Jenkintown Borough Council meeting for November 27, 2017

Last week’s Borough Council meeting brought us good news, bad news and worse news.

Good news: No property tax increase.

Bad news: It will still cost more to live in Jenkintown.

Worse news: No property tax decrease.

Rick Bunker, social media bully and council member, proudly announced that the 2018 budget will contain no property tax increase, but trash collection will cost more and parking fees will double.

The worse news that you still won’t find a tax decrease comes mostly as a result of Deborrah Sines-Pancoe’s Gang of Twelve’s tone-deaf attitude that such a thing can never happen.

Case in point, Council approved a resolution suggested by the aforementioned councilor to donate $700 to buy T-shirts for a well-meaning, but municipally irrelevant cause with no discussion. Rick Bunker in the blink of an eye made a motion to donate 700 dollars from Borough funds. Seconded, and then unanimously approved.

Anticipating the “But it’s only $700!”, argument, please re-read this post that argues it’s not the money, it’s the attitude. This organization could more readily raise that and more through its own GoFundMe campaign, but why go through the trouble when a simple plea to Council entrusted with our tax dollars renders a check fired off on a whim. The Borough will buy T-shirts, but they won’t fix their sidewalks.

Pocket Albatross Park

Your taxes also won’t go down because the Borough must now deal with a flooding problem on Cedar Street. According to our own engineer, remediation could cost upwards of $900,000 — or the equivalent of one pocket park.

Remember also that the Borough must soon chip in for sewer repairs, a tab that they must cover with borrowed money coming from a lending market seeing increasing interest rates. That will cost about two pocket parks.

Speaking of taxes, the Borough also awarded the tax collection contract to a new company called eCollect. At the last meeting, the owner of the company gave a rather lackluster presentation, and couldn’t quite recall the exact number of employees he had. “Approximately thirteen,” he replied. In committee Rick Bunker claimed to have check references, but the minutes did not mention names.

This might be a good point to remind readers that our borough solicitor Sean Kilkenny currently finds himself under investigation by the FBI for his association with a pay-to-play scandal involving Allentown’s mayor and Northeast Revenue Services, a tax collection firm headquartered in Wilkes-Barre. Allentown was Kilkenny’s client.

Record retention policy upheld

Also of note from the last meeting, Council also approved Rick Bunker’s resolution to continue adhering to the state’s records retention guidelines. Rick all-but-wanted to let this pass unnoticed, however for anyone concerned about the Borough’s record on transparency, this is actually a big deal.

The state’s records retention guidelines, approved in 2006, come from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. One of these guidelines allows the Borough to destroy its digital recordings of the minutes as soon as the Borough commits them to paper and approves them — or one month. In 2006, most municipalities probably recorded their meetings on tape, which makes archiving and organizing this record burdensome. However, today the mp3 file of a Borough meetings is only about 140 megabytes large. In other words, one thumb drive could store about five years worth of meetings.

Why bother? Well, why not? The Borough need not use its own hardware. readily and easily stores all digital media from anyone free of charge.

The guidelines also allow the Borough to destroy all emails when it determines they no longer have any official value. Given the Borough’s fight to prevent us from reviewing them upon request, I’m sure they’re relieved about that. Bet Hillary Clinton wished she worked here.

Speaking of transparency, the Borough posted its 2017 budget on their website as a PDF graphic. This implies that someone in Borough Hall printed out the Excel spreadsheet to paper, scanned the 60-plus pages back into a PDF document, and then posted it online. They could have more easily generated the PDF directly from the spreadsheet, saving the Borough considerable time and cost. Unfortunately their method produced a document that prevents the viewer from selecting the embedded text. There’s no excuse for this incompetence.


Jenkintown School District

Stepping on Jenkintown’s political third rail

It’s time to talk School District and why the school tax is unravelling our community

Any discussion of Jenkintown inevitably leads to how much the community values its tiny little schools, and if the school has any shortcoming at all, it’s an unnamed need not yet met. By most measures, Jenkintown schools fare well in most state-wide comparisons of test scores, and everyone from parents to administrators to realtors all but fly those results up a flag pole. In the minds of many here, why mess with success?

During the last election, Pennsylvania voters approved a referendum that allows governing bodies to eliminate property taxes as a method of funding schools. In Jenkintown, we saw not a little hand-wringing over this. When I volunteered at the poll in Ward 2, I watched a school board member point to that question on the sample ballot, emphatically telling a hapless voter in a tone normally reserved for pedophiles, that “this question scares the hell out of me!”

Of course it does. Without its power to tax, a school board becomes properly focused on serving only the interests of students — not the administration and not the teachers union. A rationally empowered school board deals exclusively with curriculum, oversight of the administration, and it represents the educational concerns of the parents — full stop. It submits a budget like any municipal department to a higher, more objective authority and must then live within that budget. As someone who always has to deal with limited budgets, I can tell you it forces you to become resourceful and smarter about your job. Do you really think that a school board populated with people in or connected to academia — most with no kids in the system(!) — and who never have to worry about paying the light bill can properly represent those who struggle to live here?

Prop 1285 won’t by itself actually do much, especially here in Jenkintown, but it did serve to gauge support for a real solution to the school funding problem, the passage of the Property Tax Independence Act (PTIA), also known as HB/SB 76. If enacted, all funding for public schools in the state, with some exceptions, will come directly from the state. And yes, our school board truly hates this. No one likes to be stripped of their power, no matter how much they abuse it.

The reasons often cited against passage of 1285 and eventually HB76 strain credulity, and typically reveal someone who failed to even read the proposed bill, relying instead upon the PSEA talking points. If one reads the actual bill, every argument against gets shot down.

Fallacy: “The only folks that may benefit from this bill are retirees in big houses. The rest of us will suffer. “

If HB76 passes, our household will get upwards of a $4,000 tax break. Yes, according to HB76, income and sales taxes do rise, but the poor don’t pay income taxes, and if they don’t get stupid with money, they’ll pay almost no more in sales tax. In our case, we’d have to buy $85,000 of taxable merchandise to pay the equivalent amount of taxes.

Every year in Pennsylvania, more than 10,000 homes are listed for auction at sheriff’s sales. Many of those homes had no mortgages. The owners couldn’t afford the school tax.

Fallacy: “They will raise our income taxes (which is a volatile source of revenue) and sales tax.”

Is the property tax a stable source of revenue? Not according to the Brookings Institution.  Right in the first paragraph of this article, Brookings shoots down that assumption:

More than in past economic downturns, state and local governments were a prominent casualty of the recent recession. States in particular saw their revenues plunge. Although state taxes have been rebounding, local property taxes have dipped, consistent with a two- to three-year lag between home prices and property tax rolls. These reductions coincide with state cutbacks in local aid, further squeezing local budgets.

In other words, property taxes enjoy no immunity from the effects of an economic downturn.

The tax bill before Congress may indeed do away with the property tax deduction, but we don’t itemize so we never claimed it anyway. We are solid working class. We will surely benefit financially from the elimination of the school tax. If you make more money than us and you itemize, then we no longer have to pay so much of our income to educate your kids.

Fallacy: “The money has to come from somewhere. That sounds like unicorns and fairytales to me.”

Indeed it does have to come from somewhere, but by what reasoning should it come primarily from homeowners? Ethically, how does one justify that when everyone benefits from public education?

As I previously wrote here:

For most of the history of western civilization, only the wealthy owned property. Levying a tax served as a form of income tax, since those who owned property generated income from it. That changed with the rise of the middle class and the industrial revolution, but it changed wholesale after World War II thanks to the GI bill and the home interest deduction. With property ownership within reach of most working Americans, local governments continued to apply a 17th century solution to a 20th century problem.

Property taxes also fuel the spread of sprawl and gentrification, driving out long-time owners who can no longer afford rising assessments. Not too long ago, a drive from Willow Grove to Doylestown took you through beautiful pastoral landscapes. Today, it’s a vehicular meat grinder thanks in part to the property tax system.

If HB76 passes, here’s what happens to the JSD:

Not enough that anyone will notice. HB/SB76 freezes the budget at existing levels when the bill goes into effect. All increases in school budgets are tied to the rate of inflation.

Please note that because the School District has leveraged itself so heavily, Jenkintonians will continue to pay a property tax until the district has paid down those debts. However, the law prohibits adding to the burden without a local referendum. Also, the JSD may not expand its budget beyond state allocation without a local referendum. In other words, we all finally get a say in the matter. Anyone who objects to that objects to democracy in action.

Fallacy: “But what about renters? They also pay through their landlord.”

In no way does a family of four living in a three bedroom apartment of any size in an apartment complex in Jenkintown pay the same amount of property tax levied upon a typical three-bedroom free-standing house in this town. Our total property taxes amount to about $7,000 on a 1300 square-foot house. We have one kid in the system, so this funding scheme really hurts us.

Scare Tactic: “It’s going to be a windfall for businesses”

Unless you haven’t driven up Old York Road in the past 20 years, you know that Jenkintown needs more businesses, and the ones it does have need to do better. Putting more money in the pockets of people who employ others, invest in our town, and create wealth can only benefit the community. Plus, under HB76, the wealthy will pay more in income and sales tax.

Scare Tactic: “It will hurt our kids.”

The quality of a child’s education is mostly determined by parental involvement and not by the amount of money lavished upon each student. Jenkintown spends $26,000 per pupil. The highest ranking school in Massachusetts spends $16,000. Last year, our new superintendent sent out a letter boasting of Jenkintown’s ranking among high schools. The number one school in that list spent $13,000 per pupil. How many times do we guild the lily before it collapses under its own weight?

I am a product of a large school system. I graduated with over 400 classmates from an inner-city high school. I went to a university of more than 20,000. Yet, despite these setbacks in my education — at least by Jenkintown standards —  I have learned to question every assumption and to challenge every status quo. We used to call that critical thinking. When confronted with a phalanx of emotional individuals who insist that I am wrong, I instinctively know I’m on the right path. I know that the sky will not fall. It never does.

Our kids will be fine. If their parents have more money in their pockets, I’d argue that they’ll be far better off. If there’s one thing that Jenkintown can be proud of is the level of parental involvement, which is the real reason our school does so well in the rankings. It can only enhance their education to experience economic diversity rather than see it driven out.

Read the facts here.

Voting the Write-ins to Win!

If you are supportive of the write-in council candidates, it is very important that you vote ONLY for them if you live in the wards where they are running.

Ted Histand is running in Ward 3 against Rick Bunker and Kieran Farrell. If you vote for Kieran and Ted, you can hurt Ted’s chances of winning by adding to Kieran’s total votes. In a three-way race, a handful of votes can determine the outcome.

In Ward 4, Ryan Cella is also running in a three-way race. Please vote ONLY for Ryan if you truly want to see him win a seat.

Please share this post and please vote tomorrow.

Instructions for voting (downloadable PDF documents):

Wards 1 and 2

Ward 3

Ward 4

Jenkintown Borough Council Meeting October 23, 2017

We skipped more than a few meetings thanks to summer activities, but we’re back with the last Council meeting before the election. (Vote for Peggy).

No real drama here, except yet another resident comes to complain about the Borough’s lack of code enforcement. Rather than tell George Locke to do something immediately, Borough Council President Pancoe resorted to her typical wishy-washy stance to ask George to maybe look further into this. “We’ll be monitoring,” she assured the less-than-convinced resident, who first reported this problem six months ago.

Also, the wife of J.C. Glass at 301 Runnymede apparently fulfilled her duties to Jenkintown’s Democratic Machine by engaging in what can only be described as pre-election shenanigans. In a bumbling attempt to paint mayoral candidate Peggy Downs in a bad light, she came to read (yet another) letter of complaint about activities at the Downs’ residence. Apparently, there should be a law against mowing your lawn twice a week. This thinly veiled attempt at dirty politics orchestrated by Rick Bunker et. al. would be laughable if it weren’t so pathetic and out of character of our town.

The rest of the meeting is pretty much standard stuff, although we do learn that a new restaurant will be occupying the old Family Cafe space and that Neshaminy plans a spring beer fest next year. We also learned that George Locke attended Borough Manager school and apparently passed. We wonder how much that cost and what it will ultimately get us. A manager that walks around our walkable community a little bit? Doubt it.

Why vote for Jenkintown’s write-ins?

Because Jenkintown deserves discussion, civility, and disclosure from our Borough government.

The three write-in candidates for office here in Jenkintown have issued their talking points explaining their positions. These fully explain why Walkable Jenkintown fully supports this write-in effort, if for no other reason than to remind the entrenched council that too many Jenkintonians can’t count on a fair hearing or even basic respect from our Council. We are dismissed, shut out, and even bullied for daring to question the party line.

Jenkintown Borough Council has cast 112 votes in a row without a single nay. That should give anyone some concern about the tolerance for debate on that board and in the general community. Twelve people on the board and no one disagrees? Ever?

Why vote for the write-ins, Peggy Downs for Mayor, Ryan Cella for Council, Ward 4, and Ted Histand, for Ward 3?

1.Time for new leadership and fresh voices…

  • To be in service to the community, rather than to party politics
  • Changing the culture to encourage community involvement
  • Acting as a voice of the residents and business operators

2.Time for our government to enforce our codes and laws in a fair, consistent, and timely fashion…

  • In order to maintain and preserve the character of our community, our public safety, our property values and our historic and diverse housing stock

3. Time for our policy decisions and budgeting to be fully transparent.

  • Detailed Agendas in advance
  • live stream of EVERY meeting
  • Detailed minutes and accessibility to recordings of every council session
  • Proposed Budgets posted online BEFORE they are approved

4. Time to Follow the priorities of our newly developed 2035 Comprehensive Plan…

  • Which clearly sets forth revitalization of our Town Center as the top priority for our limited investment resources (supported by survey data)

Download a PDF of these talking points and feel free to spread them around.