Written by Eric Wise
Utilities have been preparing for Middletown’s downtown improvement project to begin, so the project is set to move forward. When construction work begins, it will not include the project’s most controversial components, the trellis and pavilion that are stalled in the process.
The project starts with improvements to the intersection of Union and Emaus streets. On the north side of the intersection, the Middletown Industrial and Commerical Development Authority has planned a trellis for both sides of the street, a smaller one near the Brownstone Cafe and a larger one across Union. Across from the Brownstone, the authority razed a commercial building that contained businesses, and the plan is to create a trellis and pavilion in its place.
“The concept is to have an area that is a gathering place,” said Chris Courogen, borough spokesman. He said the concept was developed by a “highly qualified urban planner.”
Dewberry, a consultant, proposed the improvements in December 2012. The borough celebrated this project with a groundbreaking ceremony in May, a month before they even received bids that were ultimately rejected because they were too high.
When the authority members reviewed bids on Tuesday, Sept. 15, the trellis/pavilion project was still too expensive at $513,000, so the authority decided to go through the bidding process for a third time. The core project with two of the options authorized was approved at a cost of about $3.4 million.
Residents and members of Middletown Borough Council have spoken out against the trellis at meetings earlier this year. As recently as June, the authority reported that the trellis portion of the project would cost $263,000, which drew the ire of some residents. The news that the latest bids came in at more than half a million dollars has not assuaged the opposition.
“We need $500,000 spent on other things, a greater good,” Mayor James H. Curry III said. He said investing so much in one small area of the town was not in the town’s best interest, and that the trellis had created something Middletown will have to spend money to maintain.
“That’s a hell of a lot of money for a trellis,” said Jim Nardo, a member of the authority during the September meeting. The authority ultimately voted to send it out for new bids, a process that will cost money in legal, advertising and engineering fees.
“The community doesn’t want a trellis,” said Diana McGlone, a former borough councilor and candidate for council in the November general election. She repeatedly criticized the purchase of the property, razing the building and erecting a trellis at several meetings this year and on a popular Facebook page, Middletown Residents United.
McGlone’s objection, at the authority’s Sept. 15 meeting, drew a response from Nardo: “It’s not the community’s decision,” he said. “Don’t start that crap again!”
Curry called the response “disappointing, disrespectful and very offensive.’’
“Non-elected officials should not make $4 million decisions,” Curry said.
Curry said he was disappointed the ICDA has forged ahead with the trellis despite the outcry at meetings from the public. “They don’t answer to anyone,” he said. “If council ignores the public, they don’t get re-elected.”
Councilor Benjamin Kapenstein has also voiced concerns about the mounting costs of the downtown improvement project and whether the trellis and pavilion is the best use of the borough’s money. That is another point of contention regarding the project: Council President Chris McNamara, repeatedly said that the project does not use local taxpayer money. “They lied,” Kapenstein said. “We are using taxpayer money.”
With the current cost of the project, Kapenstein said the only way ICDA can pay for it is by using some of the $4 million left from its payment for the lease of the water and sewer system – money that belongs to the residents and taxpayers of Middletown.
Authority Chairman Matt Tunnell said he is proceeding with the project, including the trellis, in concert with council. “Borough council authorized ICDA to do this project,” he said. “This was reaffirmed in June. We would not have gone to bid with this if we didn’t have funding approved.”
If the authority approves bids and moves forward, it’s possible that the trellis and pavilion will be completed. However, if the process drags on, the future of this part of the project – and the ICDA – could be in question. The spring primary election created a ballot for November that could change the direction of council come January.
A new borough council majority could make major changes, including dissolving the ICDA. If the ICDA does not finalize its contract for the trellis and pavilion, that portion of the improvements could be cancelled, leading to questions for the future of the property.
“ICDA should not even exist in this town,” Curry said.
Curry said he is at a loss for what Middletown should do with the property if the trellis is not built. He said the property is not particularly well-suited for commercial development, should the borough sell it.
Courogen said he is “unable to speculate” the property’s future without the trellis.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 September 2015 15:37
Written by Eric Wise
Middletown’s downtown improvement project, with a price tag topping $4 million, may start moving forward following the approval of a winning bid on Tuesday, Sept. 15 awarded by the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority.
The authority accepted a bid for the streetscape improvements, covering the drainage, street paving, sidewalks, trees and lighting and a traffic signal. The authority approved that part of the project for $3.4 million, more than the $2.7 million estimate.
The construction contract, awarded to Flyway Excavating of Lititz, accounts for $2.79 million, plus an additional $632,000 in non-construction costs, which are mostly the engineering costs.
Prior to moving forward with the project, the authority has already spent about $350,000 for a property at North Union and Emaus streets, including razing the building that formerly housed a Laundromat, karate school and tattoo parlor. In addition, the authority is funding a $75,000 project to refurbish Middletown’s iconic clock, which would be moved about 10 feet north on Union Street.
Thus the authority and the borough have dedicated $3.8 million to the downtown improvements, but officials have not revealed the cost of its other consultants, including Dewberry, the Virginia-based firm that drew up the downtown improvements plan, and fees charged by McNees Wallace & Nurick, the law firm that serves the authority.
A controversial trellis and pavilion planned for the intersection of Union and Emaus streets had been estimated to cost $263,000, but a bid to build them arrived at $513,000, prompting the authority to advertise it for bids for a third time. The trellis/pavilion had been part of the project that was expected to cost $2.7 million.
In June, Middletown Borough Council authorized the authority to seek bids for a second time when the initial bids came in significantly over the $2.7 million budget. A third bid was withdrawn. The second round of bidding separated the core project and enumerated six “options” that were previously a part of the project. The trellis/pavillion was bid separately in the second round because it requires a different type of work.
The authority approved the winning bid for the streetscape renovations with the addition of two options – one that adds decorative bricks in place of thermal plastic at crosswalks for about $260,000 and a second that adds four-inch granite curbs for an additional $37,000.
The authority rejected other pricey options, including more expensive trees along the streets for $6,000, a decorative pole for the traffic light at Union and Emaus streets for nearly $100,000 and decorative fencing around the trees for $85,000.
Following the meeting, authority chairman Matt Tunnell said he felt the authority reached the right decisions regarding the options for the project with the expert advice of engineers. “The balance of cost and useful life is an important consideration,” he said.
The authority also considered making about $240,000 in improvements to the area in front of the Brownstone Cafe, which would have required an easement from the restaurant’s owner. Tunnell said the owner agreed only to a one-year easement that would allow him to remove any unsatisfactory work on his property after the year ended, and the authority dropped this idea. As a result, the trellis planned for the west side of Union Street will become smaller as to not encroach on the Brownstone property.
The board debated the merits of several options, although it was hard for the crowd of 20 people to hear all the comments. Chris McNamara, authority board member and president of council, had spoken loudly regarding other issues but mumbled and held his hand in front of his face as the authority members debated the options and their costs, drawing requests from the audience for him to speak up.
In addition, the authority sought a separate bid for the controversial trellis and pavilion portion of the project. The trellis and pavilion drew a low bid of $513,000. Tunnell said he was disappointed by lack of a broader interest in this portion of the project and the high cost. The authority will again seek bids for the trellis (one trellis on each side of Union Street) and pavilion.
Council was initially briefed on the vision for the project proposed by Dewberry in December 2012. When council reviewed updated plans in 2013, Borough Manager Tim Konek declared, “Things are going to happen quickly.”
Tunnell briefed council on the plans for this project in December 2014. He projected a $2.7 million cost for the entire project, which included the cost of the trellis, pavilion and all the options.
The trellis and pavilion may have been innocuous when first discussed by Dewberry, but they became a target of public scorn this year when some members of council and the public questioned the logic of spending $263,000 for a trellis when there are other areas of town that could benefit from such an investment.
Tunnell told council he was confident the $2.7 million estimate would be adequate to cover the project costs. “We feel pretty comfortable that these numbers have been vetted well and that the project should remain within this budget,” Tunnel said in December.
Some council members questioned if the project might end up costing more or going over budget. “This should absolutely be on budget,” Tunnell said last year. “There is no excuse for a project like this to go over budget.”
After the authority went ahead with the project, reduced in scope and already $700,000 over the estimate, Tunnell said, “I think any time you get engineering cost estimates you want them on target.”
“I am very concerned about the price going up,” said Councilor Ben Kapenstein, who serves as the chairman of council’s finance committee. “Bidding (for the trellis and pavilion) again will cost taxpayers at least $5,000.”
Said Tunnell: “I am not happy it exceeded the cost estimate but it is part of the design and build process.” He indicated some elements of the project went under-estimated in the process before bidding.
McNamara repeatedly asserted during the ICDA’s latest meeting that the downtown streetscape project “uses no local tax dollars,” a statement that was challenged by some other borough officials.
“That is a flat-out lie,” said Middletown Mayor James H. Curry III. The ICDA will be using a portion of the $50 million the borough received through its concession agreement with United Water to operate the borough’s water and sewer systems for 50 years. “The concession money is taxpayer money,” Curry said.
The growing project cost at $3.4 million, plus the cost of the trellis and pavilion, drew criticism from Curry. “Non-elected officials should not make a $4 million decision,” he said. McNamara is the only member of ICDA who is an elected official; he is also the only resident of Middletown to serve on the authority.
The project will be funded with a $250,000 Dauphin County gaming grant, about $745,000 in liquid fuels money the borough receives as its share of state gas taxes and a $1.5 million loan from Dauphin County Infrastructure Bank. The authority will be responsible for about $900,000 for the project, not including the costs associated with buying the property, demolishing the building and restoring the clock, Tunnell said on Sept. 15.
The borough’s engineering firm sent out a letter awarding the bid to Flyway on Wednesday, Sept. 16, the day after the ICDA meeting. Council will not vote or consider the project again, said borough spokesman Chris Courogen. “They have already approved that,” he said.
Tunnell said he is proceeding with the project, including the trellis, in concert with council. “Borough council authorized ICDA to do this project,” he said. “This was reaffirmed in June. We would not have gone to bid with this if we didn’t have funding approved.”
Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 September 2015 15:33
Written by Dan Miller
Middletown Borough Council approved an agreement on Monday, Sept. 21 whereby a private developer will build a new consolidated electric substation for the borough as part of the Woodland Hills development, then lease the substation back to the town.
Council’s 5-1 vote in favor of the lease agreement with developers URI Group of Silver Spring, Md., is subject to the deal being reviewed by borough Solicitor Adam Santucci, who was not present at the meeting.
The original motion to approve the lease, put on the table by Councilor John Brubaker, did not call for solicitor review of the agreement. The provision for solicitor review was added at the urging of Councilor Ben Kapenstein and Mayor James H. Curry III, both of whom said that Santucci had not seen the lease proposal that was coming before council for a vote.
“He’s not comfortable with the legality of it as of right now,” said Kapenstein, who was the only councilor of those present to vote against approving the lease.
During a break in the meeting, URI Managing Director David Stubbs sought to correct what he called “misinformation” that under the proposal the borough will be giving or loaning URI money to build the substation.
The perception that the borough was subsidizing construction of the substation was fueled by public comments made before the vote by Jim Nardo, owner of the Westpointe shopping center on West Main Street and a member of the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority.
“Why in the hell are we digging a hole after we just got ourselves out of a hole?” Nardo asked, referring to the borough getting $43 million to pay off debt by leasing its water and sewer system to United Water for 50 years. “I’ve been in the development business for 40 years and I have never once asked any municipality, any government agency, to finance my development.”
Stubbs said that URI will provide the financing to cover the estimated $11.5 million cost to build the substation in Woodland Hills. The project also includes purchase of a smart metering system.
However, Stubbs and other partners with URI Group also acknowledged during a council meeting on Aug. 17 that URI’s proposal to build up to 511 new homes, apartments and townhomes throughout the 170-acre Woodland Hills tract cannot be done without the borough committing to building the substation there.
The substation project is essential to URI Group attracting the financing from private investors to fund the Woodland Hills project, partners with URI Group said during the Aug. 17 session.
“He can’t get funding for his project” without the borough committing to the substation at Woodland Hills, said Greg Wilsbach, a candidate for borough council in November’s general election and the former head of the town’s electrical department. “This borough should not be funding a project like that off the backs of our taxpayers and electric users and customers.”
Wilsbach from the start has been a critic of the plan to take the borough’s two existing substations at Mill and Spruce streets and consolidate them in the new substation at Woodland Hills.
In further comments made before council’s vote on the lease agreement on Sept. 21, Wilsbach said that the borough already has a smart meter system that only requires “a couple upgrades to your program.”
He contended that the $11.5 million cost for the consolidated substation at Woodland Hills is “way over” what the borough needs to spend in that the Spruce Street substation could be upgraded for $1.5 million at most and that the substation at Mill Street – rebuilt after being damaged by a flood during Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 – could be “very cheaply” moved one block to get it out of the flood plain.
Wilsbach also contends that consolidating the substation at Woodland Hills will lead to more electrical outages for the town as a whole because the system will go from 10 circuits to four.
“Middletown will be out of power a lot more. Trust me, I know these circuits,” Wilsbach said.
However, supporters of consolidating the substation at Woodland Hills got backing from an unexpected source – Dauphin County.
That the plan would get the substation out of the flood plain could strengthen the county’s application for up to hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money to be awarded by the federal government and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Dauphin County is one of just 40 applicants – and the only one from Pennsylvania – competing nationwide for the competitive grant, said George Connor, county deputy economic development director. Connor spoke to council before its vote on the substation lease along with Leah Eppinger, a planner with the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission.
“We are here not so much to support the particular project – that will be up to you – but the innovative concepts that the project has will help our point system in the application,” Connor said.
Besides the substation and its associated smart meter system, the Woodland Hills project as a whole has other aspects that could help give a boost to the county’s application for the grant, Eppinger said.
“Some of the development ideas that we are working with the developers on in this Woodland Hills project are features that the county has sort of pushed in their green development and green infrastructure program,” Eppinger said.
After council’s vote, Stubbs said that the county could potentially provide the borough with funds that would help the town make the lease payments for the substation after it is built.
“This project is a priority of the county,” Stubbs said of Woodland Hills.
However, as Eppinger noted, the county is one of 40 applicants competing for the HUD/Rockefeller Foundation money.
“This is a competitive grant. We are guaranteed nothing at this point,” Eppinger said. Even if the county’s application is approved, there is no guarantee that the county will receive any money that could be provided to the borough.
HUD wlll have “the opportunity to pick and choose to fund all, some or none” of the projects that have been identified throughout Dauphin County. Woodland Hills among them, Eppinger said.
In their comments opposing the lease, Kapenstein and Curry said that the borough had not spent enough time investigating all the alternatives for getting the town’s electrical infrastructure out of harm’s way in case of another flood.
“We haven’t done any research as a body, other than to try and push this one option through,” Curry said. “I think that we have a great deal more research to do in order to make an informed decision.”
The mayor also contended that most of the council members present to vote on the lease deal did not even know which financing option the agreement was based upon.
During the Aug. 17 meeting, URI had presented two such options: one in which the borough would obtain the financing through issuing tax-exempt bonds and another in which URI would provide the financing and then lease the substation back to the borough.
Curry noted that of all councilors present for the vote, only two – Kapenstein and Mike Bowman – had been present for the Aug. 17 session where the financing options were detailed.
The mayor in particular challenged Councilor Sue Sullivan, who because of health reasons had not attended a full council meeting since March. Sullivan attended the Sept. 21 meeting
“You don’t know how it works,” Curry said to Sullivan, who did not respond. “How can you vote on it?”
Council President Chris McNamara countered that the planning to consolidate the substation to Woodland Hills had not been done in secret and was long in the making.
“On Nov. 17 (2014) this body took action in a unanimous decision recorded in the minutes 9-0 authorizing the engineer to move forward with the relocation of the substation on the grounds of Woodland Hills,” McNamara said. “In February, council again took action where you authorized me to sign a developers’ agreement with the URI Group. You all knew what was coming over the past several months that we have been putting together the master lease arrangement.”
After the 5-1 vote to approve the agreement subject to solicitor review, Bowman sought to pass a motion to earmark all future payments from United Water under the separate water and sewer lease deal toward covering the payments the borough will have to make to lease the substation once it is built.
The move would help ensure that electric rates do not have to go up to cover the lease payments for the substation, according to Councilor Robert Louer said.
However, Kapenstein objected that most of the money from the future annual payments from United Water is already committed to the general fund, and that restricting this money to cover the substation lease payments will lead to a tax increase or substantial funding cuts.
Kapenstein said he could agree with earmarking a portion of the future water and sewer lease payments to cover the substation debt, but not all of it.
Brubaker also noted that whether power rates go up has more to do with what the borough ends up having to pay to providers for its own electricity.
Bowman’s motion ended up failing, with McNamara, Brubaker, Kapenstein and Sullivan voting against it.
Stubbs after the meeting said that the new substation at Woodland Hills could be completed by October or November of 2016, although this all depends upon how soon URI Group can start building it.
And at this point, that depends upon the outcome of Santucci’s review of the lease agreement, and how long that takes, Stubbs said.
Following the meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 22, borough spokesman Chris Courogen told the Press And Journal that Santucci had expressed some concerns regarding the first draft of the lease agreement with URI Group, and had suggested some changes. The borough forwarded those comments to URI to be incorporated in a revised lease agreement, Courogen said.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 September 2015 10:25
Written by Eric Wise
Londonderry Twp. inspectors will be visiting the township’s 487 island properties in the Susquehanna River throughout September, township manager Steve Letavic announced on Tuesday, Sept. 8 during a township supervisors meeting.
The inspections were set to begin on Monday, Sept. 14 on Beech Island, and will continue for Hill, Beshore, Shelley and Poplar islands later in the month.
During the visits, officials will note the placement, size and condition of buildings on the property and take measurements when needed, Letavic said.
No notice is given when an inspector will visit any one property.
“I don’t think it’s practical to notify individual property owners,” Letavic said.
The inspections are driven by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which scrutinized Londonderry’s flood prone properties.
Under FEMA’s rules, many of the recreational cabins and cottages likely will have to be elevated and anchored. Many people use campers on the islands, which are to remain on the property for no more than 120 days at a time, and must be inspected, registered and road-ready.
If the agency’s demands are not met, it’s possible no one in the township will qualify for government-backed flood insurance, causing a hefty spike in insurance costs and making the sale of properties difficult.
FEMA’s floodway and flood plain rules, as well as Londonderry’s own ordinances that apply to the island properties, are not new. FEMA’s scrutiny of the township means officials can no longer ignore what happens on the islands.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 September 2015 16:58
Written by Eric Wise
Londonderry Twp. residents should not expect a tax increase in 2016, according to an early budget report by township officials.
“I will not be proposing a tax increase for 2016,” Steve Letavic, the township’s manager, told Londonderry Twp. supervisors during a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
But a possible increase for the following years hangs in a precarious balance, based on what unfunded state mandates hit the township with increased costs, Letavic said.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 September 2015 16:57