Fountain Hill Borough Council’s current president, Leo Atkinson, announced that he will resign from council at the end of this month at the borough’s Oct. 21 council meeting.
Atkinson’s announcement came at the end of a nearly three-hour long meeting, in which council members discussed a variety of topics related to the 2021 budget. Atkinson cited the borough’s budget, and specifically funding for the police department, as the primary reason for his resignation.
“Fountain Hill spends far too much money on our police department, while asking the rest of our borough employees to attempt to do more with less, and forcing our residents to continue footing the bill to the tune of the highest municipal tax rate of any borough or township in Lehigh County,” Atkinson told council.
Atkinson pointed out that the borough’s tax rate has increased from 5.11 mills in 2014 to 9.61 mills today.
“This is an 88 percent increase, which equates to $648 more per year for the average homeowner,” Atkinson said.
He argued that the increase is due in part to a police department budget which has grown more than 30 percent in six years, while all other general fund expenses increased around six percent during that same period.
“Just last year we spent more than $150,000 for overtime alone in our department of eight full-time officers, who individually have a median base-salary over $69,000,” Atkinson said. “All of these funds come from our residents, who have a median household income of $44,356.”
Atkinson is roughly three years into a four-year term, and 2020 marks his second consecutive year as Borough Council President. He had raised concerns about the borough’s spending on its police department in the past, saying that controlling costs is “vital to ensuring the FHPD’s long-term survival.”
As a resident of Fountain Hill since 1990, Atkinson said he’s aware of issues borough residents face, including pothole-filled roads, a deteriorating sewage system which often backs up, increasing garbage and water bills (with decreasing service), a lack of dedicated mental health services and minimal support for local businesses and civic institutions.
Atkinson told council he believes budgeting efforts should reflect the fact that there are other resources and institutions capable of solving some of the borough’s problems, and that the police department shouldn’t have to shoulder the full load.
“We must show in our budgets that we believe government can offer more resources and solutions for people than just a police department,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson’s announcement appeared to catch fellow Fountain Hill officials off guard.
“It was a surprise,” said Borough Manager Tony Branco. “I hate to see him go, but I wish him the best.”
“I was shocked,” fellow council member Jamie Johnson said. “You could probably hear me audibly gasp.”
Fountain Hill Mayor Carolee Gifford was not as surprised as her colleagues, and said Atkinson’s views and facts regarding the police department’s budget are not supported by the rest of the borough.
“I am grateful for the the time that Leo put into the position, but I am not grateful for the way he used facts for his own purpose,” she said. “I really feel like he’s lied.”
Fountain Hill Police Chief Ed Bachert also disagreed with Atkinson’s figures.
“I don’t know where he gets his percentage numbers from, because they don’t seem accurate to me,” Bachert said.
Bachert pointed out that the department is currently operating at a minimum staff of eight full-time officers, and that he has very little control over the money in the department’s budget.
“I don’t have a huge budget to buy things or do anything else with,” he said. “Ninety percent of that stuff is all contractual. It’s all negotiated through the bargaining unit.”
In addressing Atkinson’s concerns that the police department takes on too many roles that could be supplemented or filled by other professionals, Bachert pointed out that his officers are trained in social work, community policing and crisis negotiation.
“His philosophy on where policing should be was not in line with our philosophy here, the rest of the borough’s philosophy and it was absolutely out of line with the community’s philosophy,” Bachert said.
Council now has 30 days in which to appoint someone to fill Atkinson’s seat.
Atkinson’s term would have ended in 2021, so whoever fills his seat will have to campaign next year if they want to hold the seat past Dec. 31, 2021.
Council is also just a few meetings away from their reorganization, which will take place on the first Monday in January. A new Borough Council President will be decided upon then, following an interim term in the meantime.
While there are a lot of unknowns following Atkinson’s announcement, Johnson said the rest of council has to stay focused and continue to do their jobs.
“I have no idea who might be interested (in Atkinson’s vacant seat), but until then we just buckle down and keep plugging along,” she said.
Fountain Hill’s budget talks will continue with a recently-scheduled meeting next Monday, Oct. 26.