College Township Council, residents speak passionately on budget, representation

Discussion turned a bit heated during a public hearing on the township’s budget last week, before the Township Council approved it and a 0.5-mill property tax increase.

The council held a public hearing on the budget Thursday night ahead of its regular meeting, during which members voted unanimously to approve $5.8 million in revenues and $6.5 million in expenditures for 2013. The township will use $628,224 from its reserves to balance the budget.

While many municipal public hearings last seconds and entertain no comment, several residents spoke out against some of the spending — including the tax increase, one of two in the Centre Region for next year, and the township’s $1 million share of the Centre Region Council of Governments budget.

Approval of the township tax increase brings the millage to 4.9 and will increase the average resident’s property tax bill about $38 per year. For 2013, the value of 1 mill is $416,500. Staff previously noted the increase will help cover increased debt obligations, particularly related to parks and recreation at the regional level.

That didn’t sit well with some residents.

Pat Vernon said he’s “not a fan” of the tax increase and called COG an “expensive operation.” He suggested the region contract for mowing and trimming at area parks and that the planning office move to the county level, to facilitate “true regional” planning and cut costs.

“We have a new high school coming up,” he said, referencing the ongoing State College Area School District project. “If I were the guy making all the decisions, I’d put the money into that boat instead of the regional parks boat.”

Carl Maehr said he agreed with Vernon’s thoughts and accused the council of not representing the people, particularly on the regional parks, as residents have opposed features of the coming Oak Hall park, particularly a fourth field added, field lights and increased traffic in the area.

“How much of a tax increase can the general public stand?” he asked. “You can’t tax your way out of a bad budget. You’re spending too much money — our money.”

Maehr spoke back and forth with council members Dan Klees and Dave Koll, asking if the township could afford the regional parks. Both Klees and Koll have supported the parks.

“Most communities this size would have done something like these regional parks 20 to 30 years ago,” Klees said. “I’m not trying to argue that you don’t hear people saying different things. If I didn’t think it was something the community deserved, I would’ve been opposed to it.”

Before inviting further comment, council Chairman Dave Fryer spoke his own piece in reaction to residents’ aggression on the budget, having trouble finding information on the township website and the council’s representation of the people.

“I think, collectively, around this table as council members, we are very concerned about the budget of COG,” he said. “It is creeping, yes, and we need to be more diligent with that.”

He invited anyone inclined to represent the township to get on the ballot next year and try to do a better job than current council members.

“I don’t like to be attacked up here,” he said. “I get calls you don’t want to take.”

That included one in 2000, after Penn State librarian Kim Fisher was killed by a speeding car while walking his dog on First Avenue. Fryer said the caller blamed him for Fisher’s death because he and the council didn’t fix the road.

“It wasn’t a matter of fixing the road,” he said. Scott Emel was convicted of DUI and homicide while driving drunk in Fisher’s death.

Fryer said the council represents everyone in the township and that he doesn’t see anyone else stepping to the podium to do that job.

“Now, three years from now, some of you can take my seat because I won’t be on this council, and I will not be in this Centre Region,” he said. “Because I can’t handle some of the things I hear and am being attacked for.”

The council approved its own budget and the COG’s, with Fryer noting the COG comments were noted and Klees adding that the township made comments to COG staff about long-term planning in 2013.