Bel Air's town employees will get a 3 percent raise in July and residents of English Country Manor should soon get their long sought traffic light at Gateway Drive and Boulton Street under the 2013 town budget that received final approval from the Board of Town Commissioners Monday.
The commissioners voted to adopt the $15,754,120 budget, which contains some spending reductions from 2012, especially in the general fund which covers most regular government expenses, including the police department.
Overall, the new budget will be $642,455, or almost 4 percent, less than 2012's total budget of $16,396,575.
The new budget will keep the same real and personal property tax rates of 50 cents and $1.16 per $100 of assessed value, respectively. Sewer service rates, which are tied to annual changes in the Consumer Price Index, will increase 3.2 percent from $5 per $1,000 gallons to $5.16.
The raises funded for the town employees will be their first in three years, Commissioner David Carey noted.
"We have a well run town and provide services to our community," Commissioner Robert Preston said during the brief public hearing that preceded the final budget vote.
Three of the four speakers during the hearing were English Country Manor residents, who came to thank the town officials for funding $150,000 for the Gateway/Boulton traffic light.
John Meeks, the former president of the residents association who shepherded the light project through the town government, was effusive in his praise, as he reviewed the process that started with the commissioners agreeing, some reluctantly, to fund a traffic study, following by installation of a camera to regulate existing lights at Best Buy and Tollgate Road to now funding for the light at Gateway and Boulton.
"I want to express my appreciation and the community's," Meeks said.
Jerry Tuerk, who succeeded Meeks as president of the association, said most of the condo community's residents are senior citizens and the light will help ease their concerns about safety at the busy intersection they must drive through in order to leave the community.
Later, as he voted on the final budget, Mayor Eddie Hopkins praised the community's residents for their patience and cooperation.
"They worked with us cooperatively," Hopkins said, observing that funding for the project "was somewhat a long time coming."
Some of the spending reduction in the budget results from the town having $138,000 less in outside grant funds and so-called special funds to spend, while the town also expects to spend $78,000 less to operate the sewer system.
In the special revenue fund, the town is providing $75,000 from its surplus funds as the start-up capital for a revolving loan fund to help small businesses in town get financing they might not otherwise be able to obtain from commercial sources.
The town's seed money will be matched by a $55,000 community development grant the state previously approved. The new fund won't start making loans until 2013, Moody, the finance director said.
The general fund reduction will be almost $1.2 million, reducing spending from $13 million to $11.8 million; however, not unlike the City of Aberdeen is doing in its budget with its Ripken Stadium debt, Bel Air is cutting $1.3 million representing the short term loan it used to buy the BB&T property on Main Street last summer, a one-time expenditure in the 2012 budget.
The BB&T debt service shows up under another line item at $57,340 for next year, up from $27,500 in the current budget.
Carey said after the meeting he considers the BB&T property "an asset" that the town will hold and take advantage of for years, first as a public parking lot and probably later as a site for new town offices.
The parking fund budget, which is also accounted separately from other operations, is projected to increase to almost $1.2 million next year from $687,000 in the current fiscal year, as the town has budgeted $647,465 for "routine repairs" to the parking garage that it owns in 33-67 percent partnership with Harford County. In 2012, the "routine repairs" line item for the parking garage was $201,000, money that was spent on new elevators.
Town Administrator Chris Schlehr explained the $687,000 actually represents the county's share of a major renovation project that has been planned for the garage for which funding has been built over three years to get a lower cost for the work that needs to be done.
Schlehr said the town plans to borrow its share of the project, which will run about $343,000.
Credit card fees planned
The town commissioners also introduced a resolution Monday to impose a convenience fee for residents and property owners who choose to pay their town property tax and sewer bills with a credit card.
The fees, to be collected by a third party handling the transaction for the town – KHA Processing, will be 3.15 percent of the amount of the real estate tax bill, plus a 25-cent transaction fee and $4.50 for every $150 of a sewer bill, which amounts to a percentage rate of 3 percent on the sewer bill.
Finance Director Lisa Moody said, however, that concerns were expressed by some commissioners about the proposed convenience fee rate on sewer bills and flush tax payments, so she plans to offer an alternative, probably a graduated flat fee with a maximum cap. Moody said the alternative proposal will be offered at the commissioners next work session on May 29.
In 2007, when the town began allowing residents to pay their town taxes and sewer fees online or in person by credit card, it absorbed the credit card costs in an effort to encourage residents to use plastic. Now that the program is so popular, she said, the town finance staff recommended the convenience fee be imposed to defray the town's rising costs.
A public hearing will be held on the resolution at the next town meeting June 4. If the measure passes, the convenience fees will take effect with the start of the new town fiscal year on July 1.
Height limit raised
The commissioners voted unanimously to approve Ordinance 750-12 which raises the maximum height for single family detached houses and townhouses to 35 feet or three stories in the R-2 medium density residential zone.
The current limit has been 30 feet and 2.5 stories for both.
The change was made at the behest of St. Matthew Lutheran Church for its property on Moore's Mill Road, which the town annexed two years ago and zoned R-2. The church plans to sell up to eight acres for development.
Robert Kahoe, the lawyer representing the church, said the height limit change would allow the property to be marketed for three-story townhouses with garages on the first story, which would be more desirable to builders and potential buyers of the homes.
Kahoe called the change "benign," pointing out there are few undeveloped R2 properties left in town and said the garage townhouses will "make a really good product."
Historic Poster Contest
Bryan Payne, chairman of the Bel Air Historic Preservation Commission, presented awards to the winners of this year's Historic Poster Contest.
The contest is open to all 4th-graders in participating elementary schools. Payne said there were more than 150 entries this year, as the kids each picked a historic building and drew it.
Chris Walker, of Homestead-Wakefield, was the first prize winner this year for his drawing of the Hopkins House on North Main Street. He and the second and third prize winners, Steven Lentz, of Homestead/Wakefield Elementary School and Sam Myrick, of Harford Day School, received certificates and gifts from Peoples Bank. Honorable mention winners Mackenzie Plowman and Rebekah Cross from Homestead/Wakefield, Catherine Standish and Erin Smearman from Bel Air Elementary and Esha Gupta and Julian Karlic from Harford Day School received gift cards from local restaurants.
The winning posters will be made into place mats and featured at many local restaurants.
• Rob Garrigan will perform at the lunchtime concert this Friday, May 25, from noon to 1 p.m. at Office Street.
• A Memorial Day Ceremony will be held Monday, May 28, at Shamrock Park beginning at 10:30 a.m.
• Flag Day in Bel Air will be celebrated June 2 at 8 a.m. in Shamrock Park. Guest speaker will be retired Army Col. John F. Kutcher.
• The Bel Air Town Run will be held June 3 beginning 8 a.m., a 5k foot race with a 1 mile walk starting on Main Street at the Courthouse. Call 410-879-0056.
• The Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra will perform June 3 at Shamrock Park beginning at 7 p.m.
• The Bel Air Downtown Alliance is sponsoring an outdoor movie, "The Muppets," in Shamrock Park on June 8. Seating opens at 6 p.m., movie starts at dusk. No admission will be charged.
• The next town meeting will Monday, June 4, beginning at 7:30 p.m. at town hall.