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Whitehall proposes 'lean and mean' 2013 budget with no tax increases

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Oct 12 2012 05:08:50 PM CDT
Updated On: Oct 12 2012 05:18:45 PM CDT
Mayor Ed Hozza

Mayor Ed Hozza

A proposed 2013 Whitehall Township budget with no tax increase was unveiled by Mayor Edward Hozza in a news conference at noon Friday.

    If the $19.6 million budget is approved by the township’s commissioners in December, it will be the first time since 2010 that Whitehall’s nearly 27,000 residents are spared a tax increase.

     In addition to real estate taxes not increasing, Hozza announced there will be no increase in the earned income tax rate, garbage fees or any other fees.

   “It’s very good news but it’s still a frugal plan,” said the mayor. “There’s no fat in it: lean and mean.”

      The mayor is required by the township’s home rule charter to announce a proposed budget to residents by Oct. 15.  He said copies of the budget were being delivered to the seven township commissioners at the same time he was holding the news conference.

     On Friday afternoon, Linda Snyder, president of the commissioners, had not yet had time to review the budget. But she said she is happy to know it contains no tax increase and hopes township residents also will be happy with the proposed budget.

    Snyder encouraged anyone with questions or concern about the budget “to make their opinion known to us.”

   The township had no tax increases in 2009 or ’10, but property taxes did increase 16 percent in 2011 and 11 percent in 2012, said Jack Meyers, Whitehall’s deputy mayor.

   Meyers said taxes had to go up because the township was spending $1 million to $2 million more than it was bringing in during those years.

   Hozza said 2012’s tax increase gave Whitehall “the breathing room we’ve not had for the last couple of years.”

       Expenditures in the proposed 2013 budget will be nearly four percent higher than this year’s $18.9 million budget. Meyers said the township will have enough capital to meet those expenses “even though they are increasing.” He said revenues in the 2013 budget “are as close to our expenditures as they’ve ever been in probably the last 10 years.”

      The mayor said in the last five years, since the start of the Great Recession, the township had to make tough decisions on revenues, employment levels, capital improvement obligations “and every facet of our day-to-day operations.”

     For example, Hozza said Whitehall used to buy a fire truck every year. “We haven’t bought a fire truck in four years.” He said it also purchased two or three police cars every year, but it has purchased only one in the last three or four years. The proposed 2013 budget has $64,000 for two replacement police cars and $433, 847 for fire equipment needs.

     Hozza also said before the recession the township repaved eight to10 streets every year, but reduced that to five a year after the recession began. He said that was because the price of oil went through the roof and asphalt is made from oil. He said other municipalities have reduced or eliminated street reconstruction programs, but Whitehall plans projects on eight streets in 2013.

    The mayor said a hiring freeze has been in place in Whitehall for four years and will continue in 2013. The number of full-time township employees will remain at 114. He said five years ago the township had 128. Meyers said that reduction was done through attrition, not lay-offs.

    Hozza also said a salary freeze was imposed on all non-uniformed township employees in 2012, “including myself.” He said that salary freeze will end in 2013.

   Hozza said preparing previous annual budgets was made more difficult by the number of commercial real estate tax appeals the township has faced in the last 12 years. But after Lehigh County’s reassessment begins Jan. 1, the township envisions more stability in commercial real estate valuations in the next five years.  “The days of yearly property assessment appeals to the detriment of our tax base should be over,” said the mayor.

     He and Meyers explained the last county reassessment was done in 1991. After the recession hit, large property owners -- including stores, shopping centers and apartment complexes -- successfully appealed for multi-million dollar decreases in their property values, sometimes more than once. Those appeals resulted in lost tax revenues for the township.

      Hozza said he doesn’t know how Whitehall’s commissioners will react to the proposed budget, but does know they share the administration’s commitment to the township’s long-term financial health.

    The budget will be up for a final approval vote at commissioners’ Dec. 10 meeting.        Between now and then, Snyder said commissioners will go over it “line by line.”

   She said residents who have questions or concerns about the proposed budget have several opportunities to bring them to commissioners.

     Commissioners will meet with different township department heads to review the budget at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 30 and 31 and Nov. 1. Snyder stressed those meetings are open to the public.

      The budget also probably will be discussed at commissioners’ 7 p.m. Nov. 5 workshop meeting, Nov. 12 regular meeting and Dec. 3 workshop meeting – all before the Dec. 10 final vote. Snyder stressed all those meetings also are open to the public.

    The proposed budget soon will be posted on the township’s Web site and also can be reviewed in the municipal building.