By Steven Hoffman
Oxford Borough's 2014 tax rate is rising to 12 mills—at least for now.
Oxford Borough Council held a special meeting on Dec. 30 and voted to override the veto of Mayor Geoff Henry and approve a tax increase from 11.5 to 12 mills for 2014.
Henry said in a telephone interview last week that he felt an obligation to use his mayoral authority to veto the tax ordinance that would again raise taxes on Oxford property owners even though he expected borough council to override the veto.
Henry explained, “I took the action that I took because I was concerned about the increase in taxes. I did what I felt I needed to do. At the end of the day, council did what I thought they would.”
Henry said that he was concerned about the tax burden being placed on property owners, and he noted that Oxford's millage rate has increased by 128 percent in the last ten years, which is—in his view—simply too much. Even at the 2013 level of 11.5 mills, Oxford's tax rate is the highest in the area. Only Parkesburg, at 10 mills, is close. Downingtown's millage rate is 7.65 mills, and Kennett Square's millage rate is 5.35 mills by comparison.
By vetoing the budget that borough council had approved at a Dec. 16 meeting, Henry had hoped that council would take another look at the spending plan and find ways to reduce expenditures without impacting the services that are provided to residents. About 30 line items in the budget had spending increases, he noted, and even modest expenditure reductions would reduce the tax increase.
Borough Manager Betsy Brantner said that she and the staff were surprised that Henry vetoed the budget after it had been approved by council because borough officials had put so much work into preparing the budget and there had been so many opportunities for discussions about the budget at that point. Brantner said that budgeting process for 2014 might have unfolded better had Henry raised his concerns to borough officials while the budgeting preparations were still ongoing.
“The budget process is very inclusive. It is a year-round process,” Brantner said, noting that staff members are looking at things and making decisions that impact the budget on a daily basis.
She added that she and treasurer Artie Anderson are always willing to discuss spending with any resident or council member at any time. Finance Committee meetings are held on a monthly basis and are open to the public. Council members receive treasurer's reports and they have the opportunity to review and approve paid and unpaid bills on a regular basis.
Henry, himself a former council member, has commented on numerous occasions that he believes borough council should discuss budget decisions more in public. In recent years, the borough's Finance Committee has handled much of the work on preparing the annual spending plan.
One positive development that Henry hopes will come out of the debate about the 2014 tax rate is more discussions about the budget by council members.
“My hope is that the new council will spend more time talking about the financial issues—and asking questions about where the money is being spent,” he said.
Brantner said that the mayor, council members, and residents are all invited to any of the Finance Committee meetings. The goal, she said, is to make sure that the borough's limited resources are utilized as best as they can be.
In a written response to Henry's letter concerning the veto of the tax ordinance, Brantner wrote that the top priority of borough employees is to spend the tax dollars wisely.
Henry and Brantner agreed that the borough benefits from having more people involved in the process.
“We all need to work together,” Brantner said.
Despite the veto override, there is still a chance that the 2014 budget—and possibly the tax ordinance—will be reevaluated. Three new council members—Randy Grace, Gary Tozzo, and Paul Matthews—were sworn into office on Jan. 6. The new council has the option of reopening the budget.
All three of the new members say that a priority is ensuring that taxpayer money is spent as wisely as possible.
Grace said that one of his main goals on council is to work to get the taxes under control. He said that he would have an interest in looking at the 2014 budget. He explained that even if the council can’t find ways to reduce expenditures enough to limit the tax increase, at least council members could say that they took another look at the budget to see if expenditures could be reduced.
Like Grace, Matthews was already willing to say that he wants the opportunity to take a look at the 2014 budget.
“I would like to see the budget reopened,” he said.
The 2014 budget can be amended until Feb. 15.