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Bowman, Strohm recommended for council seat

 

A Middletown Borough Council committee has recommended that Mike Bowman and Tom Strohm be considered to fill the First Ward vacancy on council created by the resignation of Tom Handley last month.

 

Following interviews that were held in public on Monday, Jan. 12, the three-member administration and personnel committee voted 2-1 to send the names of both Bowman and Strohm to the full council for its consideration on Tuesday, Jan. 20.

 

The committee voted 2-1 against a third applicant, Dawn Knull. However, the committee’s action is only a recommendation, and Knull’s name can be brought up for a vote on Jan. 20 as well, said Councilor Anne Einhorn, a committee member who supported Knull.

 

Councilors Sue Sullivan and Vicki Malone supported recommending Bowman, while Einhorn objected. Einhorn and Sullivan supported recommending Strohm, while Malone objected.

 

The borough received an application from a fourth resident who was disqualified because they did not submit a resume, a requirement under a borough ordinance.

The person’s identity was not released.

 

Whomever the full council chooses to appoint will serve for at least all of 2015. Voters will decide in municipal elections this year who will hold the seat for the duration of Handley’s four-year term, which runs through 2017.

 

During public comment before the committee’s votes, former Middletown electric department supervisor Greg Wilsbach asked that the committee not consider any applicants who had run for council in an election before and lost. That would have eliminated Bowman and Strohm, who have both run unsuccessfully for council. Knull has never run for council.

 

Wilsbach, a resident of the Second Ward, is considering running for council this year, setting up a possible confrontation between Wilsbach and Council President Chris McNamara, who also lives in the Second Ward and is up for re-election in 2015. In all, five council seats – two in the First Ward, one in the Second Ward and two in the Third Ward – are up for grabs.

 

The committee brought up each applicant separately to answer a list of six questions. The other two applicants were removed from the room while the other applicants answered the questions.

 

The questions:

• Why are you running for council?

• Do you know what the Early Intervention Plan is and why Middletown is in it?

• Do you know about council’s decision to lease the water and sewer systems to United Water and why that was done?

• Where do you stand on the borough’s structural deficit?

• What is your main goal and vision for Middletown?

• Would you be willing to raise taxes if you have to?

 

Bowman, the first to be interviewed based on a random drawing of names conducted earlier by borough staff, said the current council deserves praise for undertaking projects leading to the improvement of the downtown.

 

He said that the borough had to go into the EIP program due to the action of past councils that “did not understand what a structural deficit is or how to spend money.”

 

Bowman said that the need to lease the water and sewer systems was a necessary consequence of past councils being “overly generous” to retirees. 

 

Regarding the structural deficit, Bowman again blamed the action of past councils, saying that the present council – “the one that started about four years ago” – is the only one to have seriously dealt with the issue.

 

He said his main goal is to finish the downtown, and that future increases in the tax and electric rates are “inevitable,” although large one-time increases – such as this year’s hefty hike in sewer and water rates – should be avoided.

 

Strohm said he wants to be on council because he grew up in Middletown and wants to “be active in the town.”

 

He said that the EIP is a result of the borough’s financial difficulties. Of the water and sewer lease, Strohm believes it was “a good thing” because it will help the town financially, but added that the 50-year time period for the lease was too long.

 

Regarding the structural deficit, Strohm said he will seek to make “wise decisions” based upon input from residents. The borough’s mishandling of the snow-plowing agreement with PennDOT is an example of borough leaders not fully considering the views of residents, he said.

 

Strohm said he would be willing to raise taxes if necessary, “but you better let the citizens of Middletown know why.”

 

Knull, like Bowman a familiar face at council meetings, said she was running “to try and bring the community and council back together.” She said that the EIP is necessary for the borough to get out of its financial hole.

 

Knull was the only one of the three to say that she had opposed the water and sewer lease. Scoffing at the borough’s public statements that the town is now “debt free” thanks to the lease, Knull countered, “You are never going to be debt free” as long as the borough has employees and bills to pay.

 

Knull said that had she as a councilor been presented with the choice of leasing borough assets or raising taxes, she would have made the case for raising taxes.

 

“I would hold a meeting and tell them this is what we need to do, and I would go with what they say because I am here for them,’’ she said. “I am not here for a personal issue. I have personal issues at my house, and this is not my house.”

 

All three applicants were in agreement that the council needs to do more – much more – to forge a closer relationship with the growing Penn State Harrisburg campus.

 

Bowman said council must finish the downtown improvement project to make Middletown more attractive to students, and housing in the town must be made safer for students.

 

Strohm, who is employed by Penn State Harrisburg, said the lack of interaction between the town and the campus is “a lost opportunity.” The expensive cars that many students are seen driving around campus is evidence that the students have money to spend, but they don’t spend it in Middletown because “there is nothing to spend their money on” here, he said.

 

Knull offered similar comments, but said the borough also needs to get its own house in order to build “a stronger relationship” with the campus.

 

 “You need to have a community, and right now we don’t have that,” Knull said.

 

 

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 13 January 2015 20:24

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Borough to sign plowing pact for state roads

Middletown Borough will sign a winter snow-plowing agreement that calls for the borough to plow state-owned roads in town and be reimbursed for doing so by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

 

Middletown Borough Council will not reconsider a vote it took on Dec. 15 to sign the agreement with PennDOT, council’s three-member administration and personnel committee announced during a meeting on Monday, Jan. 12.

 

Councilor Anne Einhorn, a committee member, said she expected the agreement to be signed “immediately” by Borough Manager Tim Konek. At the least, Einhorn said she expects Konek to sign the agreement before the full council’s next meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 20.

 

The committee had two options regarding what to do about its Dec. 15 decision – either recommend to the full council that it reconsider the vote, or recommend that the full council “do nothing,” Einhorn said. The committee chose to recommend doing nothing.

 

“It’s not on the table at all” for Jan. 20,  Einhorn said of the agreement. “The original vote stands.”

 

Council voted 4-2 vote on Dec. 15 to sign the agreement with PennDOT, amid concerns expressed by Mayor James H. Curry III and a number of borough residents that leaving the plowing of the state roads – Union, Main and Vine streets – to PennDOT would lead to safety hazards, because the roads would not be plowed as quickly as they would be plowed by borough employees.

 

Despite council’s vote, Konek did not sign the agreement. In an e-mail he sent to council three weeks after the vote, he asked that council reconsider its Dec. 15 decision. 

 

The borough and several individual councilors have thus far refused to provide copies of the e-mail to the Press And Journal. On Thursday, Jan. 8, the newspaper hand-delivered to the borough a request for a copy of the e-mail to the borough under the state Right-To-Know law. As of Tuesday morning, Jan. 13, the borough had not responded to the request.

 

According to accounts regarding the e-mail from several councilors and from borough spokesman Chris Courogen, Konek was worried that the borough does not have enough manpower to plow the state roads in a timely fashion, while still being responsible for plowing the other roads in town. Konek reportedly was concerned that the situation could even put the safety of borough employees at risk.

 

“He (Konek) feels the decision was ill-informed and made without a full knowledge of all the issues involved,” Courogen said. He further pointed out that the snow-plowing agreement had not been listed on the Dec. 15 agenda for action, and that council chose to act following public comment and the issue being brought up by Curry. Konek did not attend the Dec. 15 meeting.

 

On Jan. 1, the borough lost seven employees who had been available to plow, as part of a council decision to lease the borough’s water and sewer systems to United Water, a for-profit company. Six of these employees became United Water employees under terms of the deal; a seventh decided to retire. 

 

Konek and borough Council President Chris McNamara – who also opposed signing the agreement – have pointed to the loss of these employees as the major factor in why the borough should turn over plowing of the state roads to PennDOT.

 

“We now have half the staff in public works that we did before,” Courogen said. “We have only four drivers who can drive the large plow trucks now that can take care of borough streets, but in a significant snow event it is putting a lot of stress on four people.”

 

However, Curry and several councilors have said repeatedly that Konek had plenty of time and opportunity to make his concerns known to council. The borough was aware, or should have been aware, of ramifications of the lease deal for months. 

 

Moreover, borough staff had made the decision internally not to sign the agreement as early as September, when word of that was passed on to PennDOT by the borough. 

 

In subsequent public comments, McNamara characterized the decision not to sign the agreement as an internal operational issue that did not require council approval.

 

PennDOT spokesman Greg Penny made it clear in public statements that borough residents would be negatively impacted by the action.

 

“There definitely will be a slower response” regarding plowing the state roads, Penny told the Press And Journal. “People will experience a lower level of service and our response to getting there will be later or slower.”

 

Courogen contended that council in voting to overturn staff's decision and order the agreement be signed “succumbed to threats, misinformation, and bullying from PennDOT.’’

 

“What I don’t understand is why when PennDOT says they are going to shirk their responsibility, that the reaction was to blame it on the borough,’’ he said.

 

Penny countered that Courogen’s suggestion that PennDOT used scare tactics to influence borough council “is simply off-base and wrong.”

 

“When the borough decided not to renew its winter service agreement, PennDOT was committed to treating and plowing the state roads,’’ he said. “That’s what we’ve been doing this winter. To accomplish this, we have had to add the coverage of these roads to the established routes of other trucks. Those are the facts, and that’s the reality of the situation.”

 

During the Jan. 12 committee meeting, Curry again pointed out that even after the Dec. 15 vote Konek had the opportunity to apprise council of his concerns over the agreement at a second meeting – a council meeting on Dec. 29.

 

When pressed by the mayor as to why the agreement still had not been signed, Konek responded that he would take care of the plowing agreement after the closing of the water and sewer lease deal that took place on Dec. 30. It wasn’t until another week later that Konek finally sent out the e-mail to council asking that it reconsider the action taken nearly a month ago.

 

Councilor Ben Kapenstein said that he would have been open to Konek’s concerns had they been brought up earlier. Kapenstein also noted that he’s not convinced that Konek’s concerns are valid, based upon his own discussions with former and present borough employees.

 

“I have not heard one person except Tim Konek say that we don’t have enough manpower to get it done,’’ Kapenstein said. “I think it can be done, and it should be done.”

 

The administrative and personnel committee, chaired by Councilor Sue Sullivan, started its meeting with a closed-door executive session with Konek that lasted for an hour. After Konek emerged, the committee continued meeting in private the discuss the situation for another 20 minutes.

 

After the committee returned to face the public, several residents who had been waiting to offer comment said that Konek should either be fired or should resign for failing to carry out council’s vote on Dec. 15 to sign the agreement.

 

“I find this action as flouting authority, as insubordination and as disrespectful to council, the taxpayers, businesses, and residents,” said Kay Wealand. “He should be removed from his duty as borough manager. If he was instructed by the council president or council vice president, then they should be told to resign immediately. Enough is enough.”

 

Einhorn sought to defuse the situation, saying Konek did not actually refuse to sign the agreement but rather asked council to reconsider the decision. That didn’t get Konek off the hook with audience members – and Konek endured the public battering in silence while seated at the council table.

 

For example, resident Cathy Winter of West Water Street said she could see no difference between Konek asking council to reconsider and refusing council’s direction.

“How is that not refusing?” she asked.

 

Konek’s action in not signing the agreement was “unacceptable,” said Crystal McGuire.

 

“This is telling any other employee in the borough that they can do whatever they want and no action will be taken against them,’’ she said. “He (Konek) needs to not have a position any longer. The problem with these games is that they are risking people’s lives.”

 

After the meeting, Sullivan refused to comment on what the committee and Konek discussed during the executive session. Any decision regarding any action concerning Konek will have to be taken up by the full council, but behind closed doors because it is a “personnel matter,” Sullivan said.

 

It remains to be seen what the financial impact upon the borough will be of Konek not signing the agreement.

 

Under terms of the agreement, PennDOT would have paid Middletown just over $7,200 to cover the borough’s cost of plowing the state roads this winter. The borough would have been guaranteed to receive the money, regardless of what type of winter it was. In case of a bad winter, the borough could have received a supplemental payment from PennDOT – as was the case last winter when the state gave the borough an additional $1,410.

 

Penny has said that due to the borough’s delay in signing the agreement – and because of PennDOT having to deal with several winter storms in recent weeks – it would not be fair to other municipalities that participate in the agreement program that Middletown receive the full amount.

 

But instead of pro-rating the amount down to a lesser figure, Penny said the borough, if it signs the agreement, is eligible for a “pilot” program where PennDOT reimburses municipalities based on actual cost. 

 

PennDOT has decided to offer the pilot program in response to concerns that have been expressed by other municipalities regarding the amount of money that PennDOT gives them to plow state roads, Penny said.

Dan Miller: 717-944-4628, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 13 January 2015 20:33

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New chief plans to stay, do much

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How many police officers are enough? 

Can Middletown learn anything from Ferguson, Mo., and from the ongoing national debate over race and policing?

What can be done to forge closer ties between Middletown and Penn State Harrisburg?

These are some of the questions that the Press And Journal put to new Middletown Police Chief John Bey during a recent interview in the chief’s office at the police station on East Emaus Street.

 

For the full story, CLICK HERE to subscribe to the Press And Journal.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 January 2015 19:50

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Water Bearers: United Water takes control of Middletown's water and sewer systems

 

 

 

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Press And Journal Photo by Dan Miller - Nadine Leslie, president of United Water’s environmental services division, speaks during the ceremony. United Water will finance $83 million in improvements to Middletown’s water and sewer systems during its 50-year lease with the borough, she said.

 

 

 

While most of us were resting up for New Year’s Eve festivities, a historic transformation was being noted in Middletown, though there were no party hats and noisemakers, and no alcohol – but plenty of coffee.

And nothing was dropped from above. In fact, when a photographer stood on a chair to take a picture, he was told to get down because he was committing a safety violation.

For the full story, CLICK HERE to subscribe to the Press And Journal.


Photo gallery photos courtesy of United Water

 

 

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 January 2015 22:40

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It's Official - United Water in charge of Middletown water and sewer operations

 

NewUnitedworkersPress and Journal Photo by Dan Miller -- A NEW ERA: Several former Middletown Authority employees who now work for United Water enjoy a free breakfast

 

It's official. As of 12:01 a.m. today - Dec. 31, 2014 - United Water, a private company, now runs the Middletown water and sewer systems.

 

In return, the borough is "debt free," thanks to a $43 million payout that was received from United Water on Dec. 30, borough officials said this morning.

 

At 7:30 a.m. today, numerous officials from United and the borough gathered in the water and sewer treatment plant on Lawrence Street, for ceremonies to formally mark the start of United Water leasing the water and sewer systems for the next 50 years.

 

New badges and uniforms were given to six employees who used to work for Middletown Borough Authority but who now work for United Water.

 

A seventh borough employee was offered employment by United but chose to retire, said United's Don Goodroe, who has led the transition over the past few months from the water and sewer operations being run by the borough to now being run by United.

 

The town will use the $43 million to retire outstanding debt, including the unfunded pension liability for current and retired borough employees.

 

"You guys are protected now," Konek told the six employees as they chowed down on breakfast from Kuppy's Diner. "The borough is now-debt free and that is going to help us solve our structural deficit going forward."

 

The lease also calls for United starting in 2016 to make annual payments to the borough. The payments will be $725,000 for the first five years, then drop to $650,000 and eventually settle in at $590,000 for the rest of the 50 years.

 

The agreement includes a four-year moratorium on rate increases - meaning no rate hike can occur until at least 2019.

 

For each of the first 21 years after 2019, United Water can raise rates no higher than 2.5 percent above the annual rate of inflation. For the remainder of the deal, the rate cap is 2 percent above annual inflation.

 

The borough's agreement with United Water does include provisions that would allow United Water to charge separate fees to recoup its investment, such as a capital cost recovery fee and a fee tied to mandates that could be imposed by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.

 

But you may just be wondering, who do I pay my water bill to from now on, and how do I pay it?

 

If you have been a borough water and sewer customer, you should be getting a letter within the next seven days from United Water that is intended to answer many of the routine questions that ordinary folks are likely to have, said David Johnson, United Water's Communication and Community Outreach manager for this region.

 

Here's a preview of what will be in that letter. If you pay your bill in person, you will no longer do that at the borough office on Emaus Street. In-person bill payments will now be made at the water and sewer plant at 453 S. Lawrence Street, where United will have its customer service center.

 

The center will be open to the public Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. You can also reach the center by calling 888-844-0352, United Water's Customer Service line.

Your January bill will be your last one from the borough. United Water's first reading of water meters will be at the end of January. Starting in February, your water and sewer bill will come from United Water.

 

Your water and sewer bill will be separated out - no longer combined with your Middletown electric bill. Starting in February, you will get a separate bill from the borough for your electric and trash.

 

Other than the location for in-person payment changing from the borough office to the water and sewer plant, Johnson said you will still have all the options you have had for how to pay your water and sewer bill.

 

If your bill is now now automatically drafted from your bank account, you will need to "re-enroll" with United. United's letter will tell you how to do that, Johnson said.

 

One change United is making is that all these automatic deductions will come out on the same day at the end of the month, for all customers.

 

As a result of this transition, your first bill from United Water may be higher - or lower - than usual, depending upon the day of the month that your payment was being drafted.

 

After the first month your bill should reflect your normal monthly usage, Johnson said.

United Water plans to make some changes to make bill payment more convenient. For example, sometime in 2015 customers should be able to pay their bill over the phone using a credit or debit card, Goodroe said. Eventually, customers should be able to pay their bill online.

 

From now on, if you have any questions about your bill, or about anything regarding your water and/or sewer service, call the United Water customer service line at 1-888-844-0352.

 

You can also find information online by going to www.unitedwater.com/middletown.

 

United Water has tentatively set Jan. 21 as the date for a public meeting to provide more information and answer questions about the transition, Johnson said.

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 December 2014 17:28

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