Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sewer Authority Costs Unbalance Proposed City Budget

By Christina Georgiou

Increases in costs for treating wastewater by the Easton Area Joint Sewer Authority are being necessarily passed on to municipal customers in the coming year, and that leaves the formerly balanced 2013 City of Easton budget proposal with a $161,000 shortfall, city officials say.

"We never know the Authority's budget in advance," said Mayor Sal Panto at the city council's workshop meeting Tuesday evening.

The City of Easton Home Rule Charter requires city officials to present a balanced budget proposal in October, but the Authority doesn't work on their upcoming budget until Novemeber, so there is a chance that city projections for the coming year will be off, officials said.

"We learned last week that...wastewater is going up $160,000 next year," Panto said. "This budget doesn't reflect that."

Still, the city hopes to avoid a rate increase and find a way to cover the shortfall, though it's unclear at this point where the money will come from.

Public Works Director David Hopkins said the increase is mainly due to new Environmental Protection  Agency permitting requirements, which mean the wastewater treatment plant needs to use a different unspecified chemical in larger amounts--one that is more expensive.

"That chemical has resulted in an over $200,000 increase (in EAJSA plant costs) for next year," Hopkins said.

Overall, the EAJSA will pay $463,000 in new costs in 2013, which are to be spread equitably among all its municipal customers in the Easton area.

The cost increase was even higher, but Easton officials met with ESA officials and worked to reduce the figure to that amount last week, Hopkins and Panto said.

Bill Ronyack, superintendent for the wastewater plant, said the EAJSA hopes to bring the cost down further in the future, but that won't happen before next year.

"We're going to change how we procure the chemicals, which should bring down the cost," Ronyack told city council Tuesday. "We're going to put six to nine months of compliance on the books before we look at changing vendors for cost savings."

While sewer rates haven't been increased since 2005, Panto said he's loathe to consider raising them because the city has the highest rates in the Lehigh Valley.

"That's because we have so many tax exempt properties," he said.

City administrator Glenn Steckman said Wednesday the city isn't sure what the best way to cover the extra $161,000 will be, since they only got the news late on Thursday.

Hopkins and EAJSA officials whittled the original amount down on Friday, and city hall was closed on Monday for Veterans' Day, he said.

Steckman was not present at the Tuesday workshop meeting due to a family medical emergency on Tuesday. He plans to work with city administrators this week to come up with solutions.

One possibility is using some money from the proposal to raise metered parking rates to $1 per hour from the current 50 cents, extending weekday hours and adding parking enforcement on Sundays, but how much exactly that will bring in, especially after the city's contribution to the Greater Easton Development Partnership and it's Main Street and Amabassadors programs, remains to be seen.

Likely, the increase won't cover it all, he said, and if the city uses parking revenue to cover sewer costs, it should be only for 2013, Steckman said.

Where else the $161,000 will come from in the budget is unsure at this point, he said, adding that he will have a better idea of where else in the $31 million budget proposal the money might come from by the next budget discussion, set for Tuesday, Nov. 27.

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