Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Easton City Council Reviews Coming Year's Expenses

By Christina Georgiou

A pie chart illustrating Easton's 2014 proposed expense
Click on the image for a full size view.
Easton City Council members examined the expense side of the 2014 proposed city budget equation during a budget discussion--the second such session so far--Monday evening.

If the 2014 budget proposal is passed without changes, the Earned Income Tax (EIT) rate for residents will need to be raised by 2/10ths of a percent to help cover a shortfall of more than $1 million, bringing the total rate to 1.95 percent EIT, with 0.5 percent going to the school district. The EIT rate for those who work but do not live within city limits, first imposed this year, will remain unaffected by the possible change.

Three ordinances were introduced at last Wednesday's regular city council meeting to cover three possible EIT rate hike scenarios, 1.35, 1.45, and 1.55 percent, though only one will ultimately be passed by the council sometime next month, if council does not cut some expense items to avoid the increase. If council decides to cut expenses, none of the three will be passed, elected officials said.

Despite the projected shortfall, however, some line items in the city's 2014 budget proposal seem destined for increases. Next year's city budget calls for a general fund of about $32.27 million, an increase of approximately $700,000 from 2013.

The city plans to buy 50 more parking meters that take credit cards next year, along with "some other devices" for the city's parking system, said City Administrator Glenn Steckman, which will increase the line item for parking meter expenses to $137,654 next year from $76,960 budgeted for this year, an increase of $60,694.
Un-reimbursed overtime for the Easton Police Department is also expected to rise by $15,000 next year to $40,000 from a projected $25,000 this year. The increase is due to a increasing number of city events, officials said. Other overtime department members put in, such as for providing security for high-profile Lafayette College events, is reimbursed by the organization for which it is incurred, they added.

In the city's IT department, nearly $93,000 more will be spent in 2014 than was allotted for this year, with the bulk of the cost being new equipment and software related to upgrading the city computer system and installing an electronic payment system so people can pay bills and fines online.

Mayor Sal Panto said the upgrades are necessary, despite the associated costs, and expressed frustration the switchover has taken years, saying the changes are long overdue.

"Let's stop talking two to three years," he said of the total tech upgrade plan," Panto said. "Lets start talking one to two (years). I've been here six years, and we've been saying two to three years that whole time."

Some city technology costs are likely to decrease next year too, with the installation of a new phone system, said the city's IT director Frank Caruso, who estimated the annual savings will be about $21,000.

Easton currently uses Verizon as their phone provider, and this year's city phone bills will cost a total of about $86,000. City officials said the company has been "totally unresponsive" to inquiries about billing charges, which in a number of instances appear to be inflated and contain calls to "questionable" numbers, such as ones that seem to be disconnected or connect to perpetual busy signals.

"We're hoping to go over to a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) system. We're almost there," Caruso said. "We're going to make the switch and move away from Verizon."

In the city's public works department, road repairs and maintenance is estimated to cost $110,000 for black top and other construction materials next year, up from $52,000 in the current year's budget.

Public Works Director David Hopkins attributed the steep rise to the number of city streets that will require maintenance, and state laws that require the city to add handicapped-accessible ramps at all crosswalks where road repaving is performed.

In the past, the city has relied on Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding to shoulder some road maintenance costs, but Easton should largely discontinue the practice, Hopkins said.

2014 projected revenue sources
Click on any image for a full-size view
"We need to wean ourselves off CDBG funding because only 40 percent of the city is eligible," he said.

An additional $23,000 will be spent on the city's trees next year too, bringing the total projected cost to maintain the urban forest program to $40,000 for the year.

Some of the city forester's resources will be used to assist homeowners who have trees that lie in or near public property, but most will go towards city-owned trees, Hopkins said.

"(The city owns) at least 3,500 trees, not including parks," he said.

A threat to the city's ash trees from the emerald ash borer, expected to be in the area within two years at most, means the city needs to be ready and proactive, Hopkins said. Saving the trees is not only prohibitively expensive, the remedy is far from being a sure thing and probably won't save the trees in the end anyway, he added.

"We're probably looking at the removal of the 90 or so ash trees we have along the streets," Hopkins said.

City council members asked few questions during the session, and it's unclear which, if any, members might favor budget cuts over an EIT rate hike.

A third 2014 budget session is set for Tuesday, November 12 at 6 p.m. in city council chambers. Discussion is expected to included planning and economic development expenses, salary-related issues, and city operational costs.

The current budget proposal includes a 3 percent salary increase for all city employees, including non-union employees and the mayor.

"I think there's about an hour to an hour and a half left on the budget to cover," Steckman told council members.

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