After a difficult year navigating the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Ligonier Township has received a clean audit, plus news about forthcoming federal money that could alleviate some financial challenges.
Wessel & Company manager Meghan Friedhof at Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting summarized the financial executive summary report for the 2020 audit.
While Ligonier Township held $1,024,279 in total assets at year-end, it finished 2020 with a nearly $107,000 decrease in assets from 2019 — about 9% — mainly in the general fund.
The loss was not unexpected, given the township’s financial squeeze with COVID-19 and resulting state government orders to close non-life sustaining businesses across Pennsylvania.
Taxes played a major part in the income deficit. In total, the township lost nearly $129,000 in tax revenue during 2020 compared to the previous year — an 8% drop, Friedhof reported.
“No surprise of course, this is where we see our big COVID effect on the audit this year,” she said.
Ligonier Township took the biggest hit in amusement taxes from Idlewild & SoakZone, losing $74,000 because the amusement park opened late in the season and operated on a limited basis in 2020. Behind that was a $40,000 decrease in earned income taxes.
Overall, the township received more than $2.5 million in revenue in 2020, compared to more than $3 million in 2019. Other reductions Friedhof mentioned included operating capital grants, which were down about $325,000 because of a grant awarded in 2019 to acquire Ligonier Beach.
Expenses were down as well; the township spent over $2.6 million last year compared to over $3.2 million the prior year, mainly because its public works purchase of an asphalt zipper machine and the Ligonier Beach acquisition both occurred in 2019.
With Wessell’s unmodified audit opinion came a recommendation to clean up some “quirks” in the township’s QuickBooks accounting system like removing old balances, Friedhof explained.
She said three to six months of operating expenses is a good target, when supervisor Stephanie Verna asked for guidance on how much the township should maintain in its cash reserves.
The Ligonier Valley Police Department likewise received a clean opinion in its annual audit, Verna later mentioned.
Some relief is coming to make up for the pandemic losses, as Ligonier Township is anticipating a financial windfall as part of the recent federal COVID-19 stimulus package.
The supervisors at their April 27 public workshop will begin discussing how to allocate the estimated $630,000 that Ligonier Township expects to receive through the American Rescue Plan (ARP).
Township manager Terry Carcella explained that the funding would be split equally over 2021 and 2022, but the township would have until December 31, 2024 to spend it. Officials are waiting for the formal announcement from the U.S. Treasury.
Carcella mentioned several potential ways to use this money, including replacing lost tax revenue, public health emergencies, assisting small local businesses and non-profits, tourism, and public water, sewer and broadband infrastructure projects.
“We do have a lot of need for the funds, but those uses will be determined by the supervisors,” he said.
In other business, the supervisors are considering conducting a financial feasibility study of swimming pool concepts at Ligonier Beach that the township could use to gauge interest from private foundations in backing the project before developing a master site plan for the property.
The township would engage Teeter and Associates at a cost of about $5,000 to prepare and pitch the study to multiple regional foundations, Carcella explained.
“It’s really fair to everybody. It’s fair to the supervisors, it’s fair to the people that want a pool. Let’s look at where the support’s at, what those costs would be, come up with estimates. We have to find support out there. If we don’t find support for this financially from one of the 10 to 12 foundations in Western Pennsylvania, then we have a problem,” he said.
Chairman John Beaufort said he wanted to meet with Bob Teeter to determine his scope of work before the board potentially votes on the contract at its upcoming workshop.
Beaufort and Verna emphasized outlining the potential swimming pool options and cost ranges that the township is seeking support for in the study.
The Ligonier Beach citizens group that is championing the return of a swimming pool at the currently closed recreation spot continues to conduct its own analyses of the property.
Melissa Eller updated the supervisors on the group’s progress in researching the necessary permits, regulations, insurance and Americans with Disability Act compliance needed to reopen the swimming pool. The committee has also researched the site’s wells, pumps, filters, drains and pool resurfacing needs and developed a budget based on those received from other local swimming pools, Eller said.
The group is also in the process of filing for non-profit status, has met with engineers and experts in building natural pools, and is also scheduled to consult a grant-writing company to assist with public funding options.
“We are very cognizant of the one-year deadline promised to our committee by the supervisors and we are doing our best to move quickly. The research and information that our group has found thus far leads us to believe a swimming pool is a viable option for inclusion on the master site plan. We believe the township has an opportunity with this property to develop a four seasons park that could provide a positive impact economically to the valley,” Eller said.
Verna reminded fellow supervisors of Ligonier Township’s commitment when it purchased Ligonier Beach to allow the public to have input in its redevelopment.
“We do have a group of people that do have energy and are excited about something. Nobody showed up here with any excitement around just having a walking trail and a couple of trees to sit under. I want to make sure we close out this process because we did make the commitment to the community that we have sessions and allow people to have input. This is the only citizen-based idea or group that has come forward,” she said.
The supervisors were also interested in exploring a new public notification system that would enable residents to communicate directly with township officials and staff via text message.
TextMyGov has more capabilities and flexibility in comparison to the Savvy Citizen service Ligonier Township currently uses, according to Carcella.
Only 616 residents have signed up for Savvy Citizen, which costs $2,748 annually. The last time zoning and community development officer Jim Nieusma sent a message in the application was two months ago.
“With only 600 people listening, it really isn’t serving the population,” Nieusma said.
TextMyGov would be $752 more than the township pays for Savvy Citizen., Carcella said. He wasn’t sure if any other local municipalities are using TextMyGov.
Engineer Ben Faas of the EADS Group related a stormwater issue where runoff from the Oakwood Hills development is causing flooding at a Westview Drive residence. The downhill running water is bypassing existing catch basins.
The township will need to address this problem sooner rather than later as it’s not going to get any better, Carcella said.
The supervisors also unanimously approved three minor subdivisions recommended by the planning commission.
Raymond Graham’s plan transfers a 1.23-acre lot from his more than 35-acre property on Ross Road as a side-lot addition to his nephew Michael Hootman. Beth Price Leone’s subdivision separates a house on her late mother’s nearly 8-acre estate along State Route 271; the family plans to sell the home and retain about six acres of residual property for recreation.
The third subdivision involves Girard and Laurie Tibbott’s almost 530-acre property along Matson Road. The majority of the land sits on the eastern side of the road, so the couple wants to detach the narrow strip that abuts the western side — almost eight acres — and convert it into a woodland buffer.
The supervisors voted to table a proposed property maintenance ordinance until their April 27 work session where they can review it before advertising a public hearing. They also tabled a Board of Supervisors Governance policy.
The board held an executive session to discuss personnel and real property prior to the meeting and adjourned into another executive session for personnel with no action planned to be taken afterwards.
Public service announcements included a reminder to citizens to be cautious about outdoor burning during dry and windy conditions. Ligonier Township residents who want to participate in the April 24 Dumpster Day recycling event should also contact the township municipal office by April 20 to register for a time slot to drop off items.