The Salisbury Township Board of Commissioners appears headed toward filling a year-long vacancy in the township police department and seems willing to raise taxes to do so.
The consensus among commissioners following a two-hour budget discussion during a four-hour Nov. 29 township meeting indicates they are willing to raise taxes incrementally to bring the public safety department back to full force.
"I still think we need one officer just to get them back to 17 in the next year," Board of Commissioners President James Brown said.
"You say 'Yes' to the police officer [and] it will necessitate a revenue increase," Township Manager Randy Soriano responded.
"I would be in favor of making a small increase [in taxes] now," Brown said.
In his budget presentation, Soriano urged against hiring additional police officers.
"I feel our citizens deserve a quality of service," Brown said. "If it means hiring two people for John [Andreas, Public Works Department director] and hiring an officer for the Chief [of Police Allen W. Stiles], then let's do it. And it's going to come at a cost."
Whether or not a police officer is hired, the township still faces a $282,308 shortfall in its 2013 budget based on general fund budget expenses of $6,098,608 and revenues of $5,816,300.
"If you want to include the police officer ..." Soriano began, addressing the board.
"Yes, we do," several board members responded.
"If we're going to add a police officer, we're going to have to raise taxes," Soriano said.
"I don't want my taxes to go up. But it's .129 mill. It's not even one mill maybe half a mill," Commissioner Debra Brinton said.
A 10 percent increase in millage which is the maximum allowable amount of a potential increase would cost a township taxpayer $30 annually based on the average township property assessment of $232,400.
"We'll go over the budget and see what the impact of an officer would be," Soriano said.
Commissioners are again expected to discuss the budget at the 7 p.m. Dec. 13 meeting. The budget must be adopted by year-end. The final township meeting for the year is scheduled for 7 p.m. Dec. 27.
Meanwhile, commissioners voted 5 - 0 at the Nov. 29 meeting to advertise the proposed 2013 budget and make it available for public inspection.
The increased revenue generated by a tax hike could also plug a projected 2013 fire fund deficit of about $24,800.
The millage increase would generate an additional $28,000 for the fire fund.
The police department vacancy occurred following a retirement and the promotion of a police officer to fill that position.
Commissioners chose to not hire a new officer.
The department has 16 officers, one fewer than the 17 officers on the roster prior to the retirement.
Salisbury Township Police Chief Allen W. Stiles made an impassioned plea for the hiring of two police officers. He backed his comments by a report he distributed to commissioners and administration officials at the Nov. 29 township meeting.
Stiles' request for a new police officer hire, in order to bring the force to 18 officers, appears to not have gained traction on the board.
The hiring of two Public Works Department employees is included in the 2013 budget. The salaries and benefits of one of these employees will be covered by revenues from township water and sewer services. The other position is to be paid from the township general fund. Salary and benefits for each employee is $72,447 annually.
The hiring of two police officers would cost $169,299 in salaries and benefits annually. The hiring of one police officer would cost about $84,659 in salary and benefits annually.
At first, during the Nov. 29 budget discussion, Board of Commissioners Vice President Robert Martucci Jr. seemed reluctant to backfilling the police department vacancy.
However, after Stiles' presentation and remarks of the board, Martucci seemed to be in agreement when board members, after being polled informally by Soriano, either verbally or with an affirmative nod of the head, agreed the police officer vacancy would be filled.
"What's happening in our community is we're getting busier and busier," Stiles said of the township police department.
"We're getting more calls more calls of a potentially violent nature," Stiles said.
"We're getting more people going through Salisbury not just because of the [Sands] casino." Stiles said.
"We're getting more calls to help other municipalities," the Chief continued.
"Every shooting that happens in Allentown ends up in Salisbury. Why? Because of Lehigh Valley Hospital [Cedar Crest]," Stiles said. "It's getting to the point where calls are getting backed up."
"For two and one-half months, I had to take one sergeant off [of duty] for that homicide case. That was a huge undertaking," Stiles said.
Township police coverage extends from the vicinity of the Fountain Hill border on the east side to the area of Lehigh Valley Hospital- Cedar Crest on the west side, which is a driving distance of about 12.9 miles.
The patrol areas include the Lehigh County Minimum Security Prison, Interstate I-78 and numerous isolated township parks, including Franko Farm Park on South Mountain and Walking Purchase Park.
Discussion of the township tax rate and a possible increase is complicated by Lehigh County reassessment. Municipalities are only allowed to increase taxes by 10 percent in the first year of reassessment.
Salisbury Township Assistant Manager and Director of Finance Cathy Bonaskiewich distributed an information sheet to commissioners and the media, detailing tax increase scenarios for 2013.
For 2012, as of Nov. 12, the taxable assessment in Salisbury is $449,382,200.
Township millage is 3.82.
The tax levy is $1.716,640.
The township millage breakdown is:
General - 3.09 mills, generating $1,388,591 in revenue.
Fire - .55 mills, generating $247,160 in revenue.
Library - .18 mills, generating $80,889 in revenue.
The Allentown Public Library revenue was approved by voters. If commissioners want to end the library tax levy, a referendum must be placed on the township ballot for a vote by township residents.
For 2013, as of Nov. 15 information from Lehigh County, the taxable assessment in Salisbury is $1,326,645,300.
The revised township millage is 1.29397.
Based on that millage, the tax levy would be $1,716,639.
The millage breakdown is:
General - 1.04669, generating $1,388,590.
Fire - .18631, generating $247,162.
Library - .06097, generating $80,888.
If township taxes were increased 10 percent, township millage would be 1.42336.
Based on that, the tax levy would be $1,888,294.
The millage breakdown would be:
General - 1.15136, generating $1,527,446.
Fire - .20493, generating $271,870.
Library - .06707, generating $88,978.
Township millage was 3.76 in 2002. The township has reduced millage over the past decade.
"Had you kept that millage, you would have had enough money. Had you kept it up, you would have had $2 million more today," Soriano said.
For several years, the township has been taking money from its fund balance to offset deficits.
The estimated fund balance for 2013 is $1,570,643.
The township has had to make up about $600,000 annually from fund balances during the past four years.
Soriano has warned the fund balance may be depleted in about two years.
After the 2008 recession, the township has seen a drastic drop in annual real estate transfer tax revenue.
During the past five years, the real estate transfer tax has been reduced by about $380,000 annually.
There has also been reduced interest payments on township investments.