A divided Gettysburg Borough Council is likely to approve a tax increase of 0.577 mils for its 2021 budget and cut its eight-member police force by one officer (A ninth officer is on the payroll but inactive after being reinstated due to a court order earlier this year).
The alternative, to keep the force intact but assess borough residents a one-mil tax increase appeared to be less popular, although no vote was taken.
The borough has already cut most of its professional development and training funds, and reduced the police department’s overtime budget to create savings. But even with those changes, the borough’s budget is still over $600,000 in the red.
Councilmember Chris Berger said he supported a one-mil increase in order to avoid a further reduction in the police department.
“It’s an uncertain time; there’s a potential for volatility, I think we all see it across the country,” Berger said. “Gettysburg is a symbol. I just will not support any reduction of the police force. So, I would be in favor of the higher millage increase because I do not feel we should sacrifice public safety during this time. I know it’s a tough time. I respect everybody’s decision,” said Berger.
Councilmember Matthew Moon also supported the one-mil increase to avoid trimming the police force.
“We’re in an extraordinary time and we’re not getting any assistance from the federal government or the state government,” Moon said. “We have to do this ourselves, and I think it’s important to keep the services that we all depend on in place. Just from the conversations I’ve had casually with folks around town, I haven’t had a single person say to me that they want to see the force reduced. I think we’ve done that hard work. We’ve cut the fat where we can. But I don’t think staff is where we can do more,” said Moon.
Council vice-president Wesley Heyser said that he wanted the budget to keep eight patrol officers active.
“But the realities of the shift schedule, our recruitment efforts, trying to retain personnel, the public safety element– yeah, I support keeping the eight patrol officers intact as-is,” Heyser said.
Council member John Lawver spoke up against the one-mil proposal, setting a half-mil as his limit due to concerns for those with fixed income.
“The only thing we have left to cut is personnel,” Lawver said. “I understand Chris’ concerns. I have some of those same concerns. But at the same time, I just feel that we have to get down to seven patrol positions instead of the eight that we’re currently at so we can get some things worked out.”
Council member Judith Butterfield also opposed a one-mil increase. “I think we can adjust if we go with a half a mil,” she said.
Council member Patricia Lawson said that she agreed that it is an “austere budget,” but that she wasn’t sure a one-mil increase was realistic.
“I’ve talked to a number of people around town, and I agree with John that I think we are an older community,” Lawson said. “A lot of our residents, the ones that do the heavy lifting in terms of paying taxes, find that we have the highest taxes around in the county and I don’t feel that we can, in this pandemic year, raise the taxes to a mil. I am actually supporting a half-mil tax increase. I regret that, but I think that’s the stark reality that we’re facing,” said Lawson.
Heyser said that after hearing Butterfield’s comments, he wanted to make sure the public understood that there will be changes regardless of what budget decision is made.
“I want to make sure it’s clear that the tax increase would be significant no matter which decision comes out of this draft,” he said. “Whether we go with something closer to half a mil or something closer to a mil, certainly in my neighborhood here there are plenty of people that are going to have difficulty with that,” said Heyser
“I think the public needs to make sure they know that even with this increase, there are going to be– because of the attrition we’ve experienced– there are going to be some services that aren’t at the levels that they’re used to, especially at public works,” Heyser said. “I think people are really going to need to be patient come this winter.”
Council president Jacob Schindel also opposed the one-mil proposal.
“Most people don’t have more money this year than last year, so they’re going to have much more trouble paying their taxes than they previously had,” he said. “I think that there’s a lot of people on fixed incomes or who lost their incomes.”
Schindel also addressed critics who say the borough has mismanaged funds, noting that the borough had a surplus each of the previous three years.
“I feel like this council has done as good a job as they can in trying to manage the money that we have,” Schindel said. “None of us foresaw the pandemic coming, and I think that any of these choices that we are presented with are going to be difficult. We were definitely on a trend prior to the pandemic and I feel like we can be on that trend again. We’ve just got to buckle down and hopefully this thing goes away and we can get back to living our lives. And I think our budget for 2022 is going to look a lot better, is my hope, but none of us know for sure.”
Borough Manager Charles Gable said that a 0.577 mil increase will move the total rate to 4.4090 mils for 2021. The overall draft budget is $643,025 lower than it was for 2020.
The council also discussed making some fee changes, adjusting event pay for officers, and setting a fee for ordinance amendment applications.
The council’s next business meeting will be held virtually at 7:00 p.m. on November 9.