Watching the budget

Mike Tony | Herald-Standard

New Masontown Borough Council President Bruce Cochrane outlined several financial challenges that the borough faces at council’s regular meeting, including expenses associated with acting in accordance with a corrective action plan per the state Department of Environmental Protection.

MASONTOWN – Borough council held its first regular meeting with three newly elected council members, and got a sobering reminder from its new president of the financial squeeze the borough is feeling before council voted to increase what taxpayers are billed for garbage in response to a rate hike of roughly 15% from the borough’s waste disposal company.

Bruce Cochrane, the new council president, introduced new members Michele Berry, Tom Bohan and Michael Washko, the latter having also previously served on council.

Following a lengthy executive session, council voted unanimously to increase the garbage portion of their monthly bills by $2 through March to cover a $1.77 increase per customer up from $11.81 being charged by Advanced Disposal after the borough did not receive any bids for municipal waste collection and disposal last month.

The borough’s five-year agreement with Advanced Disposal expired at the end of December, but council unanimously approved a contract extension with the company through March 31 until the borough can secure a longer-term contract.

“(O)ur general fund can’t absorb 1,532 customers at a $1.77 (increase) for three months,” Cochrane said.

A representative of Advanced Disposal explained that they did not bid due to the borough’s single-axle mandate, borough Engineer Bill Johnson said last month.

Council also unanimously approved another request for solid waste service proposals with a bid opening scheduled for Feb. 7 at 1 p.m.

“If we get the single axles in here for a reasonable amount, I think it’d be beneficial for our community,” Cochrane said.

Cochrane opened the meeting by noting that the borough is amid a $10 million corrective action plan per the state Department of Environmental Protection to address infiltration issues.

“Our water loss is around 30%,” Cochrane said. “So to give a customer seven gallons of water, we have to buy 10 or produce 10.”

Cochrane said that according to his calculation, that results in a yearly loss of roughly $117,000 for the borough, adding that Johnson came up with a yearly loss amount of about $140,000.

“So our goal here is to continue to replace sewage and water lines,” Cochrane said.

“One of the biggest components there is some of our old steel mains,” Johnson said. “They’ve been leaking for some years. They continue to leak.”

Accordingly, council voted unanimously to approve a detection survey likely beginning in early March to be conducted by CBQ Solutions of 21 miles of main lines in the borough for $8,400, essentially $400 a mile.

“This will allow us to do comprehensive leak detection … and create a work order list for our street department,” Johnson said.

Funding sources that the borough is eyeing to go toward satisfying the corrective action plan include a $500,000 Pennsylvania Small Water and Sewer grant that the borough already received.

“The worst-case scenario, your bill could go from $80 to $105 within the year,” Cochrane said. “We’re gonna try to do what we can to prevent that … If we got a 75% grant, that means we’ve got to finance $2.5 million, which would be about a $5 to $6 debt service per customer per month for 20 years. The low-lying fruit right now is a grant for $5 million, and (to) take a match by getting a loan from PennVEST. So that would make the increase around $10. We’re suggesting that we pursue the PennVEST avenue first, see how it goes.”

“We’re applying for and will continue to apply for every grant program that we are aware of,” Johnson said.

Council enacted a 2.5-mill tax increase for 2019 but held the line on taxes for 2020.

In other business, former council member and Mayor Kay Rendina accused council member Sam Chahl of authoring handwritten messages posted by the anonymously administered Facebook page Masontown Residents Against Mismanagement, which has published posts with messages attacking current and former borough council members and police. Rendina alleged that a handwriting expert analyzed a Chahl writing sample and said there was an “extremely high” probability that the messages posted on the Facebpok page were written by Chahl.

Chahl declined comment when Rendina asked him to respond.

“We closed out the year on kind of a bad note with all these posts … But hopefully this meeting or the next meeting’s going to be the last we hear about this,” Cochrane said. “It’s nonsense. We’re done. We’ve got a good council up here. Let’s not keep beating down this dead dog.”

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