Budget supported by 1-mill tax increase, K9 unit faces elimination

Shawn Hardy

Greencastle Borough Council members will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 21, in borough hall with votes planned on a $1.8 million budget, supported by a 1-mill property tax increase, and eliminating the police department’s K-9 unit.

At Monday night’s meeting, council members unanimously approved the preliminary budget, talked about retiring the K-9 unit on Jan. 1, 2018, and learned an anonymous donor has come forward to pay for a major overhaul of the town clock. A news release issued late Tuesday by Borough Council President Frank Webster Jr. indicates the vote on Dec. 21 will be on the immediate elimination of the K-9 unit.

With a 1-mill tax hike from 14 to 15 mills generating an extra $38,000, the projected revenues for 2018 total $1,805,087, including a $12,726 surplus. The tax increase translates into an additional $20.51 for the average residential taxpayer who currently pays $287.09, according to Borough Manager Eden Ratliff.

Initially presented with potential budgets based on police department staffing of two, three or four full-time officers a month ago, council passed a preliminary spending plan that maintains funding for the current three full-timers. It also adds hours for part-timers and raises part-time pay to $20 an hour, but does not include the $750 line item for the K-9 unit.

According to Webster, the K-9 costs are actually over $8,000 a year, when the 7 1/2 hours a week the handling officer is paid to feed and take care of the police dog, Rony, and the overtime paid when the dog is called in when the handler is not scheduled to be on duty are factored in.

In addition, this would free up the officer who handles Rony for more time on the street when he would otherwise be attending training or taking care of the dog.

“We’re trying to get the most manhours for the police department at a price we feel we can afford,” Councilman Charles Eckstine, administration and finance committee chairman, said.

When eliminating the K-9 became a possibility early this year, opponents packed the Rescue Hose Co. meeting room and the matter had not been discussed by the full council since then.

On Monday, Ben Thomas Jr., mayor-elect, said getting rid of the K-9 is a public and officer safety issue and “it appears someone decided to revisit it in the last three days” since a budget meeting was held Thursday night.

“We run a lean operation,” said Police Chief John Phillippy said at the February meeting. “Because of that, a lot of times we have officers out by themselves. But they are not alone. They have 70 pounds of hate coming if [an officer] is in trouble.

“Rony is a tool,” Phillippy continued. “I can’t walk into a house and say there’s cocaine in here. He can.”

Phillippy also said Rony is not just a dog, but a safety tool preventing deaths.

“Line of duty deaths for officers is up 200 percent so far this year,” he said. “I don’t want that in Greencastle. $7,500 is cheap if it prevents one of my guys from getting killed.”

“I thought we fought this battle in February,” said Councilman Larry Faight, who said he believed the borough was going to keep the K-9 for another year or two.

Clock tower

The anonymous donor has pledged to donate whatever is necessary to rehabilitate the clock tower and wrap it in composite materials, which will be well over $100,000, according to Eckstine.

The working budget included $26,000 to repaint the clock tower. Earlier discussion included how that figure was higher than proposed for this year when the work was put off, how frequently the tower needed to be repainted and the potential for a Greencastle-Antrim Community fund drive to pay for tower improvements.

Sewer rate increase

Deferred maintenance and the higher costs and potential for problems that can result also came up as a sewer rate hike was discussed.

The plant was built years ago and there was no real plan for preventive maintenance and upkeep, according to Borough Manager Eden Ratliff.

“We have things that could fail,” Ratliff said.

The proposed 19 percent increase is from $7.22 to $8.60 per 1,000 gallons, according to Webster. The quarterly rate for the minimum use of 9,000 gallons will go from $64.98 to $77.40.

Other items in budget 

Ratliff’s starting salary just over a year ago was $60,000, with a bump to $65,000 after six months. The preliminary budget raises that to $72,000. In addition, there is $10,000 for tuition reimbursement, but there will be strings attached to that by the council in 2018. For example, according to Councilman Matt Smith, for every year of schooling, Ratliff could be required to commit to a year and a half with the borough. Ratliff, has a bachelor’s in political science and a master’s in employment labor relations. He wants to pursue another master’s degree in public management.

Most non-uniformed employees will receive a 3 percent raise, with some higher to bring them more in line with other local municipalities The employees who receive the higher raises also will be given more responsibilities Eckstine said.

Health care premium contributions for family members will go from 25 to 40 percent, while employees’ health care premiums will still be covered 100 percent.