Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Meeting of the Whole - Part 3 - Concerns over the Call Center

At last night's meeting of the whole, several residents questioned borough council's intention to back a proposed call center at Columbia #1 Fire Company.  Resident Cleon Berntheizel expressed concern about parking needed for the endeavor, since parking is already limited in the borough. He cited  SGHA's proposal for Columbia Crossing which would require a large number of parking spaces.  He noted that the borough would be taking away three parking lots in the downtown for one business. He also questioned the amount the borough will spend if awarded the project.

"If the borough's going to spend close to a million dollars on helping one business developer create 135 jobs, I would think you could probably give about 20 businesses - mine included - in Columbia a couple thousand dollars to have an extra employee or two or five," he said.

He questioned the wisdom of taking away most of the available downtown parking that other businesses now rely on, including the Market House and Kettle Works. The call center would require parking Monday through Friday 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. He noted that the River Park will be used every day (when the trail is completed and Columbia Crossing is in operation).

He said the borough should pay off the fire company's debt and own the current Columbia #1 building, with the possibility of using it to house the police force and borough offices and convert the existing borough hall back to businesses, since it is in the business district.

"If you're going to own the building, why give it away to be developed?" he asked.  "In five years he (IBS President William Roberts) will own everything, and something else could go there, and he's going to make all the profit from it."

Mr. Berntheizel also cited the recent charrette in which "disconnects" were discussed. He said huge business disconnects currently exist from the 200 block to the 400 block of Locust Street.

Councillor Barry Ford said there's a residency requirement to work at the building.  Employees must live in Lancaster County. Fourteen jobs will be coming from the Lancaster County office with the remainder being "new." He said a source told him that the starting salary would be about $42K per year. He agreed that parking would be an issue. He also said that East Petersburg is being heavily favored for the call center at this time, according to his source.

Resident Elaine Beckley questioned the large expenditure for the call center when council squabbled over the cost of a new police car recently.

"I don't understand how you can argue that point and then turn around and give away $900,000," she said. "People are losing their homes, because they can't afford to pay the taxes." She cited other businesses that have been successful in the borough without receiving public funds. "I didn't think our money was to prop up a business."

Resident Frank Doutrich asked what council got in writing about number of jobs and salaries. Councillor Jim Smith replied that salaries were not mentioned in the proposal. (At the May 18 special council meeting at Columbia Crossing, realtor Jeff Seibert said entry level salaries would be $50K per year.)  Smith said that according to his own research, entry level salaries are $30-35K per year.

Resident Don Haines told council that he works in civil service, and to his knowledge, entry level jobs start at a low salary. He also said that a government agency will sometimes hire from a temp agency and pay employees $10 an hour.

"It's just too much uncertainty," he said.

Mr. Berntheizel added that a million dollars invested in the downtown would be better spent. He also noted, "You're agreeing to a plan that doesn't even have planning or zoning approval."

(It was reported that council subsequently passed a motion not to allow the use of municipal parking for call center employees.)

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