In a meeting that lasted less than three minutes, Emmaus Borough Council Monday morning officially approved a 4.325 millage rate that includes an eighth- of-a-mill hike to fund the overnight standby coverage at the fire station.
The vote was 4-3 with no discussion. The eighth of a mill is expected to restore about $80,000 for fire department funding that council had cut in an effort to hold down taxes. Water, sewer and the refuse fees will increase.
With millage at 4.325, a homeowner with a property assessed at $100,000 would pay $432 a year in borough property taxes. Like other municipalities, Emmaus has been reminding residents that their individual property taxes might be going up or down in 2013 due to Lehigh County’s reassessment of property.
To offset increases in the borough’s costs for workers' compensation and employee pensions, council had found about $450,000 in reductions in the $8.7 million budget to hold the line on taxes, according Councilman Brian Holtzhafer, who chairs the budget and finance committee.
Those reductions originally included cutting about $100,000 for overnight paid on-call standby coverage that assures there is a small crew of firefighters in the station at all times. "We had cut that line item from $172,000 to $72,000," Holtzhafer said. "And we gave $80,000 back."
After council approved the proposed budget, nearly all of the 38 firefighters in the department packed a council meeting Dec. 17.
Firefighters told council that with a crew at the station, the response time to a fire is about two minutes but for an off-site crew it would be more like 10 minutes. Fires quadruple in size every minute, they said.
Voting "no" on the 4.325 millage rate Monday were Councilmen Brent Labenberg, Wesley Barrett and Nathan Brown. Earlier this month, Labenberg, Barrett and Brown said that their issue was not with the firefighters but with the need to clarify the fire department’s legal structure.
At the Dec. 17 meeting, Township Solicitor Jeffrey Dimmich explained that there are volunteer fire departments, paid fire departments and combinations of the two, but structurally the Emmaus Fire Department doesn’t match any of the three. Dimmich specifically listed violations of the Emmaus Borough Code and the Fair Labor Act in describing the legal concerns.
“Moving forward, council has asked me to draft a fire department ordinance that puts the fire department on a correct legal path,” Dimmich said. “One that satisfies the fire department and the law."