The Lower Alsace Township and Mount Penn Borough Merger Committee held its first meeting Monday night to determine whether merging the two municipalities is in the best interest of the community.
Monday night's meeting kicked off a series of 11 public meetings to be held through August.
The meeting, which was led by Paul Janssen and John Kramer from the Center of Excellence in Local Government, started with opening comments from Pa. Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks Co.
The meeting was not the first discussion about consolidation plans. In May 2012, a similar board, comprised of different members, met to discuss a merger.
Shortly thereafter, that board was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Berks County Commissioners to conduct a study, but the initial meetings did not go well and the study was abruptly suspended in the fall.
Mount Penn Borough Council reorganized in 2013 and, with Lower Alsace Township, approached the Center of Excellence in Local Government to recommence merger discussions.
In the meeting Monday night, Janssen and Kramer provided a broad outline of what will need to be accomplished in order to get the merger to a public vote.
Both the township and the borough are required to separately adopt, with citizen approval, an ordinance that contains a consolidation agreement by Aug. 4, 2014.
If they do so, the consolidation agreement will be included on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot for residents to vote on the terms of the merger.
If either community fails to approve the initial ordinance, the consolidation cannot occur.
If the consolidation agreement - which will outline what type of government will be put in place - is adopted in the 2014 election, the board members will be elected in the 2015 municipal elections.
The new administration will be fully functioning by 2016. In the meantime, the merger committee assures residents that nothing will change.
This would be the fourth merger in Berks County in the last 20 years, but history will not provide much insight into the success of this one.
“This is going to be the first merger between two administrations of approximately the same size.” Janssen explained.
But Kramer assured the board and residents that mergers have been successful in the past. “You always have growing pains, but no one has expressed any regret.”
There are more questions than answers at this stage from both residents and board members, and not much research has been done, but the board will be looking into all aspects of the merger and will have more information as the process continues.
A handful of residents expressed concerns over the merger and the changes it will bring, including tax changes and reorganization of the police department.
Many were concerned that the merger was already a “done deal.”
The committee assured residents that the decision is far from being made and that nothing can be done without voter support.
Many of the members reassured that they are not there to push the merger through, but rather to work through the process to determine whether it would be a beneficial change.
“I’m committed to this process. I’m not necessarily committed to this merger,” said board member Kurt Miller.
The consolidation committee will have to determine which form of government it would take and how it would modify finances, including potential tax changes, and will do its best to provide a complete view of the new administration for residents before the separate ordinances must be adopted in August.
Board member John Theodossiou assured the residents in attendance. “We are going to have a map put together for you. We’re going to iron out some of the details for you, but you need to decide whether you think this is right for our community.”
Not all decisions, however, will be made prior to the merger going to public vote.
The residents will have to have some faith in the officials they elect to take their concerns and considerations into account when developing the organization of the new municipality.
Berks County Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt concluded the meeting with his thoughts on the merger.
“I really want to encourage you to think about this. This is really, to me, thinking about the future.” He continued, “Here in Berks County we have some of the best joint, comprehensive [government] plans. Across the state, you don’t hear about that. You won’t lose your identity. You won’t lose who you are. It will really just help everyone.”
All information will be posted on the municipalities’ websites as the meetings progress.
The next meeting of the consolidation committee will be held on April 14, 2014, in the Antietam High School cafeteria, and all residents are strongly encouraged to attend.