Tax Hike Imminent in Meshoppen – Grant Denial Contested

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Employees of River Valley Recreation expected to have the construction of a new playground in Meshoppen Community Park completed by the end of the day on Thursday.

Photo and story by Rick Hiduk

(Also published in  the Rocket-Courier)

A rather lengthy meeting of the Meshoppen Borough Council on Monday evening ended with the approval of a tentative budget that will include a slight tax increase. Members hope that the step-up to an even 10.0 mils will help to offset the loss of revenue from the PEMA flood buyouts and provide a little more funding for the fire department. The change will result in an average of about 17 dollars more per household in the coming year.

Meshoppen Fire Company assistant chief Travis Prevost spoke early in the meeting to the company’s need to take in more revenue. He and fire chief Chris Carney have been visiting the various municipalities served from Meshoppen to relate the toll that a shrinking volunteer force and skyrocketing insurance costs have taken on the company.

We’re trying to do more with less,” said Prevost, noting that the company had not requested an increase from the borough in more than 10 years. Activity has increased in the meantime, he noted. There were 205 fire calls in 2017, and there have already been 194 this year with two months left to go.

Council chairman John Bunnell assured Prevost that the fire company and its need for funding were already planned as part of the budget conversation later in the meeting. “We appreciate what you do all the time, even if we don’t always say it,” Bunnell remarked.

Council member Bruce Priestner, who is also a member of the fire company, introduced the concept of a local services tax, a nominal weekly fee tacked to the wages of those employed in the borough that could be used at council’s discretion for any emergency services.

Borough secretary Phyllis Adams questioned whether there are enough full-time employees in Meshoppen to make the tax worthwhile, and others noted that it would likely take at least a year to enact the tax. Though it was tabled as an idea worth discussing again later, as the needs of the fire company will likely grow, a small increase in the amount of local taxes specifically earmarked for the fire company was deemed a more practical solution.

Therefore, in a single motion, the board opted to increase the tax for the fire company from .68 to 1.0 mils and the borough tax from 8.45 to 9.0 mils. While council is seeking an increase of $5 per household on sewer bills, there will be no increase in water bills. The total general fund budget of about $289,000 will be approved at the Dec. 3 meeting, after the tax increase and sewer rate hike have been properly advertised.

Playground Installation Underway Despite Grant Denial

River Valley Recreation was slated to install new playground equipment in the borough’s Community Park on Wednesday. In addition to funds raised for the project through community events, council had hoped from the start that the cost would be offset by a five thousand dollar Marcellus Legacy fund grant for which they had applied to the Wyoming County Planning Commission.

Though the Wyoming County Commissioners had discussed publicly on several occasions that the borough would not be given the funds until a master site plan had been completed by a qualified engineer or certified landscape architect, Meshoppen’s council continued to believe that they were entitled to the grant despite forgoing the site plan.

The borough had also applied for a $15,000 DCNR grant to complete the study, but it required an equal match of funds that were not in the borough’s budget. In the spring, the council unanimously agreed to turn down the DCNR grant.

A letter emailed to the borough office on Monday by county planner Lynnelle Farber made it clear that the conditions that the commissioners had imposed had not changed and that the funds would not be released. Farber repeated that her biggest concern was the proposed location of the playground equipment in a highly flood-prone portion of the park.

Bunnell, who filled out the paperwork for the Marcellus Legacy grant, contended that there was nothing on the forms that suggested that approval of the funds hinged on following through with DCNR’s recommendations or proposed financial assistance.

There was nothing in there that was specific about mixing it with other grants,” Bunnell maintained. “We are being denied the $5,000 based on circumstances that were not part of the original application. I don’t have a problem with getting an engineer. I just want to play by the rules.”

He subsequently asked for a motion to have Adams compose a letter to that effect to the Wyoming County Commissioners, demanding the release of the money to the borough, that was approved by the board.

Council Frustrated by Demolition Delays

While council members continue to lament the impending removal of 10 to 14 houses on Church and Allen streets, they are also united in their frustration that the process has taken so long. Though the PEMA buyouts and demolition of the structures is technically out of their hands, they hoped aloud that effected homeowners are badgering the Wyoming County Housing & Redevelopment Authority (H&RA) daily with phone calls asking when they will receive their checks have reportedly been approved.

Likewise, council members would like to be prepared for whatever impacts the borough might incur as heavy equipment moves in. The few people they have been able to talk with about the process assure them that equipment will be offloaded in a manner that will not effect the streets nor the sidewalks. That might be possible on Church Street, several on council conceded, but they believe that two homes on Allen Street will be harder to reach. Council member Mike Voorhees recommended getting a bond agreement to insure repair of any damages, but there was no further discussion on the matter.

In the meantime, there has been no movement on the demolition of the old pizza shop on Bridge Street, even though the building has continued to deteriorate and has become what Bunnell termed “a dangerous situation.”

H&RA grants administrator, who obtained an additional $14,000 in 2016 to offset an expected increase in the contractor’s costs for demolition of the structure, has told council on several occasions that she cannot return her focus to the pizza shop until the PEMA buyouts, which she is also managing, are completed. In addition to the deplorable condition of the building, council is now concerned that the extra $14,000 will not be enough to get the job done.

Bunnell proposed another letter be written to Hahn and H&RA concerning the matter. “We need to let them know that we hired an engineer and are waiting for appropriate direction.” When the H&RA encouraged the borough to solicit bids for the project three years ago, Bunnell remarked, “It was a rush order. And now we have waited for more than a year.”

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