Fountain Hill Borough Council motioned to advertise a proposed 2021 budget, which will not include a tax increase, at its Oct. 26 budget meeting.
The news should come as a relief to residents of the borough, who are already paying the highest tax rate in Lehigh County at 9.61 mills.
Mayor Carolee Gifford encouraged council members to consider a quarter mill tax decrease at the meeting.
“I do want to at least explore the idea of a quarter mill decrease,” Gifford said. “Wouldn’t that be a wonderful change? And it sounds like it’s very viable this year.”
Borough Manager Tony Branco reminded Gifford that the borough has been fortunate to fund recent large-scale infrastructure projects through grants. The borough also profited from selling a backhoe and a pickup truck to St. Luke’s for around $130,000, which has helped it prevent raising taxes even higher.
The borough is also anticipating dipping into its capital fund to pay for projects in 2021.
PennDOT has plans to redo a stretch of Broadway in 2021, which will require the borough to relocate a metering pit and sewer line. The cost of the work is still unknown, but Branco said he anticipates it will be upwards of $100,000.
Fountain Hill is also relying on an anonymous donation of more than $200,000 to help fund a new fire truck next year. Branco believes it would be prudent to be prepared to have to take out a loan or capital balance funds to cover the cost in the event that the donor backs out.
“If we didn’t have these grants our millage would be a lot higher, or none of this equipment would be gotten,” Branco said.
Branco concluded that the tax decrease could be possible, but that it would cut into the borough’s capital funds.
Council member Annamarie Jordan believes the finance department’s effort to prevent another tax increase is already a positive outcome.
“I would love to see any sort of decrease, because our tax rate is sad whenever you get the bill, but to be honest with you I was very happy to just announce that there was no increase,” Jordan said. “It’s such an uncertain time, and I think that just having a budget where there is no increase this year is a gift of its own.”
The 2021 budget will include a uniform 3.5 percent wage increase for all non-contractual borough employees.
“We felt that in 2020, everybody stepped up, and everybody really did a wonderful job,” Jordan said. “In a year where many boroughs and municipalities weren’t even functioning, ours functioned every day and never missed a beat.”
Council was debating between an increase of 2.5 percent or 3.5 percent, but ultimately decided on a larger raise, which equates to a difference of around $5,000.
The budget also includes a decrease in the police department’s overtime budget.
The borough’s police department budget recently came under scrutiny after council president Leo Atkinson announced his resignation from council effective Oct. 31, due in part to what he considered an unnecessarily large police budget.
Original calculations based on 2020 numbers put the overtime budget at over $100,000.
Police Chief Ed Bachert and Finance Director Cordula Voges, however, expressed concern over using 2020 figures to calculate the 2021 budget, because it was an unusually busy year for overtime. Following another look at the numbers, an overtime budget of $61,506 was decided upon.
The proposed budget includes a new trash and recycling pickup contract for the borough. Prices for those services have gone up, despite a reduced trash pickup schedule. However, Voges announced that there will be no change to the garbage collection fee in 2021.
The proposed budget will be available for residents to inspect at Borough Hall beginning Nov. 4. Due to the pandemic, it is recommended that residents schedule an appointment if they wish to review it.
The budget may be adopted at a public meeting once the proposed budget has been available for inspection for 10 calendar days. The earliest that council members may vote to adopt the 2021 budget would be at their Nov. 18 meeting.