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Middletown sues ex-communications director Courogen, says he violated separation terms

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 8/22/18

Middletown borough on Aug. 6 sued its former communications director in Dauphin County Court, contending that Chris Courogen has violated terms of a 2016 separation agreement in which he received …

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Middletown sues ex-communications director Courogen, says he violated separation terms

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Middletown borough on Aug. 6 sued its former communications director in Dauphin County Court, contending that Chris Courogen has violated terms of a 2016 separation agreement in which he received severance payments exceeding $19,000.

The complaint filed by borough solicitor Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott focuses on an email that the borough says Courogen sent from his personal email account, in support of legislation introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to place new restrictions on Middletown and other boroughs in the state that provide electricity to their residents and businesses.

One part of Courogen’s email says that “small boroughs providing electricity is nothing more than a hidden tax in most municipalities” and “when the council I worked for was swept out in the elections, the first thing the new council folks did was raise electric rates, despite getting a new wholesale contract that reduced what they are charged.”

The borough complaint says that Courogen’s “criticism of the borough and its officials by classifying the borough’s provision and sale of electricity to the borough’s residents as merely a hidden tax … reflects adversely on the borough, as well as the borough’s officials, officers, attorneys, and managers.”

Courogen’s “criticism has caused the borough to incur or suffer damages,” the lawsuit adds.

The complaint alleges breach of contract, and seeks an unspecified award of damages, plus interest, costs, attorneys’ fees and “all other amounts provided for under the parties’ contract, the law, and as the court otherwise deems appropriate.”

Courogen in response to a request for comment from the Press & Journal said “I have no comment on it and no comment on any matters related to the borough of Middletown. I wish the borough and its residents nothing but good fortune.”

Courogen was hired by the borough in 2012 under then-Council President Chris McNamara.

Courogen served as acting borough manager for a few months in 2012, and was then tapped as acting borough manager in late December 2015, when the borough manager and several other members of key management staff had quit after McNamara was defeated in his bid for re-election in November 2015.

Shortly after coming into office in January 2016, the new council under new leadership eliminated the communications director position, leading to Courogen’s resignation effective Feb. 19, 2016, and the signing of the separation agreement by Courogen and the borough in March 2016.

The legislation introduced by Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Ellwood City, among other things, would prevent Middletown and the other boroughs from transferring electric fund revenue to the general fund to help balance the budget.

Middletown borough officials have said this could lead to a borough property tax increase of more than 100 percent, to make up for the $1.6 million that borough council transferred from the electric fund to balance the 2018 general fund budget. Middletown has also in previous years consistently transferred similar amounts from the electric fund to help balance the general fund.

A hearing for Bernstine’s bill, House Bill 1405, was held by the House Local Government Committee in February 2018. However, the committee never took a vote on the bill and the bill never made it to the House floor during the 2017-18 session.

The email sent by Courogen, a copy of which is attached to the complaint, violates “certain promises” that Courogen made in accepting the 2016 separation agreement with the borough, including “Courogen’s promise to refrain from making any statements that were critical or otherwise detrimental to the borough in any way,” the lawsuit says.

The email from Courogen, which is undated, reads as follows:

“I am the Borough Manager of Duncannon (Perry County), one of the Borough’s in the state with the sort of municipal electric system the Representative’s bill targets.

As you probably know, the Pennsylvania Municipal Electric Association is working hard to rally opposition to the bill. I want you to know that not only do I support the bill, but I would also be happy to meet with the Representative and/or his staff to discuss why, as the manager of a municipality that has electric, I would support it.

If anybody found my insights worthwhile, I’d also be happy to testify at any hearings the Representative holds on this bill.

In a nutshell, small boroughs providing electricity is nothing more than a hidden tax in most municipalities. To me, the only way to justify municipal electric is if you can sell it for cheaper than other utilities to gain an economic development edge. If you are selling it at a ‘profit,’ you are taxing your citizens on their purchase of electric.

Prior to taking this position last February (’16), I spent four years working for the Borough of Middletown (Dauphin County), another place with municipal electric. I’d suggest that is a perfect example of why the PMEA argument about elected officials setting the rates is bogus. When the council I worked for was swept out in the elections, the first thing the new council folks did was raise electric rates, despite getting a new wholesale contract that reduced what they are charged.

Please let me know if I can be of assistance. This is my personal e-mail. I can also be reached on my personal cell phone.”

As Courogen notes in the email, the new Middletown council on March 1, 2016, approved a 1-cent per kilowatt-hour increase in the electric rate. The rate has not been increased since.

Courogen on Feb. 16, 2016 was hired as the Duncannon borough manager at an annual salary of $50,000. He was fired from his job on April 17, 2018, by Duncannon Borough Council, according to published reports.

The borough’s separation agreement with Courogen, also attached to the complaint, has no expiration date — indicating that the borough and Courogen are bound by terms of the agreement in perpetuity.