Pottstown committee fails to find a way to cut 12% tax hike

POTTSTOWN >> It looks like the 12 percent tax hike contained in the 2018 budget is here to stay.

When the budget was adopted in December, Council President Dan Weand promised to form an ad hoc committee to review the budget for further savings and to re-open the budget.

Because it was a local election year, the borough code allows the budget to be re-opened, even though there is only one different member of council.

Weand appointed a seven-member commission in January, which included himself and was headed by Council Joseph Kirkland, who had insisted last year there were ways to save additional money.

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Other members of the committee were David Renn from the Pottstown Borough Authority; Finance Director Janice Lee; Utilities Director Brent Wagner; Councilman Dennis Arms, who voted against the budget; and James Smock, a former member of the Pottstown School Board and the head of West-Mont Christian Academy.

Wednesday night, a letter with all seven signatures was submitted to borough council that indicated not only could the group find nothing that could be implemented quickly enough to lower the tax increase; but also that the borough’s finances are tenuous enough that its bond rating may be down-graded.

“Feedback provided by the borough’s financial advisor finds that a possible downgrade of the borough’s bond rating could result if finances do not immediately improve,” according to the letter.

“Reserves are needed in the near future to re-establish contributions to the capital fund deficit of approximately $1 million,” the letter said.

In prior years, the general fund’s dwindling reserves were drained to plug deficits allowing borough council to adopt budgets with little or no tax increases.

However, the group has not thrown in the towel, but will continue to meet not only to look for additional savings, but also to oversee the implementation of some short-term and long-term measures to provide savings, some of which were already being planned by the staff.

Some of those measures include eliminating Wednesday night window hours — now from 4 to 7 p.m. — “to reduce overtime payouts as well as borough hall heating/electric costs.

Also, the committee recommends a review of all costs of services provided by an employee to “adjust fee schedules accordingly to ensure full reimbursement for employee and overhead expenses.”

The letter also noted that changes to employee union contracts could not be made in a timely enough fashion to affect this year’s budget, and suggested that a member of council, as well as the finance director be part of the negotiating team for upcoming contracts.

In a comment on The Mercury’s Facebook page, Arms wrote “management negotiated with the unions without a finance person there...the one person who can explain how raises etc. impact the tax payer and the budget...hmm that doesn’t make much sense.”

Another recommendation is to “move towards a cashless system for tax and utility payments, which will allow for a future reduction in workforce as employees retire at the cashier window position.”

Wednesday night, Kirkland thanked the committee and said “we felt no stone was left unturned, but there wasn’t enough time to implement some of the ideas we had.”

Kirkland had previously pushed to appoint the committee more quickly warning it needed as much time as possible to look for savings.

The job the committee faced “was not easy,” said Weand. “There is no more low-hanging fruit to be picked. It was a tough assignment and we put as much on the table as we could,” said Weand, adding, “good job Joe.”