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Commissioners: Damned If They Did, And …

Monday's comments about Lower Pottsgrove's 2009 budget proposal were more about how the figures work, and less about the figures themselves.

Monday's comments about Lower Pottsgrove's 2009 budget proposal were more about how the figures work, and less about the figures themselves.

LOWER POTTSGROVE PA – Damned if they did, the township Board of Commissioners figured. If they even hinted at raising property taxes to accompany Lower Pottsgrove‘s proposed 2009 budget, they reasoned, there’d be a public and media outcry. But damned if they didn’t?

That one, board members admitted last night (Monday, Dec. 1, 2008), they didn’t see coming.

Commissioners took no action on the budget during their first of two December meetings. A vote on its acceptance is not scheduled until Dec. 18. They took comments on the budget from local residents, though, and found not all were as satisfied as board members might have guessed.

The board had a few comments of its own too, most of them skewering The (Pottstown PA) Mercury newspaper, the township’s official publication of record for legal notices.

The tentative general fund budget – officially made public last week – is balanced, with revenue and expenses equalling $5,390,850. No real estate tax increase is needed, in part because commissioners will use $320,234 from unreserved funds to supplement what the township foresees as a year of declining income.

The board also envisions $33,000 in spending cuts next year that affect the Pottstown Public Library, the Visiting Nurse Association of Pottstown and Vicinity (VNA), the township Historical Society, and the Pottstown Area Seniors Center. It was newspaper and public reaction to those cuts that caught commissioners by surprise.

“We felt we did an excellent job on the budget,” board President Bruce Foltz said, in light of neighboring municipalities like Pottstown, which faces a tentative deficit next year, or Upper Pottsgrove, which faces a tentative property tax hike of 18 percent. “We thought we’d get an ‘attaboy’ (a compliment) in The Mercury.”

Instead, fellow Commissioner James Phillips picked up later, The Mercury‘s headlines groused about cuts to the four non-profits. “We’re very judicious” in using township funds, Phillips said of the board, “because we’re dealing with taxpayers’ money, not our own.” Township residents who support those and other charities, he added, can do so “as private citizens.” Moreover, Phillips added, a Mercury story about the budget published Nov. 26 (2008) contained “tremendous inaccuracies.”

Former Commissioner Tom Troutman understood the current board’s discomfort. “I’m very pleased there’s no tax increase,” were the first words he uttered from the back of the township conference room during time for public comments.

He followed it, however, by “I think you’ve been very harsh” on the charities, “and I really don’t think it’s fair … As a concerned citizen, I recognize their value.” Funds for at least the VNA and the Historical Society, if not all four, should be restored, Troutman suggested.

Troutman suggested a remedy, too: the board, he said, could pull another $33,000 from unreserved funds. Currently, township Manager Rodney Hawthorne disclosed, about $1.4 million remains in what amounts to Lower Pottsgrove’s savings accounts. Foltz took Troutman’s remarks under advisement.

“When are we going to act on this stuff?,” Commissioner Anthony Doyle responded. Doyle, who later claimed he had “a slight problem with this budget,” charged the board’s decision to reduce the charities’ funding was “underhanded. I can’t believe that’s what we’re going to do” without giving the non-profits additional time to make up for shortfalls Lower Pottsgrove’s cuts would create.

Doyle contended the charities’ funding could be returned with a 0.25 percent reduction in 4.25-percent raises proposed next year for non-uniformed township employees, similar to salary increases recently negotiated for members of the police department. Both Foltz and Phillips defended the increases. “I make no apology for those raises,” Phillips said. They reward “the people responsible for the township’s professionalism and quality of service.”

Commissioners Jonathan Spadt and Stephen Klotz were absent from Monday’s meeting.

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