Comments at last week's council meeting focused primarily on the recent municipal tax hike and revolving loan fund, with sentiments - pro and con - evenly divided. Of the 21 residents who signed up to speak, not all did so - for various reasons. 12 commented on the tax hike/loan fund, and four spoke on other issues. As with the month's previous council meeting, the atmosphere was contentious, with some comments eliciting groans or laughter from the audience. The meeting was also punctuated by several outbursts, with one man shouting from the back of the room as a resident began to speak at the lectern, and a woman shouting as she left the room. An audience member also repeatedly shouted "Vote 'em out!" several times during the meeting.
Heather Zink: "I struggle to think of any business that would continue to operate at a deficit, pulling money out of savings while still spending large sums of money."
Resident Heather Zink said she was upset at the tax increase. She said she had hoped that petitions recently presented to council would serve as a catalyst for dialogue between residents and council but was disappointed at the last meeting when council president Kelly Murphy read a prepared statement instead. "How can you make up your mind before you even heard what we had to say?" she asked. Zink said she was also upset by a part of the letter that characterized the general fund as the cost of doing business. "I struggle to think of any business that would continue to operate at a deficit, pulling money out of savings while still spending large sums of money," she said. Zink told council that it felt like a punch in the gut when it "sold us a bill of goods."
Zink also noted that, according to the ordinance, the limit for an individual loan is $1.5 million "Why would we allow one loan to completely wipe out the fund?" she asked, adding that the fund would need to wait for repayment before lending any more funds. Zink named other local businesses and asked if any of them needed to borrow money to get started. "So, if none of those businesses needed borough funds, why is there a sudden need to create a loan fund now?" she asked. Citing a comment from the last meeting, she said: "We need to stop putting so much stock in getting people to visit, and we need to focus on getting them to stay."
Taylor Callaway: "We are at a critical point in Columbia history, a crossroads in which we will either rise or fall back to being a tumbling town look down upon by its neighbors."
Taylor Callaway said she has lived in town for seven years. "We are at a critical point in Columbia history, a crossroads in which we will either rise or fall back to being a tumbling town look down upon by its neighbors," she said. "We have a great opportunity." She said she sees many exciting and encouraging things happening in Columbia. "There's revival happening here, and I can't stress enough its impact," she said, citing "the restoration and rejuvenation of a number of buildings and businesses." Callaway said the planned downtown hotel will provide jobs, income, and an influx of visitors. "So many of these wonderful projects are made possible by our tax dollars and their matching power through grants and through other investors," she said. "Simply put, it takes money to make money." Callaway urged residents not to mar progress with petty arguments and finger-pointing. "We cant all agree on everything and that's okay. Changes are happening, and I do hope you'll take part."
Frank Doutrich: "It's a matter of doing the right thing."
Frank Doutrich asked council members if they had a copy of the financial report for the last meeting when they voted on it. Murphy said they had. Doutrich said that when he picked up a council packet at the borough office, it did not contain anything pertaining to finance. He said he had asked three people affiliated with the borough about the issue and was told it would be discussed at the present meeting. "Why did I not have a packet?" He then asked borough manager Rebecca Denlinger, "If you had a copy of the finance report, why didn't we, the public, get that? The only thing I can figure is you didn't want us to have it." Regarding a looming legal battle over the revolving loan fund, Doutrich said, "It's not about who wins this. It's not being done to see who wins. It's to see who don't lose. It's a matter of doing the right thing."
James McGinness: "You are the people that the council has to answer to."
James McGinness, who grew up on Manor Street, thanked the audience for attending meetings. "You are the people that the council has to answer to," McGinness said. He then turned towards council members and said, "It appears to me that a lot of you don't care what these people think." McGinness chided council about fiscal responsibility. "You have to realize you have to work within your budget, and you have to segment these increases," he said. McGinness told council that people have a hard time making ends meet. "Things have to change, ladies and gentlemen. These people deserve better. You represent the taxpayers of this town. The taxpayers entrust you with spending their money judiciously, and in my opinion you're not doing it. These people deserve better, and this all has to change."
Shelley Poe: "The majority of us don't want this. And you need to hear that."
Shelley Poe said she is new to the area, having purchased a home here about two years ago. She said she had just found out about the tax hike and is angry about it. "I'm pretty teed off," she said. "I'm highly upset because to try to promote other businesses, in order to do that through taxpayer dollars is wrong. Most people when they want to have business, they scrape and they scrimp, and they do all that they can with family members, with friends. They don't go to taxpayers for money to help with their businesses." Poe, a veteran, added, "This is unjust, and it's very important that you all listen to people who make less than what you make, people that make less than $50,000 a year." Councilman Cleon Berntheizel later attempted to interrupt, but she said "I'm not finished. The other thing you need to remember is, if I have to pay that I won't be able to visit these businesses, because I certainly won't be able to purchase things from these businesses." She said she will struggle to pay the taxes and told council she is a law-abiding citizen and re-emphasized her anger over the hike. "I'm here to tell you I'm not happy about it, because I feel like, as this gentleman [McGinness] said, you're not listening to us. The majority of us don't want this. And you need to hear that."
Kay Leader: "The motives of this council are pure, and their decisions are based upon what is good for this borough that I love."
Longtime resident Kay Leader said she loves Columbia. She said there was a time when she was hesitant to say she was from here, because of negative opinions about the town, but that her feelings have changed. "I feel we're moving in a very positive direction with vision and goals for the future," she said. "In my opinion this is a result of decisions that have been made that are changing how we look, and I'm giving credit to our borough council, to Rebecca [Denlinger], to the mayor for those positive changes. They have been willing to look for opportunities for development and growth in a town that I care about." Leader added that she wants to believe that this direction will eventually have a positive effect on the tax base and subsequently on residents' taxes as businesses and visitors are enticed to town. She said that residents need to think about what they want the borough to be in the future and that she wants it to be attractive and draw people here to visit and live. Leader added that it's okay to question council, but she believes "the motives of this council are pure, and their decisions are based upon what is good for this borough that I love."