Last night at the first budget workshop the Board of Commissioners (BOC) for the first time since the plan was unveiled engaged in a dialogue about the 3.3M quarry park proposal. It’s safe to say at this time Commissioners Higgins and President Conrad seem to be in favor of the 3.3M line item. Myself and Commissioner Brown expressed reservations. Commissioner Lancsek was quiet and did not speak directly on the topic. Here is the express times coverage.
I outlined the project in my agenda preview for the 9/18 meeting when the concept plan was first unveiled.
I spent two weeks since conducting what I felt was essential due diligence meeting with: Township manager and staff, fellow Commissioners, LMYA President, Township Parks & Recreation board and many residents.
I am comfortable saying at this point I do not support the budget item as proposed today. There are number of factors why. Neither the Parks Board or LMYA has come out saying turf fields are an immediate priority. I also believe that expenditures of this magnitude warrant more than just a few weeks of public discussion. And lastly, I prefer these sorts of big ticket concept plans being funded incrementally over time in phases. This way we can install an improvement, gauge it’s success and then if warranted continue to execute the plan by funding more improvements. It’s safe to say considering an expenditure of this magnitude in such a short time frame would be unprecedented.
Additionally, it’s important to understand that for a long time now the twp. has been VERY supportive of our park system. Over the years we have made significant investments on an annual basis. We continue to do so year after year. In fact on average since 2003 the township has spent 333,000 dollars a year on park land improvements.This doesn’t include: Staff, LMYA & Lazors contributions, the township parks programs ect.
I challenge anyone to find another Lehigh County municipality who consistently spends on average more per year than Lower Macungie. I contend today the greater need for the parks system isn’t land improvements but rather addressing ongoing maintenance and staffing issues. For years now the parks board has requested additional dedicated parks staff. Personally I take that a step further and believe we need a FT or PT manager position specifically for parks. There is some logic in considering this a pre-requisite to building a regional athletic complex. Administration of a new complex was a concern raised by LMYA and the Parks Board.
That being said, it is important to understand where the money has come from allowing this conversation at all. Primarily it is the following one-time sources.
- A transfer of money from the solid waste fund
- Real Estate Transfer Tax Associated with Jaindl Warehouses. To date we have collected 120,000 with another 60,000 expected soon totally 200,000. This is from the first 3 of 7 warehouses associated with the Spring Creek debacle. There is a possibility for up to 4 more though only 3 so far have come through land development.
- Hamilton Crossings Recreation Impact Fee. (in lieu of orginally proposed bypass ballfields) Approx 600,000
These include but are not limited to items such as:
Playing fields, upgrades and courts for: Basketball, Tennis, Pickleball, Baseball dugouts
Playground equipment, Parking areas, Pavillions, Pool Slide and other pool improvements
Crosswalks, Ampitheater, Fences, Bathrooms, Hills at Lockridge community center
New gym floor
This is just a small sampling of the many items improved or built over the last decade or so. I support continuing this level of spending on our park system augmented with developer impact fees whenever possible.
Alternate Proposal & Priorities
Lastly, at the end of the meeting President Conrad challenged those who expressed concern to “bring alternative proposals to the table on Oct. 29″. I found that a bit alarming since it almost reflects a philosophy that since we have extra money this year we should quickly figure out a way to spend it. I disagree with that thinking.
There is another alternative. That is not spend the money at all this year. Again, we do not have to spend the money. Politicians so quick and eager to spend public money is a part of the problem with gov’t at all levels.
But Conrad has asked for alternative proposals. If the board insists on spending this money then here is a list of items I prioritize higher.
1. Open Space Acquisition. There is a mandate for this. I ran very clearly on a preservation platform defeating 2 incumbents by large margins. Secondly, the 20/20 visioning plan, the Parks Comprehensive plan and other webpage surveys all show an overwhelming majority supports open space preservation. I believe open space preservation is a strategy we must employ to keep taxes low over the long term. I outline that here.
2. Infrastructure improvements. The ACT 209 plan identifies intersections that are failing under current conditions and also ones likely to fail under future development. Not having to spend money on certain major capital improvements directly relates to item number 1. But there are a number of problem intersections today. Brookside and East Texas Rd. & Brookside and Indian Creek are two. These are two priorities for me.
Above represents 2 areas unrelated to park improvements that I see as higher priorities today. All these items have been the topic of extensive conversation over the past few years. However, since Conrad requested I am prepared to propose a specific alternate plan relating to this years budget which would include:
1. Budgeting the Hamilton Crossings Rec Fee money to lights at Quarry in 2015. This in my mind represents a responsible start to exploring upgrading Quarry. I support spending all the collected recreation fees on Quarry. This is approx 600,000. The responsible way to fund a comprehensive plan is to do so incrementally over time. This sets the wheels in motion to get our regional field, but to do so in a more fiscally responsible way.
1a. Expanding the Quarry Turf concept plan to a full comprehensive plan for the whole park including a dog park. This ensures more residents benefit from Quarry upgrades.
2. Budgeting for a Dog Park in 2015. This is a relatively (compared to turf plan) low cost item. This is also an item that has been “on the radar” so to speak for nearly 2 years. The Parks Board has had a dog park point person for well over a year. There exists a resident group that expressed support for the project and a Facebook group with over 100 members who are actively lobbying for a dog park. Approx 25,000
3. Budgeting for either a FT or PT parks manager to hold an admin role. I consider this a pre-requisite to any major expansion of our park system. Esp any expansion that would enter us into the realm of managing regional parks. This manager should be hired and in place before construction of any admin heavy uses like regional park or dog park.
4. Open space preservation “lock box” of Jaindl funds. “Banking” the approx 200,000 (with potential for up to 500,000 upon build out) in one time real estate transfer taxes gained Jaindl warehouses to an open space preservation fund. I feel very strongly about this. This is money generated from the loss of 700 acres of farmland. All Commissioners including those that supported the rezoning expressed “regret” at losing the land. So I see this one time money associated with that project as a chance to recapture open space in other areas. To me, this is a no-brainer. After having lost 700 acres, a goal should be to preserve 700 acres elsewhere. The recent EAC whitepaper identified some potential targets. This includes 4 tracts with the potential to be developed with over 1,100 units. This would roughly equal about 3,500 new residents.
Surplus. Planning for fiscal sustainability. The remaining money should not be spent this year. It should be held over undesignated in surplus until the board sets it’s policy on the homestead exclusion which I proposed in January as a way to reduce the tax burden of homeowners through an assessment reduction. At that point, we will have a much clearer picture of the township finances moving forward.
The above plan addresses long standing needs. Sets the Quarry plan wheels in motion, but “pumps the brakes” on spending 3.3M+ in one budget cycle. It also sets us up to be able to manage a regional facility in the future. And lastly, by “banking” the rest of the surplus it allows us to understand the impacts of the Homestead property tax assessment reduction. This will allow for a clearer picture of township finances moving forward.