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Inaudible vote throws wrench in Williamsport budget process

June 11, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WILLIAMSPORT -- A councilman's inaudible vote threw a wrench into the town's plans to pass its 2008-09 budget Monday.

The Williamsport Town Council passed the $4.1 million budget, but Mayor James G. McCleaf II later realized that the council failed to separately pass a sewer-rate increase on which the budget was based.

A first motion was defeated. Town officials thought a second motion for a rate increase had passed -- until after the meeting, when it was brought to the mayor's attention that one councilman had voted no instead of yes, changing the outcome and defeating the second motion.

The unusual twist caused the council to reconvene in a special meeting Tuesday to approve a sewer-rate increase for next year.

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The council voted 4-1 to pass a 3 percent increase to the sewer rate, McCleaf said by phone Tuesday evening. The town council will cut $7,393 from the general fund by sending less council members to next year's convention in Ocean City in order to balance the budget, he said.

Senior citizens whose income is low enough to qualify them for Chesapeake Bay Foundation rebates will be exempt from the sewer-rate increase, McCleaf said.

Councilman Jeff Cline said before Tuesday's meeting, which he did not attend, that he preferred budget cuts instead of any sewer-rate increase.

Tuesday's sewer-rate vote allowed the town to move more smoothly toward the next fiscal year after turmoil Monday, when the town council approved the budget 4-2.

Cline and Councilman Earle R. Pereschuk Sr. voted no, arguing that the town shouldn't fund nonprofit organizations without the council's review.

Later during Monday's meeting, McCleaf discovered the council hadn't voted on a proposed 5 percent increase in sewer rates.

This coming year, Washington County, which provides sewer service for Williamsport, is raising its charge to the town from $4.58 to $4.90 per 1,000 gallons, or about 7 percent.

Instead of passing along the full increase to town residents, McCleaf proposed a budget based on a 5 percent hike. Under that plan, the town would cover the difference from its general fund.

However, when it came time on Monday for a motion on the 5 percent rate increase, there was a long silence from council members.

Finally, Councilman James C. Kalbfleisch made a motion, which Councilman Anthony T. Drury seconded.

Kalbfleisch and Drury voted yes, but Cline, Pereschuk, Councilwoman Gloria J. Bitner and Assistant Mayor Monty R. Jones voted no, defeating the motion.

Town Attorney Edward Kuczynski said the council was "painted into a box" by approving a budget without a central funding mechanism.

He said, however, the council could work on the deficiency in July, when it meets next -- even though fiscal year 2009 starts July 1.

Jones then suggested a 4 percent sewer-rate increase as a compromise and McCleaf called for a voice vote.

Cline, Pereschuk and Bitner clearly said no, louder than the yes votes.

Thinking that the rest of the council voted yes, creating a 3-3 tie, McCleaf cast what he thought was a tiebreaking vote in favor of a 4 percent increase.

A short time later, the meeting was adjourned.

After the meeting, as Kalbfleisch was leaving, a reporter asked him how he voted. Kalbfleisch -- who didn't speak up for the second vote -- said he voted for the 5 percent increase, but against the 4 percent increase.

McCleaf and other town officials expressed surprise when informed of that. Clerk/Treasurer Donnie Stotelmyer said he recorded Kalbfleisch as voting in favor of the 4 percent increase.

With Kalbfleisch opposed, the 4 percent increase failed 4-2, leaving the town without a sewer-rate increase that was factored into the budget.

Jones and Drury voted yes. The rest of the council voted no.

The $4.1 million 2008-09 budget -- including the general, electric, and water and sewer funds -- is about 2.7 percent higher than the current budget.

General-fund spending alone will rise about 5 percent.

The town council also agreed Tuesday to keep the property-tax rate at 40.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. Even with a steady rate, though, tax bills will increase as long as property values do.

The rates for the City of Hagerstown's water service will not go up in the coming year.

Staff writer Heather Keels contributed to this story.

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