Lehigh council seeks vote on how LOST money is spent

Mayor: leave fund as it is, with all money going to roads; Council says funds could be used for building rehab, parks

LEHIGH — More funds would be available to community development and maintenance in Lehigh, under a proposal by the City Council to change how the town spends its portion of county Local Option Sales Tax.

The citizens of Lehigh will have the final say, in a vote on the issue on Nov. 6. Council members say they want to split the funds up into several categories, instead of apportioning it all for work on the roads.

While the council members are unanimous in requesting this change, Mayor Phil Richardson said he is against the idea.

“You can see how much trouble we have with our roads. I believe it should leave it alone, and let it all go to roads, in my opinion,” Richardson said. “I am going to campaign vigorously for a no vote on that LOST fund.”

City Council Member Doug Dellachiesa said the proposal was “kind of my idea to begin with.”

“It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while,” Dellachiesa said. “I’ve been upset that all our sales tax goes to roads. It builds up quite a fund.”

Right now there’s a need for lots of funds in road repair, Dellachiesa said. But historically this isn’t always the case.

“We’ll have a big pile of money sitting there, and we’ll need to have monies for the park, or maybe some maintenance items we could have bought and we can’t,” he said. “Because it was voted on for roads, we can’t use that.”

Lehigh gets funds from the 1 percent Local Option Sales Tax in Webster County. The town usually gets between $40,000 and $45,000 per year from this fund, said City Clerk Theresa Grossnickle.

The city council’s plan would split the money as following:

• 50 percent to streets and infrastructure

• 10 percent to parks and recreation

• 20 percent to community and economic development

• 20 percent to maintenance and equipment

The change would be to ease the burden placed on the town’s general fund, said Council Member Melissa Rude.

“I feel this would be more beneficial instead of it all being distributed straight to just roads,” she said. “We have a lot of projects that are coming up. We do get our new water treatment plant.”

The mayor said the town needs to do a better job of controlling its spending.

“My theory on the infrastructure is, our water, our sewer and our electrical and our streets are our infrastructure,” Richardson said. “We charge water bills, and we charge electric bills, we charge sewer bills. Those should be self-sufficient, Those shouldn’t need to be subsidized by our LOST fund. If we’re spending more than we’re bringing in, we need to control our spending.

“You could see at last night’s meeting,” he said, of the council meeting held last week. “There was a lot of money spent last night from our general fund. For the roof, the survey, and all the other things. If we keep spending like that, that’s why they want that money changed so they can keep spending like that.”

The council on that night had approved a survey of a road that’s had some significant problems, saying they hoped to find more options on fixing it.

“Three months ago, I asked for a spending freeze. It never got off the ground,” Richardson said.

Several buildings on main street Lehigh have been vacant for years, and now have a serious need of repair or replacement. Dellachiesa said that’s something the city would like to address.

“We would like to do something with those buildings there downtown,” he said. “We’ve had some ideas floated around. Some want them saved, some want them torn down and put a park there.

“I think if we get a little economic development money, maybe we can do something to get that Brownfield grant money to rehab buildings, or help people rehab buildings,” he added. “The city has never had a jump start for something like that.”

Dellachiesa has been with the city longer than the mayor or other council members — on and off for about 25 years, he said.

“Our maintenance guys, there are times when they need new equipment. We need trucks and stuff,” he said.

Equipment that’s used for roads can use a portion of LOST or the road use tax, he said, but some equipment doesn’t qualify.

“That could put a strain, if that’s a big item on the utility funds,” Dellachiesa said.

Rude emphasized that the council can’t make this change; it’s decided by a public vote. She said she hopes to spend more time communicating with the public on what this change would be for.

“We’re going to try to get some more information out there in October before the voting occurs,” Rude said. “We might try to hold some kind of town meeting to let everybody be aware of why we would like to change this, and what our thoughts are behind this.

“A lot of people don’t come to council meetings, they hear it second- or third-hand.”

Richardson emphasized the cost of road work in Lehigh.

“Lehigh isn’t a flat town like some other towns around the area. We use more money for roads than probably the average,” he said. “I think our predecessors who put that all to roads was a good idea.”

Disagreements aside, Dellachiesa said he was grateful how the current council and mayor were able to work together.

“We talk about things, we don’t just sit around that table arguing about everything,” Dellachiesa said. “We don’t always agree, but most of the time we don’t argue. We respect each other.”