
Residents can inspect the tentative budget by going to the Municipal Building. The borough hopes by midweek to have the tentative budget posted on the borough website, www.middletownborough.com.
Council is expected to give final approval of the budget at its Dec. 6 meeting.
The borough budget consists of the general fund budget, the electric fund, the police sinking fund, and the liquid fuels budget. The police sinking fund is the capital improvement fund for the police department, while the liquid fuels budget is for money that the borough gets from the state each year for road improvements.
The general fund is funded mostly through the property tax and other local taxes. It also includes an annual payment of $725,000 from Suez under terms of the borough’s 50-year lease of its water and sewer systems to Suez.
The general fund covers everything in borough government that does not come under the electric fund — which is the fund that covers everything related to the borough’s system of distributing electricity to residents and businesses.
The general fund proposes spending $5,809,050 in 2017 — less than the $5,812,054 to be spent this year.
The biggest part of the general fund — $2.9 million — goes for public safety, including $2.47 million for the police department compared to $2.37 million in 2016.
Public safety includes about $237,000 for code enforcement and planning and zoning. The 2017 budget adds no new positions in codes and planning and zoning — maintaining the same staffing complement of one full-time codes and zoning officer and two part-time officers for property maintenance.
The full-time codes position has been unfilled for close to a year, and only one of the two part-time positions is filled.
The budget sets aside $26,000 to continue paying an outside firm, Commonwealth Code Inspection Service of Manheim, to assist the borough with code enforcement.
The amount going to Commonwealth Code could end up being less in 2017 if the borough succeeds in hiring its own full-time code enforcement officer to replace Jeff Miller, who resigned in December 2015. The borough is advertising the position for about $55,000 a year, Hamer said.
The general fund also includes contributions to various outside bodies and commissions such as $150,000 to the fire department, $50,000 to Middletown Public Library and $10,000 to the Olmsted Recreation Board.
The electric fund proposes revenue and spending of $8.3 million for 2017, a drop from the $8.9 million being spent this year. The new five-year contract for the wholesale purchase of power that council approved in October reduces the amount of money expected to be spent to buy electricity in 2017 from $5.2 million to $4 million.
Electric fund revenue comes from the bills that residential, commercial and industrial users pay to the borough for electricity they use through the year.
As in previous years, an amount of money — $1.3 million for 2017 — is to be transferred from the electric fund to the general fund, to help balance the general fund budget. The electric fund also proposes setting aside another $150,000 for capital improvements tied to the electric distribution system.
It will not be necessary to transfer any funds from the electric trust to the electric fund in 2017, Hamer has said.
The trust is the account that was set up in 1999 as a result of a 1998 court settlement with Metropolitan Edison regarding the price that the borough was paying Met-Ed to purchase electricity for many years. The trust was created to cushion the blow to residents over the borough having to charge higher electric rates as a result of the settlement. Close to $10 million remains in the trust.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 November 2016 15:03
Written by Dan Miller
There’s a lot that Middletown residents can do to help police prevent and fight crime throughout the borough.
Most of it costs nothing or very little, in terms of money. But it does require effort — perhaps a lot of effort — as well as “persistence and accountability,” said David Botero, community relations coordinator for the Harrisburg Bureau of Police.
Botero — described by Middletown Police Chief John Bey as the “guru” of neighborhood crime watch programs — was the invited guest speaker on Nov. 16 for the first of three public meetings being held in Middletown on how residents can develop their own neighborhood groups.
If you missed Botero on Nov. 16, you can catch him during the next community meeting on crime in Middletown that is being held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, at the Rescue Fire Hall on South Union Street.
Botero also will be at the third meeting, although a date for that session has not been set yet.
The series of community meetings has been set up by borough Councilor Dawn Knull, working with Bey. Knull said residents are concerned about what they see as an increase in crime in the borough, and they want answers regarding what to do about it.
Botero — who thinks of himself as a “professional neighbor” — said there’s no one model for what a neighborhood crime watch group should be.
He works with 22 different neighborhood groups throughout all parts of Harrisburg. Some cover a whole neighborhood, some just part of one small street. They all have different names — many of which don’t include the words “crime” or “watch” — such as Neighborhood Action Group, Capital Area Neighbors and Riverside United Neighbors.
The most successful have regular meetings — although the meetings can be held anywhere, such as in a place of worship, a library, or at a house.
Another thing that the groups have in common is that they were all started by one — or a few — dedicated people, in the same sense that it takes one “crazy person” to get a wave started in the crowd at a big sporting event.
“It takes that one person or group of people to get people involved, and keep it going,” Botero said.
A group starts with one person going around and knocking on doors, Bey said. “Maybe you will only get one person but stay at it and be persistent. Before you know it the word will get out” and the group grows.
Neighborhood Action Group was started by one woman who, working with Botero, got six people from her neighborhood to show up at a meeting at a church. Now the group has regular meetings in a library and usually at least 25 people show up.
Some of the groups perform the same function that the old “Welcome Wagon” used to do. Botero mentioned one group on Zarker Street in Harrisburg where a committee welcomes all new residents with a basket of cookies or fruit, and contact information for how to join the group.
The same group is known to have its meetings in front of a house that may be causing an issue on the street — such as taking up too many parking spaces.
“They send out an email that says we’re meeting in front of Katy’s house. They get their chairs and sit right outside and they invite you to their meetings, because they are going to be talking about you,” Botero said. “Is it right, is it wrong, is it appropriate? I don’t know. Does it work? Yes.”
About 20 borough residents came to the Nov. 16 meeting at Liberty Fire Hall on Adelia Street — maybe not much in a town of close to 9,000 people. They were joined by Mayor James H. Curry III — who live-streamed the meeting for the Internet on his phone — and several Middletown Police Department officers.
“This is a huge group,” Botero said. “We’ve had groups as small as one, and bigger groups like Friends of Midtown” with as many as 90. “The number of people that come to a meeting does not define the success or effectiveness of a meeting, by any means.”
Most of the time when the groups meet they don’t talk about crime, per se, but about “quality of life” issues — a subject that Bey has been talking about a lot lately regarding Middletown.
Quality of life issues are things that, left unattended, can create the opportunity for crime to occur.
“I’m not going to say that we don’t talk about crime because it does come up, but it’s not the shootings and it’s not the rapes,” Botero said. “What it is is my streetlight is out, there’s a pothole, what can we do about getting a cross walk or a stop sign or a speed bump. That’s about 90 percent of it.”
Many of these concerns end up getting funneled to Botero, who as liaison with the groups then forwards the concern to the appropriate person or body within the police department.
The issue can also end up going to the city codes department, if it has to do with blight, because codes can often accomplish more in this regard than police can, Botero said. A neglected blighted property might as well be the same as putting out a big sign that reads “Criminals Welcome Here.”
Some groups in Harrisburg have volunteers who patrol where they live. In other cases, the groups just rely on regular people who are out doing regular things, like dog walkers.
“They are out everyday,” Botero said. “They can tell you that this person in this house is on vacation, this person should be at work, whose car is that, this person’s mail is not being picked up. There’s an abandoned home with squatters over there. This street light is flickering. We haven’t seen this guy for awhile — can you go in and see if he’s dead?”
Or it can be as simple as one Middletown woman at the meeting who a few years ago, concerned about what she was convinced was drug activity near her house at Main and Spring streets, started making a habit of just standing outside at the right time.
“I don’t see it (drug activity) any more because I go out at night. When I see something happening I go out and I look and I make it known that I’m watching. I pretend like I’m taking pictures of something,” the woman said.
Bey cited the woman as just one small example of what a neighborhood group can accomplish.
“She’s already doing it,” he said.
How many neighborhood groups should there be in Middletown? That’s up to the residents, but the town is way too big for just one, Bey said.
“We couldn’t have one big crime watch program that responds effectively to the individual needs of Oak Hill or down in the First Ward or other wards,” the chief said. “It’s going to be incumbent upon you as community members to take back your respective neighborhoods. This is really the essence of community policing — it’s the community policing its own community.”
Resident Lisa Godshall said she used to be part of a neighborhood crime watch group when she lived in West Allentown.
“It was amazing,” she said.
She moved to Middletown about a year and a half ago to be closer to her grandson. She was assaulted after moving to the borough.
“I was shoved into a dumpster. I had a black eye, It was traumatizing. The officers of Middletown were there within minutes. They literally held my hand,” Godshall said.
She and other residents often don’t want to call police because they don’t want to bother them. But Middletown residents and police need to come together to fight crime.
“We need a dialogue between the people and the men and women who wear the badge to say, ‘What can we do to help you?’” Godshall said.
Bey agreed, saying it doesn’t do any good when something happens and people post about it on Facebook and don’t call police.
“We can’t do Facebook investigations,” he said. “If you think you are bothering us, you’re not. This is why we put the uniform on. That’s why you pay us. If you see suspicious people if you see something out of sorts, don’t post it on Facebook. Call and have an officer respond.”
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 November 2016 12:53
Written by Dan Miller
There could be a coffee shop at the site of the new Amtrak train station in Middletown, and other types of commercial businesses.
There could be a hotel, and even a parking garage. Much of this appears to depend upon the private company or developer that the state — the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation — ends up hiring to build major parts of the long-awaited station project.
PennDOT on Nov. 16 hosted a visit to the train station site along West Main Street for private companies that are interested in getting the contract to partner with the state in developing the station.
On Dec. 16 a “statement of qualifications” is due from these interested companies regarding the Middletown train station project, PennDOT says.
PennDOT didn’t say when the state will select and award a contract to this private company. However, work on the train station itself is to start late in 2018.
The entire train station project is to be finished and opened to the public sometime in 2020 or 2021, PennDOT Deputy Secretary for Multimodal Transportation Toby Fauver told the Press And Journal on Nov. 16.
In the meantime, the work to prepare the site for construction of the station — and whatever ultimately goes with it — is to be finished by May 2017.
Norfolk-Southern railroad is expected to start an estimated $6.5 million in track work before the end of 2016, PennDOT says. An estimated $4.3 million in track work that has to be done by Amtrak is expected to begin late next year.
As for the private company/developer that will be chosen, this entity “will develop, design, build, finance, operate and maintain parking facilities” that will provide at least 400 new parking spaces throughout an eight-acre tract to meet needs of the new Amtrak train station.
If the private company proposes a plan for commercial development upon the site — even something like a small hotel — a parking garage might be needed to make up for the loss of surface parking spaces that would be taken up by any new buildings, Fauver said.
The developer has to provide at least 400 spaces, but whether all those spaces are on a surface lot, or some of them in a parking garage, will be determined based on what the private developer proposes for the site, Fauver said.
The private company to be hired by the state will also be in charge of completing the extension of West Emaus Street to West Main Street as part of the train station project.
Middletown borough officials view extending West Emaus as vital to the ongoing downtown revitalization. The train station project also includes building a pedestrian bridge over West Main Street to make it easier for students at Penn State Harrisburg to get to the station — and to the downtown.
PennDOT has always referred to extending West Emaus as one of the last things to be done before the train station itself is finished.
But with the timetable to open the station now 2020 or even 2021, does the borough have to wait that long before the street can be extended?
Ultimately, that too is a decision that will primarily lie with the private company that is hired by PennDOT, Fauver explained.
“I have not wanted to say we can open the road prior to the station being completed, although there is a possibility” that could happen, Fauver said. “It really depends on the area the contractor” — the private company to be hired — “needs to do work.”
“If a commercial developer comes in and wants to propose a plan that requires space for them to do work, we didn’t want to open a road to traffic and then have potential conflicts with traffic or pedestrians in an active contraction zone,” Fauver added. “If opening the road to traffic isn’t going to create a conflict then it is possible we could open the road early.”
“I just don’t want to tell someone we will open it in 2018 and then not meet the date because of some thing that happens, because we’ll get beat up over it,” Fauver said.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 November 2016 11:02
Written by Eric Wise
In the years after her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, Jamie Burkett found herself exhausted by a trip to the grocery store. She did not have the energy to make more than one stop on a shopping trip, and she grew fatigued even on days of simple, light activity.
“When evening came, I would just be wiped out,” said Burkett, 37, of Lower Swatara Township.
She decided to do something about it.
In the fall of 2015, she began the 12-week MS Fitness Challenge offered by four athletic trainers at the Elizabethtown Fitness Center.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 November 2016 15:13
Written by Dan Miller
A downtown Middletown business owner who rents space from the borough has received an eviction notice, as part of the planned sale of the McNair House property by the Industrial and Commercial Development Authority.
David Craig, owner of the PC & Pro Audio Service Center at 27 E. Emaus St., is hoping that the authority will allow him to stay.
On Nov. 1 Craig presented an informal proposal to the authority and to borough council to purchase the building he leases by having it subdivided from the rest of the McNair House property — an offer to which the authority seems receptive.
Authority Chairman Ian Reddinger invited Craig to submit a more detailed proposal that would include specific dimensions for how much property besides the building itself that Craig would like to purchase — how much space for off-street parking, for example.
“I hope it is a good outcome for him, I really really do,” said Reddinger.
The eviction notice came as an unexpected and somewhat hurtful shock to Craig, who has been in the building for four years — before the authority acquired the McNair House property from a private owner for $325,000 in 2014.
Craig told the Press And Journal that the authority had assured him back when the authority acquired the property that Craig would not have to worry about being evicted.
He said he received similar assurances from the authority even after the building along North Union was torn down in March 2015.
But those assurances came from an authority whose members are all gone now. As one of its first moves after taking office in January 2016, the new council leadership emerging from the 2015 elections replaced all but one of the authority members who had been appointed by the previous council.
Within a few months the last hold-out from the previous authority, Matt Tunnell, submitted his resignation.
History of property
The McNair House property consists of three separate addresses under one tax parcel on the northeast corner of North Union and East Emaus streets.
Besides the building Craig leases for his business, the property includes the large historic McNair House itself — dating back to at least 1894, according to records — and the vacant greenspace along North Union where a building housing three small business store fronts used to be.
The authority tore down the building in March 2015 to make room for a large pavilion-style trellis that was to be constructed upon the site as part of the downtown streetscape. The trellis was eventually abandoned as being too expensive.
The authority is selling the McNair House property as part of the dissolving of the authority being sought by borough council.
“If we can’t sell it we may have to transfer (the McNair House) to the borough,” however the borough is not allowed to collect “rental income,” Reddinger said. Moreover, it is in “the best interest of the whole town” that the property be sold to a private investor and be put back on the tax rolls.
“We had to give them a 90-day notice,” Reddinger said of the eviction notice that was sent on Oct. 10 to Craig.
The authority through its legal counsel also sent a notice to a family that leases an apartment in the McNair House itself that their lease would not be renewed. The authority has not heard from the family, Reddinger said.
Craig had approached the authority several months before about acquiring the building he leases. Reddinger said it was unfortunate that the authority had to serve Craig with an eviction notice, because Craig has consistently paid his rent to the borough on time.
Contrary to mission?
Craig acknowledges he is probably not the only business owner in Middletown to ever receive an eviction notice, but when your landlord is the arm of the borough that is supposed to be helping downtown businesses, that makes the situation different, Craig said.
“Your decision to evict PC & Pro Audio Service Center goes contrary to your mission statement found on the Middletown Borough website” that the authority is to encourage “the expansion of existing businesses,” Craig wrote in a statement to the authority on Oct. 20.
Craig also pointed to his own efforts supporting downtown Middletown; including on behalf of the Elks Theatre and The Event Place in the first block of South Union Street.
He added that he has invested $1,000 in the building that he leases and has never requested reimbursement.
Craig is working to put together a more detailed proposal in response to Reddinger’s invitation.
Something needs to be worked out well in advance of the Jan. 31 eviction deadline, otherwise Craig will have no choice but to look elsewhere — most likely outside of Middletown — for a new home for his business. Craig also lives in the borough.
His roots in the town actually go back much farther, to around 1970 when Craig had a small business on North Catherine Street, across from what is now Middletown Public Library.
The building is long since torn down, but Craig keeps a poster-sized photo of it hanging on the wall of his computer shop.
In the meantime, council on Nov. 1 hired Mark Heckman Real Estate Appraisers of New Cumberland to appraise the entire McNair House property for a price not to exceed $1,900.
The borough will never get back the amount of money that it put into the McNair House property, especially considering the added cost to demolish the building that housed the small businesses, Reddinger said.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 November 2016 15:10