LOWER MILFORD – The Lower Milford Township Board of Supervisors discussed the proposed 2011 budget with residents at a workshop meeting Thursday at the Township Municipal Building.
Among the revisions made to the proposal since the Oct. 7 workshop meeting were $8,000 in new radios for public works vehicles, $1,000 for specified police training, and no increase in the township’s annual donation to the Southern Lehigh Public Library.
Most significantly, the revised first draft reflected the loss of two part-time police officers in order to save $52,000 in 2011. Commentary on this cut was not lacking.
Former township supervisor Arland Schantz criticized the proposed cut as a move in the wrong direction. “We’re willing to spend $150,000 on solicitors, but cutting $50,000 of police,” Schantz said. “That shows where your priorities are.”
Township Manager Ellen Koplin explained that the reason for the township’s exorbitant legal costs is the numerous attempts by Geryville Materials to fight the township’s zoning ordinance. Koplin said that land use is “one of the main responsibilities” of local government. “You can’t not defend your ordinance.”
When asked if the township ought to discontinue its legal fight, Chair Donna Wright said that she “would not even want to broach that subject” of surrender because it would open the township to innumerable legal challenges from those who have abided by the zoning ordinance at their own cost of time and money. According to Koplin, the township has not lost any of its cases to Geryville Materials. “We’ll just have to keep going through the process and see what the outcome will be,” Koplin said.
Since the loss of part-time police officers Daniel Dieter and David Miller will mean a reduction of emergency services capabilities for the township, resident Susan LaBrie asked supervisors what costs might be incurred for other governments’ ambulances to respond to crises in Lower Milford. Citing three studies on the subject, Supervisor Michael Snovitch suggested Lower Milford “seriously look” at forming a regional ambulance service with Coopersburg and Upper Saucon Township. LaBrie said “I have an issue with spending funds outside of our municipality.” Snovitch explained that even with Dieter and Miller staffing a police department quick response service vehicle, the township would still lack all the capabilities an ambulance service can provide. LaBrie also asked if the township pays state police to respond to calls when township police are not on duty. Wright and Koplin said that the state legislature has proposed that fee for many years now. Supervisor William Roy said Republican legislators had proposed it most recently, and that “it will be interesting” to see what the new Republican majority does about that proposal. “I would much rather have our own police department,” said Roy, if Harrisburg passed such legislation. He added that he has spoken with State Representative Doug Reichley about the possibility of forming a regional police department, a proposal Roy called “more cost effective” in his private opinion. However, said Wright, even if it did pass, the slow pace of the legislative process would mean that the fee would not impact the township for two years.
Supervisors listened to a letter from Sara Diefenderfer’s son Timothy, thanking Dieter “for doing what you did to bring me back” and praising the township police who “provided the quickest possible” response to his life-threatening encounter.
Schantz asked supervisors not to cut the police. “You’re saying fighting the quarry is more important than protecting the people.” Wright responded by rattling off numerous other cuts and explaining how township staff has not had a salary increase in 2010 or in the proposed 2011 budget. Koplin said that according to state statistics, the township pays wages “on the low side for the municipal range.” According to Wright, supervisors were guided by the question of “how much can the community afford to pay” for its necessary services. Roy added that food prices have increased by 18 percent this year, and that “a lot of families are really struggling.” “We want to do what’s right,” he said.
Snovitch said that the board is actively taking steps to keep legal costs at a minimum. He predicted higher cost-effectiveness in 2011, saying “We have done some things to definitely get more bang for the buck.”
Residents also asked about the health care coverage on township staff. While employees make no monthly contribution, Koplin said several years ago the township saved money by switching to a Capital Blue Cross PPO plan that requires a $500 deductible plus co-payments. Township employees are divided between unionized and non-unionized, but have the same plan because there weren’t enough non-unionized employees to form an affordable co-op, said Koplin.
Chief of Police John Dondero informed supervisors and residents that he has responded to calls in neighboring municipalities that don’t have their own police departments. “If there’s a crime in progress and they call me, I’m going to go,” he said. Wright called it “ridiculous” that Lower Macungie, Upper Hanover, and Upper Milford have higher populations than Lower Milford but do not have their own police.
Koplin told supervisors the next step in the budget process would be to authorize advertising at the Nov. 18 meeting. According to Koplin, the board must advertise its intent to approve the budget 20 days prior to approval. The board will also discuss the planning commission’s recommendation on West Mill Hill Road on Nov. 18.