CLEARFIELD – Community members turned out at the Clearfield Area Junior-Senior High School last night for a presentation on the proposed consolidation of Clearfield Borough and Lawrence Township.
The residents also had the opportunity to ask questions of the committee members and representatives of the Pennsylvania Economy League.
The meeting began with committee member Mark Breakey explaining the goal for the evening and talking about slides on the first half of a PowerPoint presentation.
He said the meeting was an opportunity to explain the concept and help people understand what happened and why the committee reached the conclusions it came to.
He noted they have been meeting for 18 months now, since March of 2015, and have examined statistics and research and discussed options over that time.
He asked everyone to look around in the crowd and to find someone who they didn’t know. Breakey then noted that just by looking at someone, you can’t tell whether they live in the borough or the township, and that’s the point.
According to him, when people say where they are from, they say “Clearfield.” And the basic idea is that the invisible boundary lines will be removed and they will form one community.
Breakey gave some examples of what happens now and how that would change. He said the biggest changes would be in how services are offered, especially police and street work.
For example, if an incident occurs in the township, and a borough officer is a block away in the borough, the township police would respond first, he said, even though another officer is closer.
Or, if snow is being cleared in the Village Road area, and there’s a report about a bad drift at the end of Turnpike Avenue, the driver cannot continue plowing from one place to the other. He lifts the plow while traveling through the borough.
Breakey said these are examples of inefficiency that would be eliminated, ultimately saving money. He reminded the residents that even if population stagnates or goes down, costs for services continue to rise and eventually taxes will have to be raised.
He then reviewed the history of the committee’s work. A grant of $100,000 was obtained from the state Department of Community and Economic Development’s Early Intervention Program.
That money was used to hire PEL, a group that helps communities plan for the future. The committee looked at current services and operations and determined a course of action from there.
The key findings in studies conducted were:
- The township currently exceeds the 14-mill general purpose cap for taxes. Permission was sought from the Court of Common Pleas to raise the cap by five mills. According to township Supervisor Bill Lawhead, the township is currently at 17 mills and can only go 2 mills higher.
- The borough is at 25 mills and can levy up to 30 mills before having to go to the Court of Common Pleas.
- Both municipalities collect the state maximum for earned income tax. The tax levied is 1 percent; however, half of that goes to the school district.
- Employee wages and benefits will increase while revenues (income from taxes) continue to stagnate, and both municipalities are projected to incur operating deficits in the near future. The cash balances they currently have will be depleted by 2020 for the borough and 2021 for the township.
- The approximate operating budget for both municipalities is $4.5 million.
- Recently, the state Supreme Court declared parts of Act 13 unconstitutional and so that funding is uncertain.
Demographically, the borough and township are seeing the wage earning population of ages 18-64 years either remaining the same or declining, as is the under 18 years group.
“We have to do something for the future,” Breakey said.
Co-Chairman Brian Lytle then spoke and said the key is efficiency. The committee’s joint statement is: “We have learned that there are many common issues facing both municipalities that the joint committee believes can be most efficiently addressed through a consolidated municipality.”
Lytle noted the commonalities help support the argument for creating one community: common demographics, same school district, already cooperative relationships that have been formed, etc. Additionally, there is the opportunity to expand the tax base and attract economic development.
The committee has created a home rule charter, which operates as the “constitution” for the new community. Home rule allows for more flexibility and the limits placed by the municipal codes no longer exist.
The charter provides for a nine-member council with four members each elected from one of four districts, four members elected at large and a mayor elected at large.
Growth on expenditures is limited to no more than 5 percent of the current fiscal year’s total expenditures unless approved by a super-majority.
Current employees will continue to be employed by the new municipality, and wages and benefits will continue as they are, since that is a union matter.
Lytle said the idea is to maintain services for everyone. Gerald Cross of PEL also reminded residents, “When you reach your limits (in raising revenue) you cut services and local government is where you get those services.”
When the floor was opened to questions and comments, the biggest concern raised was taxes. Many people are afraid that taxes will be raised by an extraordinary amount.
Committee members explained that a projected budget was created in order to determine what the starting tax rate would be for the City of Clearfield, and 17 mills appears to be workable.
When concern was expressed that 17 mills wouldn’t be enough and there was some discussion on this, Cross spoke.
He explained that a mill in the borough is different than a mill in the township. For example, one mill in the township results in $60,000 while in the borough it is $40,000. If the municipalities join, he said one mill will be a different amount altogether. One mill equals one-tenth of one percent of assessed value.
Lawhead noted that, while it is true the city could raise taxes with the blessing of a super-majority, the goal is for residents to elect people they know and trust will not do that.
He and Lytle, as well as others, added that the committee as well as whoever is elected to the council, have to live there and pay the same taxes, so they would hopefully not go to extremes.
One resident, who is also a local tax collector, added that the current millage rate levied by Clearfield Area School District is about 94.84 mills, and the county’s current rate is about 19.5. Those rates are higher than the proposed millage rate for the new municipality.
Some residents also questioned whether this would really encourage business growth and new residents. One concern is the current state of the hospital and that businesses and people wouldn’t want to relocate here without a good hospital.
Committee members agreed that the state of the hospital, Penn Highlands Clearfield, is a grave concern. However, the local government officials have no control over what happens at the hospital and one hope is that hospital services would improve with improved business and population.
Many people also expressed support for the proposal. Some stated that things like police and road crews have to be provided, and when those aren’t, people will start complaining.
Some noted that while many are concerned with what will happen in the short-term, the committee has taken the position of looking to the future and seeing what is coming and trying to prevent it by being proactive.
One resident pointed to the borough of Northern Cambria, created from Spangler and Barnesboro, and how it was almost too late for them and they were almost put into Act 47, where the state takes over operations. This is something that recently happened to the City of Altoona.
St. Marys was also brought up, with some people noting that St. Marys consolidated with surrounding Benzinger Township and how, at first, residents had the same worries but now, 20 years later, they say it was the best decision they made.
“We have to sort out our priorities,” Judy Schell, a borough resident, said. “I pay taxes too, no one wants to pay higher taxes, but we’ll pay for things we don’t need,” adding that police and road work are vital.
Fred Weaver, another borough resident, asked the committee to make the information from the studies available online for people to look at.
Township resident Matt Milliron noted that, in addition to paying for police, a day could come when rural communities will have to pay for fire protection as well, and that is something that is easier to afford together. “I’m asking our supervisors to put this on the (May 2017) ballot.”
At the conclusion of the meeting, Lytle stated he understood many people have concerns, comments and questions. He asked everyone to approach committee members and to talk with them. Additionally, committee members are available to meet with community groups and talk about the proposal.
On Jan. 19 the borough and township will both conduct meetings at the same location and vote on whether to move forward with consolidation. If both boards approve, the matter will then be placed in the hands of the voters via a referendum vote in May.
If approved, the committee and municipalities will then start the process of working out how things will be combined. In 2019, the election of the new council will take place and the new municipality will take effect Jan. 6, 2020.
However, if the proposal does not pass the municipal governing boards this January, or if it does not receive the support of a majority of voters in the municipalities, the matter cannot be voted on again for five years.
For more information, document images and discussion, visit GantDaily.com, the GANT Facebook page or the new discussion forums on Facebook (Clearfield-Lawrence Consolidation Discussion Group) or Twitter (@CLConsolidate).