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Tax hike postponed, one-cent increase in electric rates may stay in 2016 budget, but otherwise numerous changes proposed in the spending plan by Middletown's new council

 As promised, the new Middletown Borough Council during its Jan. 19 meeting reopened the 2016 budget that had been approved by the old council in December.

An increase in the property tax appears off the table for this year - although it could be in the works for 2017.

However, a majority of the new council favors keeping a 1-cent increase in the electric rate that was included in the budget that the former council adopted. That increase could cost the average residential electric customer in the borough another $12 a month, or up to $144 a year.

Eliminated, new, revised positions in Borough operations

Council took no action on changes to the budget. Instead, council has come up with a lengthy list of proposed changes to the budget - many of them based upon new positions, revisions of existing positions, and current positions that would be eliminated.

Council asked the borough’s current financial advisor, Mark Morgan, to redo the spending plan based upon these proposed changes. Morgan said he thinks he can have that done within 24 hours.

Time is of the essence, as council must approve a final version of the 2016 budget by Feb. 15, Council President Ben Kapenstein said. The spending plan must be advertised for at least 10 days before that final action can be taken, he said.

As a result, Kapenstein said council may need to schedule one and possibly two special meetings on the budget in order to meet that Feb. 15 deadline. 

One meeting could take place as early as this Thursday, Jan. 21, Kapenstein said - in which case a second special budget meeting may not be necessary, as council’s regularly scheduled meeting is on Tuesday, Feb. 2.

Proposal to put $725,000 back in budget

One big change compared to the spending plan passed by the previous council is that the 2016 budget will include the annual $725,000 payment from Suez. This is the first year for the annual payments that are to continue throughout the 50-year lease of the borough’s water and sewer systems to Suez.

The former council had concluded that the $725,000 would not be available to the borough’s general fund, but would have to go to the water and sewer authority. Kapenstein said that in his opinion, the money belongs in the general fund, and therefore available to the budget.

The $725,000 back in the budget, coupled with the added revenue from the 1-cent raise in the electric rate, could provide the borough with a slight surplus in the general fund for 2016, Morgan said. 

At the same time, the changes proposed by council could dry up that surplus, and even result in a slight deficit that would have to be made up - most likely either by transferring money from the electric trust, or from the borough’s fund balance which currently totals about $2.3 million. Morgan said he won’t know if the budget is in the black or the red until he runs the new numbers.

Many changes proposed

Here is a list of the changes - so far - that the new council is proposing for the 2016 budget. Some of these are the result of actions that the council took earlier during the same meeting on Jan. 19:

  • Eliminating a contribution of $60,000 to the borough authority
  • Eliminating the position of communications director for an estimated savings of $84,043, including salary and benefits.
  • Eliminating the position of borough secretary for an estimated savings of about $64,000.
  • Increasing by about $40,000 the salary of the borough manager. The borough is currently advertising for the position. The increase would put the salary in the range of $95,000 to $110,000.
  • Adding a new finance administrator position.
  • Eliminating the position of a borough administrator to Suez 
  • Installing an answering machine to handle after hours calls to borough staff.
  • Adding up to $10,000 to cover a new contract with the Humane Society for the placement of lost and stray animals.
  • An unspecified increase in the advertising budget.
  • Money to cover bringing back a borough planning commission, to include fees for a solicitor and a stipend for commission members.
  • Funds to cover a temporary “management advisor” who is to assist in the transition to new borough staff over the next three or four months. Council during the meeting approved a motion to hire as the advisor Bruce Hamer at an hourly pay rate of $32.45 for 30 hours a week. Hamer was the Middletown Borough manager, from 1986 to 1992. He also served on the Middletown Borough Authority in 2008. 
  • Approving in increase in the salary of Police Chief John Bey to $82,000 a year, retroactive to Jan. 1. Council during the meeting approved a new “interim role” for Bey in which he will temporarily take on more responsibility overseeing overall borough operations. Chris Courogen, the borough’s former communications director, remains with the borough as acting borough manager, Kapenstein said during a break in the meeting.
  • Adding health care benefits to the position of Public Works Superintendent. The previous superintendent, Lester Lanman, who resigned in December, received benefits through the military.
  • A $10,000 contribution for 2016 to the Olmsted Regional Recreation Board.
  • “Possible” but unspecified revisions in the police budget.
  • Hiring a first class lineman for the electric department. Morgan was instructed to run a version of the new budget with the lineman position, and one without.

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 January 2016 12:18

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Neighbors blast Middletown zoning interpretation that would allow a crematory near their homes; ask new borough council for help

 

About a dozen Middletown residents pleaded with the new borough council during its Jan. 19 meeting to intercede on their behalf regarding a funeral home that wants to locate a crematory in their neighborhood.

 

Specifically, the residents blasted an interpretation by the borough’s previous zoning officer that  essentially gave the Fager-Finkenbinder funeral home a pass when it came to having to get any local approvals - other than a routine building permit - to convert an existing garage into a crematory behind the funeral home at 208 North Union Street.

 

Fager-Finkenbinder on June 23 submitted an application to the borough for zoning approval for the crematory. On June 24 - just one day later - former zoning officer Jeff Miller - who resigned in early December - rendered an interpretation that the crematory was allowed as an accessory use to the existing funeral home, according to documents that Fager-Finkenbinder included in its application filed in October with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for an air quality permit to build and operate the crematory at the 208 N. Union St. location.

 

DEP is now conducting a technical review of the application, a process which could take until May, based upon the latest information regarding the application that has been posted on the DEP web site. Fager-Finkenbinder says in the application that it hopes to begun construction of the crematory in the spring and for it to be operational by summer.

 

Dave Grabuloff Jr., who lives on North Union Street just a few doors down from the funeral home, and who delivered a lengthy statement on behalf of the group to the council, blasted Miller’s interpretation as faulty on numerous grounds.

 

Miller’s contention that borough ordinances do not provide “specific guidance” regarding a crematory ignores general provisions in local law concerning protection of the health, safety, and welfare of Middletown residents. Grabuloff said.

 

He also took issue with Miller’s own written admission in his interpretation that Miller had not “fully analyzed” all aspects of the crematory as it related to borough zoning.

 

“Isn’t it the job of the zoning and codes enforcement officer to fully analyze all potential hazards and to scrutinize subject properties for non-apparent non-conformities as well as apparent non conformities, even if this requires more than a single day to respond to a building permit application?” Grabuloff asked.

 

He also wondered if Miller or anyone else in borough management at the time were aware of the potential that the crematory could be an around the clock operation. The application filed by Fager-Finkenbinder with DEP lists a “maximum operating schedule” for the crematory of 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 8,760 hours a year - although the funeral home proposes an actual “operating schedule” of 12 hours a day, six days a week and 3,744 hours per year.

 

“Was the potential operating schedule known to Middletown borough authorities when they approved the zoning request to establish a crematory on site?” Grabuloff asked, adding that the numbers indicate that the crematory will ultimately serve far more remains than just those that are handled at the Fager-Finkenbinder funeral home on 208 N. Union St.

 

Fager-Finkenbinder owns three other funeral homes in the region, although the application is silent regarding whether the business plans to bring in remains from its other locations - or even from other funeral homes not associated with Fager-Finkenbinder - to the crematory on North Union Street.

 

But to Grabuloff and the other neighbors concerned about the crematory, the volume suggested for the crematory in the application indicates that the crematory will eventually become the primary business driver at the location, instead of being a secondary “accessory” use - the reasoning upon which Miller’s interpretation appears based.

 

Another nearby resident, Raymond Jones of the 100 block of Pine Street, pointed to the documented concerns about mercury emissions from crematories. The mercury emissions come from a type of dental implant that would likely be present in at least some of the remains that would be incinerated in the facility.

 

Citing the crematory’s potential impact on property values, Jones said that one resident of Pine Street whose house is next to where the crematory would be has already moved out of the area.

Grabuloff asked that the council “use its authority and resources to investigate all matters associated with the crematory in a residential district.”

 

New borough council President Ben Kapenstein responded that the crematory issue “is something that I feel we need to get caught up on,” but he pledged that council would take the residents’ concerns to heart.

“It will be looked into. It’s not going to go on deaf ears,” Kapenstein said.

 

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 January 2016 12:19

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Woman charged with impersonating mom to take girl out of school

A Steelton woman was charged by police after she allegedly impersonated a child’s mother to sign the child out of Steelton-Highspire High School and then allow the girl to have sex with a 19-year-old man in her home, according to authorities.

wrightphoto1 20 16WEBLaura J. Wright

Laura J. Wright, 33, identified herself as the mother of a 15-year-old girl and signed her out of the school for an appointment on Dec. 11, then brought the girl to Wright’s home on Jefferson Street, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed by Steelton Police Detective Bill Shaub.

The girl was brought to Wright’s home to meet a 19-year-old man she had befriended on Facebook, according to the affidavit.

Wright “did allow (the child) to have sexual relations with a 19-year-old in her residence,” according to the criminal complaint filed by police.

Police charged Wright with corruption of a minor and corruption of a minor-commit truancy. She was released from Dauphin County Prison in lieu of bond. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 28 before District Judge Kenneth Lenker.

The 19-year-old man who was involved died before charges could be filed against him, police said.

The parents of the girl had shown police evidence of explicit messages sent to the girl by the man she had seen in Wright’s home.

Police said they interviewed Wright, who admitted posing as the girl’s mother for a bogus appointment. She was at the home during the meeting between the girl and man, police said.

Wright said she remembers the girl coming downstairs after her encounter with the man with hickies on her neck, police said.

The parents of the child have acquired a protection from abuse order against Wright, according to the affidavit.


 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 January 2016 15:50

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Is Steel-High superintendent still on leave?

 

Dr. Ellen Castagneto, superintendent of the Steelton-Highspire School District, was scheduled to return from medical leave on Monday, Jan. 11, but is still not back to work – and district officials have refused to talk about specific details regarding the status of her employment.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 January 2016 15:24

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Kratzer picked as football coach

Gregory Kratzer, a long-time assistant coach for the Lower Dauphin High School football team, will take over as head football coach in 2016, following his appointment by the Lower Dauphin School Board on Monday, Jan. 11.

The board voted 7-0 to promote Kratzer, who served 12 years as the Falcons’ offensive line coach, to the head coach position. He had also served as junior varsity head coach and offensive coordinator for Lower Dauphin.

Prior to joining Lower Dauphin, Kratzer coached for Newport High School in Perry County and Upper Dauphin Area High School in Elizabethville. He was a three-year starter on the Lebanon Valley College football team.

Kratzer is a social studies teacher at Lower Dauphin and lives in Grantville with his wife, Natalie and son Finley.

The board hired him to replace former coach Rob Klock, who resigned after 14 seasons to spend time with his family – older son Trey, a former Falcon tight end, currently plays for Georgia Tech, and younger son Tommy, a senior who played quarterback last fall, will head to college next fall.

Klock compiled a record of 101 wins and 57 losses at Lower Dauphin, including a District 3 Class AAAA championship in 2013.

Lower Dauphin Superintendent Sherri Smith said that while many qualified applicants applied for the head coach’s job, she was pleased the district had Kratzer in-house to take over.

Klock resigned following Lower Dauphin’sfinal playoff game, a 21-13 loss to Central Dauphin on Nov. 20. He assembled his team on the field afterward and broke the news – he had planned to leave, at least temporarily, before the season began.

Lower Dauphin went 9-3 last season, eliminating Cedar Cliff in the first round of the District 3 playoffs before bowing to top-seeded Central Dauphin.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 January 2016 15:45

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