Several members of Northampton borough council heaped praised on Santa Claus Thursday night for sparing property owners a tax increase in 2013.
The jolly elf did not make a personal appearance in council chambers, but a secret Santa did -- borough manager Gene Zarayko, who had council members as giddy as kids on Christmas morning when he told them he had whittled away a proposed one-mill property tax hike from his 2013 budget.
"You're Santa this year!" said council member Robert McHale, a sentiment echoed by several of McHale's colleagues throughout council's meeting.
Zarayko's original budget of $5,758,666 -- about $8,500 more than this year's -- was presented to council on Nov. 16, the day Zarayko was rushed to the hospital after he took ill at work. That budget called for boosting the property tax rate from 8.1 to 9.1 mills, meaning a homeowner with a house assessed at $50,000 would have to pay an extra $50 in 2013.
Zarayko's assistant, LeRoy E. Brobst, told council the tax hike was needed to cover rising costs for labor, insurance and medical benefits.
Zarayko said he spent a lot of time "tweaking the budget during my week's vacation at Hotel Muhlenberg," referring to his stay at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Muhlenberg, where he was treated for a low blood count.
Although the revised $5,722,239 budget avoids a property tax hike for the fourth year in a row, several fees will rise, including the cost of building and park permits, Zarayko noted. However, sewer rates and trash collection fees will remain the same, he added.
Council approved the budget unanimously, and a vote to adopt the budget is scheduled for Dec. 20.
In other business, council gave Zarayko the go-ahead to continue work on a $3 million bond issue that would pay for several projects.
The new bond issue would pay off $1.6 million remaining on a $7 million bond issue from 15 years ago, Zarayko said. The remaining $1.4 million would finance a series of improvements, including a $400,000 addition to the borough fire station; a new $100,000 salt shed; a $300,000 project to repave Laubach Avenue from 23rd Street to Main Street, and a $95,000 project to replace concrete on lower Main Street.
The bond money would also include $105,000 for playground equipment. Zarayko said the borough would be eligible to apply for matching funds through Northampton County.
The borough would have three years to complete the projects, he said.
Zarayko noted the borough could get the money at 1.6 percent interest, "an all-time low," and that the bond issue would add only $21,874 to the borough's debt payments each year over a 10-year period.
Council president John Yurish said, "We have to think outside the box. This [bond issue] will bring us right up to speed to get our town right where we want to be in three years."
McHale agreed, saying: "The iron's hot."