Council chief: ‘Can St. Luke’s pitch in more?’
Facing police, infrastructure shortfalls, borough official turns to tax-exempt hospital
Something is going to have to change to better fund Fountain Hill police force, Borough Council President Leo Atkinson said, and he does not intend to pass the buck to the next administration.
One of the options he has proposed — replacing local police coverage at night with free state police coverage — drew enough concerned residents to the Sept. 3 Borough Council meeting that officials were forced to postpone it to accommodate a larger crowd.
That meeting will be held 7 p.m. Sept. 17 in St. Luke’s Hospital’s auditorium — the very tax-exempt institution Atkinson said he believes could do more to support the borough’s essential services and help avoid such shortfalls.
“I’m not trying to vilify St. Luke’s here,” he said. “But I think we do need to have that conversation.”
As host to the nonprofit hospital, Fountain Hill is deprived of vital tax revenue,
though the borough is hardly alone across the state in its predicament. According to data Atkinson pulled from 2018 tax records, nearly half of the assessed property value in the borough is tax-exempt. Of that amount, he said, St. Luke’s University Health Network owns 81%.
Atkinson, who distributed a flyer containing the information on St. Luke’s tax-exempt status at the Sept. 3 meeting, said the health network would add $1.22 million to the borough every year if it started paying municipal taxes.
St. Luke’s officials said in a statement the health network supports the borough through myriad other ways, including property taxes on its nonhospital properties, employee payroll taxes, EMS services, roadwork, sewer and pumping station maintenance, preemployment testing, maternal and child health programs and other donations.
The hospital was there before the borough was incorporated in the late 1800s, hospital officials note, saying the two have had a collaborative relationship ever since.
“St. Luke’s recognizes the challenges and difficult financial decisions faced by the Fountain Hill Borough Council and leadership,” the statement reads. “We have always been willing to discuss difficult issues with the council and work together on solutions, and we look forward to doing so again.”
Atkinson, a young council president and lifelong resident, began his tenure last year with a deep dive into the budget, finding more than a million dollars in neglected sewer repairs and hundreds of thousands needed to clean the borough’s stormwater runoff.
His eyes widened when the firm managing the police department’s pension fund told him in July that the borough would need to scrounge up $200,000 a year for 12 years to shore up the fund.
“I think we have an obligation to our officers to uphold what we promised them,” he said. “We have to do something.”
The prevailing idea is to replace local police coverage with free state police coverage at night, though it’s not the only option. Another is to regionalize police coverage, and the last resort is to raise taxes.
The borough already has the highest tax rate in Lehigh County, which has increased 78% in the last five years, Atkinson said.
Fountain Hill Mayor Carolee Gifford, police Chief Edward Bachert Jr. and others argue that replacing police coverage is a mistake, saying local officers police know the community and its residents better than state police do. They’re also concerned about state police taking longer than local police to respond to calls.
“State police coverage may be free, but you can’t put a dollar figure on our residents’ peace of mind,” Gifford said.
Bachert also said staff reductions and officer medical leave have driven up overtime costs. The police department, he said, has done the best it can to provide quality service and keep costs down.
Employed by St. Luke’s as its chaplain, Gifford declined to comment on St. Luke’s contributions, other than to say the network employs many local residents and has been a good neighbor in the community.
St. Luke’s officials also said the health network has expanded its own security department, relying less on borough police.
Atkinson said he would prefer to keep local police coverage full-time, seeing them as part of the community.
“But we have to be able to sustain them,” he said.
He acknowledges radical change from tax-exempt institutions is an unlikely scenario, though he is arranging discussions with hospital leaders about how they can contribute to essential services.
It would be unreasonable to rely on finding brand new funding sources, Atkinson said. The borough must work within the framework it has: a small, solidly middle-class tax base.
The borough usually begins budgeting discussions in October but decided to collect public feedback on this complicated issue ahead of time. Council is not making decisions at this time, Atkinson said.