CLEARFIELD – Yesterday, the two-day non-jury trial concluded for TreasureLake’s plan to secede from SandyTownship and to incorporate as its own borough. Clearfield County President Judge Fredric J. Ammerman presided over the case.
Before court’s adjournment, Ammerman ordered the TreasureLake and SandyTownship attorneys to submit their findings in no more than 60 days. After that he also ordered that either side has no more than an additional 15 days to submit responses.
In addition, Ammerman said the case would have one of three results.
The first would be for him to grant the petition and put the TreasureLake borough plans into the hands of the private community’s registered voters. He said the referendum vote could be conducted on any day and doesn’t need to be held during an election cycle.
Ammerman said if TreasureLake voters oppose the borough plans, the case is over, and there isn’t any opportunity for an appeal. Secondly, if the voters favor the creation of the new Treasure Lake Borough, he would have to order for its creation, which SandyTownship is guaranteed to appeal.
Finally, he could also dismiss TreasureLake’s plans for the creation of the new borough. In that case, he said it’s almost guaranteed that TreasureLake would file an appeal.
Yesterday, Gerald Cross, executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League, the Central PA Division, testified for SandyTownship. Cross had reviewed the report compiled by Deborah Grass of Delta Development Group Inc., who presented it during her testimony Thursday on behalf of TreasureLake.
Cross agreed that if TreasureLake incorporated as a borough, SandyTownship would lose $1.5 million to $1.7 million in annual revenues. He disagreed with Grass’ optimism that SandyTownship could support itself without the tax revenue coming in from TreasureLake.
According to him, if the incorporation occurred, SandyTownship would lose 40 percent of its revenue, which wouldn’t be recovered. He said SandyTownship’s millage rate is currently 12 mills and can statutorily only increase so much each year for general purposes. He said SandyTownship would have to gain court approval for it to increase its millage rate by an extra five mills.
In his report, he said SandyTownship’s municipal services were reduced by 16 percent, and it still resulted in a deficit. He said anyone could continue to cut services to nothing, but it wouldn’t be meeting the demands of its residents if it did. He said ultimately, SandyTownship would have to address the deficit with a tax increase that would also exceed the statutory limit.
Cross said the league created a distress index that outlines the five stages of a municipal downturn. If TreasureLake forms its new borough, he said it would send SandyTownship into an immediate and quick decline to eligibility for stages four or five, which signifies financial distress.
During stage four, Cross said SandyTownship wouldn’t have adequate tax revenue to support police, roadway maintenance, etc, and these services end up getting reduced. In the final stage, he said SandyTownship would become an undesirable place to live, and its residents would just leave.
“Usually, it takes years to lose population and revenue. It would happen overnight to SandyTownship,” he said.
He said it would be undesirable to create the new Treasure Lake Borough, as it would result in a loss of revenue and services for SandyTownship. He also couldn’t understand why TreasureLake would want to duplicate the services it already has afforded to it. He said the TreasureLake plan might appear to be a good idea now, but the Treasure Lake Property Owners Association must consider its long-term impact.
Cross said SandyTownship could reduce its police force to five officers, which would mean one officer per shift. He said it’s sufficient but doesn’t provide quality public safety. He said it could also reduce its staff for roadway maintenance, but it would take longer to clear, improve and maintain roadways.
Sandy Township Manager Dick Castonguay was the second and final witness for SandyTownship. He said SandyTownship had the largest population base in ClearfieldCounty. He said SandyTownship doesn’t withhold any of its services from TreasureLake, except it doesn’t maintain its roadways, as they’re private. Castonguay noted SandyTownship also doesn’t maintain the DuBois Mall parking lot, the Commons Area and the trailer court but provides all of these areas with police coverage.
From experience, Castonguay said he’s been turned away at the gate to TreasureLake. He’s also been stopped and security has called ahead to verify him as a guest of a resident there. He said the SandyTownship police receive trespass calls from TreasureLake every month. Castonguay said if it’s not restrictive as to who enters TreasureLake wouldn’t need signage at the gate and guards to perform checks.
According to him, TreasureLake is mostly a residential and recreational area. He said it doesn’t have any schools, and it has one church and a small commercial area. He said it doesn’t have things that you’d find in a borough, such as healthcare facilities and grocery stores.
“It’s mostly recreational. It’s why people live there. It fits their lifestyles,” he said.
Castonguay said SandyTownship had met with the TLPOA in attempt to reach a settlement. He said SandyTownship offered roadway maintenance to TreasureLake if it would dedicate its roadways. Castonguay said that the TLPOA wanted to keep its roadways private.
So far as fire response, Castonguay said SandyTownship wouldn’t have the same obligations if TreasureLake became its own borough. He said they would respond but maintain a certain level of equipment at its station in case there would be a fire call within its own municipality.
Further, he said in case of a massive fire, all five current departments would cooperate to extinguish the fire. However, for the typical fire call, SandyTownship would only send the minimal amount of equipment.
When the police issue arose, Castonguay said SandyTownship currently has 10 full-time police officers, including its chief. He said they have police officers who are all certified active shooters, and others who have specialized training in child-related crimes, domestic violence and accident reconstruction. In addition, he said SandyTownship police have video enhancing equipment utilized by outside police agencies and house the regional booking center.
He said SandyTownship police usually have three officers on duty during nights when the department is the busiest. He said SandyTownship has a high number of retail thefts and crimes by employees. He said they have police officers with specialized training for handling these types of incidents.
“We’re a very active police department with a good conviction rate because of our officers’ training,” he said. Castonguay said if TreasureLake formed a borough, it could have a police department for $385,000; however, it wouldn’t provide near the quality of services that’s provided by the SandyTownship police.
Ultimately, Castonguay said it would be “physically devastating” for SandyTownship to lose 40 percent of its revenue.
After SandyTownship presented testimony yesterday, Ammerman heard public comment from 16 individuals who both supported and opposed the TreasureLake plan to secede from SandyTownship and incorporate into its own borough. Individuals were not subjected to a time limit and open to cross-examination from attorneys of both sides.
Christopher Miller of TreasureLake said he originally signed the petition to support TreasureLake’s borough plan. However, he regretted doing so upon reading the majority and minority reports, as well as that prepared by Clearfield County Planning Director Jodi Brennan. When asked by Ammerman, Miller said he felt “strongly” and had spear-headed a letter writing campaign to Ammerman, who then acknowledged that he’d received numerous letters as a result.
Richard Anderson of TreasureLake sided with the majority report. He expressed concern in regards to what would happen to the taxes of the people in SandyTownship if TreasureLake left and created its own borough. Anderson said it would be devastating to these people, and each time TreasureLake attempts to secede from the township it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“That could be used to improve roadways and infrastructure (in TreasureLake),” said Anderson. He said the TLPOA has been ensuring residents that if it gains the borough status, it would remain a private, gated community. However, he’s never heard of any gated boroughs in Pennsylvania.
According to him, the TLPOA wants residents to most importantly believe that nothing would change. Further he said they’ve been told that public access would be restricted, and security guards at the gate would determine who enters the community.
Richard Partington of TreasureLake said he didn’t sign the petition, as it didn’t make much sense to him. He said if TreasureLake formed its own borough, it would only be duplicating services that it’s already provided by SandyTownship. Partington said it was fair for TreasureLake residents to pay assessments to the TLPOA and taxes to SandyTownship.
Tracy Harasti of Arnold, MD testified that he had two lots in TreasureLake. When he purchased the lots, he was aware he’d be paying assessments to TreasureLake, as well as taxes to SandyTownship. In stating his opposition, he reminded Ammerman that TreasureLake only had 635 registered voters turn out for the last SandyTownship election. Harasti pointed out that was only the maximum of 30 percent of TreasureLake’s residents.
Harasti accused the supporters of the TreasureLake borough plan of being concerned about one significant issue – money. He found it disturbing that the TLPOA didn’t investigate the impact of becoming a borough until having Grass compile a report within the last month.
“Holistically, TreasureLake could take down a successful township,” said Harasti. He said the TLPOA compensated Grass to provide data to support its borough plan, as part of its “self-serving” motive. Instead, he said it should accept some due diligence and collect unpaid assessments.
Toni Clark-Moulthrop of TreasureLake was taken back by the TreasureLake borough plan and found it “bizarre.” She wasn’t aware of any private boroughs but was ensured that it was quite possible. When she inquired about assessments, she was told, “There would always be assessments,” and her taxes would decline. Moulthrop said taxes don’t decline, and if someone tells you so, they are lying.
She wasn’t living at TreasureLake at the time the petition circulated. She was concerned because many people who signed it aren’t any longer living there. She said the people who make up TreasureLake have changed over the years; for example, more than half of the residents who live on her street were not living there at the time of the petition.
According to Moulthrop, the TLPOA misguided residents when presenting them with the petition to get signatures. She said there isn’t any privacy at TreasureLake, and no one is checked in or required to sign in/out. She said it would make more sense to remove the gates and to dedicate money to roadway maintenance. However, when the TLPOA was forced to choose between its roadways and hiring attorneys for this litigation, she said, “We all know who won out.”
Tom Boylan of TreasureLake said he and other residents are not provided with their fair share of services for their tax dollars paid to SandyTownship. He believed if TreasureLake formed its own borough, it could grow, which would have a positive impact on SandyTownship, DuBoisCity and ClearfieldCounty. Boylan said one resident’s comment stuck out from the public hearings, and it was, “SandyTownship was just fine before TreasureLake, and it will be after (if) it becomes a borough.”
William Reznor of TreasureLake said in 2008, the borough advisory committee recommended that the TLPOA pursue becoming a borough. As a result, he said they canvassed the community with the petition. Reznor said the TLPOA has supported the borough plan, and the vast majority has done its due diligence.
“They’ve spent hundreds of hours, and they got this right,” he said. Reznor asked Ammerman to support the TreasureLake borough plan and to give registered voters the opportunity to decide at the polls.
David Small of TreasureLake said he’d been a part of the borough advisory committee since its formation in 2006. He described TreasureLake as a self-sustaining community, which already in many ways acts as a municipality. Small believed if it formed a borough, TreasureLake would evolve into a healthy municipality.
Dan Flanders of TreasureLake said he’s been a property owner for more than 20 years. Every year, he writes a check to TreasureLake for his assessment; every year, he writes a second check to SandyTownship for taxes. He said he’s still waiting for SandyTownship to come maintain his roadways, which he understands the law prohibits it from doing. However, Flanders said in other states, these taxes are returned to private property owners to stop double taxation, which hasn’t happened yet in Pennsylvania.
Flanders said state law does allow TreasureLake to incorporate into its own borough. He said if one was formed he would get the services he paid for, and then he wouldn’t have to send his second check to SandyTownship. Flanders concluded by saying, “It’s what’s fair and what’s equitable.”
David Singer of TreasureLake was disappointed that more residents didn’t show up to voice their opinion. He said if Ammerman didn’t grant TreasureLake residents the opportunity to vote on this issue, they weren’t being afforded their basic American rights.