Council hears major concerns in DPW budget

Discussion of the public works budget centered around capital expenditures, crumbling infrastructure and services operating at a loss during Warren City Council’s budget workshop on Thursday.

Director of Public Works Mike Holtz reported it was time to replace some of the vehicles in use by his department.

“Our fleet is getting old and tired,” Holtz said. “Some of our trucks, we have had inspected and sort of been told this is the last year.”

Holtz specifically noted a five-ton and a one-ton dump truck need replacement and a number of work trucks would need replaced. Overall, he estimated the department would need to put approximately $250,000 toward vehicle replacement.

Councilman John Lewis asked if vehicles could be financed rather than purchased outright.

Holtz explained the city utilizes Pennsylvania’s Costars program to purchase vehicles, which saves approximately 25 percent of total cost. Costars does not offer financing.

Holtz noted the department is also in need of radio upgrades estimated at approximately $20,000.

The proposed budget includes work originally planned for this year at the city’s Midtown Parking Lot. If approved, the project would run approximately $200,000 and be paid for with a combination of fees charged to Columbia Gas for line work at the site and liquid fuels money from the state.

Councilman Howard Ferguson asked if the project would detract from funding paving, as it uses liquid fuels money.

“We need to prioritize this,” he said, noting the city did minimal paving under the 2013 budget.

Holtz said approximately $100,000 in liquid fuels money would be left for paving, but noted that was not a large amount.

He explained the city uses a tiered system to prioritize streets by need for paving purposes, but that the streets most in need were those paved with brick or concrete, which are more expensive to improve.

“Is it fair to say we continue to fall behind on the upkeep of the city streets?” Mayor Mark Phillips asked.

Holtz said that it was.

“We’re not even taking care of the tier 1 streets at this point,” Ferguson said. “I worry that we get to a point where we have to fix everything at once.”

“The alternative is to sell the Midtown Lot,” Phillips said.

“The infrastructure problem is only going to get worse,” Councilman Sam Harvey said. “DPW is operating on a pretty tight belt. So the only option is to raise taxes or cut services and the only place to cut services is police and fire.”

“The other choice is to, as a city, not act as an island,” Phillips said, referring to regionalization possibilities. “Share services and costs with our neighbors for police and fire.”

Councilman James Zavinski summed up the general feeling on the issue.

“I’m with Howard here,” he said. “I think we’ve gotta do something. At least find one or two thousand to continue the (paving) program.”

Later in discussions, Harvey suggested the city could “walk away” from Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital (RCAP) funds and use city funds being held in reserve as a match to obtain RCAP funds for continued streetscape work on Liberty Street towards infrastructure, “If the project that’s earmarked for is frivolous.”

The city has approximately $1 million held in reserve for such use.

Holtz reported improvements are planned at the municipal pool.

He said $100,000 has been earmarked for restroom and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance upgrades. The match will secure an additional $100,000 in grant funding.

Holtz noted the city hopes actual project costs will come in an estimated $50,000 under budget freeing funds for other usage.

Additionally, Holtz said the pool is in need of a new cover, as it is currently shedding coating into the water.

Some valves at the pool are also in need of replacement.

Holtz noted the budget includes a proposal for a community-wide solid waste pickup, beyond the weekly collection, which would cost approximately $50,000. He said the cost for the pickup is spread over three years, resulting in a cost of approximately $16,000 per year. The program would result in an increase of between 15 cents and 20 cents on recycling bills.

Holtz also noted the city is seeing an increase in recycling bill delinquencies since billing services for recycling and sewage were contracted to Pennsylvania Municipal Service Company (PAMS).

“Am I correct in saying there’s no real incentive for them to go after delinquencies?” Phillips asked.

Holtz responded, “The dollar amount is so low. The fee is very small.”

Council asked if there had been a corresponding increase in sewage bill delinquencies.

Holtz noted the difference between incentive to pay the two costs, saying, “If you don’t pay your sewage, your water gets shut off. If you don’t pay recycling, you get a bunch of letters from PAMS.”

Holtz also noted a $10,000 match is needed to secure grant money for tree replacements.

Phillips said he hopes to find ways to shave approximately $10,000 off of the city’s landscaping bill, at one point suggesting using work release labor from jail or prison facilities.

Holtz noted that had been tried in the past for weeding, but had resulted in plants besides weeds being pulled.

He noted there are some expected savings regardless.

“We already have two gentlemen who have stepped forward to handle a large portion of the flower boxes,” Holtz said. “I think we’ll be able to shave about 40 percent.”

Phillips also pointed out many city services, particularly some used by non-residents, operate at a loss.

“We, as council people, while we love to have visitors in the city, let’s be cognizant of the costs,” Phillips said.

He noted Betts Park operates at an approximate $35,000 annual loss, the municipal pool operates at an approximate $50,000 annual loss and the summer playground program operates at an approximate $13,000 annual loss.

Zavinski said the DPW building is in need of repair.

“It needs some work done,” he said. “It’s not in the healthiest condition.”

Holtz also led council through the wastewater treatment budget.

“We’re going to build a whole new facility this year,” he noted.

Funding has already been secured for the more than $25 million project. Work is slated to begin in February or March next year and take between 24 and 26 months to complete.

Holtz noted wastewater treatment was full the first full year of a three-year contract with PAMS for sewage billing.

He pointed out the budget includes expenditures for new pickup trucks for wastewater usage as well.

Councilman John Lewis asked if the city was creating situations where homes were not allowed to be resided in by shutting off water for delinquent bills.

“If we send a shutoff notice and shut off water,” Lewis asked, “don’t we create an uninhabitable situation?”

City Code Officer Alan Gustafson responded that it does, but he and Holtz noted that the majority of shutoffs are on uninhabited properties anyway.