Coun­cil chief: ‘Can St. Luke’s pitch in more?’

Fac­ing po­lice, in­fra­struc­ture short­falls, bor­ough of­fi­cial turns to tax-ex­empt hos­pi­tal

The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drew Scott and Kayla Dwyer

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.