Montgomery County Commissioners

How to do open government — A lesson for Jenkintown

Last night’s the “Conversation with the Commissioners” event at the Abington Township Office not only gave us a good dose of information about county activities, it also revealed the stark contrast between Jenkintown’s government with one committed to transparency above and beyond the strict legal guidelines.

First, the concept: Montgomery County is a big place, so having our commissioners set up open forums to meet constituents shows a true commitment to an open process that provides residents with updates and allows them to directly ask questions and make suggestions. Compare that to Jenkintown, a tiny place with twelve representatives who only show up in public at official meetings and the occasional public event to deal with a looming, controversial issue (if even then).

Second, the venue: My first time at the Abington offices starkly contrasts with what we experience in Jenkintown. I understand that Abington is a much larger municipality with a larger budget, but seeing their council room fully equipped with working microphones, cameras for live video, comfortable seating, windows(!), and working ventilation shows a desire by a local government to encourage participation. While I do strongly believe that government must scrutinize every dime that passes through its hands, I also believe that the people should demand government venues as points of pride.

Third, the message: We seem to have quite the proactive county government. Chairperson Val Arkoosh proudly cited a litany of programs and activities and at the same time heralded the county’s restored AAA bond rating. Our taxes went up, but they are still the lowest of all the counties in the region, she claims. Whatever you might think of its policies, it does seem that the county expedites them with a level of professionalism and transparency sorely missing in Jenkintown. In other words, the county doesn’t punch above its weight.

Setting aside the politics of all this activity or even the necessity of county government in general, the presentation displayed a conspicuous degree of competence and professionalism that Jenkintown residents deserve for our community. Perhaps that new borough hall might some day become a reality, but some of that Cedar Street money might have instead gone to a working AV system, functioning air conditioning, and better gallery seating in Council chambers — anything that invites citizen participation and transparency. Then again, that would have to be a cornerstone of our government’s agenda. 

View the archived live stream of the event here.

jenkintown see no evil

Jenkintown and the dangers of happy talk

It always puzzles me when I see and hear people lament controversy and seek a return to nothing but happy talk, whether it’s about their town, their particular interest group, or about some relationship. The Titanic might be sinking, but they just want to gaze at the majestic iceberg in the water. Those of you who just want “everyone to get along” or to stop saying bad things about Jenkintown truly need to get your heads out of the sand. In the face of recent events, your choices are these: lead, follow, or get out of the way.

I too love, or at least desire to love, this little town. It is a special place in more ways than one. However to live here with blinders on does this community a grave disservice, especially when the main source of the problems here comes from our own government. The abuses and incompetence of Borough Hall simply cannot be ignored any longer. As homeowners and taxpayers, we ALL should be concerned and not be afraid to speak out against what is happening. Because YOU might be next.

In the 15 years I’ve lived here (so far), the one thing that continues to bother me is the underlying fear that so many have expressed to me of Borough Hall. People do not want to speak out because they do not want to get in the Borough’s crosshairs. I get that. I suppose with all that’s happening to Peggy and Dave Downs, who could blame them. The last thing I want to do now is improve my house in any way because of the permits it will require and the hassle I expect to get. If you don’t think that Sean Kilkenny and the gang aren’t trying to make an example out of them, you are kidding yourself.

I don’t know about you, but I’m simply not the type to bend over and take it. I grew up in a hard scrapple household with a single mother who fought her way through life. She was a hell-raiser, a union maid, and at times a determined battle-axe of a woman who did not always do what she was told. She was a high school drop-out who would eventually graduate from college at 49 with a degree in education. So, no, I’m not going to be quiet when I see good people wrongfully targeted by government abuse.

I know there are plenty of others here in this town who get this, who are more than a little sick and tired with our government’s activities, but you have to speak out now. I would also urge you to reach out to the media or any other organization you know of that might take an interest in delving deeper into this matter and others.

A couple of years ago, the National Geographic’s website published a charming piece about our “Big Hearted” town. That may indeed be true, but failing to consider the flaws in that heart makes the story a lie. Not everyone here is happy with what’s going on. Besides the negligence of our government, people leave here because they can’t pay the taxes. Some of that is not under our control, but much of it is.

Jenkintown is slowly but surely becoming an enclave for the wealthy on one side and a transient “community” of renters on the other. If you think it’s bad now, just wait another ten years.

Hatboro Dish, Hatboro, Pennsylvania

Who will steward the Jenkintown2035 plan into reality?

Making the case to hire a Main Street manager for Jenkintown

Central to the discussion of Jenkintown’s revival is the Jenkintown2035 plan. Two years ago, through the input of Jenkintown residents, we drafted our vision for the town’s future. You can read all about it on the Borough’s website.

As plans go, it is pretty comprehensive, and it does have plenty of fine ideas. Its contents lay out a fairly predictable but solid vision for an older, inner-ring suburb such as Jenkintown: An emphasis on “walkability”, architectural preservation, good connections to transit, etc.

However, we’ve heard repeatedly that the number one concern of residents is the revival of the commercial district. In the section covering economic development which includes the commercial district, the plan lays out these three guiding principles:

Continue to support the growth of Jenkintown’s Town Center district as a destination for arts, entertainment, dining, and music while maintaining its distinctive identity and sense of place.

Build upon the established scale and historic character of Jenkintown’s commercial areas while improving the downtown experience by enhancing the public realm, creating a pleasant strolling environment, and establishing a cohesive identity for the Borough’s commercial areas.

Encourage new development that grows the Borough’s business and property tax base and creates new and diverse employment opportunities within the Borough.

Not meaning to beat a dead chihuahua, but how does a Taco Bell advance any of those three principles? How does a million-dollar pocket park?

How Hatboro manages

We have frequently cited Hatboro as an example to follow. It has not only kept its on-street parking, it today finds itself in the midst of a real revival. It has many things in common with Jenkintown. It has transit, a traditional downtown district, walkable neighborhoods, and ready access to transit.

Hatboro also has a plan for its future development, but unlike Jenkintown, it hired a steward for that plan in 2011 — a professional consultant named Stephen Barth of Barth Consulting Group. Since Mr. Barth became Hatboro’s Main Street Manager in 2011, he has overseen the rehabilitation of its downtown as well as more than $45 million in residential and commercial development throughout the borough.

Hatboro’s council and manager delegated that authority to Barth, and the results speak for themselves. As Barth describes it, he serves as the point man for any new project in Hatboro. He takes the plan, and as he describes it, works backward from the outline, always asking the question, how does that help us achieve our goals, and if it doesn’t how can we steer it in that direction?

We sat down for lunch with Barth at Bernie’s in the heart of Hatboro to chat about his role in the budding revival. This Bernie’s he pointed out, represents a true $2 million investment in the town’s commercial district. It has preserved the streetscape, and gives both residents and visitors yet another contemporary dining option.

Bernie’s also features outdoor seating, something that Fontana’s Restaurant, its predecessor, did not have. Though still open when he became the Main Street manager, Barth stepped into the very tired space and found it completely empty at lunchtime on a beautiful day. So, he proposed to the owner to conduct a little experiment.

“I said if he would let me set up tables on the sidewalk, I would buy lunch for anyone who sat there.”

Then as now Hatboro had no ordinance prohibiting sidewalk cafes as long as it didn’t block pedestrian traffic.

“Just my putting tables outside started to attract attention, drawing people into the restaurant.”

The experiment proved a rousing success, although one that took more than a few dollars out of Barth’s wallet. “I didn’t consider that people would start ordering the most expensive items on the menu,” he smiled, “or bottles of wine!”

Nevertheless, he proved his point. At a certain point, foot traffic attracts more foot traffic — something that a traditional downtown like ours is designed to accommodate.

Cloudy with a chance of 8 balls

Borough Council member Kieran Farrell reminds residents at every opportunity to read and comment on the Jenkintown2035 plan. While laudable, Council’s recent actions show the futility of further public involvement.

We strongly recommend that if the Borough truly believes in this plan that we helped to draft, then it must allocate funds for a trained professional to turn it into reality. No one in Borough Hall currently has the qualifications for that role, least of all our current Borough Manager who spent most of his time during the “Conversation” in the corner of the cafeteria.

Do we seriously believe that current Council leadership will delegate that authority? Let’s ask the Magic 8 Ball.

Uh oh.

Jenkintown's assessed value

Council Meeting Roundup: A real debate, smokescreens, and warm turds

A packed house witnessed Jenkintown Borough Council engage in some actual debate and three presentations for developments that promise to have real impact in the community.

Here’s a quick roundup of the lengthy but lively meeting.

Proposed Taco Bell Development

Handed the chance to redeem themselves for gutlessly supporting a project that abrogates their own zoning and degrades our town, Borough Council treats it like a warm turd.

Council member Michael Golden proposed that the Borough ask Summerwood Corporation to voluntarily pay a 50% surcharge over their legal tax obligation in support of the school system. In my time covering these issues, I couldn’t think of a single instance anywhere where such a solution was ever proposed much less implemented. Golden didn’t provide any examples to show precedence either, and Solicitor Kilkenny also thought little of the idea.

In response, Golden back-pedaled and amended his motion to instead withdraw its support of the project. Mind you, Council’s vote has no real affect over the project moving forward. That lies in the hands of the Zoning Board.

However, it did provide Council a golden opportunity to express its contrition for callously dismissing not only its own zoning code, but public sentiment as well.

In the discussion, Council Vice President and Social Media Bully Rick Bunker again spouted his sky-will-fall sentiments by calling this insult to our community a “bird-in-hand” situation. One has to wonder why a person with such eagerly expressed erudition and above-average intelligence would back such an obviously terrible idea. Either he’s not so smart after all, or he’s putting his own personal interest over that of the community he represents.

The motion to withdraw support was tabled 11-1 with Golden standing alone.

Jenkintown School District Budget Presentation

Between the Jenkintown School District and, say, the Trump Administration, I’m not sure which governmental entity lays down a better smoke screen for its acolytes. The JSD claims it is in the red — at least $600,000 this year. It then showed us some very clear charts to illustrate the state of its finances over the course of the past ten years.

You might not be aware that that as it raised your property taxes over the past ten years, the JSD enjoyed some healthy surpluses — more than $2 million at one point. In fact, the JSD has run a surplus every year since 2008. In 2003, we paid a total tax bill of about $3,000 per year. Last year it was over $7,000. One can be forgiven if they think that the JSD took food off your table and kicked a few families out of their homes just so they could sock cash in their piggy bank.

The JSD blames their predicament on falling property assessments, in decline every year but one since 2008. Did it ever occur to the JSD that the more they raise our taxes, the less salable our homes become? Yes, people move here for the school district, which raises our taxes, which suppress our property values, which compels the JSD to raise our taxes again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

What’s the solution? According to Council, Ms. Takacs, and those that regard the arguably overrated school district as untouchable, we should write our state reps. Steve McCarter, our rep, typically looks for solutions for this broken system by nibbling around the edges, tinkering with formulas, and raising taxes — all of which have proven ineffective.

The real solution calls for eliminating the school tax altogether and supporting Property Tax Independent Act. Education benefits the entire commonwealth. More members of this commonwealth should contribute — not just property owners. The current system is broken.

Assurances that the teachers pension system obligations will plateau soon — always “soon” — has not, and will likely never, come to pass. The whole pension system resembles a Ponzi scheme anyway. It’s time teachers contribute into a 401K program like the rest of the work force. I want good teachers paid well, but after they no longer work for us, their retirement becomes their responsibility.

Abington Friends School Development

The Abington Friends School plans to build a brand new, state-of-the-art athletic facility and outdoor track with lighting. Because this all lies within Abington, Jenkintown has no real standing, but because of its proximity to our border, an inter-governmental courtesy is exercised, giving our Council the opportunity to comment. A few residents expressed a concern about the lighting of the field, but it looks like construction crews will be moving in very soon.

New Apartments at 610 Summit

Roizman Development wants to tear down Salem Baptist and build 74 mostly one-bedroom apartments for the elderly. The new building, while conventionally handsome, sure does seem to loom over that location. It stands at four stories tall, and its occupants will have a commanding view of the back yards of their Cedar Street neighbors.

York Road and Noble Station Bridge

We will soon get to test drive a road diet for York Road, though not in the heart of our town. According to Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe, PennDOT plans to begin the reconstruction of the bridge at Noble Station. The project will pinch the road down to two lanes in both directions, with lengthy merge lanes on both sides.

Remember that it took PennDOT two years to replace the bridge at the train station, so we’re going to get a good taste of what we believe should happen anyway.