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Gettysburg Borough Council President Wes Heyser shares final remarks

Editor’s Note: Wes Heyser, who has served since 2016 on the Gettysburg Borough Council, did not run for re-election this year. Below are his parting words to the borough as presented at the Dec. 11 borough council meeting. I think Wes deserves our thanks. Will you leave a message for him in the comment section below?

It has been my duty and honor to serve the people of, as Mayor Bill Troxell termed it, the greatest small town in the world. During my time, I served with three mayors and 14 different members of council. While the faces have changed, our charge from the commonwealth to look out for the health, safety and welfare of our people, within the limited parameters of the borough code, has remained the same.

Wes Heyser

Before I joined this council, I attended meetings here for several years. I did not want to be involved until I really had a lay of the land. I assisted in the effort to alter the council from nine seats to seven, which I believe has led to an organization where it is easier for the members to understand each others’ positions and make the best use of everyone’s time. We are a working group, and time has always been the finite resource that presents our greatest challenge.

Like many public servants, my greatest regrets are the tasks and policies left unresolved; the ideas and concepts left on the cutting room floor. From dozens of ideas, there would emerge a handful of detailed proposals, and perhaps one or two of those reached fruition. I leave with projects that have are incomplete—the redevelopment of Baltimore Street, the welcome center, the future of Gettysburg Station, and a sign ordinance that we know sits in violation of a Supreme Court ruling.

In 2015 I did not really understand how my predecessors, Michael Birkner and Rebecca Brown likely felt. I was excited. I had the spark that you need to be good at this. I combined that spark with my skills, and over the years we developed a team. We used our time wisely, and we accomplished much. Eight years later, I certainly understand now, how I believe my predecessors probably felt as their time here came to a close. In the words of a constituent, concerned citizen Ben Kennedy, I leave here “a little wiser, and a little sadder”.

There were warning signs. When I was elected, my uncle Steve, who lived in the borough for many years, commented that I better wear a flak jacket. Unfortunately, that expression applied more literally than it should. Right from the beginning, there was difficulty and controversy. Simply put, in a variety of ways I saw some of the worst that our community has to offer. The verbal and written tirades that the public is aware of pale to the anonymous threats and attempts to intimidate. As a fireman, I knew death and destruction from accidents and catastrophes, but here I got a master class on how some people actively choose to harm others. While my former colleague Graham Weaver believed in finding your replacement, this sort of behavior made it difficult for me to ask anyone that I cared about to seek this seat.

There were moments that you could only laugh at because they were so sad. The best was probably when a fellow council member at that time mistakenly texted me after hanging up the phone, with the message “Wes sucks and is no conservative”. That was obviously intended for someone else. I simply replied to her, “Well, I guess that’s a matter of opinion, including how you define conservative”.

The sad reality is that some people could not define what it means to be a conservative in a built environment within the confines of the laws of this commonwealth. Nor could they successfully serve in a municipality that is undeniably blue. In undergrad, I concentrated on political theory, and I loved it. Here in the wilds of even local politics, I have grown to hate the results of political-based intentions. Too many people fail to understand that the community has to come before any faction, as George Washington would have termed it.

I will never regret being told by people that do not serve anyone but themselves that I am “not a good Republican”. Since it would seem that I have to choose, I would rather be a good public servant. The past few decades would espouse the notion that so-called “good members” of either major political party spend their time grandstanding, stonewalling, and ignoring their duty to the people.

I chose the people. No one asked me to do that. No one had to. I have answered to the people and not to just a select group who are the loudest and most dramatic. If that makes me unwelcome in some circles, so be it; because when you focus on the people, and listen to the people, you can accomplish feats. I will always appreciate the citizens who did not want anything special, just a little appropriate help with some relief from their government. An accessible parking space near their home that a woman had needed for decades; a zoning change that was necessary because of an obvious previous error that had made a building unusable. Today it’s a belove and booming enterprise. Some input into the design of their street, understanding there would be input and opinions from many people. Cutting red tape, even when I was initially told no by council leadership or staff, always felt right.

Instead of trying to control development in real-time, we worked to create a landscape of regulation and incentives that would allow a private interest to act on private property to the benefit of the community. I did everything that could be done to make the Gettysburg Station site buildable. The outcome of that project remains to be seen.

As a government, we took steps to protect our housing stock. We balanced the budgets and dealt with the economic collapse that accompanied the pandemic.  

We made the hard decisions. Very early on, I remember telling a constituent one evening here that “I did not choose to do this (meaning serve on this council) because it was easy, I did it because it was hard”.

We dealt with personnel situations that could only be described as horrible. There was a painful amount of information that I could never disclose. I made the decisions that any responsible person with the same information would have made.

We borrowed $4 million and undertook a capital improvement plan that resurfaced the borough streets comprehensively for the first time in 30 years. We purchased the land under the parking deck to protect the taxpayers from losing that investment. We did all of these things by borrowing money at the lowest interest rates in decades. There was criticism. We made decisions based on the information we had at the time. Little did we know that today’s inflation and interest rates would make our decision now seem like the obvious choice.

I worked hard for four years, holding town halls and pushing steadily during budget time to increase the authorized police staffing from 10 uniformed personnel to 12.

Then the pandemic collapsed the borough’s economy. I had to support the decision to furlough an officer in late 2020. At that time there was no end to the pandemic in sight, and we had to either eliminate positions or massively raise taxes on an entire community already being financially broken by the effects of the shutdowns. The three public works positions were retirements, but the cop was not. Had we known then that the federal government would narrowly pass the American Rescue Plan some seven months later, that could have been avoided. Unfortunately, counting on Washington D.C. for anything is not a reasonable plan, and we did not have the option to wait until the dust settled to make a decision.

The pandemic changed the operation of our government to maintenance and crisis mode for the better part of a year or more.

Still, as we emerged, the council that I have served with for the last four of my eight years accomplished a great deal. We made changes that made the government more effective. We had more efficient discussions due to the use of policy briefing summaries so that the critical items could be identified and the time utilized for discussion could be maximized.

We now use a comprehensive list of authorities, boards and commissions (ABCs) with term dates to facilitate smooth fulfillment of these seats. After a thoughtful discussion, at the request of the people, we added a Human Relations Commission to that list of ABCs.

The council now receives consistent briefings on all complaints against employees. For years, I heard about how many problems members of our community had with employees—but now we know about every complaint that is filed.

We have adopted policies that have led to increased transparency and curbed runaway overtime costs.

We effectively held Waste Management accountable for their hauling contract and gained compliance rather than re-bidding for a new hauler.

We conducted and concluded the first comprehensive revision of the employee manual in perhaps fifteen years.

We increased the authorized sworn force in the police department, which was 10 personnel when I joined the council, back to 12 and in 2023 to 14. That includes the chief, two sergeants, two detectives and nine patrol officers, the last of which is completing the academy and will be on duty in the new year.

During my tenure here, the tax rate increased from a 2016 millage of 4.0203 mills to a 2024 millage of 4.6770 mills. That is an increase of 0.6467 mills over those years, or an average increase of .0719 mills, or $7 per $100,000 of value per year.

That means that the owner occupant of a median house valued at $241,500 is paying $156.18 more than they were in 2016. Of that increase, $60.38 is going to help support the volunteer fire department. In exchange for the rest, less than $100 over those years, they have four more police officers than they did in 2016, while maintaining all other services at the same level.

Tonight being the end of my service was my own design. I announced when I agreed to helm this council as president in January of 2022 that this term. The community deserves fresh ideas, fresh energy, and someone who can examine our challenges with a different point of view.

I was raised in a home where public service was valued. My faith in the concept and the principles that surround that calling have compelled me to enter into many endeavors where I believe I have helped others, even when it was to my own detriment.

To be effective, this council must be a working council, not people who dictate to staff and wait for a work product. They have to write up their proposals and gather a coalition. They have to be willing to do what it takes to hold a waste hauler accountable for their contract, even if that means photographing the same eight trash cans every day for six weeks to have the necessary evidence. They have to dedicate several hours each weekend preceding the meetings to read all of the dozens of pages of provided materials. They have to be responsive to their constituents, including those they do not agree with.

The people need a tireless worker, and I am tired. The spark has grown too dim to last another term. This role has been taxing on the mind and on taxing on the spirit. The people simply deserve more than I have to offer over the next four years. I do not know how to serve without being fully committed, and I refuse to short them. During these eight years, I have given all that I can, and I do not want to reach a day when I am unable to continue to do so.

Many have asked me why I am leaving, and what I will do. The daily practice of serving others has become such an ingrained part of who I am that I do not know if I could continue on without fulfilling that calling. In many ways, I have built my life around the need to scratch that itch.

When I assumed office in 2016, my intention was to take a step back at the fire department—run fewer calls, and not accept many responsibilities outside of that. However, even while concurrently raising two young children, I have never been able to do that. I’m on the fire trucks quite a bit, and I’m spending a number of evenings at the station in meetings or drills.

Being a teacher, a volunteer firefighter, the council president, the secretary of the stormwater authority, the secretary of the civil service commission, amongst a few other roles, makes it challenging to be the fully involved father I believe that I need to be.

I cannot tell you exactly what I am going to do with the days and hours I will gain from ending my service here, but whether it be more involvement at the fire department or some other pursuit, rest assured you will see me out there, serving the people. Best of luck to my valued colleagues who remain; it has been a privilege to serve with you; you made me feel valued, and at many times, besides the desire to serve the people, that has been what has kept me going during these years.

Best wishes for 2024 and beyond.

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Cathy Diehl
Cathy Diehl
5 months ago

Thank you sir! I appreciate your efforts on working for the PEOPLE and not your party!

Janet Riggs
Janet Riggs
5 months ago

Thank you, Wes! You’ve been an exemplary council member and leader. Although you’ve had to take criticism from some, there are many more who appreciate your tireless efforts on behalf of the Borough of Gettysburg. Thank you!

Harriet Marritz
Harriet Marritz
5 months ago

A sincere thanks to you, Wes, for your hard work. I really appreciate these reflections. Although I may not have always agreed with every vote, it has always been very clear that you’ve been a dedicated representative, who has listened carefully while working to better our community.

Rosemary Meagher
Rosemary Meagher
5 months ago

Big thank you to Wes Heyser for his participation and leadership of the Gettysburg Borough Council.  In addition to being a a full time teacher, a volunteer fireman and raising a family, Wes has been an important leader who is aware of residents as well as businesses.  Both are important to the future of the Borough.

Ross Hetrick
5 months ago

The Great Commoner would be proud of you. Good luck. Ross

Judi Seniura
Judi Seniura
5 months ago

Party politics serves no one but the party. People politics is what is needed. Sounds like that’s what you are. Good luck in the future.

Sharron Michels
Sharron Michels
5 months ago

Thank you Wes for being a true public servant with the best interest of the public at heart, as you saw it, regardless of pressure and politics. Although I have not always agreed with your decisions, I felt you listened and carefully considered what would best interest of the community as a whole.

Michael Birkner
Michael Birkner
5 months ago

A fine summing up by a most effective public servant. Good work, Wes.

Brenda EicherBeard
Brenda EicherBeard
5 months ago

Enjoy your family and appreciate them.

Chuck Stangor
Chuck Stangor
5 months ago

Thank you Wes for your service to our community. You have been a consistent voice advocating for responsible civic government and you have made a difference, while holding the line on taxation. I wish you luck in your future endeavors and an enjoyable holiday season.

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