Why the Borough is broke

Mismanagement, opacity, and complacency combine to diminish the community. What’s next?

With the Borough’s finances now finally in such a state that it has to actually consider disbanding our police department, it bears reminding of what we wrote here in 2019: 

Make no mistake, Jenkintonians: We are sailing into some stormy seas. We ended the last fiscal year with a half-million dollar deficit, this despite ten years of national economic expansion. Our business district, which the entire community depends upon to stay solvent, limps along. A weaker town center means higher school tax.

The Borough knew even before Covid that it faced a grim financial outlook, and from the time we published that warning, prospects only worsened. Council’s Finance Committee chairman David Ballard claims that prospects for 2024 “look better”, but with the school district recently announcing a 6% tax increase for its upcoming fiscal year, one might reasonably have some doubts. When faced with declining revenues, a business typically lowers its prices. Government usually goes in the opposite direction, which only corrodes the viability of the community it serves.

The Borough already knew of the looming $1.2 million sewer liability to cover our share of what we flush into Cheltenham’s system. 

The Borough then got hit with the reassessment of the Strawbridge Building. The Borough and the school district has to return approximately $200,000 and $800,000 respectively. Those numbers do not include legal fees or interest. 

The Borough knew of improperly received commercial taxes from a business in Cheltenham “for many years”, and that it would eventually be required to transfer those funds with interest to that township. 

The Borough knew that it would have to finally pay Salem Baptist Church approximately $1 million for the easement it seized more than twenty years ago — with interest and legal fees. Why the settlement of twenty-year legal battle coincided with the sale of the property to a major contributor to the county Democratic Party and to Sean Kilkenny is anyone’s guess. The loan amount, like all the Borough’s loans, does not show up on the Borough’s cash-basis budget — only the interest. To learn about the loans and their terms, one must file a right-to-know request.

Finally, the Borough knew it would face the wrath of citizens when it all became public, so it retained the services of Belleview Communications, a Philadelphia-based PR firm last summer for $20,000 to manage the damage control. In other words, the borough spent our money to better explain how they mismanaged our money. (See the letter and invoices here.)

In a comment on the Jenkintown Community Page, David Ballard explained in considerable detail the situation from the Borough’s perspective, but his narrative mostly tells a tale of a reactive Council, rarely prepared or mindful of the pitfalls that this tiny borough faces. We might now rightfully wonder if Jenkintown can afford its own existence — at least if it hopes to retain an economically diverse population.

Or maybe that’s somehow the plan? 

Towns do condemned entire neighborhoods and transfer them to commercial developers. Review the Kelo v. New Haven Supreme Court case to better understand how this happens. There the city used its powers of eminent domain to seize Suzy Kelo’s house and the surrounding neighborhood to make way for a new Pfizer office complex that they later canceled, leaving New Haven holding the bag.  

Citizens of this borough should rightfully be puzzled by the lack of public outreach by our own representatives. Frankly, I think it’s a normal and welcome thing to have open debate in representative bodies and especially in the public sphere.

Our Council, however, toils in a cone of silence. Council meetings typically end with a record of one unanimous vote after another, at least during the four years where I attended nearly every one. 

Yet I know first-hand of the dissent that simmers on that board. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing three ex-council members who unleashed a torrent of criticism of their colleagues. 

While Mr. Ballard waxes eloquently on social media about the details in this devilish problem, we all must remember that it all happened under his watch.

In the reality that exists outside of Jenkintown, a record like his usually gets people fired. But in this one-party town, he knows full well — as do we — that his seat is safe as long as Jenkintown voters remain complacent.

Jenkintown: Revival or Receivership?

For those of us who’ve closely followed the actions of Jenkintown’s government for the past five years or so, the revelations of its inability to fund its own police department comes as no surprise. This site overflows with reports about its ongoing mismanagement and corruption. This specter of dissolution, merger, or receivership is simply the inevitable result of twenty years of one-party government, with strings pulled by Sean Kilkenny. 

Between the years 2015 and 2019, only those required to attend have sat in on more council meetings than I did. I picked up the rock, looked underneath, and sounded the alarm that things will get worse before they ever get better. This site is testament to that. 

The Smeal Audit

When the Smeal audit of the Jenkintown Police Department was finally made available to the public, we could clearly see the iceberg in the distance — and  Council maintained a course into it. Now, council member David Ballard who serves as chair of the finance committee, has been busy on Facebook lately beating his keyboard to death attempting to evade his role in this mess. 

It is important to remember that the Borough did not want to make the Smeal audit public. Upon hearing rumors of its existence, a resident had to twice file a Right-to-Know request to get it released. 

And now Mayor Gabe promises an open process to develop yet another strategic plan to correct course. Are we really going to fall for that? This Borough’s record on transparency would be laughable if not so tragic. The Borough ignored Jenkintown 2035, when it developed the Cedar Street park. Can anyone honestly trust it to adhere to whatever plan they draft now?

I’m not entirely unsympathetic about the Borough’s plight. Small towns everywhere are having to make similar hard decisions. They are often subject to mandates imposed by federal and state governments and public service unions. This tends to leave little discretionary room in the budget for savings. There’s no quick fix to this, but like any weight loss program, it must start somewhere. It took a long time to pack on this flab. It’s going to take a while to get rid of it. 

That said, the Borough must act boldly and immediately eliminate anything unrelated to its two core functions: Public safety and maintenance of infrastructure.

Then, anyone currently serving on council who voted for any of the last four budgets must immediately step down. But before they do, they must demand George Locke’s resignation and fire Sean Kilkenny. These are all the people responsible for this mess. They have failed us. They all must go. 

The Little Things

Stop sending money to the Hiway theater and other non-profits. If we want a theater here, we should just buy tickets. 

Charge homeowners directly for leaf collection as we do special trash pickup or axe the program entirely. Taxpayers are not responsible for your yard care. Buy a mulcher

Curb the recycling program to aluminum and glass only. The only item cost-effective to recycle is aluminum. Paper and plastic just goes to the landfill or an incinerator with all the rest of the trash. 

The Big Things: 

The Borough has assets to liquidate. Cedar Street Park, the Leedom Street parking lot, the library, and Borough Hall.

No one except Deborrah Sines-Pancoe and her acolytes wanted the park. Every year it remains a park strips both the Borough and the School District of potential tax revenue. Its total cost to maintain is buried in the budget and does not include lost tax revenue.

The parking lot serves the business community, I’m often told. If so this community should buy it and turn it into a business if it provides them so much value. 

Borough Hall is an eyesore but it sits on a great location. All its functions can neatly fit into rented space elsewhere in town. Judging by the lack of activity I see there, I recommend 101 West Avenue.  

The Library also sits on a premium piece of real estate and is subsidized by the Borough. Abington and Cheltenham would serve us just as well. 

The Biggest Thing

Only a fully revived commercial district will save Jenkintown from a merger or receivership. In the past twenty years, we’ve watched Hatboro, Ambler, Phoenixville, and now Lansdale emerge as hotbeds of commercial activity and area destinations. Hatboro has recently seen millions of dollars of new development and Lansdale is not far behind for a very good reason. Both of those towns retained the services of the Barth Consulting Group as a Main Street manager. 

I met with Steve Barth in Hatboro in 2018. I suspect that he will echo the calls by this site for Jenkintown to restore parking on Old York Road. I’ve repeatedly made this case, on this site and directly to Borough Council that until this is done, Jenkintown will never, ever realize its full potential as that “special place” while its commercial district continues to wither.

The only question remaining is whether or not Jenkintown citizens will suck it up and make the hard choices. If not, then they’ll prove Thomas Jefferson right when he said, “The government you elect is the government you deserve.”

Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Trevor Owens.

What the 15 Minute City Gets Wrong

Creating walkable communities need not be a contest between conflicting interests. Here’s how everyone gets what they want.

This story originally appeared in Randy by Name, our new Substack.

Recipe for an American Renaissance: Eat in diners. Ride trains. Shop on Main Street. Put a porch on your house. Live in a walkable community.

Those of us who keep abreast of the sustainable development movement, as I have since about 1991, have lately heard of a new buzz phrase: the 15 minute city. The concept embraces many of ingredients in our Recipe, namely the walkable community, the shopping on Main Street, and the ride trains part. I knew this without even reading about it, and this video I watched confirmed my assumptions. 

What is the 15 minute city? Depending on which video you watch, it’s either a common sense plan to improve the environment, our health, and our happiness, or it’s a dystopian scheme designed by elites to corral us all into designated districts to keep closer tabs on our every movement. In my experience, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and as proposed, it promises to make no one happy.

Some parts of this make perfect sense: Live and work closer to what we need. Design and build for people and not cars. Keep your car, but don’t rely upon it so much. Personally, I love to drive, and I never saw a conflict between car ownership and walkable neighborhoods, but I must stress that the Recipe urges people to make the choice to live in such a community. It was never a blueprint for policy.

Both sides tend to ignore the origins of urban decline and the sprawl encircling it. Urbanists will blame auto companies. They blame the railroads for mismanagement and greed. And they blame developers for swallowing up pastoral landscapes to build homes that drain our cities of productive residents.

Suburbanites point the finger at poor civic management for the decay, crime and poor school performance. Meanwhile they defend their desire for more space and highways without acknowledging the tax benefits of home ownership and the hidden costs of building and maintaining so much low-density infrastructure.

Neither side seems to acknowledge how both their political traditions played in creating a national transportation policy in response to the demand for more and better roads. 

From City Beautiful to Urban Renewal

The twentieth century began with the “City Beautiful” movement, a concerted effort to bring more grandeur to cities previously defined more by industrial expedience than artful planning. Philadelphia, for instance, built its Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a veritable Champs Elysées connecting its Beaux Arts City Hall with a brand new classically inspired Museum of Fine Arts. Railroads constructed palatial passenger stations by the scores that proudly asserted the 20th century as the American century. 

Then comes the Depression, another World War, and in between, a World’s Fair that sold the American public on a bright future of free highways. People could soar, if not in the sky, then smoothly along impediment-free roads in their new automobiles. 

Up until this period, private companies provided most of our mass transportation and charged for access which reflected the actual costs of the service, and that mechanism guided the design of our cities and towns. In most of the western world, the important stuff stood at the center, like city hall, the general store, the post office, and the depot. Business and housing radiated out from those things. Further development was incremental but adhered to the pattern.

The advent of the automobile disrupted this tradition — not because of market forces — but because tax-funded highways removed the profit motive from passenger transportation. While this helped to create the most mobile society in history, it decimated a passenger rail system that was the envy of the world. It also created a nasty pollution problem.

By the 1920s, our rail network stretched across nearly 280,000 miles of track, most carrying passengers and going everywhere of consequence. Fifty years later, the passenger rail business nearly disappeared, and today we have less than half the total rail network. This was a political decision.

Pride of Place

Thomas Sowell wrote that “there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” If true, then how does each side accept the inevitable trade-offs without creating resentment? We want people to take pride in their homes, but when someone imposes rules that conflict with their values, it threatens their happiness and makes that pride elusive.

I still consider myself an urbanist, but not one that sees the need for top-down solutions. Under this video on this topic, a commenter succinctly summarized that the 15 minute city requires “…bureaucracy to deal with the foreseeable unintended consequences of past central planning. Free market urban development tends to produce very efficient land use patterns without government planners, however this has been severely constrained by ‘good intentions’ for at least a century.” 

The pro-15 video I watched acknowledges but glosses over claims of opponents who predict less freedom of movement for those living within these cities. Will the 15 minute city assign fine-enforced quotas for automobile usage, especially if one still drives a gasoline fueled car? Inquiring minds want to know.  

I live now in a sort of 15-minute borough, so I say with some experience that having neighbors who do not value the features of urban living diminishes the experience for all residents. I don’t want to live next to someone who hates where they live. As a woodworker, I can assure you that when I turn on my surface planer, you’ll wish I lived an hour away.

And once my family and I move out to a more rural area, I simply ask that proselytizing but well-meaning urbanists don’t follow us. I want us all to have the opportunity to live in a place that makes us happy at a cost we can afford. 

If you’d like to read about the origin story of our country’s transportation policy, I strongly recommend the book Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in the American Century by Stephen Goddard.

For more information about the 15 Minute City, watch these videos and decide for yourself. Then come back here and comment!



PHotos shows damage to a sidewalk apron in Jenkintown.

Walking the walk: government reporter explores the reasons for Fort Worth’s crumbling sidewalks

This article is republished by permission. 

During the holiday season, Fort Worth Report journalists are remembering their favorite stories of 2022. Click here to read more essays.

Fort Worth residents have been responsible for shouldering the full cost of sidewalk repairs in front of their homes and businesses, or face misdemeanor citations, for more than 60 years. Now, the city is considering a 50-50 cost share program with a particular emphasis on low-income homes, seniors and disabled residents.

I first learned about the plight of Cowtown’s cracked sidewalks when I moved into a home in 76104 and started taking daily walks. In some parts of my neighborhood, the path was smooth and fresh; in others, the concrete had cracked and disintegrated so much I hardly recognized it as a sidewalk.

Sidewalks in front of rentals, in particular, were often littered with large fractures and divots, the rentals’ owners far away from the realities of the area. A renter myself, I couldn’t help but notice the sidewalk beside my home didn’t look as polished as my home-owning neighbors.

So I hit the stacks like any good government reporter would. What I found surprised me: Fort Worth has required private homeowners to maintain sidewalks since the 1960s, but stopped enforcing the penalties included in that ordinance several decades ago. What’s resulted is a patchwork of sidewalks in various states of disrepair across the city, with little recourse for owners with lower incomes or disabilities.

I spoke to a disabled activist about the problem in June, who told me it shocked her how much worse Fort Worth’s sidewalks were compared to where she went to college in Austin. Our conversation prompted me to research what other Texas cities do and present their policies in a June article on the subject.

It came as a pleasant surprise when, four months after publication, city staff presented a proposal to city council to establish a cost-sharing program similar to Dallas. Under the proposal, the city would use a portion of the fiscal year 2023 PayGo funding, totaling $2.6 million, to develop the program.

The best part of being a local journalist is seeing the impact your reporting has in your own community. I can imagine a future where, 10 years from now, my walks through my neighborhood will be on new, secure concrete, without a crack in sight. Until then, I’ll keep walking on these uneven paths and reporting on the issues that matter most to the city I love.

Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at [email protected] or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

This article first appeared on Fort Worth Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil

What the audit tells us

As expected, Jenkintown residents have taken to the Jenkintown Community Page to voice reactions to the audit we released on Monday. And like clockwork, the apologists and the “Jenkintown is a Special Place” crowd heaped on their rebuttals. What (so far) none of them has remarked about is how hard the Borough worked to keep this a secret. Are you people okay with that?

It should also be noted that the court handed down its decision on July 31 of this year. It took a resident more than two months to get a hold of a copy after filing the Right-to-Know request, filing it a second time only after hearing rumors of its existence. Conveniently, the Borough managed to keep it under wraps until after the last election. 

We always come back to this transparency thing because it reminds us of Deborra Sines-Pancoe’s assertions that she’s working hard to make sure that your borough government is as transparent as possible. She’s said so on several occasions, usually as an attempt to defend herself right after she worked to keep something under wraps. 

Since the founding of this website in 2015, the list of the Borough’s attempts to ramrod projects, proposals, and policies under our noses just grows longer. The park, the lack of sidewalk data, the refusal to turn over of email records, the Kilkenny invoice redactions, the Taco Bell and Summit Hill fiascos, the Church of Our Savior property development, and now a police audit commissioned by Council that cost an unknown amount of money to get and then more to block. 

When you have to go to court to force your own government to get the truth, you do indeed live in a “special” place. 

Regarding the audit itself, I just want to say that since I moved here in 2002, I’ve had exactly four direct interactions with Jenkintown Police, including the Chief. I can say that in every case, they’ve treated me professionally and with respect. However, I know lifelong residents who tell less complimentary tales. Some are heart-breaking.

I see the audit as an assessment of the organization and how it is run, and not necessarily and indictment of specific officers or their character — although it’s clear that even within such a diminutive force, bad apples can and do exist. The audit points to some major problems that demand remediation, including the department’s oversight by the mayor and Council. To deny, as some have, that there’s “nothing to see here” and that we should all just move along is patently naïve. 

Yes, some of what Smeal recommended (implicitly) will cost money, but in today’s world, thorough record keeping, accountability, and communication are vital tools for keeping our community safe. One only has to look at what’s being spent on the park and handed over to Sean Kilkenny to know that the money is (or was) there. 

Yet to dismiss this report as “obvious” or no big deal is head-in-sand thinking at its worst. If Jenkintown is to be truly special in a good way, then it must demand better from its public servants or find better.