Written by Dan Miller
Should the borough add more police officers and if so, how many?
Does Middletown need more public works employees? If so how many?
What about code enforcement staffing, and filling the full-time codes and zoning position that has been vacant for nearly a year now?
Middletown Borough Council soon will start deliberating the 2017 budget, and there are plenty of unanswered questions and issues to be resolved. However, one thing that residents — and council — should expect is a budget process much more open and informative than that of the past few years.
The council will hold two public meetings devoted to discussing the 2017 budget, on Thursday, Nov. 3, and Monday, Nov. 7. Both will start at 6:30 p.m. in the municipal building.
Another question is whether taxes will increase. Council raised the electric rate for residents and businesses by one cent to help budget the 2016 budget.
Council President Ben Kapenstein — one of four councilors who voted against that hike — told the Press And Journal that the borough shouldn’t need an increase in the property tax or electric rate to get through 2017.
“I won’t be for it,” he said.
The borough hopes that council can adopt a tentative budget for public advertisement by Nov. 15, with final adoption by Dec. 6.
That’s an “aggressive” timetable, but an early target builds in more time at the end of the year if necessary, said Bruce Hamer, a former Middletown borough manager who in September was hired as the new finance director.
Information for council, public
Besides more information for council, Hamer and Kapenstein both want the public to have more information during this year’s budget process.
Kapenstein envisions using pie charts and graphs to better illustrate the numbers and put them in context.
Hamer wants to develop brief “narratives” to define and explain in plain language all the different funds that go into the borough budget.
He said hopes to be able to put these narratives online on the borough website, to go along with the budget when it is given tentative adoption by council.
“The goal is to be transparent,” Kapenstein said. “I want to make sure people understand where their money is being spent.”
Budget being done in house
In 2012 under the previous council led by then-President Chris McNamara, the borough was accepted into the state Early Intervention Program to fix chronic budget issues that had saddled Middletown with a deficit of $2 million to $3 million.
The borough received state grants to hire consultants, including Susquehanna Group Advisors, a firm that took over running the borough’s financial affairs and its budgeting.
Each year the borough budget was put together by Mark Morgan, a consultant with Susquehanna Group. Kapenstein, elected in 2014, chaired council’s finance committee but said he never knew what went into the budget numbers handed down by Morgan, or how they were developed.
“I always had trouble getting information,” Kapenstein said.
In 2015, McNamara and councilors aligned with him were voted out of office. The management staff put in place under McNamara left in late December, as new council leadership was about to take over.
The new council under Kapenstein has spent much of 2016 assembling a new management team, including Hamer.
Hiring Hamer was part of bringing borough financial affairs back in-house from the outside consultants, Kapenstein said.
Susquehanna Group Advisors still works for the borough, but Morgan has played no direct role in this year’s budget process, Hamer said.
Instead, the budget is “staff-driven” and developed based on input from Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter and the major department heads, Public Works Director Greg Wilsbach and Police Chief John Bey.
The borough also met with or solicited input from commissions and outside organizations that depend in part or wholly on money they get each year from the borough budget; like the Middletown Fire Department, and the Olmsted Regional Recreation Board.
“We reached out to all the agencies. I don’t think we did that before,” Kapenstein said. “To me this is the normal way a government runs a budget process.”
Big ticket items, challenges
Hamer said the borough is working toward having a draft budget ready for the first meeting on Nov. 3.
The spending plan is to be a “zero-based budget,” Kapenstein said. That means starting from scratch, instead of accepting everything in the 2016 budget as gospel and just adding money on top to cover inflation.
Every budget line item must be justified in writing by the department heads, Hamer said.
Hamer hopes the Nov. 3 and Nov. 7 meetings aren’t just number-crunching sessions but an opportunity for open discussion with council on “big ticket” issues like staffing, and any major projects councilors want to see go forward in 2017.
As of Thursday, Oct. 20, Hamer said he had not seen the budget requests from Wilsbach and Bey, so he didn’t know whether either or both are requesting more positions in the 2017 budget.
Fund balance, insurance
One item to be discussed will be deciding how much of a fund balance the borough should have. A fund balance is like a household savings account — a pot of money to fall back on in case of unexpected emergencies — as in the borough’s case the 2011 flood.
The fund balance can be a fixed flat amount or, more typically Kapenstein said, a percentage of general fund revenue.
Middletown’s current fund balance is larger than recommended, Kapenstein said. That’s a good problem, as excess money from the fund balance could go toward a one-time project like repaving Ann Street, he said.
On the negative side, the borough’s health insurance premium is going up by 51 percent in 2017 — an increase roughly equal to $300,000.
Think of what could be done with $300,000, but “that is money that is just gone” and it’s too late to do anything about it for 2017, Kapenstein said.
Otherwise, while council will continue exploring the idea of Middletown becoming part of a regional police force, the 2017 budget does not anticipate any savings from this in the year to come.
It’s “not realistic,” Kapenstein said. “Any merger that happens is going to take longer than a year. We are being conservative with this so we’re not estimating any savings from police regionalization.”
Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 October 2016 15:49
Written by Dan Miller
Go all over Middletown and you can see video surveillance cameras mounted on poles at places like Hoffer and Oak Hill parks.
You can also see big signs mounted on the park pavilions that say “Visual Monitoring in Progress.”
There’s just one problem. None of the cameras work, and they haven’t for almost three years.
The non-functioning cameras — 10 in all — are still attached to poles at Hoffer Park, Oak Hill Park, the Spruce Street electric substation, the Mill Street electric substation, and at the Municipal Building on West Emaus Street. Some of the locations have more than one camera.
According to borough Public Works Director Greg Wilsbach, the cameras were shut down in 2014 by borough staff acting under then-Council President Chris McNamara.
Wilsbach said the cameras were “powered down” about six months before July 2014, when Wilsbach resigned from his position as supervisor of the borough’s electric department.
Wilsbach subsequently ran for borough council in 2015 — defeating McNamara in the primary — but resigned his seat early in 2016 to assume his current job as borough public works director.
In minutes from an April 21, 2014, council meeting, borough resident Dawn Knull asked that the cameras in Hoffer Park be turned back on, referring to a rash of burglaries and theft that had occurred in the park. McNamara and Mayor James H. Curry III both said they were unaware of the cameras ever being turned off, according to the minutes.
The Press And Journal reached out to McNamara for further comment, but he declined.
Now, Knull is on council — having been elected in 2015. She is leading an effort to get the cameras working again.
“I have brought this up on several occasions and no one moved on it, so I took it upon myself to move on it,” Knull said in an emailed comment to the Press And Journal on Oct. 20.
Knull arranged for 2K Networking, the company that handles the borough’s information technology needs, to give a presentation to council on Oct. 18 on how the borough can get the video surveillance cameras operational again.
There’s a relatively easy fix, Josh Hinkle of 2K Networking told council. The borough will have to buy new cameras, but the system to run them is already in place at the Middletown Police Department station on East Emaus Street.
The MPD has its own system and software to run video surveillance cameras that are in use in and around the police station, Hinkle said.
The cameras that the borough had been using throughout town until 2014 will all need to be replaced, Hinkle told council. There is no longer software and hardware available on the market to support the cameras, he said.
Ten new cameras — to replace each of the ones that the borough now has, not counting those at the police station — and the associated cost to tie the new cameras into the MPD system would total about $11,750, Hinkle said.
However, this estimate appeared to depend upon much of the work to extend fiber optic cabling being done in-house by Wilsbach’s public works crew. But Wilsbach indicated that due to cuts that occurred under McNamara, the department no longer has the assets and manpower to do extensive fiber optic cabling work.
The replacement cameras suggested by Hinkle would have night-vision capability and be motion-activated, he said.
The borough isn’t restricted to just replacing the cameras at the current locations, Hinkle said.
The borough needs more than 10 video surveillance cameras and at more locations, Curry said.
“I think there are other areas of town that could use some attention,” he said.
Council needs to hear from Police Chief John Bey regarding how many cameras there should be in the borough, and where, said Councilor Ian Reddinger.
The time to get that input is now, so that all the cameras can be put in place at one time, instead of doing it piecemeal, which adds to the cost, Reddinger added.
“I would like to see the borough spend the money once, have one system and then be done with it,” he said.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 October 2016 15:46
Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 October 2016 15:44
Written by Dan Miller
Middletown's downtown streetscape project finally might be coming to a close, with a target date of Oct. 25 set to reopen the intersection of South Union and Ann streets (Route 441).
The intersection has been closed to traffic since Oct. 3 for workers to wrap up the last phase of the streetscape project, which includes aesthetic improvements in the downtown from Spring and North Union south to Union and Ann.
Inspectors from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation are to do a walk- through inspection of the Union and Ann street intersection on Oct. 25, including a new traffic light that is being installed, said Greg Wilsbach, Middletown director of public works.
The traffic light at Union and Ann will be on flash starting Oct. 25 until Friday, Oct. 28, when the signal is to be fully operational, Wilsbach said.
In the meantime, motorists using the detour now in place for Ann and Union are reminded to stop at all stop signs and be aware of school bus stops that are in the area.
Otherwise, South Union Street from Brown to Ann is to be closed to all vehicular traffic throughout this entire week — Oct. 17-21 — so that the street can be re-paved as part of the downtown streetscape, borough officials say.
The closure was to go into effect Monday afternoon and remain until sometime Friday, Wilsbach told the Press And Journal.
Parking is not to be allowed on this stretch of South Union during the closure, but people can park for free in the lot behind the Municipal Building on West Emaus Street.
With the repaving of South Union and reopening of the intersection with Ann, about all that is left of the downtown streetscape is planting new trees.
The tree replanting was expected to start sometime this week.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 18 October 2016 16:08
Written by Dan Miller
Better street lighting all over Middletown could be in place by the end of this year, if borough council moves forward with a plan to replace for existing street light bulbs with more energy efficient LED bulbs.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 18 October 2016 15:37