Jenkintown faces a Sophie's choice: Which do we love more? Our cars or our community?

Jenkintown faces a Sophie’s choice: Our cars or our community?

It’s time to decide whether we want nice places to walk or fast places to drive

Last Monday’s Business Zoning, and Redevelopment Committees brought Graham Copeland pitching his services as a business development consultant to Jenkintown Borough. Mr. Graham seemed like an earnest guy and who brought with him at least one solid credential in the field of revitalization; the ongoing redevelopment of Fort Washington, of all places.

Most of us probably think of Fort Washington as little more than an exit off the turnpike into a soulless, flood-prone 1950s-vintage office park and little else. That looks very likely to change.

Mr. Copeland came to the BZR meeting with few specifics for Jenkintown. Yes, we want to fill the empty storefronts, and Mr. Copeland spoke of “public-private partnerships” and how he preferred targeting “mature businesses” that might open a new branch store over startup businesses. The new brewery might offer evidence for this approach. We also already have the 2035 Plan in place, for what it’s worth.

Unfortunately, the meeting barely acknowledged the 800 pound gorilla in the room. With Old York Road making our downtown a pedestrian wasteland, Mr. Copeland didn’t tell the committee what it really needs to hear: Downtown Jenkintown will never be revitalized until parking is restored on Old York Road. Of course, that won’t happen until PennDOT gives the idea its blessing, and that won’t happen until someone in power in Harrisburg orders PennDOT to do so. Any money spent on Mr. Copeland’s services is money down the drain until the state tames Old York Road.

Let’s give pedestrians their own Jenkintown

Jenkintown Plaza
We can easily imagine Jenkintown Plaza with ground floor shops.

Alternatively, we could just rezone a chunk of Jenkintown and foster commercial development there. This is not a new idea. Historically, centers of commerce have shifted within municipal borders thanks to the establishment of transportation, business, or government hubs. It happened in New York with the construction of Grand Central Terminal. In Framingham, Massachusetts, the established stagecoach services forced the route of the railroad to the south, where a new downtown quickly sprouted. Keswick Village grew up around the trolley line that took riders out to Willow Grove Park.

Why Jenkintown’s commercial district didn’t gravitate toward its train station remains something of a mystery. as are many things about Pennsylvania. When developers replaced the factories along the tracks with single-purpose office structures, Jenkintown missed a major opportunity. Imagine instead our own Keswick Village filled with shops, offices, and residences, seamlessly connected to SEPTA’s far-flung transportation network. Imagine a real transit village, and we could happily concede Old York Road to the traffic gods.

We appreciate the fact that most if not all of the people in this town would like to see Old York Road returned to its former glory. Concerts, banners, and lip service won’t do it, however. Someone needs to step up and finally slay the dragon that has stretched across our town since the day PennDOT ripped out the parking meters.

Not found money, real money, our money.

Jenkintown Government and the “cost of a cup of coffee a day” fallacy

Last Monday night, Jenkintown’s Finance Committee and Business Development Committee held their monthly meetings. I attended because I saw an item about a discussion to update the Borough’s sidewalk and street codes on the agenda, but I came away with a more lasting impression about our government’s fiscal attitude.

In short, the Borough needs to borrow $1.5 million to pay for sewer upgrades. Remember that it has already borrowed $1.4 million for the parking lot it built in 2009. While I don’t have the budget handy, this means that Jenkintown already services at least $1 million in debt which this would double.

Think about that when you consider the Borough just bought chunk of property for $250,000 and will likely spend at least another $650,000 to develop it into a park (that no one asked for). While Rick Bunker’s fuzzy math says that taxpayers will not even notice the financial impact of that park project, it fails to consider the loss of not just actual tax revenue, but of potential tax revenue if they sold the site to a developer. And none of this considers the impact to the School District. Logic would dictate that this pocket park commits the Borough for yet another million dollars over the course of the next five years.

The Borough has little choice but to upgrade its sewers, and it deserves credit for some considerable savings on infrastructure maintenance in general. Unfortunately, it also appears to have adopted this attitude that the money it manages belongs not to us, the taxpayers. If the Borough manages to save $15,000 on something, it looks for ways to spend that $15,000 on a pet project. Savings should not translate into “found money”.

One of the bits of savings reported in last night’s meeting was an unexpected recycling grant for $11,589. Committee Chair Kieran Farrell immediately found a use for that money to print more flyers to educate us about recycling, augmenting the thousands spent on refrigerator magnets. Funny me, I looked at that money as something to return to the taxpayers — or perhaps to pay for sidewalk repairs in front of three properties.

To Borough officials, eleven grand seems like chump change, like those ads that say “It’s only a cup of coffee a day!” Except that by the end of the day, we could find ourselves swimming in coffee.

Municipal government has only three legitimate functions: Secure the streets, clean the parks, and fix the schools. It’s not supposed to be a piggy bank for pols eager to plunk feathers in their caps. For Jenkintown that means keep us safe, maintain our infrastructure, and educate our kids.  Everything else is mostly nonsense or better handled by private efforts. That includes — but is not limited to — leaf collection, movie theaters, and recycling education.

A million here, a million there, as they say.

A cautionary tale for anyone thinking they can make a difference

Left in the dark by the Right to Know

A cautionary tale for anyone hoping to make a difference

A friend of of mine who follows my dealings with Jenkintown Borough recently related his own experience that spoke to the futility of civic engagement. An attorney and a one-time senior official in state government, he’s a guy that possesses considerable political acumen. Earlier in his adult life, he and his wife also decided to get very much involved in their own bucolic community just north of Boston. After months of frustration, they decided instead to just move.

Luckily for my friend, his current financial status insulates him from municipal shenanigans. My family? Not so much. Decisions made by Jenkintown Borough and Jenkintown School District affect us profoundly. We therefore have incentive to get involved and to make our positions known, but after our experiences of the past couple of years, rubber mallets to our heads would produce much the same result and take far less time.

Not here, not now, not ever

While our story began with a campaign to discuss the rationality of Jenkintown’s sidewalk ordinance, it evolved into a tale with a familiar theme; that familiarity breeds contempt. We approached the Borough not only asking for help, but we also presented an alternative plan that we thought was a well-reasoned and researched.

The Borough not only expressed no interest in discussing the matter, they took action to actually make matters worse for us. Meanwhile Rick Bunker publicly disparaged us on social media as crackpots, calling our ideas “quixotic”. We were not asking for the Borough to build a protective dome or to mow our lawn. We were asking it to reconsider an ordinance that hurt people financially and produced substandard results. We characterized it as paying for steak and getting McNuggets.

Since this began, here’s a short list of what we experienced:

  • Neighbors falsely accusing us of trying to evade our responsibilities
  • Rick Bunker flatly proclaiming, “This is the we’ve always done it, and it’s the way the rest of the state does it. I see no reason to support this change.
  • Rick Bunker trolling my Facebook page and posting a comment on this website saying, among other things, “I pity your family.”
  • Borough Manager George Locke conveying false information to a judge about a decision to rescind the lien process used to pay for work the resident couldn’t afford
  • The threat of fines amounting to $185 per day for non-compliance
  • Neighbors accusing us of misrepresenting ourselves in a GoFundMe campaign we launched to pay for the work
  • The Mayor of Jenkintown, Ed Foley, blocking me Trump-style from seeing any of his Facebook posts, including those that conveyed official information on the Jenkintown Community Page

A right to know (what we want you to know)

And finally, in an attempt to investigate possible improprieties of Rick Bunker, I filed a Right-To-Know request for emails sent to and from his borough email address. The Borough invoked their right to a 30-day extension, which I believed meant they needed time to assemble the files and redact them for reasons related to privacy.

Instead, I received a letter from the Borough with an estimate for computer forensic services for the amount of $3,800 to retrieve these emails. As an IT professional myself, I knew that such services would only be required if the Borough not only deleted those emails, but wiped them clean from the server.

This made little sense, for a couple of reasons. First, the Borough apparently employs the use of Microsoft Outlook cloud services to administer their email, which means that the emails never really go away. Second, I had already spoken with a sympathetic Council member about this, and he offered to let me see his email account anytime.

No connections, no consideration, no service

The Borough’s letter suggested that I should write the the office of our borough solicitor, Sean Kilkenny, with any questions or concerns, and of course I had questions. The Borough’s letter stated that the estimate I received was the lowest of three, so I asked for the other two. Also, I wondered why I should even need a forensics firm for this, as it would imply that they deleted their emails. I wrote three letters over the course of a month, and I received no reply.

Further research into the document archival guidelines established by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission determines that administrative correspondence, which includes emails, only need to be retained for “as long as administratively useful.” In other words, if Jenkintown lies and says that the emails don’t exist, they have legal cover.

This is obstruction plain and simple. If a citizen has cause to believe that a borough official is up to no good, they have no recourse and no right to access any official correspondence that might support that suspicion. However, you can bet that if the FBI comes calling, those emails will magically reappear.

Our tiny little borough would have you think that its size, demographics, and location would make it an almost idyllic community. Good school, easy access to transit, and a rich mix of housing types should make it the poster-community for small-town living. The dream of such a lifestyle does exist here, but it requires a substantial financial cushion and steering clear of any interaction with its government or calling attention to any issue not already on its agenda.

Welcome to small-town politics at its smallest.

Watch the Jenkintown Borough Council Meeting, May 22, 2017

This month’s meeting includes some interesting public comment, and more arrogant, tone-deaf responses from our representatives.

Don’t miss hearing Rick Bunker’s fuzzy math as he falsely describes how the new park on Cedar Street will not result in a tax increase for residents. The only thing missing from his assertion was a “Ready my lips.” Sadly, he does not speak for the School District, which is vehemently against this park and will take the biggest hit from this folly.

Mr. Bunker’s claims omit the loss of tax revenue not just for the Borough for years to come, but the potential loss of revenue from a properly developed parcel. His part in this false narrative also omit upkeep, insurance, and more. Just the development of this parcel will cost ten percent of the current budget, or about $700,000.

Might we suggest to the Council that they launch a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for this park, and see its supporters bother to donate enough money to cover the ceremonial ground-breaking shovel.

Jenkintown Council and the Big Lie of property boundaries

Jenkintown Council, property boundaries, and the dangers of assumptions

Who owns what? No one knows.

That’s the question we keep coming back to in our ongoing campaign to change the sidewalk ordinance. As we have found at the outset of this campaign, the Borough, and especially Rick Bunker, Sean Kilkenny, and Michael Golden continue to believe that the current ordinance is completely justified because the homeowner also owns the land underneath the sidewalk.

Borough Solicitor Sean Kilkenny, at the Council meeting where we first brought this up, stated quite confidently that “It’s an easement.”

Council Vice-President Rick Bunker replied to an earlier posting saying that according to a lawyer friend of his, our property lines are determined by the markers.

In a one-on-one discussion, Michael Golden stated in a matter-of-fact manner, “But the Borough doesn’t own that land.”

The fact is, none of our public servants really know. Everyone keeps repeating some misinformation they received from those that preceded them or from those they assume should know.

The fact is this: The county does not archive residential site plans. Your deed does indeed have coordinates that a surveyor will use to determine your exact property boundaries, but it’s likely you have never employed one. Despite the fact that your bank will loan you hundreds of thousands of dollars for your home purchase, it will not require a site plan as part of the transaction. You may not own what you think you own. Surveyors all have a story that attests to this.

In an effort to get to the truth, I filed a Right to Know request with both the borough and the county, asking for any documentation that proves Mr. Kilkenny’s assertion. The Borough said they had no such documentation, and the county directed me to their public records website. I had already researched this site and paid a visit to their office where I found only tax maps that show the borough considered three feet of my front yard beyond the sidewalk as a public right of way. Why Mr. Kilkenny thinks there’s an easement, we don’t know. Please show us the proof.

Our property is indeed delineated by markers placed just on my side of the sidewalk. Beyond those markers, we assume belongs to the borough.

We bring this up again, because at public hearings, we’ve heard Mr. Bunker repeat what sounds now like a Big Lie. At the corner of Walnut and Runnymede, PennDOT has replaced or repaired a traffic signal which required work done to the sidewalk. In the discussion about its status, Mr. Bunker asserted that the owner owns that sidewalk, after all. How does he know that?

We appreciate the fact that a re-survey of every residential parcels in this or any town would prove prohibitively expensive, but it would cost nothing for our public officials to stop spreading misinformation.