HONESDALE, PA — Borough officials anticipated a packed house at the special budget meeting last Monday night; extra chairs were set out beforehand, and borough police assigned members of the public to specific seats in preparation for overflow. But as the meeting began, the vast majority of seats remained vacant.
Turnout was low among officials as well. Only two of the seven councilors, President Mike Augello and Robert Jennings, were there to begin the meeting. Councilor James Brennan arrived late, and that made three; still one shy of a quorum, the minimum number of councilors needed to make any official decisions.
The poor attendance surprised borough secretary Judith Poltanis, who noted significant chatter over the past week on social media about Honesdale’s understaffed police force, which was scheduled for discussion that night as part of a broader conversation about the proposed 2020 budget.
Poltanis and treasurer Clare Joaquin reported proposed expenses for next year at $3,408,465—about half-a-million more than last year’s expenses, $2,876,197.03. This would require a 13.07 percent increase in the borough tax rate, making this the fourth consecutive year that taxes have increased and the largest increase in those four years.
In 2019, the average tax bill per parcel of land was $880; under the proposed budget, the average tax bill would rise to $995.
A portion of the increased budget can be attributed to the borough’s attempts to develop a stormwater management plan. Addressing stormwater damage was not taken into consideration when drafting the 2019 budget, and left the council scrambling to pay for repairs as heavy rains battered the local infrastructure this summer. For 2020, $50,000 has been allocated in the proposed budget for “annual stormwater repairs.”
Poltanis also explained that the tax increase will go in part toward paying for a Parks and Recreation deficit. Because of various safety improvements necessary to the Honesdale parks and public pool, Parks and Recreation plans to spend about $13,000 more than it plans to bring in this year.
The overall proposed income and expenditures for 2020 would leave Honesdale with about a $12,000 balance. However, the borough has not yet incorporated the expenses on its “wish list,” which is a bit of a misnomer. Some items on the wish list, like road paving projects, could be considered in fact quite essential.
After painstakingly going through each budget item line-by-line—a two-hour process—councilors and the public were both anxious to begin discussing police staffing.
Honesdale’s short-staffed police department—only employing three, “potentially four,” full-time officers—has been a concern for years now among the public, as well as chief Richard Southerton. To make matters more difficult, sheriff’s deputies, who often worked as part-time officers for the borough, can no longer work consecutive shifts as an officer and then as a deputy, without getting a full-night’s rest in between. A PA Supreme Court decision from earlier this year, which affects how boroughs can legally utilize part-timers, further restricts the department from having officers on duty 24/7.
Brennan advocated for hiring enough full-time officers to work the day shifts, but not the midnight to 8 a.m. shift. He said that PA State Police could provide nighttime protection to the borough.
Jennings wanted to hire five full-time officers to create a full-fledged police department that can be on duty at all times, like the borough had years ago.
Augello did not endorse any particular solution, but reminded the other councilors and the public about the cost of hiring additional officers.
According to the borough’s calculations, hiring one full-time police officer would cost the borough about $89,000. In response to Brennan and Jennings, Augello estimated that hiring several more officers would result in an average tax bill of up to $1,200 per parcel (as opposed to the current, proposed $995 figure).
Several members of the public spoke during public comment; most used the opportunity to argue for increased police coverage. Linda Gondienke asked if the matter could be put on the ballot in the upcoming election. Augello said that would likely take about two years to get on the ballot. Solicitor Richard Henry doubted that the matter could be decided as a referendum at all. Mike Walker advocated for a regionalized police force that incorporates the surrounding townships of Texas, Lake and Palmyra, which currently do not have their own police departments. Jennings said that he has tried multiple times to talk with the Texas Township supervisors about that idea, but to no avail.
Honesdale Borough will have another budgetary meeting on November 4 at 6 p.m. and two hearings on November 11 before it tentatively adopts the 2020 budget later this year.