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EDITORIAL: Electric payment policy should balance rules with compassion

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As the cold weather (well, it hasn’t exactly been bone-chilling of late, but it is January) takes hold in the area, electric bills tend to go up.

Middletown, as one of 35 boroughs in Pennsylvania that retain control over the providing of electricity within their borders, has the challenge of deciding how to deal with people who don’t pay.

Companies such as Met-Ed and PPL don’t have to worry. They are bound by Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission regulations regarding winter shut-offs. Surprisingly, though, rules don’t apply to boroughs such as Middletown that provide power on their own.

So there are a couple of issues. One, Finance Director Bruce Hamer said a “definitive policy” is needed for borough staff to know what to do when people owe money. And two, does it make sense to have a $60 reconnection fee when many customers can’t pay the initial bill because of a lack of money?

The answers are not easy, and it’s an issue the council and borough has grappled with for several years.

While no one wants electricity shut off to those who truly can’t pay, there are always those who will take advantage of the situation.

Middletown suspended all electrical shut-offs for about a year until June 2014, when council voted to restore shut-offs after overdue bills had climbed to $340,000, according to a story in today’s edition by Dan Miller. So we are talking about real money here. 

Councilor Dawn Knull has urged the borough consider waiving or reducing the $60 re-connection fee over the winter. We think that should be strongly considered.

We are also pleased to see that Public Works Director Greg Wilsbach is going to research the PUC regulations and ordinances in place in other boroughs that provide power, to give council an idea of what the “common practice” is regarding winter shut-offs. 

There is no doubt a concrete policy needs to be in place, and Hamer and borough staff have been empowered to draw up a proposed policy regarding the handling of delinquent accounts for council to consider in the future.

We hope the policy takes into account those who are working the system vs. those who truly can’t pay.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 January 2017 14:07

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Borough parking, code changes lay groundwork for improvements: Editorial


We are glad to see that the Middletown Borough Council is doing something to address parking issues downtown, as well as its codes and zoning challenges.

We hope that visitors here feel like parking is convenient and fair when they make their way to the heart of the borough.

As Dan Miller reports on the front page of today’s Press And Journal: The proposal — approved by council for advertisement by a 6-0 vote during its Jan. 3 meeting — would increase from $15 to $30 the fine when a ticket is paid for within 48 hours. After 48 hours but before a summons is issued, the fine would increase from the current $30 to $60, while the maximum fine for any parking violation in the downtown would go from the present $75 up to $150.

Increasing from $15 to $30 the fine when a ticket is paid for within 48 hours is still well within reason. There are few ways to get a parking fine in the first place. Most violations are for street cleaning and parking too long in areas that have time limits for businesses.

We would encourage the borough to post signs to point out that fact that there is a large public parking lot behind the borough offices along North Catherine Street as well — especially as Tattered Flag is now open with its expanded hours. Additionally, the lot behind our offices on South Union Street are open for free public parking after 6 p.m. Signage showing parking areas is money well spent.

Parking is one piece of a large puzzle for the borough. Another piece also was addressed last week: the hiring of a full-time codes and zoning officer. That position has been open for more than a year. Mark Shipkowski is now on board. Now that he is, we certainly expect council to update the code ordinance to create a board to hear appeals of code violations and, more importantly, address blighted properties.

Being a codes and zoning officer can be a thankless job. But it’s key to making sure that residents and property owners are adhering to the standards the borough has for properties.

We are excited by the fact that, according to council member Diana McGlone, the code update would allow the borough to access the powers of Act 90, a state law that gives municipalities the “right” to determine that a property is blighted, and to then go after the assets of the property owner to compensate the borough for any expense involved in cleaning up or even razing the property. She targeted Bunky’s restaurant in the first block of South Union Street, the so-called “leaning house” on Mattis Avenue, and a dilapidated yellow residential property at the square. 

Bunky’s would be a great place to start. This is one of the few retail areas left in this part of the borough, and it needs to be addressed. 

McGlone put her cards on the table with no uncertainty: “Anybody who has a blighted property in this borough is now put on notice — we will be coming.”

Let’s see how it works. But we are hopeful.

We are hopeful because the business association looks like it’s finally getting off the ground. We are hopeful because the Middletown Area Historical Society received about $10,000 in funding from the borough for signs and markers to highlight the history of Middletown. 

When residents and visitors alike drive on our main streets, it’s imperative that they feel like the borough is looking good, that problem properties are addressed, and that parking is available and the penalties are fair if they violate them. Just look at the parking issues Harrisburg has encountered.

There are signs of optimism, even in parking restrictions and zoning enforcement aren’t the most exciting of topics. These improvements are laying the groundwork for better things.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 January 2017 15:46

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EDITORIAL: $20,000 could help residents in council chambers

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We don’t have a problem with $20,000 being spent to spruce up the council chambers in the Middletown Municipal Building.

To a point, that is.

This is the caveat: Money should first and foremost be spent to help the borough’s residents understand the actions of the council, or to make their experience in the chambers more rewarding.

In other words, more technology is welcomed. But we aren’t convinced that a new desk and chairs for the council members are really necessary.

The council voted Dec. 6 voted 5-1 to put $20,000 in the 2017 budget toward making improvements to council chambers, which is located on the second floor.

There’s no denying that the chambers look dated. The curtains look old. The pictures are historic but don’t really add much to the walls. The chairs for the gallery are utilitarian but not the most comfortable.

We agree with council member Ian Reddinger, who said technological upgrades are overdue. He would like to see gear that would make it easier for guest speakers and residents to make presentations to council and to the public.

Often, during council meetings, it is hard to follow what is going on because council members are looking at packets of information not available to the gallery. 

The idea of improvements came from Council Vice President Damon Suglia, but he seemed to be more focused on non-technological purchases: new furniture, including new chairs for councilors, and replacing the large wooden table that councilors for years have sat at during public meetings in the chambers.

For him, it’s not just about buying a better place to sit.

“If we want to change and show people we are moving forward as a town then we need to start with something like this to make things more modern for the people,” he said. “I want to make it look like Middletown is moving forward, not stuck in the same stagnant position that it has been stuck in for the past number of years.”

Council President Ben Kapenstein agreed because he sits in the chambers and sees the bad things he says happened in the borough’s past.

Changing the look would be nice, but the actions of this council and future ones would do more to change that perception that new furniture.

Councilor Anne Einhorn hit the mark. She said she could favor council spending money on upgrades that would benefit the public. But she said she would oppose spending any money on new furniture.

“New furniture is a want, technology is more of a need,” she said.

Mayor James H. Curry III said that council should make it possible for its meetings to be live-streamed from the chambers to the public via the Internet, something he has done using his smart phone in recent months. That is also a worthy goal. 

Unfortunately, some upgrades could have already been in place. Council during its first meeting of 2016, rejected by an 8-0 vote a Kapenstein proposal that would have allowed council agendas and supporting attachments to be posted on the borough website, and to be viewed by the public on a screen in the room as each council meeting proceeded. The $4,000 cost was deemed too expensive.

Now, here we are a year later, and apparently that price tag doesn’t seem too steep. It’s another change in direction by the council that pops up from time to time.

We don’t know if $20,000 is the right amount. But as long as it is spent wisely, with the residents in mind, we support it. 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 January 2017 16:54

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EDITORIAL: Another great chance to explore regional policing police


We’ve said it before. Now, with the pending departure of Middletown Police Chief John Bey, we are saying it again: The borough needs to consider being part of a regional police force.

Bey is leaving the borough effective Dec. 30 to begin a full-time job with the 193rd Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard at Harrisburg International Airport. He served just more than two years as chief, which incredibly makes him one of the longer-serving chiefs in recent years. 

At borough council’s Tuesday night meeting, Mayor James H. Curry III was expected to recommend or present options to council regarding who should lead the department on an acting interim basis after Bey leaves. He can recommend someone within the department, or he can bring someone in from outside.

This raises another issue: Appointing from within could be a challenge because the department has a shortage of sergeants who can act in a supervisory capacity.

Multiple chiefs over the last five years. No clear in-house replacement for Bey. A lack of candidates applying for full-time police officer positions (only one applicant stepped forth for the last opening).

Why in the world should regionalizing with, say, Lower Swatara be considered very strongly? 

Curry III and Council President Ben Kapenstein seem to be on board, which is encouraging. Curry said that benefits to the public and finances need to be considered, but “from my personal opinion from what I’ve seen, I actually think reorganization would give us better service” than what residents get now. 

Kapenstein even said he would favor council holding off on hiring a new chief until the borough can fully explore becoming part of a regional force.

Meetings already have been held on this very topic. Dauphin County completed a study showing that residents in almost all municipalities in the county that are now served by their own police force would save money by going regional. And while there apparently are no meetings planned on the topic at the moment, Bey’s resignation should spur more discussion.

We hear what council member Diana McGlone is saying: “I like the fact that we have a local police force that knows our people and the community. We would lose that insight if we go regional.”

We agree, but only to a point. We don’t think regionalization should get too out of hand. The Dauphin County study offered several options, including one that would combine five “small agencies” (Highspire Borough, Lower Swatara Township, Middletown Borough, Royalton Borough and Steelton Borough) into a single department. That’s simply too much right now. But Middletown-Lower Swatara regionalization would not remove the personal touch from the police force.

Middletown and Lower Swatara police already work together. As we pointed out previously, regionalization would mean a better pool of police candidates. Larger departments can be better equipped, better trained, and better able to get grants. There would be more flexibility in staffing as well. Duplication of services could be eliminated. Specialization of services would also be possible.

It is not something that should be rushed, but it must be considered. If it takes Bey’s resignation to get the ball rolling so be it.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 21 December 2016 11:02

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