Regular Meeting (agenda)
Forks Supervisors were asked to take care of old deteriorating curbing, to freeze/lower real estate taxes for residents of age restricted modular home communities, and to make a commitment to a "paperless" goal - at least for Supervisors' meeting packets.
On this night also, two Troop 29 Eagle Scouts were given plaques of appreciation from the Supervisors for their projects. One worked on Lion's Park and the other on the spring house on Bushkill Drive. Both projects represent remarkable accomplishments for the scouts and for the Township.
Michael Pizarro, a Meadow Lane resident, said that he has been battling the crumbling curbing along his property for 23 years. He said that he called (DPW Director) Mark Roberts the other day about it and was told that the policy is that it is his (Pizarro's) property. Mr. Pizarro asked the Board if anything can be done and if there is policy on repairing curbs in older neighborhoods. He said that his curbing was the result of a bad initial pour and although it was 23 years ago, someone should have been watching and someone should be responsible. He gave photos to the Board. Mr. Pizarro asked specifically if there was anything in the budget - or in the works - for residents' properties with older curbs that need repair. He said that "we are all in this together. We all want the Township to look great and I want my property to look good." Chairman Howell said that there is no budget in the works since it was set in November. Howell added that there are budgeted funds for the repair of capital assets in the community and that Mr. Pizarro's problem will not be solved today. Howell said that he will forward the issue to the Public Works Committee where it can be discussed in more detail. He also suggested, too, that Mr. Pizarro attend that meeting. Township Manager Schnaedter said that he will notify him (with the meeting date and time.)
Richard Blume read a statement on behalf of "concerned senior citizens" of Jacobs Farm. What they are concerned about is the 10% increase to their Township real estate taxes. He said that they live on fixed incomes and are, like others, impacted by the negative economy. They would rather have a 10% reduction. Some of the real estate taxes that the Jacobs Farm residents pay are included in their fees. He added that they pay for their own snow plowing, road repairs, and street lights. In addition to all that they pay property taxes on their homes. Mr. Blume said that the homes in Jacobs Farm are titled by the State as motor vehicles. In some states these types of homes are not considered real estate and but instead as "personal property." He pointed out, too, that fixed incomes do not increase with inflation and that Jacobs Farm is surrounded by an industrial complex. Also, Mr. Blume said that the Jacobs Farm residents have no children in the school system. He asked who the Forks Township contact is in the school district.
Marlene Raub of Lockwood Congress spoke to the Board and said that she is in agreement with Mr. Blume. Lockwood Congress is a similar development of "mobile" homes all registered with the State as motor vehicles. She said that in some states, there is no real estate tax on mobile homes because they are considered personal property. Mrs. Raub suggested that even a lower tax rate because the homes are motor vehicles would be better.
- Supervisor Howell - said that Mr. Blume and Mrs. Raub were actually talking about two items, real estate versus personal property and school taxes versus Township taxes. He said that not taxing mobile homes is basically a southern state phenomenon, one that is disappearing as the laws change. Howell said that he sympathizes with them but he is not sure what the municipality codes which define what the Township can and cannot do with regards to taxes are. Municipalities can always raise and lower taxes but not, to his knowledge, based on classes of taxpayers.
To this issue, Solicitor Kline clarified that real estate taxing power comes from the State Legislature. The State allows municipalities to collect various forms of taxes so that they can do municipal services like repairing curbs. The 1% EIT (earned income tax) is shared between the Township and the school district. Other taxes, like the RET (real estate transfer tax) dropped considerably (with the decline of the real estate market), leaving a hole in the budget.
Kline said that the State indicates that reassessment must be County-wide in order to insure uniform values. The Township cannot perform reassessments but it can set the millage charged. The school district and the county do the same, set the millage. Of the three taxing bodies, the Township has the lowest rate by far.
In Northampton County, mobile homes are considered houses and are taxed accordingly. Kline suggested that they (the residents of Jacobs Farm and Lockwood Congress) go to Northampton County and file an appeal. If they are successful, it will not only lower their Forks real estate taxes but their county and school district taxes as well. He said that unlike the Federal government that can run printing presses 24/7, municipalities must have balanced budgets.
Kline continued that it is difficult for municipalities when the RET drops because of the real estate market and at the same time, the EIT tax drops because people are losing their jobs. There is a shortfall yet the bills for the police, fire, and public works services continue. Forks has taken a position, and tried to budget carefully, "to be good stewards of taxpayers' money" - but equipment is getting old. Normally, equipment is replaced gradually but this year, there is a freeze on capital projects - at least for the first six months of the year. Kline added that Forks is in "uncharted waters about how bad this recession is going to be."
Michael Pizarro asked the Supervisors if they have "thought about down the road for things like road paving and repairing curbs (for everybody)." He said that he heard about things like basketball courts and agrees that they do lend a positive outlook to the Township. But given the crunch, he wondered if roads and such are being included in the planning.
Howell replied that they are and added that the parks money comes from a (non-taxpayer) developers' recreation fees account. A significant portion of the DPW budget goes to the maintenance of the roads, snow plowing, and tree pruning. Money is budgeted for all these items. "It's just less than it has been." Taxes were raised because of a specific budget shortfall. Citizens expect frugality and conservative management of funds from their elected officials.
Howell asked Zoning Officer Tim Weis how many homes have been approved but not yet built in the Township. Weis answered that there are 1500 homes pending. Howell said that at some time in the future, the Township will return to a normal level of growth. The BoS at that time will likely consider returning the tax back or at least, not raising it.
Mrs. Raub said that Forks has been very good about holding the line on the budget - up until this year. She admitted that if the school tax were increasing 10%, she would be 10 times more upset.
Supervisor Chuss said that residential housing puts a much greater cost burden on the Township than commercial properties and that commercial property owners pay more. Forks has experienced residential growth without the offsetting commercial growth. He said that the Board is working on that (commercial growth) and that if anyone hears of another way to address the tax situation the Board would be happy to hear about it.
Howell said that the Township can freeze rural agricultural land taxes and did so a few months ago. The Legislature allows this to help keep farmers' costs predictable. It may never actually happen in Forks because the EASD (Easton Area School District) must go along with it and so far, the EASD has not cooperated.
Treasurer's Report - Egolf detailed the debits (cash paid out) since the last Supervisors' meeting. The debits and transfers were approved with a 5:0 vote. The Township's current outstanding debt is $8,364,787.
Standing Committee Reports (meetings are open to the public - see the official Township calendar for dates and times)
- Public Safety - Supervisor Howell - said that the committee met last week and that Chief Dorney and Schnaedter reported on the protocol they are developing for park rules and regulations. The committee looked at Palmer Township's signage for examples of its rules and regulations. The committee has "good ideas about disseminating the park rules as well as for the appropriate signage." Also discussed were EMS issues. It is hoped that Suburban EMS soon finds a permanent Township location so that residents are served from close proximity. The next meeting will be on Thursday, April 16th at 8 AM in the Municipal Building.
- Public Works - Supervisor Chuss - reported that although he was not at the March 10th committee meeting, he did review the issues covered with (DPW Director) Roberts and Schnaedter. There are four 5-year-plans in draft and they should be done by the end of the month. The plans are for road improvements, the DPW, sewer, and recreation projects. Chuss said that he looked over the drafts and they look very good. He said they also discussed the new public works building and the plan for it should also be done by the end of the month and will include recommendations for financing. Certain projects that the DPW would like to start soon and that are included in the five year plan also were discussed. They include the Lieb Road connection (on Cherry Lane) and the Newlins/Sullivan culvert. Help will be sought from the the Township Engineer, Fred Hay. The next meeting is Tuesday, April 14th at 7:30 AM.
- Parks & Recreation - Supervisor Egolf - reported that there was a good turnout for the March 9th meeting. Interested citizens, especially parents with kids who are active in the sports programs, are beginning to attend. The committee discussed preparing the fields for spring sports, the plans for the Penn's Ridge tot lot and basketball court, and the amphitheater. The next meeting will be April 13th at 6 PM in the Municipal Building.
- Community Relations - Supervisor Miller - said that the committee met with New Arrival Studios and saw examples of other websites that the company has developed for surrounding municipalities. The Township's website is over five years old and it is "clear that it needs updating." The committee's recommendation is that the BoS consider building a new one. It is an agenda item.
- Finance and Administration - Supervisor Nicholas - reported that the committee met on March 11th and they:
- Reviewed all the February revenues and expenses. She said that the departments are doing a very good job holding the line on their budgets.
- Reviewed the staff evaluation sheets. It's up to the BoS to decide if the form recommended by the committee is okay.
- Finance Manager Farley is organizing all the boxes in storage and will now move forward with getting rid of some of the old unneeded documents and archiving the ones that should be kept.
- Going "paperless" with the Supervisors' packets is an agenda item.
- The committee reviewed the Klein Farm request. There is no money in the budget for it this year. They will wait for the Comprehensive Plan and follow its recommendations for farm preservation.
- The committee is reviewing the new three year plan. Supervisors were given a sample. Farley began with salaries because they are fixed. There are two unions in the Township. With contractual wages and benefits over the next three years, there will be a $200,000 increase. Nicholas said that the figure represents a half mill increase to taxpayers. Farley's next step is to project revenues over three years.
- $160,250 is coming back to the Township this year from the Lehigh Valley Insurance Cooperative thanks to Human Resources Manager Barb Bartek, and her good claims reporting.
Sandy Hanks asked who determines which documents are to be archived and which are to be trashed. Farley answered that he attended a seminar last summer on just that. He said that the State has records retention rules. The Township has saved everything for a long period of time. He said that he has been going through the records for months. A list will be prepared for BoS review and the authorization to hire a certified shredding company. Documents of historic interest will be kept. Farley said that converting everything to microfiche would be expensive (around $100,000) and that there is ample electronic space to save scanned documents.
Henning Holmgaard said that the EAJSA (Easton Area Joint Sewer Authority) just put a document management program in place with a vendor and paid a lot less than $100,000. He offered to talk with Farley about it.
Township Manager's Report - Schnaedter reported that the Board has copies of the final strategic plan developed at the January Meyner Center meeting. He also said that there is an opportunity for 50% funding of a master plan for the recreation area at Newlins/Richmond. The grant application deadline is April 22nd and he asked for and received permission to pursue it. In addition, Schnaedter asked that the Braden Park washroom vendor decision be delayed. There is a vendor in Forks who will be certified within four weeks for the State COSTARS program and as such, competitive bidding will not be necessary and shipping costs will be greatly reduced. Supervisors agreed and did not object to the delay. Lastly, Schnaedter reported that there is a signed application for the traffic light at Meco/Sullivan. It is moving forward.
Engineer's Report - Hay - reported that the Leiser driveway application is in and that he talked to the PennDOT representative about the sidewalk handicap ramps that are required on State roads. Hay said the specs keep changing but once that is done, approval should be granted. He added that the Federal government is making the State upgrade all State roads (handicap ramps). Hay said, too, that the paperwork is horrendous.
Chuss asked about SIMMS (sic) but Schnaedter had no copy and the Board just got their copies and hadn't had time to read it. Howell said that it would be addressed with the DPW and the engineer after they had all read it.
Solicitor's Report - Kline - reported on the nine letters of credit that were to expire at the end of March. Seven have already been satisfied and he received word from the bank that the last two will have updated letters in the next few days. The letters are to guarantee that municipal improvements such as sidewalks, curbs, streets, storm water management, and street trees are paid for by developers and not the Township.
Egolf commented about the progress made with the suits against the Township. He said that the defense costs a lot money and that he wanted to give a word of thanks and congratulations to Kline and attorney Goudsouzian for the fantastic job they've done showing how Forks zoning laws are correct and "to the letter of the law." Chuss asked if there has been any word on KMRD's appeal filing (in the procedural challenge). Kline said that there is no word yet but that he thinks he "would bet the farm" that they will appeal.
Resolution # 090319-1 Colosi Company, LLC Inter-municipal Liquor License Transfer (Karl Kline, Solicitor) - Kline explained that it used to be the law in Pennsylvania that if a person wanted a liquor license for a restaurant or bar in a municipality, he had to buy it from another restaurant or bar in the same municipality. Sellers of licenses could get a high price in growing communities. In 2000, PA changed the law to allow for inter-municipal (in the same County) liquor license transfers. A public hearing is required. The decision ultimately rests with PA Liquor Control Board.
The BoS held a public hearing two weeks ago for the Colosi Company transfer request and recommended the transfer of a license formerly in Bethlehem to the Colosi Company for its intended restaurant on Route 611, the site of the former My Little Gypsy Rose. The resolution formalizes the Board's recommendation and will be sent along with a letter of recommendation from them to the PA Liquor Control Board.
Sandy Hanks asked about the "for sale" sign that she saw on the property yesterday. Howell said that as far as he knows, the new owners are waiting for the SOLD sign to be placed on it. Howell said that the restaurant will be another business in the Township, a high cash one, and is in an under-served area on 611. He wishes them well.
The vote to approve the resolution was 5:0.
Proposed Paperless Network Layout (Jim Farley, Finance Manager) - Farley explained that the goal is to "try to streamline some of the process" and reduce the Townships' dependency on paper products. There is a lot of correspondence and it amounts to a lot of paper.
Farley said that all the Supervisors have been provided with laptop computers. He proposed a "three pronged approach" that includes:
- A private working area for the Supervisors (to conduct their Township business).
- A shared drive (primarily for sharing BoS packet information between the Township Manager, the Township Secretary, and the Supervisors).
- A shared management drive (for access by the Supervisors, the Township Manager, management staff, and department heads where committee information can be shared).
He explained that this will give three tiers of confidentiality and it will be backed up by databases as part of the IT (information technology) protocol.
Chuss asked if there will be access for the Supervisors on other than the Township provided laptops. He said that he returned his.
Farley said that the laptops and phone cards given to the Supervisors are locked down and are secure devices. It is a controlled IT environment. He said that he will ask them (the IT guys) if there is a way to allow Supervisors to access the information from home PCs but, he explained, that they are trying to make sure that the "Township assets are secure."
Howell said that he seconds Chuss' request (to have access from another computer).
Farley replied that the committee has approved this proposal and that the next step is for BoS approval.
Nicholas said that they are going to start in baby steps, perhaps with things like correspondence and not the entire Supervisors' packets - to be sure that Supervisors can all get in to it and get the information.
Chuss said that his issue is with using a Township laptop. He would have to get his back. And, it will be a problem for him especially when he is out of town on business and has to carry his work laptop. He does not want to carry two laptops.
Farley said that he will speak to the IT staff and have an answer to this issue in a week or so.
Howell said in some respects this is shifting the burden of paper onto PCs. He asked if he will be able to print things on his own printer and the answer was "yes." He then said that the most important thing is that he won't have to have copies of things like ordinances. Howell said, too, that other than the packet issues, being able to download significant documents to look at (but retain online) is a major advantage.
Egolf said that the committee began this (going paperless as soon as possible) last spring and buying the laptops was the first step. This is the next step. He added that he would hate to delay.
Egolf made a motion to approve the proposed network layout for shared information services as explained in the paper document from Mr. Farley and to consult with the IT provider about handling the information access concerns of Chuss and Howell. Nicholas seconded the motion.
Chuss offered a revision: To go forward with the proposal if access from other computers is possible and if not, that the Board come back and address that.
Egolf said, "No, I don't want to amend that motion." He said that the this is the very reason each Supervisor has a laptop and that the commitment was made last year when they were purchased. Egolf compared it to "foul ball" and if they don't move on, they will have to all return their laptops and "scrub the plan."
Howell said that he intends to vote for the motion but hopes that the issue of some form of limited access to see public record documents is resolved. He added that just about everything the Board looks at are public records anyway. Egolf said that he is certain that Farley will make sure that it is a secure situation because it would be easy to violate if one is not careful.
The vote to approve the proposed network layout for shared information was approved 4:1 with Chuss casting the nay.
Eagle Scout Awards (Supervisor Nicholas) - Nicholas said that this is the best part of her job, that is handing out awards to Eagle Scouts. She said that Forks Township is lucky to have Troop 29.
Nicholas introduced Levi Matyus and his Lion's Park project. Lion's Park is along Bushkill Drive across from Penn Pump Park. Levi's project was on the south end of Lion's Park and his goal was to improve the parking area as well as to improve the looks of the park. He (and helpers) added guardrails to define the parking lot, built a gazebo, added benches, plantings, and signage. The total project cost was $7,563.20 - all of which he had to raise himself. The entire project took 690 hours. The audience and the BoS saw the project from start to finish in a slide presentation. Levi thanked Mark Roberts, Robin Featherman, Rob Leiser, the DPW, and the volunteers... as well as all who donated money.
Nicholas presented Levi Matyus with a plaque of appreciation on behalf of the Township.
Nicholas then introduced Alex Buchanan whose project was the springhouse on Bushkill Drive. Alex said that he was approached by Karl Miller, President of the Forks Historical Society who told him that this was the oldest building in Forks Township. Unfortunately, Alex's slide presentation did not work. He explained the project instead. Alex said that the springhouse was overgrown with brush and debris. He (and his volunteers) cleared that away and added a rock bed to direct water away from the building and help mitigate flooding. They added a stone patio with a stone walkway. Alex said that Mr. Roberts (DPW) donated his time to repave the driveway. The project took 300 services hours and is one of three projects that will be at the site - all to "rejuvenate the area and make it available for lectures and tours."
Howell said that the Historical Society held its summer picnic there in the parking area - while Alex was in the midst of his project. Howell said that Alex did a wonderful job.
Nicholas presented Alex Buchanan with a plaque of appreciation on behalf of the Township.
Both Eagle Scouts received appreciative applause from the audience and the Board.
Planning Commission Vacancy (Rich Schnaedter, Township Manager) - Howell explained that Planning Commission member John Castrovinci has submitted his resignation for personal reasons. His term ends at the end of 2009. There was discussion on when to advertise and the date to establish for the application deadline. Applications are due by then close of business on Monday, April 13th and interviews will be conducted at a 6:30 PM workshop prior to the regular BoS meeting on April 16th. The motion to approve advertising the position was unanimous at 5:0
Forks Township Website Proposal (Rick Schnaedter, Township Manager) - Schnaedter said that the Community Relations Committee asked the Board and staff for recommendations to improve the Township website. The current vendor, New Arrival Studios, met with the committee and addressed some of the suggestions. The committee was shown three examples of sites that were done for other communities.
It was the consensus of the committee that the current Forks website looks tired and worn. The price tag for a new website for Forks was reduced from $13,000 to $6,500 (because Forks is a current client.) The new site will be more interactive and department heads will be able to make changes to it (to add and delete) from their computers.
Howell noted that the current site is five years old but has been improved some in that time. Farley said that in 2005, New Arrival Studios was contracted to update it. Schnaedter said that improving the website was one of the goals established at the January strategic planning session. There is money for it in the "government improvements" account because only one lift was purchased (instead of two) to change light bulbs in the Municipal Building.
Larry Kitson (Planning Commission) asked if the vendor is under contract or if this must go out for bids. Schnaedter said that it is a modification of the current website and that there is no legal necessity to go out for bids. He added that the Township has a "comfort level" with this vendor. Nicholas said that "Bob" has given services many times and not charged for them. She added that he has gone out of his way to train anyone who needs to be trained.
Howell said that the vendor has worked on many of the area township websites and is currently working on one for the City of Easton. All are unique and not repetitive.
Sandy Hanks asked if the vendor did the Palmer Township or Bethlehem Township websites. She was told that they did the Bethlehem Township website.
Miller made the motion to move forward with the vendor to come up with a website design - for final approval by the BoS. The vote was 5:0.
Executive Session - The session was held to discuss a potential real estate land acquisition. No action was taken by the Board during the executive session but afterwards, a motion was made to permit the Township Manager to sign a highway occupancy permit (HOP) for expanding a children's (bus stop) sidewalk on Bushkill Drive.
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