Written by Dan Miller
Middletown Borough Council approved an agreement on Monday, Sept. 21 whereby a private developer will build a new consolidated electric substation for the borough as part of the Woodland Hills development, then lease the substation back to the town.
Council’s 5-1 vote in favor of the lease agreement with developers URI Group of Silver Spring, Md., is subject to the deal being reviewed by borough Solicitor Adam Santucci, who was not present at the meeting.
The original motion to approve the lease, put on the table by Councilor John Brubaker, did not call for solicitor review of the agreement. The provision for solicitor review was added at the urging of Councilor Ben Kapenstein and Mayor James H. Curry III, both of whom said that Santucci had not seen the lease proposal that was coming before council for a vote.
“He’s not comfortable with the legality of it as of right now,” said Kapenstein, who was the only councilor of those present to vote against approving the lease.
During a break in the meeting, URI Managing Director David Stubbs sought to correct what he called “misinformation” that under the proposal the borough will be giving or loaning URI money to build the substation.
The perception that the borough was subsidizing construction of the substation was fueled by public comments made before the vote by Jim Nardo, owner of the Westpointe shopping center on West Main Street and a member of the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority.
“Why in the hell are we digging a hole after we just got ourselves out of a hole?” Nardo asked, referring to the borough getting $43 million to pay off debt by leasing its water and sewer system to United Water for 50 years. “I’ve been in the development business for 40 years and I have never once asked any municipality, any government agency, to finance my development.”
Stubbs said that URI will provide the financing to cover the estimated $11.5 million cost to build the substation in Woodland Hills. The project also includes purchase of a smart metering system.
However, Stubbs and other partners with URI Group also acknowledged during a council meeting on Aug. 17 that URI’s proposal to build up to 511 new homes, apartments and townhomes throughout the 170-acre Woodland Hills tract cannot be done without the borough committing to building the substation there.
The substation project is essential to URI Group attracting the financing from private investors to fund the Woodland Hills project, partners with URI Group said during the Aug. 17 session.
“He can’t get funding for his project” without the borough committing to the substation at Woodland Hills, said Greg Wilsbach, a candidate for borough council in November’s general election and the former head of the town’s electrical department. “This borough should not be funding a project like that off the backs of our taxpayers and electric users and customers.”
Wilsbach from the start has been a critic of the plan to take the borough’s two existing substations at Mill and Spruce streets and consolidate them in the new substation at Woodland Hills.
In further comments made before council’s vote on the lease agreement on Sept. 21, Wilsbach said that the borough already has a smart meter system that only requires “a couple upgrades to your program.”
He contended that the $11.5 million cost for the consolidated substation at Woodland Hills is “way over” what the borough needs to spend in that the Spruce Street substation could be upgraded for $1.5 million at most and that the substation at Mill Street – rebuilt after being damaged by a flood during Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 – could be “very cheaply” moved one block to get it out of the flood plain.
Wilsbach also contends that consolidating the substation at Woodland Hills will lead to more electrical outages for the town as a whole because the system will go from 10 circuits to four.
“Middletown will be out of power a lot more. Trust me, I know these circuits,” Wilsbach said.
However, supporters of consolidating the substation at Woodland Hills got backing from an unexpected source – Dauphin County.
That the plan would get the substation out of the flood plain could strengthen the county’s application for up to hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money to be awarded by the federal government and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Dauphin County is one of just 40 applicants – and the only one from Pennsylvania – competing nationwide for the competitive grant, said George Connor, county deputy economic development director. Connor spoke to council before its vote on the substation lease along with Leah Eppinger, a planner with the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission.
“We are here not so much to support the particular project – that will be up to you – but the innovative concepts that the project has will help our point system in the application,” Connor said.
Besides the substation and its associated smart meter system, the Woodland Hills project as a whole has other aspects that could help give a boost to the county’s application for the grant, Eppinger said.
“Some of the development ideas that we are working with the developers on in this Woodland Hills project are features that the county has sort of pushed in their green development and green infrastructure program,” Eppinger said.
After council’s vote, Stubbs said that the county could potentially provide the borough with funds that would help the town make the lease payments for the substation after it is built.
“This project is a priority of the county,” Stubbs said of Woodland Hills.
However, as Eppinger noted, the county is one of 40 applicants competing for the HUD/Rockefeller Foundation money.
“This is a competitive grant. We are guaranteed nothing at this point,” Eppinger said. Even if the county’s application is approved, there is no guarantee that the county will receive any money that could be provided to the borough.
HUD wlll have “the opportunity to pick and choose to fund all, some or none” of the projects that have been identified throughout Dauphin County. Woodland Hills among them, Eppinger said.
In their comments opposing the lease, Kapenstein and Curry said that the borough had not spent enough time investigating all the alternatives for getting the town’s electrical infrastructure out of harm’s way in case of another flood.
“We haven’t done any research as a body, other than to try and push this one option through,” Curry said. “I think that we have a great deal more research to do in order to make an informed decision.”
The mayor also contended that most of the council members present to vote on the lease deal did not even know which financing option the agreement was based upon.
During the Aug. 17 meeting, URI had presented two such options: one in which the borough would obtain the financing through issuing tax-exempt bonds and another in which URI would provide the financing and then lease the substation back to the borough.
Curry noted that of all councilors present for the vote, only two – Kapenstein and Mike Bowman – had been present for the Aug. 17 session where the financing options were detailed.
The mayor in particular challenged Councilor Sue Sullivan, who because of health reasons had not attended a full council meeting since March. Sullivan attended the Sept. 21 meeting
“You don’t know how it works,” Curry said to Sullivan, who did not respond. “How can you vote on it?”
Council President Chris McNamara countered that the planning to consolidate the substation to Woodland Hills had not been done in secret and was long in the making.
“On Nov. 17 (2014) this body took action in a unanimous decision recorded in the minutes 9-0 authorizing the engineer to move forward with the relocation of the substation on the grounds of Woodland Hills,” McNamara said. “In February, council again took action where you authorized me to sign a developers’ agreement with the URI Group. You all knew what was coming over the past several months that we have been putting together the master lease arrangement.”
After the 5-1 vote to approve the agreement subject to solicitor review, Bowman sought to pass a motion to earmark all future payments from United Water under the separate water and sewer lease deal toward covering the payments the borough will have to make to lease the substation once it is built.
The move would help ensure that electric rates do not have to go up to cover the lease payments for the substation, according to Councilor Robert Louer said.
However, Kapenstein objected that most of the money from the future annual payments from United Water is already committed to the general fund, and that restricting this money to cover the substation lease payments will lead to a tax increase or substantial funding cuts.
Kapenstein said he could agree with earmarking a portion of the future water and sewer lease payments to cover the substation debt, but not all of it.
Brubaker also noted that whether power rates go up has more to do with what the borough ends up having to pay to providers for its own electricity.
Bowman’s motion ended up failing, with McNamara, Brubaker, Kapenstein and Sullivan voting against it.
Stubbs after the meeting said that the new substation at Woodland Hills could be completed by October or November of 2016, although this all depends upon how soon URI Group can start building it.
And at this point, that depends upon the outcome of Santucci’s review of the lease agreement, and how long that takes, Stubbs said.
Following the meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 22, borough spokesman Chris Courogen told the Press And Journal that Santucci had expressed some concerns regarding the first draft of the lease agreement with URI Group, and had suggested some changes. The borough forwarded those comments to URI to be incorporated in a revised lease agreement, Courogen said.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 September 2015 10:25
Written by Eric Wise
Londonderry Twp. inspectors will be visiting the township’s 487 island properties in the Susquehanna River throughout September, township manager Steve Letavic announced on Tuesday, Sept. 8 during a township supervisors meeting.
The inspections were set to begin on Monday, Sept. 14 on Beech Island, and will continue for Hill, Beshore, Shelley and Poplar islands later in the month.
During the visits, officials will note the placement, size and condition of buildings on the property and take measurements when needed, Letavic said.
No notice is given when an inspector will visit any one property.
“I don’t think it’s practical to notify individual property owners,” Letavic said.
The inspections are driven by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which scrutinized Londonderry’s flood prone properties.
Under FEMA’s rules, many of the recreational cabins and cottages likely will have to be elevated and anchored. Many people use campers on the islands, which are to remain on the property for no more than 120 days at a time, and must be inspected, registered and road-ready.
If the agency’s demands are not met, it’s possible no one in the township will qualify for government-backed flood insurance, causing a hefty spike in insurance costs and making the sale of properties difficult.
FEMA’s floodway and flood plain rules, as well as Londonderry’s own ordinances that apply to the island properties, are not new. FEMA’s scrutiny of the township means officials can no longer ignore what happens on the islands.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 September 2015 16:58
Written by Eric Wise
Londonderry Twp. residents should not expect a tax increase in 2016, according to an early budget report by township officials.
“I will not be proposing a tax increase for 2016,” Steve Letavic, the township’s manager, told Londonderry Twp. supervisors during a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
But a possible increase for the following years hangs in a precarious balance, based on what unfunded state mandates hit the township with increased costs, Letavic said.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 September 2015 16:57
Truckers should not be allowed to use noisy engine braking in Middletown Borough, Councilor Mike Bowman argued during a Middletown Borough Council public works committee meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
Bowman, a committee member, said he believes Middletown needs to enact an ordinance banning the use of “jake’’ brakes and post signs.
“We need one at each entrance to the town,” suggested Councilor John Brubaker, another committee member.
Bowman said he is especially concerned with truck traffic on Ann Street, where he would like to see trucks limited to those making local deliveries. Diesel trucks may be equipped with a engine compression brake that assists with slowing down the truck. Compression brakes, like those offered by Jacobs Vehicle Systems, releases compression from the engine when the driver activates a switch.
Using compression braking creates a series of staccato rumbles that had led to bans in residential areas.
The ban on jake brakes and the limits on Ann Street traffic must be considered by the full council. If council decides to pursue these actions, the borough will have to coordinate its decision with the state Department of Transportation to ensure the legalities.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 September 2015 11:56
Written by Dan Miller
There was no fireworks show in Middletown on Labor Day – and it may be another example of a lack of routine coordination and communication among Middletown borough officials that again results in residents being short-changed.
James H. Curry III took to Facebook to vent his frustration, posting on the Middletown Residents United site on Tuesday, Sept. 1 that the lack of fireworks was a direct result of Middletown Borough Council’s failure to act.
Curry had led an effort to raise about $10,000 to put on the fireworks show. A little less than $5,000 of that came through Mayoral Madness, the charity basketball game between Middletown Area High School athletes and alumni that was organized by Curry and held in March.
Curry said he persuaded United Water to pledge another $5,000 toward the fireworks. Another $300 was raised through an event that was held at Cassel Vineyards of Hershey.
On Aug. 3, the mayor asked council to provide the remainder of the money that would be needed for the fireworks – about $7,000 to $8,000, Curry estimated. “My request was brushed off and President (Chris) McNamara indicated it would be discussed at the Aug. 17, 2015 council meeting,” Curry wrote in his post on Middletown Residents United’s Facebook page.
But council could not act on Aug. 17 because not enough members were present for a quorum. McNamara was absent, as were councilors Robert Louer, John Brubaker, Suzanne Sullivan and Vicki Malone.
That left council’s next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 1, as the last opportunity for council to act on Curry’s fireworks request before Labor Day. Instead, the meeting was abruptly canceled.
“Apparently, President McNamara is ill,” Curry said in his Facebook post. “Funny, no meeting was ever cancelled when I was unavailable. Likewise, Mrs. Sullivan hasn’t been to a meeting in months, yet we still proceeded. In any event, as this is the last meeting before the holiday, it is physically impossible to approve the expenditure for the fireworks.”
Sullivan has not been to a meeting since before the May primary due to illness, borough officials have said.
Curry closed out his Facebook post with this vow: “Middletown, I apologize. I wanted nothing more than for you to have something to smile about. You deserve it. The money raised and donated will remain untouched in an account until next year. At that time, I can promise you Middletown will have the best damn fireworks display around and we’ll be celebrating Labor Day…and a bit more.”
The obvious inference of Curry’s post: Council acted to deliberately sabotage the mayor’s campaign to hold the Labor Day fireworks. In a phone interview with the Press And Journal, Curry stopped short of saying so, but he didn’t exactly close the door on it, either.
“I’m not saying these actions are calculated, but I am saying they are very curious,” the mayor said. “I’m not going to flat out accuse somebody of something, but if you connect the dots something seems a bit odd.”
Asked why council would do such a thing, Curry responded, “Perhaps because I was the one that spearheaded the effort to get it done.”
The Press And Journal e-mailed Curry’s Facebook post to McNamara for the council president’s comment. McNamara did not respond.
That left it up to borough spokesman Chris Courogen to provide an explanation on council’s behalf.
The mayor’s efforts to raise money for Labor Day fireworks in Middletown are to be applauded, Courogen said. However, he waited too long before he brought his funding request to council, Courogen added.
Setting off the Labor Day fireworks is not as simple as it would seem, Courogen said. It involves getting approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration due to the proximity of Harrisburg International Airport, and from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission because the fireworks are set off in the boat launch area.
It was Courogen’s job to cut through the red tape the last time the borough set off Labor Day fireworks in 2013.
Even if council had acted on Aug. 3, it would have been “a real challenge” for the borough to get through all the hurdles in time to set off the fireworks on Labor Day, Courogen said.
It would have been “darn near impossible” if council acted on Aug. 17, he said. By Sept. 1, it didn’t matter whether or not council met – it would have been too late, Courogen said. By Sept. 1, the best that could have been hoped for was to plan to hold the fireworks on another holiday this year, like Veterans Day.
To Courogen’s knowledge, neither Curry nor anyone else formally approached council or the borough about making the fireworks happen before Curry brought it up during the Aug. 3 meeting.
“There had been talk about it” on Facebook but the borough did not know how much money had been raised – and therefore how much the borough would be asked to contribute, Courogen said.
For example, the borough did not know of the $5,000 contribution from United Water until the mayor mentioned it in his Sept. 1 Facebook post, Courogen said.
“The mayor is well-meaning but still seems to struggle to understand how government works,” he said. “It would have helped to get the borough staff involved and to get the ball rolling way before August.”
Informed of Courogen’s comments, Curry said it was public knowledge as long ago as March – before the Mayoral Madness game was held on March 27 – that the intent was to raise money for the Labor Day fireworks celebration. For the borough to suggest it was unaware of that is incredulous, Curry said. “They knew in March I would be coming to them for the rest of the money,’’ he said. “That was made perfectly clear to the entire council. Everybody knew this was on the table.”
If there truly was a time crunch as Courogen said, then McNamara’s delaying tactic makes no sense, the mayor said, since McNamara was on council the last time the fireworks were held and was therefore aware of all that is involved in making the event happen.
However, Courogen said he doubts even McNamara is aware of all the hurdles the borough must clear to put on the fireworks show.
Curry said as mayor all he could do was request the money for the fireworks. Getting the approvals was the borough’s responsibility.
Asked if he could have done more to keep the borough informed, Curry said the communication between himself and borough officials has gotten so bad that he doesn’t even bother anymore.
“I can’t even get an answer to a simple question,” the mayor contended. “At this point, after two years, I don’t even try anymore because it is impossible to get an answer.”
Curry said the close to $10,000 raised for the fireworks remains in an account under the auspices of the Middletown Area High School boys’ basketball booster club. The money is in a separate account that is not commingled with any of the booster club’s funds.
Curry said he didn’t place the money in an account under the borough because “I did not trust handing” it over to the borough.
“That money will not move – not a penny of it will be spent” until the rest of the money is raised to hold a fireworks show for Labor Day in 2016, Curry said.
He plans to hold his Mayoral Madness charity basketball game again in 2016, and again the proceeds will go toward the fireworks.
Barring some “unforeseen” event beyond local control – like the FAA or the Fish and Boat Commission saying no – Curry guarantees Middletown will have its Labor Day fireworks celebration in 2016.
Last Updated on Thursday, 10 September 2015 09:45