To nobody's surprise and without anyone attending the meeting of the East County Water Control District's board of commissioners meeting last week, a small proposed rate hike in assessment fees was defeated by a vote of 3 to 2.
In prior workshops, two of the members of the ECWCD had said they favored a budget plan that modestly raised taxes for as low as 79 cents for people living on a quarter-acre lot, which includes most of the residences in Lehigh. Richard Thompson and Nathan Stout voted for the hike while Mike Welch, Mike Bonacolta and David Deetscreek voted not to raise the assessment fee.
The two voting against the small tax hike that would have added a few dollars to the assessment rate of $105.15 annually for homeowners had said a few cents to a few dollars would not hurt anyone and that the ECWCD needed to give its employees a raise.
The budget passed on Aug. 19 by commissioners represented Scenario B1 which can be viewed of the Internet at ECWCD.com. There were two other scenarios which would have raised the assessment rate slightly.
The assessment fee established by the ECWCD is $105.15 for an acre of land. One of the three plans sought a three percent hike in the assessments which would have amounted to a hike of $15.35 an acre. For someone living on a half-acre the fee would have been half of that and on a quarter acre, the average lot size in Lehigh, would have hiked the assessment fee by 79 cents a year.
Two weeks ago, five people carried signs asking that their taxes not be raised as they walked in the parking lot of the ECWCD on East County Lane. They said they had been asked by CAIT (Citizens Against Increased Taxes) to stage the protest.
Mike Welch who has said over and over again that he would not raise taxes said later that Stout and Thompson had voted to raise taxes by close to 2 percent
"The majority voted for a conservative, no frills budget that respects the continued challenging times for Lehigh residents. I made a promise when I was first elected not to raise taxes until Lehigh and district were out of the recession. We are not there yet," he said.
He noted that both Stout and Thompson had led a concerted effort to raise assessment fees by arguing that things were better in Lehigh to raise taxes and that it was time to raise them for projects.
In other business, the board discussed with the manager and staff a self-study within the district on what structures such as roads, bridges and other structures owned by the district should be turned over to Lee County.
Given Gov. Scott's feelings that local municipal/ county governments are responsible for certain areas, including transportation, it seems appropriate at this time to have that discussion within the district and with members of the legislature, Welch said.
Chairman of the ECWCD board said at the beginning of the budget hearing two weeks prior that he would not vote for a hike in the assessment fee. He was followed by Mike Bonacolta that he would not raise taxes either. With the knowledge that Mike Welch would not vote for a raise in assessment fees, there was no real surprise when it came to a final vote.
The ECWCD maintains canals, culprits and some bridges in Lehigh and has about 30 people on its payroll.
Stout had maintained that real estate sales were up in in Lehigh and that the economy was turning around for a reason in voting for a small increase in assessment fees.