Looking back at the top five Penn-Trafford stories of 2012
On the national, international and interplanetary front, 2012 will be remembered as the year that Superstorm Sandy devastated the East Coast, a shooter massacred 20 children in a Connecticut school, Barack Obama was re-elected and faced the fiscal cliff, Syria dissolved into civil war and Curiosity landed on Mars.
Locally, 2012 was no slouch, either. Here's a roundup of the top stories of the year in the Penn-Trafford area.
It was a see-saw year for Trafford's finances as a town that was nearly broke from overspending on a new public safety building now has a small surplus in its 2013 budget.
Trafford's finances began unraveling in February, when some council members began questioning the amount of change orders — requests to alter original construction plans, which almost always cost extra money — for the new building. As the costs mounted, officials estimated they might end up spending as much as $600,000 more than the $2 million loan they had for the project.
That led council to borrow thousands of dollars from its sewage account to help pay for overruns before it closed in November on a $2.75-million bond to restructure its debt and reimburse the general fund by $382,500.
Yet, property taxes aren't increasing in 2013, and council plans to hire its first manager since the mid-1990s and add a fourth full-time police officer to the force.
Council President Rich Laird, who took over the gavel in March, credited the borough's finance committee of John Daykon and Vicki Megon for preparing an “all-transparent” budget, one that he says better shows the cash coming in and the checks going out than previous borough spending plans.
“I think it's a plus for Trafford right now,” Laird said. “We're now on a path that's more positive and can do the right things. We got a budget now that's a true, balanced budget.”
The borough had been down to a few thousand dollars in its general fund and faced the prospect of not being able to meet payroll obligations before the bond closed in November, but officials now project to have a $50,000 surplus in the $1.82-million budget for 2013. Council also is planning a reserve fund that could build to $74,000 by this time next year.
Councilman Frank Bruno, whom Laird removed in March as finance chairman, was the lone vote against the budget passed on Dec. 18.
“You're building a budget with a loan,” Bruno said of the one-time proceeds from the bond. “That's my concern.”
Laird countered by saying that he and Daykon — who resigned last week — put together a more-professional budget than ones Bruno created in past years. The hiring of a manager will help to keep finances in order, Laird said.
“We're probably one of the only communities that doesn't have a manager. There hasn't been one, and there should have been. We're legislators, we're not day-to-day supervisors.”
Turmoil on council
Finances haven't been the only thing in flux in Trafford this year. The direction of council dramatically shifted during a March 2 special meeting that initially was scheduled to accept Bruno's resignation after a decade on the board.
When Bruno rescinded his resignation, a divided council responded by stripping Rita Windsor of the presidency and installing Laird in her place.
Now, Daykon appears to be leaving council nine months after he replaced Bruno as finance chairman. After the two argued during the Dec. 18 meeting, Daykon turned in his key to the borough building and said he was resigning. He then walked out of the meeting.
“Maybe we should have accepted yours when we had the chance,” Daykon told Bruno that night.
Daykon hasn't responded to requests for comment about the resignation.
The turnover last winter left Bruno without a committee assignment except for a brief stint as a member of the demolition committee. For most of Bruno's tenure on council, he had been the point person on finances, receiving much of the credit for steering Trafford out of nearly $1 million in debt.
Bruno, who also owns a house in Hempfield in addition to his Trafford home, said he decided to stay on council because his parents and other relatives still live in Trafford. But he said he doesn't intend to run again in 2015.
After years of being the primary force in local politics, he now is the voice of opposition on council.
“I feel that I have an obligation to complete my term because I have a general concern for the town,” Bruno said. “I grew up in it.”
Laird said Trafford doesn't deserve to lose Daykon's talents.
“That was the best move I ever made on council, to put John in charge to get this budget under control in Trafford,” he said.
Penn Township establishes fire tax
The all-Republican board of commissioners in Penn Township prides itself on keeping spending in check and avoiding tax increases.
Until this month, officials held the property-tax rate steady since 2006 — and the change for that year was a 0.25-mill decrease.
But commissioners saw a compelling reason to impose the first property-tax increase in nine years: guaranteed funding for the township's five volunteer fire companies.
Local firefighters say it's getting harder to recruit and retain volunteers, keep up with training and make time for fundraising because of work commitments.
In July, Claridge Assistant Fire Chief Michael Seice testified before the state House Majority Policy Committee that only 10 of the department's 76 active members regularly are available to answer calls. During some times of the day, only three or four might be available to respond, he said.
Commissioners reacted on Dec. 17 by passing a 1-mill fire tax, which raises property tax rates to 14.7 mills. The tax will provide an estimated $48,500 per year for each of the companies.
Commissioner Chuck Horvat said he was familiar with reports of declining volunteerism statewide and is concerned the trend could lead to the township having to pay professional firefighters if the volunteer forces are unable to provide fire protection.
“That is, in my opinion, a little bit more costly than what we have now,” Horvat said. “I believe, after all this research and study, that this was best for the firefighters and the citizens of the township.”
With the creation of the fire tax, commissioners will be able to divert another $208,000 in the 2013 for road projects, Horvat said.
Library staves off potential closure
The circumstances looked bleak for the Trafford Community Public Library in late September.
The librarian was laid off, the nonprofit organization was down to a couple of hundred dollars in its operating fund and the board president said the library might have to close unless borough council or board members found new funding.
After two tenuous months in which volunteers kept the library running with shortened hours, help came in the form of a grant from the Pittsburgh-based Eden Hall Foundation, whose executive director Sylvia Hall Fields is a Trafford native.
Though library board president Tom Puckey declined to reveal the amount of the grant, he said the funding will help pull the library through the early months of 2013 as the board works on a long-term path to sustainability despite declining state grants.
More support came last week from Trafford Council, which agreed to pay the $1,000 grant it initially reserved in the 2012 budget for the library. Council previously added the library to its Internet and phone plans to help it save money.
“That's going to be a big help to close out the year,” Puckey said.
The borough grant appeared to be in jeopardy in September, before council solidified borough finances. At that point, Puckey told officials the library might need the money to pay off bills in anticipation of potentially shuttering the library.
Library officials also have requested a $5,000 grant for operating expenses in 2013, but council members said community organizations must specify a project to be eligible for funding.
P-T gets funding for school renovation
The Penn-Trafford School Board started the process for renovating 40-year-old Penn-Trafford High School for another generation or two of students.
The board in November approved the borrowing of $9.5 million toward what is estimated to be a $30 million project to update the school. The last major renovation at the school was 16 years ago.
Officials sought the first round of financing in spite of a moratorium on project reimbursements through the state Department of Education. Board members also might pursue more funding in the spring while interest rates are at historically low levels.
Superintendent Thomas Butler has said a design might be in place by next summer so community members can review the plans. Construction could begin as soon as the summer of 2014.
Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400 ext. 8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org.