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Borough Of Newtown Voters Approve 2018-19 Budget



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Although Borough property taxes will rise in the 2018-19 fiscal year, that tax hike will not be nearly as steep as had been proposed by the Borough Board of Burgesses.

Borough voters at the annual Borough budget meeting at Edmond Town Hall on May 31 approved a budget of $229,330 for fiscal 2018-19, which is significantly lower than the $354,300 amount that had been proposed by the burgesses. The current Borough budget is $199,330.

Had the burgesses' $354,330 budget proposal been approved, the tax rate would have risen from the current 0.85 mills to 1.49 mills, representing a 75 percent increase in the property tax rate. But because voters reduced the burgesses' proposed spending for 2018-19 by $125,000, the tax rate for next fiscal year will be 0.96 mills, reflecting a 13 percent increase in taxation.

Borough property owners pay taxes on the real estate that they own, but not on their motor vehicles. The town levies separate taxes on real estate and vehicles. The Borough is a 2.3-square-mile tax district in the center of the 60-square-mile town.

The reductions in proposed spending came in two categories.

Voters eliminated a proposal for a so-called "special assessment" of $100,000 intended to cover legal costs. That category does not exist in the current budget, which ends on June 30. Also, voters greatly reduced a proposed increase in the category, "legal fees."

The burgesses had proposed increasing that category from the current $10,000 to $50,000, but voters decided to earmark $25,000 for such spending.

Rationale Explained

At the start of the May 31 session, Borough Warden James Gaston, who heads the Board of Burgesses, explained to the 114 Borough voters who attended the meeting that the Borough largely exists as a mechanism for historic preservation in the town center, whose focal point is Main Street.

"The Borough is a [historic] preservation tool," he said, noting that other towns in the state have boroughs which serve that purpose. "It's one of the reasons that people are attracted to Newtown," he said. "[The Borough] basically runs on a shoestring of a budget," he added.

Mr Gaston listed a number of efforts the Borough government has pursued over the years in seeking to preserve the historic aspects of the town center, including the creation of a historic district there.

Of the requested $354,330 Borough budget, which would have generated a 1.49-mill tax rate, Mr Gaston commented, "We have an issue with respect to Main Street and the preservation of Main Street."

Mr Gaston was referring to the future of 19 Main Street, the site of the former Inn at Newtown, which closed in early 2016. One resident in attendance made note on the record that Mr Gaston lives at 18 Main Street, in proximity to the former inn.

The warden told Borough residents that the former inn is up for sale by its owner and could become the site of a high-density housing complex, including some "affordable housing."

As defined by the state, "affordable housing" is typically a component of a high-density housing complex in which 30 percent of the dwellings are sold or rented to income-eligible people at prices much lower than the other 70 percent of the dwellings, which are offered at market-rate prices. In effect, the market-rate units subsidize the affordable units.

Potential Borough legal costs to defend its opposition to such a housing project could reach $300,000 or more, said Mr Gaston, who is an attorney. Such a Borough legal defense would be mounted to keep such development from occurring on historic Main Street, he said.

As an alternative to court action, Mr Gaston suggested that a nonprofit organization acquire the inn property to prevent its redevelopment into a project not in keeping with Main Street's historic character. Mr Gaston said that the Borough has approximately $450,000 in reserve funds.

Residents then asked Mr Gaston why such reserve funds are not listed on the budget documents distributed to those who attended the May 31 session.

Legal Question

Herb Rosenthal, a former first selectman who also resides on Main Street, asked Mr Gaston why the Borough government has carried over a reserve fund from fiscal year to fiscal year without having any legal mechanism for doing so.

"How was this surplus accumulated?," Mr Rosenthal asked.

Robert Hall of Nettleton Drive then made a motion to eliminate the $100,000 "special assessment" and also reduce the "legal fees" category from $50,000 to $25,000.

"I think we are having the tail wag the dog here," Mr Hall said of seeking funding for a Borough defense against a development application that does not exist.

Mr Gaston stressed he believes that some type of redevelopment will occur at the inn property.

The Borough government should then seek a special appropriation after an application is submitted, responded Mr Hall, who is an attorney.

Resident Robert Geckle of Queen Street stressed that no development application for the inn property has been submitted. "You're trying to build a [legal] war chest on speculation," Mr Geckle told Mr Gaston.

Douglas Nelson, who is chairman of the Borough Zoning Commission, said the Borough has a reserve fund, so it does not need additional money in the 2018-19 budget. Also, the Borough collects fees from builders for planned new construction, he commented. "The money's there. We don't need the [special] assessment," Mr Nelson said.

Borough resident Mary Wilson said of the presence of "affordable housing" on Main Street, "I don't want to live in a town [in which] only certain kinds of people can live on Main Street."

Mr Gaston responded, "It's not a matter of keeping people out," but is about preserving the historic aspect of the Borough.

Laura Lerman of Main Street said she does not oppose the presence of affordable housing, but opposes high-density housing on Main Street.

Mr Rosenthal said that if a development application for the inn property is submitted, the burgesses could then seek public approval for a special appropriation.

In a final show of hands vote on the Borough budget proposal, 84 people voted in favor of the $229,330 spending plan for the fiscal year that starts on July 1. When considering that 114 people were eligible to vote, those who were opposed to the budget were not polled.

[naviga:img class="aligncenter wp-image-322696" src="https://newtownbee.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/AG_FULL-FRAME-Borough-Budget-Meeting-Gaston-WATERMARKED-001.jpg" alt="AG_(FULL FRAME) Borough Budget Meeting -- Gaston WATERMARKED-001" width="800" height="399" /]

Borough Warden James Gaston, standing at right, on May 31 counts the raised hands of borough residents voting on the borough's budget for fiscal 2018-19. Borough taxes will rise by 13 percent, not 75 percent as had been initially proposed.

-Bee Photo, Gorosko

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