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Chester County Press

Borough Council and Residents Work Together

12/06/2023 12:29PM ● By Betsy Brewer Brantner

If there is one thing Oxford Borough Council wants, it is for more residents to show up at the public council meetings.

At the Nov. 20 borough council meeting, that wish came true. 

It was once again standing-room-only in the borough council room. Whether it was the budget discussion, or miscommunications about the police department, or just taxpayers wanting to express their opinions, the room was packed. This was in contrast to many meetings where only a  handful of residents were in attendance as council discussed important matters.

At the Nov. 20 meeting, the room was filled with Oxford Borough residents and residents from the surrounding townships who wanted to express their support for the Oxford Borough Police Department, Oxford Area Recreation Authority and the Oxford Library.

To say the meeting was contentious is an understatement. This was one of the longer borough council meetings of the entire year. When it ended, what happened was an illustration of how government can really work, and Washington D.C. could learn a thing or two from the public and the council members in the Borough of Oxford.

At the onset of the meeting, council member and finance committee chair Peggy Ann Russell read a statement and said, “Some of this is from me, personally.”

She continued: “We know that the world is in a turmoil with horrifying and complicated news coming from many directions.  Much of this makes us angry. We know that the other side of the face of fear is anger. We know that when we are living in fear—fear of war, fear of change, whatever the fear—that we try to take control of the things that we can control.

“The fact that you are here tonight, giving voice to your concerns and fears, is a very good thing. 

It allows your elected officials to see, without a doubt, what is important to you.

“In my opinion, it might actually be a good thing that the information about the police was misrepresented on social media, in conversations, etc. It brought us together tonight.  It allows the information to be accurately presented and it allows a dialogue.”

Russell added, "Please come to our meetings, don't depend on word of mouth, don't depend on words from individuals.  Please depend on the voice of council—speaking as council.

“And finally, remember that it is Council that makes the decisions and directs all work of the borough staff.  So, if you are angry and upset about something, please direct that to us—the council—sitting around this table, not our borough manager and the employees.  Again, many thanks for coming out tonight, showing your interest and providing an opportunity to learn more about how and why decisions are made that affect us all.”

In a formal statement following the personal remarks, Russell spoke as the chair of the Finance Committee and presented the following information:

There are no proposed changes to the police department in the 2024 budget, Russell explained. 

The borough participated in a grant-funded financial assessment through the state’s Strategic Management Planning Program or STMP. That third-party assessment analyzed the borough’s finances—looking five years back and projecting into the future five years.

The assessment found that the borough’s small tax base has put pressure on the operating budget and real estate tax millage rate, which is the third-highest in Chester County.

It also found that the Oxford Borough community is characterized by relatively low-income levels, high poverty rates, and low home-ownership rates.

The plan advised that strengthening the borough’s fiscal position and addressing other key challenges will require a combination of revenue enhancements, strategic investments, and expense reductions.

The plan recommendations included exploring the development of a stormwater fee and ambulance fees. The borough solicitor is advising against implementing these fees in 2024 until more is known about the borough’s legal authority to do so.

The plan also said that if the borough wanted to forgo future tax increases, it could consider changes to how police and public safety services are provided.

The plan includes a list of potential changes to consider, including reducing the amount of officers and regionalization of policing operations.

Russell explained that nobody on council or the borough manager is advocating for any specific change to the police department. 

“We are not experts in public safety,” she said. “We will look to our police chief and other experts in public safety to advise on how any change may impact public safety. As part of Phase 2 of the Strategic Management Plan, we are pursing a Peer Review of the police department through the PA Department of Community and Economic Development. The review will assess staffing levels needed based on our community profile and call volume, and the feasibility of regionalization. In no way does participation in the STMP program and assessing staffing levels in the Borough mean that we do not support our police. These assessments are meant to help council make informed, data-driven decisions about how to use limited resources to support the delivery of all municipal services.”

Council President Kathryn Cloyd emphasized, “We are not defunding the police department. We are not cutting services. We have worked with the mayor and chief. The police department is currently working under their old contract. We are in arbitration because both sides could not agree on a contract. When the contract is settled, their pay will be retroactive.” 

The timing of the STMP program and recommendations became a concern to the police department. A notice was sent out inviting the public to meetings regarding the STMP Draft Recommendations and the budget. Although Finance Committee meetings are always advertised, few citizens attend. That changed this year. 

The borough applied for and received a $52,500 grant through the PA Department of Community and Economic Development's Strategic Management Planning Program. STMP assists municipalities by supporting the costs associated with hiring an independent financial consultant to complete a financial and management review of their municipality. Receiving the grant could also enable the borough to apply for another grant. What the borough and its residents received were draft recommendations, and they caused some concerns for members of the public and also members of the police department. 

That concern set the stage for a response from the police department. That response came from Officer Scott Richards. Richards, along with Officer Karlianna Eller, were understandably hailed as heroes during the devastating S. Third Street fire due to their quick evacuation of the burning buildings.

Richards has worked at the Oxford Police Department since 2006 and is the President of the Oxford Police Association.

“I came here tonight on behalf of the dedicated men and women who have the privilege to serve the community,” he said.

He continued, “In a recent notice published by the Borough of Oxford, the Borough applied for and received a $52,500 grant. What was not readily advertised is that the Borough Council voted to approve an additional $10,000 of taxpayer money, not included in the original grant, to expedite the police study.”

It was also noted by Richards that, “The study was prepared in time for a July arbitration hearing” between the two departments.

The Oxford Police have been working without a contract since January 1, 2023 and the timing of the STMP program was questioned, since the Borough and Police agreed to go to arbitration.

According to Solicitor Stacey Fuller, “The arbitration is a part of the police agreement, in the event that the two parties are not in agreement.”

Richards also emphasized that his statement was prepared before council member Russell’s comments were made.

Richards said, “We come to work every day not knowing if we are going home. We give this town the protection they deserve. We have five schools that we cover.”

At one point Richards choked up while talking about working on a child abuse case.

“I’m here talking to you tonight while my family is preparing for Thanksgiving. I repeatedly ask my family to step aside and let me do my job. I just ask that you (Borough) don’t take our money away from us. Don’t break us up,” Richards said.

Richards thanked all of those in attendance that showed up to support the Oxford Police Department.

It was obvious the Oxford Police Department had support from surrounding municipalities and from borough residents, which in itself could be part of the problem. The Oxford Police Department can be called to other municipalities for assistance when needed. The department is also utilized for many events held in the borough, such as First Fridays. As such, overtime may be incurred, which up to this point has been paid for by tax dollars of Oxford Borough. The extra hours come with a cost to borough taxpayers. There is a cost when the borough operates as a hub to all the surrounding townships. There is also increased work for the public works department when preparing for borough events and clean-up after.

Betty Kramer, a West Nottingham resident, said, “You have a great police department. They have no contract and they are not going to get a raise. Why not?”

President Cloyd said, “They are working under their old contract. They were offered a raise.”

East Nottingham resident Laurie Nelson asked if officers would get their back pay.

Cloyd said, “They will get back pay. The borough has to rely on the arbitration process. We gave officers a contract months ago.”

The arbitration has been pending since June.

Fuller said, “The borough has no control over the arbitration board. It is a private proceeding. Arbitration is required by the police contract. They have their own attorney.”

East Nottingham Township resident Scott Blum asked, “Is there no increase for the police? Why did we spend so much money on the street sweeper?” 

After much discussion, Police Chief Sam Iacono spoke.

“We appreciate the support we are getting tonight. However, we are not anywhere close to regionalization. We may look at the future to see if it is an option. We kick the tires to see what it looks like,” Iacono said. “Right now we are nowhere near that.”

Mayor Phil Harris concurred. “We are exploring opportunities,” he said. “We are exploring all options. We appreciate everyone being here and your support. This is all about public safety. I have been here for four years. We and the chief are happy with the budget. Even the fire department is thinking of regionalization. Our job is to look at these avenues.”

Council member William Fitzpatrick expressed concern regarding the cost of utilizing police for borough events.

“Other municipalities come to our events, but the Borough has continued to pay for that,” Fitzpatrick said.

The police did get an unexpected funding boost from the Student Representatives of the Penn’s Grove Middle School Early Act Club. The club raised over $250 for the Oxford Police Department’s toy drive. They did that by selling candy-grams for Halloween. Early Act members gave up lunch for two weeks to sell candy-grams and raise money for what they felt was a great cause. 

Mayor Harris announced that there would be a police and public safety meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 6 at 3 p.m. at the Borough Hall.

Sycamore Crossing residents had a lengthy discussion with Council regarding the dedication of streets and other issues with developer Mike Pia.

Although borough council had previously agreed not to waive a number of items the developer requested, council member Bob Ketcham asked to have Sycamore Crossing placed on the agenda again.

Resident Nancy Ortega, expressed concern over higher taxes saying, “I don’t know how much longer I can keep my home. I hope you can understand how difficult it is for elderly people to continue to pay taxes. I’m almost 83 and it’s getting harder and harder.”

Fitzpatrick said, “We are hamstrung by the state. The state has given us unfunded mandates. Everyone should call Governor Shapiro and Representative Lawrence.”

Council held a hearing on the application for an inter-municipal transfer of a liquor license into the Borough, submitted by Los Juarez, Inc., located at 405 Market Street.  After the hearing, council approved a resolution allowing for the transfer of Restaurant Liquor License No. E1642 into the Borough of Oxford from the Borough of West Chester. Raul Juarez, Jr. paid $30,000 to transfer the license from West Chester. Juarez, Jr. explained that a grocery store and restaurant has operated at the address since 2014. The building is owned by Raul Juarez, Sr..

Juarez confirmed that more employees would be added due to the addition of the liquor license. The number of employees would increase from 16 to 25. All of the current employees live in the borough and walk to work. The hours would continue to be 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Employees will be certified to enable them to sell wine and spirits.

Most of the discussion for the evening centered on the proposed 2024 budget. Council members expressed concern over the county assessment which came in less than they had projected.

It was also noted that $855,542 dollars of property are tax-exempt. 

Borough Manager Pauline Garcia-Allen said that Oxford would qualify for other grants since they had enrolled in the STMP program.

However, with that in mind, residents continued a lengthy discussion with council. There were raised voices and educational moments, with both sides actually listening to each other. 

The residents in attendance clearly wanted an increase in funding for the Oxford Area Recreation Authority and the Oxford Library, even if it meant a tax increase. 

Ultimately, council approved the funding request submitted by the Oxford Library to increase the borough’s financial support from $11,000 to $12,434 in 2024, as well as the funding request submitted by the Oxford Area Recreation Authority to increase the borough’s financial support from $1.00 per capita (currently totaling $5,845) to $1.50 in 2024 (totaling $8,767.50), and then increasing the per-capita contribution by $0.25 through 2028 (to $2.50 per capita, $14,612). 

In other business, the following items were approved:

  • Advertising the budget notice and schedule adoption of the 2024 budget for Dec. 18; 
  • Authorize advertising of tax levy ordinance of 1.53 mills;
  • Agreement with Union Fire Company No. 1 for fire protection and services in 2024 in the amount of $101,078;
  • Agreement with Union Fire Company No. 1 Ambulance Division for ambulance transportation and emergency service in 2024 in the amount of $125,802.00;
  • 5-Year Animal Protective Services Agreement with the SPCA in the amount of $5,600 annually;
  • Center for Watershed Protection Proposal in the Amount of $43,205 to provide Pre-construction and Design, Bidding and Construction Management Services for the Stormwater Best Management Practices (BMP) Project on the Property of the Community of Love Lutheran Church at 117 N. 4th Street;
  • Resolution #1374 -2023 regarding the Oxford Area Sewer Authority Valley Avenue Gravity Main Replacement Project. 

The next borough council meeting is scheduled for Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Borough Hall.