Saturday, June 16, 2018

Citizens' Comments, Part 2: The $650,000 hotel grant

Murray: “I don't want to see money pissed away like this.”

Several Columbia residents voiced concerns about a proposal by borough council to fund a $650,000 grant for a possible hotel project at Second and Locust Streets.  The residents opposed the grant to Cimarron Investments LLC to develop a hotel under the Clarion Hotels at a former chip factory there.

Bruce Murray, owner of Elite Energy, wondered who would invest such a sum into something he believes is "unsustainable and unfeasible." He said he owns several businesses that he built with his own money. “I use my own money, and if I don't have the money, I build the capital. That's what I do. That's what investors do." Murray said his company employs about 25 people, 80% of whom live in Columbia.

“When I got wind that we were willing to give $650,000 to somebody, to start a project that's not feasible, not sustainable in this town...we're not a Lancaster City, we don't have 60,000 people.” He noted that there are hotels within three miles of the borough that don't have any vehicles in the parking lots. “I don't understand why we're putting one in our town. I don't understand why we're giving all our money up in this town.” He also objected to allowing ten years of property tax abatements for the building and pointed out a business that may have closed due to property taxes: Colonial Metals. “Colonial Metals just closed, and there's a hundred people on the street that don't have a job. They're complaining about tax assessments, tax appeals,” Murray said. He asked why the borough doesn't help the company. “Why don't we work with the owner of Colonial Metals?”

Murray said he supports investment in the town but only for projects that are feasible and sustainable. “I'm willing to give up money for a company to come in there, an investor to come in there, and build something that we structurally need, but I'm not willing to piss my money away to something that's not even there," he said. “You can't tell me we don't have any other projects in this town that we could spend $650,000 on.”

He emphatically does not think the proposed hotel project is worthwhile. “How are you going to pack that hotel on Second Street? Tell me. I'd like to know from the borough," he said. “We know you can't fill that hotel. We know it's not sustainable.”

Murray said he wishes residents had a part in what their money goes to. “I think this borough needs to wake up a little bit and the residents see where this money's being spent.” He also wanted the developer to know how he feels. “I wish the owner of Cimarron Investments was here to hear me, but unfortunately he's not,” Murray said.

He told council he has about $2 million dollars worth of properties in town but hates to see wasteful spending. “I don't want to see money pissed away like this.”

Doutrich: “I don't feel you should be in the banking business.”

Frank Doutrich also had doubts about the project and asked council for more information.  “I consider Don Murphy a friend, and I'm still going to ask the questions,” he said.

Doutrich asked council who Cimarron Investments is but members did know, other than the company's principal,  Don Murphy. He then asked if council had Cimarron's financial statement, and council president Kelly Murphy said council has access to to the information. Doutrich then asked if council knew Cimarron's debt, and Murphy replied, "Not offhand."

Murphy told Doutrich that even though the hotel project was listed on the agenda, council had no plans to vote on it that evening. (The matter had been rendered moot due to council's last minute tabling of the issue.)

Doutrich noted that Don Murphy told committee members at a finance meeting that he had a signed contract with the hotel chain. Doutrich asked councillors if they had seen the contract. They had not.

Doutrich wondered why council had not considered offering a loan instead of a grant but then thought that was a bad idea, also. “This is a private enterprise," he said. “I don't feel you should be in the banking business. You shouldn't be loaning money.”

“I like what Don did to a lot of his properties, how he re-did it, whatever he did, wherever he got the money, that was his business," Doutrich said. "Now, this is our money. This is why some of us are concerned. This is why we're asking the questions.”

“I'd like to know the financial status.," Doutrich continued. "I'd like to know their debt.” He wondered if funds would be used for the purpose for which they would be allocated. “If you loan the money, is that money going into this project or is it going into other projects that he already has?”

Kelly Murphy assured Doutrich that any contract with the borough would have very defined details addressing such questions. He said borough staff would follow up to make sure all funds were being used properly.

McBride: “Stop giving our money away.”

Shirley McBride, who spoke next, said, "If you give these people taxes for nothing, it hurts us. We just lost a business here in this town [Colonial Metals].” She chided council about the proposed spending. “Stop giving our money away,” she said. She told council that senior citizens in town don't have enough money for food and taxes, and she doesn't want to see people lose their homes any more.

She questioned the wisdom of building the hotel. “Why would I want a hotel down there?" she asked. "Who's going to use it? I can guarantee you not one person in this town is going to be able to afford the room rent.”

“Stop wasting our money. It's not your money." she said. "It's our money, not yours.”

However, Councilman Cleon Berntheizel took issue. “It is our money, because we are also taxpayers of Columbia Borough,” he said. He also explained that the tax abatement applies only to improvements to the building, not the current building. “That's how you help developers come into your town to build things that helps taxes in the long run.”

Weaver: “Putting a hotel on Second and Locust Street – what is that going to do for the town?”

Rose Weaver, owner of Rose's Deli on North Fourth Street, said she was disheartened when she heard that such a large sum might be allocated for the project.

“I do not ask the borough for anything, but I feel sometimes as a small business owner I get overlooked," she said. "I don't see any of the borough council members come into my building.”

“Putting a hotel on Second and Locust Street – what is that going to do for the town?” she asked.

She asked council to help small businesses, such as hers. She said she is trying to provide a service for people that they can enjoy and afford.

“We're already here, and we're trying to make Columbia good. I'm trying to do good things,” she said.

Two upcoming events at the gazebo and Park Elementary

Here's where children can access free meals during the summer months

Delinquent Tax Report posted

The June 2018 Delinquent Tax Report is posted HERE.

UPDATE - Union rep: Work stopped at Columbia foundry

"I'm still trying to work through some of the details and figure out what's behind the plant closing," said Leroy Atwater Jr., a representative of the United Steelworkers Union, who said he has spoken briefly with the president of Colonial Metals, Craig Friedman.


Friday, June 15, 2018

Citizens' Comments, Part 1: Codes

At Monday's borough council meeting, residents told council about their concerns and experiences with the borough's codes department, particularly on the issue of “Quick Tickets.”

Hershey: “This isn't due process when you have to pay $100 to appeal something. It just doesn't make sense.”

Wayne Hershey asked for common sense when officers hand out tickets. Hershey said he was ticketed recently for high grass “after a month of rain. One of the hottest and wettest Mays in the last hundred years,” he said. “Five inches of rain in 11 straight days.”

Hershey admitted that his grass was high and the person he hired to mow could not do it. Hershey said he had standing water in his yard at the time. He said he must now pay $100 to appeal the ticket to the borough manager. “Everybody I talked to said, 'That's extortion.' I'm not going to pay $100 when I can pay 25 and just get out of it,” Hershey said. “This isn't due process when you have to pay $100 to appeal something. It just doesn't make sense.” Hershey noted that the borough does not run leaf pickup or the street sweeper when it rains, because it makes sense.

“Just use common sense with the code officers and get some due process that makes sense, because this certainly doesn't.” Hershey said he has heard “some real horror stories about code enforcement” from people who replied to him on social media. As an example, he pointed out that his grandson got two tickets in nine days even though he had mowed in between. “I went to look at his lawn. The highest thing there is asparagus and rhubarb.”

He said another person got ticketed when disposing of patio cushions. The ones that wouldn't fit into the trashcan were placed alongside it, as directed by the trash hauler. The person received a ticket. Someone else said they were ticketed for “dog poop” in their yard. “It was decorative rocks,” Hershey said.

A person on Chestnut Street got ticketed on consecutive days but the tickets did not arrive in the mail until two days later, according to Hershey.

He also said someone got a ticket for placing two bags of trash beside their house after returning from the mountains, and another person got a ticket because a trashcan lid blew off. “That's not common sense,” Hershey said.

Hershey said he asked a code officer about his ticket for high grass. Specifically, he asked him if he measured it, and the officer said he did not need to, because he “knew” it was 18 inches high. When Hershey told him that he must be “good” to be able to estimate that closely, the officer thought he was being praised. “I am very frustrated with this whole thing.” He asked council to make corrections on the issues.

Weaver: “Maybe sometimes common sense just needs to be used.” 

Rose Weaver told council she received five tickets in two months last year for placing an old mattress at the side of her house on a Thursday. She said her trash hauler picks up on Mondays, and she got a ticket.

She said she received a ticket for daisies in her flower bed that the rain had pushed over onto the sidewalk. The ticket stated that the daisies were a tripping hazard. “It's a daisy,” she said. “Some of the tickets were just ludicrous.”She also received a ticket for a sumac tree on her property line with a neighbor, but she paid the ticket anyway.

The next ticket was for trash that was sitting out for over 24 hours. “My trash gets picked up Monday. The ticket was written on Tuesday,” she said.

In February she received another ticket, this one for ice. The sidewalk was treated with ice melt that day, but the next day she got a ticket for ice. “It hadn't even been 24 hours since the sidewalk had frozen,” she said. She called and spoke to the borough manager, who said she could pay $100 to appeal the ticket at the borough office. She paid the $25 instead. “I got stuck paying another ticket,” she said, but added that the ticket was later rescinded. “Maybe sometimes common sense just needs to be used.”

Kaufhold: “My job is to enforce this book. If you don't like what's in the book, you need to go to the legislative committee and have it changed.” 

Codes Manager Steve Kaufhold told Hershey he would not address his case at the meeting, since it's under appeal. He then introduced himself to residents in attendance and explained some of the workings of the codes department. He said that some problems may stem from codes not being enforced in the past. “Most people have gotten complacent with the fact that a lot of the codes were not enforced for many, many years.”

He said that this month there were 261 tickets written. [It's unclear if he was referring to May or June.] He said he does not see every ticket that goes through the system: “It's just too much for any one person to start going through and doing that.”

Kaufhold said six more code enforcement officers were added at the beginning of last year. Two officers work three days a week and their schedules overlap. He explained that he doesn't have any thing to do with the $100 appeal fee, since he didn't set it.

He advised residents to talk to him first before an issue goes to appeal. “Come talk to us. Give me a call. I will look at it,” he said. “I try to talk to my code officers about frivolous things, but we do make mistakes.” Kaufhold said if he does not return a phone call, the resident should contact one of his superiors or a member of council. He said that returning calls is respectful, and he tries to instill the importance of that in his officers.

“My job is to enforce this book," Kaufhold said. “If you don't like what's in the need to go to the legislative committee and have it changed.”


It's that time of year again, the mayflies are starting to hatch.  We will be monitoring the condition each day over the next weeks and will turn off the bridge lights as we see  necessary.  Please drive with caution and if walking or riding bike at night please use reflective clothing and a flashlight.