Bellevue to hold public hearing on new budget proposal

Bellevue Council will hold a hearing Monday on the borough’s proposed 2018-19 budget, which has undergone a few substantive changes since its inception and presentation by Mayor Emily Marburger in October. The proposed full-time paid fire chief position has been eliminated, the street repair budget has been increased, but the large salary increases remain part of the spending plan.

Bellevue’s home rule charter requires a strange budget adoption procedure that begins with the presentation of a proposed budget by the mayor. Council then takes the budget and can change it completely before presenting it to the public as the borough’s official proposed budget for the new year. Council then must hold a public hearing on the budget, which will occur Monday at 6:30 p.m. If there are no substantive changes, the budget can be adopted at the council meeting on Dec. 27.

The current budget proposal totals $9,853,267.41, and maintains the borough’s current property tax millage rate of 4.89.

Council quickly eliminated perhaps the most controversial expenditure proposed by the mayor, which was some $100,000 to cover the cost of hiring a full-time fire chief that would manage both the paid and volunteer fire departments as well as the code enforcement office. Facing numerous fundamental challenges to its implementation, the plan did not survive council review.

Also altered by council was the mayor’s proposal to reduce the road repair budget from about $350,000 to $220,000 so that money could be put into resolving other infrastructure issues such as sinkholes. The road repair line item now stands at $375,000, although it is expected that about $100,000 of that amount will come from Columbia Gas as the borough continues the program of coordinating road repairs with gas line replacement.

Council, however, agreed with the mayor that both the director of administrative services and the public works supervisor should be paid a great deal more to bring their salaries into line with similar positions in the state. The DAS salary will go from $67,249.42 to $80,000 in 2019, while the salary of the DPW supervisor will increase from $61,000 to $72,000, just slightly less than the $75,000 proposed by the mayor.

Another personnel increase will be in the administrative offices, where council has proposed changing a part-time employee to full-time status with benefits.

Council members Linda Woshner and Glenn Pritchard voted against moving forward with this budget. Woshner said that she is concerned about the large salary increases in light of the fact that the borough is facing two mandated, and costly, capital projects at East and West Bellevue Station to meet state and federal pollution laws. She said she would like to see the salary money channeled into the capital budget.

Pritchard said that there were a number of line item expenditures that had been questioned, and council has not yet received information on whether the funds are needed in those areas. His major problem with the budget, however, is that it does not include the increased support requested by the volunteer fire company. With volunteerism down in fire companies across the country, he said, the companies are now forced to spend valuable training time in fund-raising efforts to pay for equipment, utilities, etc.

When a similar situation was faced in Ohio Township a few years back, the township implemented a .5 mill property tax dedicated to the volunteer fire company. Pritchard said that he does not want to see Bellevue’s taxes increased, but would like to see the borough contribute more to the company. He also noted that state law now allows municipalities to offer property tax credits to volunteer fire fighters, something several local municipalities have already done.

Council president Tom Fodi agreed that it would be nice to see the borough take some of the fund-raising burden off the volunteers, emphasizing the word “some.”

Overall, Fodi said, he is “fairly satisfied” with the budget. “My goals were to invest in personnel and infrastructure,” he said. “I believe over the past few years we have experienced the results of good managers, particularly [the DAS and DPW supervisor], and have made big strides in doing massive infrastructure repair.”

“My goals were to double down in those two areas,” he said, “in hope of seeing an exponential increase in our productivity and effectiveness.”