WINDBER – The borough’s tentative spending plan for 2019 will increase taxes by 2 1/2 mills next year.
That’s an increase of approximately 17 percent – or $62.50 per year for the average Windber property owner – and a hike Windber Borough officials said they aren’t thrilled about. But it’s a necessary move, they added, for the borough to continue providing the services that many people in town see as priorities, among them keeping local streets safe and well-maintained.
“We tried everything to (avoid) a tax increase,” Councilman Jim Spinos said. “But if we wanted to continue providing the things residents expect here, this was what we had to do.”
The budget, given tentative approval Tuesday, shows police and health care-related costs, pension obligations, and, to a lesser extent, contracted salaries are all on the rise for 2019.
It also accounts for a move borough officials have been building toward for several years in their battle against blight, by shifting their codes enforcement officer’s job from part to full time.
Police department expenses – approximately 43 percent of the borough’s $1,687,909 budget next year – are projected to rise by $43,659 to $721,912, the budget shows. Much of that is tied to the anticipated purchase of a new patrol car and rising salaries, the budget shows.
Borough officials noted that it’s a significant undertaking to keep two patrol cars on the street around the clock, a commitment council made when it relaunched Windber’s department four years ago.
Borough officials have increased the salaries for part-time officers several times in the past two years to keep them from leaving for higher pay elsewhere.
“We’re fortunate to have the 17 well-qualified officers on our roster (in addition to a police chief and full-time lieutenant), and it’s difficult to keep them,” Borough Manager Jim Furmanchik added.
Pension costs, both non-uniform and police included, are budgeted to rise by $9,000.
Spinos noted the borough held the line on taxes for three straight years, despite rising police and public works costs – and a renewed commitment to replacing vehicles and street equipment, when necessary, instead of “dumping money” into repairing decades old vehicles year after year.
“A lot of the steps we are taking to improve this community are going to pay off, even save us money down the road. But you reach a point where we have to make tough choices if we are going to stick with the plan we have for our community,” he added.
“People see all the positive steps we’ve made the last three years. But they don’t think about the fact these things cost money,” Spinos said, citing efforts to improve street maintenance and spur economic development.
Codes Enforcement Officer Anson Bloom was hired in the spring to serve as the borough’s part-time codes enforcement officer and will begin working five days a week in February, Furmanchik said.
The tentative budget shows his wages would increase from $12,600 to $31,200 next year – a worthy expense, borough officials said.
Furmanchik said Williams is already cracking down on blighted properties and homes, oftentimes doing so with written warnings threatening fines if landowners don’t comply.
“In a lot of ways, he’s like a police officer,” Spinos added, noting that his main role is to enforce borough property maintenance laws and respond to residents’ complaints.
If “problem” properties are cleaned up, entire neighborhoods benefit, he said. “And when neighborhoods are well-kept, property values rise,” Furmanchik said.