I’m Leo and I’m the president of Fountain Hill Borough Council. There has been a lot of gossip going around regarding our upcoming Sept. 3 council meeting and I would like to set the record straight. No decisions have been made to change police coverage in Fountain Hill. We are currently gathering information on the various options we have.
For those of you who haven’t met me yet, this is my second year on council and my first as council president. I originally moved to Fountain Hill in 1999 with my family when I was 11. My parents still live in the borough, along with my brother and many of my friends. I care very deeply about this community and that is why I am currently attempting to address a longstanding problem: our budget.
Generally, our problem is that we are a small borough (0.7 square miles, ~4,700 residents with 99 percent of our land developed) with a very tight budget. Our tax rate has gone up 78 percent in the last 5 years. For our area, we used to have a tax rate right in the middle, but now we have the highest rate of any borough or township in Lehigh County.
Additionally, 49 percent of our properties are tax exempt (the vast majority owned by St. Luke’s Hospital), so about 50 percent of the property owners are paying for the borough services to 100 percent of the properties. I think it’s unfair to impose an even heavier tax burden on our already strained residents.
In conjunction with the difficult property tax situation, our police operating budget has risen 31 percent in the last five years. Total police costs (including pension and healthcare contributions) have gone up more than 45 percent and make up at least 53 percent of our general fund expenses.
I believe having a local, community-based police force is an enormous asset to Fountain Hill, but controlling the costs is vital to ensuring the FHPD’s long-term survival. We need to be thinking long-term, because our police pension is only 62 percent funded right now, which means we do not even have enough money saved to pay the pensions of the officers we are currently employing.
Catching up on the pension alone will cost us over $200,000 a year for the next 12 years. We also have over $1,000,000 in neglected sewer system repairs, which are causing regular increases in our sewer bills and will only get more expensive to fix with each passing year.
We have four options when considering controlling cost of the police budget:
1) We could eliminate the police department, like the Borough of Bath did when it left the Colonial Regional Police Department a few years ago. I do not think this is a good option and I will not be supporting any proposal that eliminates the Fountain Hill Police Department.
2) We could regionalize our police force. This solution can be complicated and has had mixed results across Pennsylvania. Some communities have not seen much savings and have also seen the quality of their policing decrease; some have realized savings and maintained good coverage. This is an option that is on the table for us, but not for our 2020 budgetary year.
3) We can use partial state police coverage. The schedule we are investigating would have local coverage Sunday through Thursday, for 16 hours per day, from 8 a.m. to midnight; and Friday and Saturday, for 20 hours per day, from 8 a.m. to 4 a.m. These hours would mean we could still respond to 88 percent of our calls with our local police and save more than $300,000 per year (these savings would go to our police pension, sewer system and other overdue expenses). We have a state police lieutenant coming to our next meeting Sept. 3 to give the Borough more information.
4) Our last option is to impose a substantial tax increase on Fountain Hill residents.
In a perfect world, where 49 percent of Fountain Hill’s properties weren’t tax-exempt, we would not need to consider these options, but we have to acknowledge the situation we are in. As a community, we must carefully think about how we can best spend our limited budget to continue our local policing, fix our sewer system, make good on our retirement commitments to our police and plan for our future.
I hope you all can come to our next meeting on Sept. 3 at 7 p.m. in the Fountain Hill Borough Hall, which is at 941 Long Street. The rest of council and I are interested to hear your input.
Thank you for taking the time to read.
Leo Atkinson, Fountain Hill Council President
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