Jenkintown, Pennsylvania: a bell jar sample of municipal decline

Four issues that expose Jenkintown’s festering malaise and the people responsible for it

Most people who live here want to preserve Jenkintown’s small-town character, and yet our leaders seem hell-bent on letting that unravel. Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe, social media bully and Council VP, Rick Bunker, and finally Borough Solicitor and FBI target Sean Kilkenny have led our town and its citizens into a growing thicket of municipal failures and public outrages.

It concerns me particularly, because I’ve traveled though hundreds of small towns across this region, observing that cities and towns enter decline for many reasons. They keep declining or linger in malaise for mainly one: The absence of capable, visionary, and civic-minded leadership.

My residence in Jenkintown goes back 15 years now, and I can objectively say that in comparison to the communities around us, our town shows little progress. A parking lot, a movie theater, and brew pub do not make up for the continued lack of overall economic activity and declining tax base in our town center, even in comparison to what I found when I moved here.

To any outsider who casts even a casual glance into the activities of our local government, clearly we look bad. Foolish, might apply even better. Here’s why.

One: The paving program

how walkable becomes laughable
A real sidewalk repair program does not leave this mess behind.

Announced to residents via mail without warning in April, 2015 and without any general public hearing at all, the Borough’s paving program caused a mad scramble among residents to fix sidewalks and curbs inspected by borough workers who normally go around picking up trash and filling holes. This provided a bonanza for contractors who took full advantage of their captive market charging wildly fluctuating fees for an accordingly varying quality of work. As a consequence, Jenkintown residents spent double to triple what the Borough would have paid with a wholesale program and have a substandard result to show for it.

Two: Cedar Street Park

Site of the proposed pocket park, currently a storage yard for borough trucks.

Using transparency rules written when no one heard of the internet, Borough Council announces a purchase of two adjacent parcels on Cedar Street at below market price with money discovered from a loan renegotiation and discussed in executive session. Then Council stands back in utter amazement that anyone might object, and emphatically claims its commitment to the open process in the face of public outcry. This purchase not only ignores the goals of the still-not-implemented Jenkintown 2035 plan, but it will cost money that the Borough does not have. We hear that it has applied for grants for design and build-out, but it could instead apply for grants that might further town center development. Or perhaps it might use its limited resources to work on the laundry list of code issues that have grown during George Locke’s tenure.

Three: Taco Bell & Summit House

The announcement of both Taco Bell and the Summit House project landing in Jenkintown all-but-begs deeper scrutiny. They both expose the Borough’s fumbling management and put Council’s commitment to Jenkintown’s future and oft-stated principles of transparency to the test.

When Israel Roizman gets Sean Kilkenny’s way, these historic buildings will be reduced to dust.

The Summit House project just smells bad. Some residents have hysterically predicted a parking apocalypse, but this distracts us from the true threat to our town. The residents who live near the looming project do have legitimate concerns about the impact to their property values. However, the real concern has more to do with the ominous connections between Israel Roizman, the local and county Democratic Party, and Sean Kilkenny. We suspect that Roizman would rather not build here, but he endures this arduous process as a favor to Kilkenny who knows how desperately Jenkintown needs the money to complete future sewer upgrades.

The Taco Bell proposal lays dormant for now as the developers have yet to refile their variance application, but the spectacle of all twelve Borough Council members voting their support of this idea numbs the mind. While we have no issue with a Taco Bell coming to Jenkintown, we do have a problem with zoning codes that effectively mean nothing. Some on Council erroneously claim that they can’t really stop any legal business that wants to set up shop here — except that zoning exists for exactly that reason. The whole spectacle of Borough Council bending over for the sake of a few shekels has any reasonable person wondering why bother paying lip service to walkability? Why not just declare it open season on York Road buildings, summon the bulldozers, and call it a day?

Four: Peggy and Dave Downs

Kilkenny Law Invoices
As usual, the lawyers win while taxpayers lose.

In the interest of full disclosure, I helped with Peggy’s write-in campaign. I did this because of Peggy’s declared commitment to, among other things, a more open government. While Louise and I had our own problems with the Borough, the Downses predicament has exposed Jenkintown government’s bullying tactics and its willingness to use its own zoning codes as a weapon against dissent.

The story began when a new neighbor began renting the house next door and has unspooled in somewhat epic fashion. In an indisputable violation of zoning, the neighbor began to operate a concrete business on the property. The Downses filed a complaint with the Borough, which triggered harassment from the neighbor. Despite several appearances before Borough Council, the behavior continued and a citation was not issued.

Taking matters into their own hands, the Downses filed a criminal complaint in District Court and prevailed with the court finding this neighbor guilty on all charges. Thanks to our own experiences, we already had a low opinion of our borough’s governance. The fact that the Borough not only dragged its feet in helping the Downses, but that they obstructed their efforts to settle this matter sealed the deal in our minds. We began to wonder who or what exactly does this government represent?

Coincidentally, a few weeks after last November’s election where Peggy received nearly 40 percent of the mayoral vote as a write-in, she and Dave received a citation from the Borough for operating an unspecified business in violation of code. The citation arrived without a site inspection or any other supporting evidence. Imagine a restaurant receiving a failing sanitary grade from inspectors based on a Yelp review. Rather than capitulating, the Downses lawyered up and on March 26th of this year, got the citation dismissed in district court.

On the same day as the dismissal, Jenkintown Borough issued a new citation, redrafted to claim the Downses operated a code-violating landscaping business — this despite the failure of the Borough to inspect the premises, even after an invite from the Downses. The citation’s sole basis of legitimacy rested upon the complaint of a next door neighbor currently serving jail time for his harassment of the Downses. This also despite the fact that the Downses operate NO such business at this location. Conveniently, the new citation arrived on the day of the next Council meeting which prohibited Council from discussing the matter.

This leads to one very important question: How much is this costing taxpayers? The only two people benefitting from this circus are Jenkintown Solicitor Sean Kilkenny and the Downs’s attorney — proving yet again that the lawyers always win. The Downses fight this because they have stated repeatedly that they do not operate a business, impactful or otherwise, and the Borough has failed to show evidence to the contrary.

According to the heavily-redacted documents received by Walkable Jenkintown from a Right-to-Know request, the Borough has so far spent $5,550 in taxpayer funds pursuing these citations — nearly as much as the Downses have spent in fighting them. Given Sean Kilkenny’s association with other scandals, we have little faith in the veracity of this figure.

Remember that this Democratically controlled Borough has launched a thinly veiled vendetta against a fellow Democrat. Heaven help the lonely Republican or Independent in Jenkintown who rubs Sean Kilkenny and his Gang of 12 the wrong way.

Keep all this in mind the next time you hear Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe call for civility in public discussion while proudly affirming the Borough’s commitment to transparency. You will not be blamed for laughing out loud.

Summit Hill: The fix is in, Jenkintown

Jenkintown Borough Council failed to vote on Summit Hill last Wednesday. Instead, it told the neighbors around the proposal that they had 45 days to become attorneys and provide proof of their objections to the project. Funny me, I thought that was why we elect Council members.

People are still not asking the two most salient questions that apply to this development. Why here? Why now?

There has got to be a dozen other locations within a five-mile radius where this project will fit without requiring so many variances. And yet, Israel Roizman wants to dump this on our doorstep — just in time to pour new tax dollars into Jenkintown’s coffers as we must now pay for upcoming sewer upgrades, declining business district appraisals, and other looming expenses alluded to by Council that will severely impact the Borough’s budget.

Consider also Israel Roizman’s deep connections to county Democrats, Sean Kilkenny’s machinations and obfuscations and conflicts of interest, combined with the Borough administration’s overall ineptitude, Council’s lack of transparency, and you create a perfect opportunity for an abuse of power.

We can argue all day about parking “shortages”, height requirements, and whatever, but this is all beautifully designed as a tactic to distract us from what must be going on behind the scenes.

Unless we make it clear that twelve council members are going to get resoundingly voted out of office if they don’t stop this, Jenkintown is getting a five-story apartment building where no one, not even Israel Roizman, wants it.

Jenkintown Borough

Statement from Peggy Downs regarding the borough’s citation

Peggy Downs stood before Borough Council last night to read this statement. Unfortunately, Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe cut her off before she could finish. We publish that statement here in its entirety. Please share this post not only with your friends and neighbors, but with any connections you might have in the media or with organizations that might be interested in learning more about Jenkintown’s governmental abuses. 

UPDATE: the Boro has, in fact, re-issued this Violation Notice against us! I received it when I arrived home from work tonight. More taxpayer dollars wasted on this bogus charge!!! Additionally, more unnecessary legal expenses for us just to defend ourselves from an abuse of power! So not fair! Please speak out! Not just in objection of the wrongful spending of our tax dollars, but also to stand up against these malicious acts!! Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have. Thank you for your support!!

I wanted to update members of Council and Jenkintown residents on the Borough’s ongoing efforts to cite me and my husband, David for violating zoning codes, and explain to those here what we have had to endure to clear our names.

In August 2016, my husband and I sought the Boro’s assistance with a property zoning issue at the property next-door to ours and quickly came to learn that there was more resistance on the Boro’s part to assist than there was willingness to enforce our existing codes.

Our filing complaints with the borough touched off a series of criminal activity directed against us by our neighbors. I stood before Council then and described the early-morning harassment, the threats, and the disturbances directed against me and my family, which continued to intensify concurrently with the Boro’s disinclination to protect my rights under our existing zoning code. We eventually filed private criminal charges against our neighbor, which resulted in guilty verdicts and jail time for him.

In addition to not enforcing the zoning code, I also discovered that the Boro had been remiss in properly enforcing our codes pertaining to Business Licenses, Business Privilege Tax Filings/Collections, Contractors’ Permits, Contractors’ Insurance, Rental applications and Tenant Registrations. My decision to run for mayor as a write-in candidate was because I wanted to provide a channel of communication as the residents’ advocate and to also assist in curtailing the noted process deficiencies. This decision was not welcomed by the local Democratic committee. In fact, I was bullied on Facebook by one of the sitting Council Members who made fictitious and non-factual statements about me. At the polls, I was called a ‘cheater’ as well as other derogatory terms. Bottom line, I just wanted to make a difference. I have no hard feelings and I’ve mentioned to many, I am grateful to those who serve our community, where they too are doing so to make a difference.

In the weeks immediately before the election, the Borough issued two property violation notices against us. Additionally, in the days immediately after the election, the Boro requested we come up to Boro Hall on December 7th for a meeting to discuss multiple complaints the Boro had received from our next door neighbor claiming we were operating a business out of our property. We were led to believe and hopeful that the intent of the meeting was to ‘discuss’ these accusations and perhaps subdue the dispute.

However the intentions of the Boro Manager and the Boro Solicitor were not the same. Rather, upon our arrival, they physically handed us the Notice of Violation which cited a “Commercial Business” was being operated out of our property. It is important to note that after having heard of the accusations against us, I had, on several occasions prior to this meeting, invited our Boro Manager, and our Council Members to come to our property to conduct an inspection. Never, did our Manager, or any Council Member ever take us up on the open offer. Therefore, there was never an inspection of our property before this Notice, even though we had willingly offered and suggested!

Outraged, Dave and I decided to fight this as I don’t like being wrongly accused of any type of criminal offense. At great personal expense, we hired our own attorney to assist us with our defense. On Monday, the Judge dismissed the citation because it did not comply with PA statute requirements. However, while the citation has been dismissed for now, the Borough does have the ability to refile it. Dave and I must now wait to see if the Boro Manager and the Boro Solicitor will continue to pursue this as they had expressed their intention to do so after our hearing.

I have a petition containing the signatures of a number of my neighbors who will go on record saying that they have never seen any business activity at our home that would violate our zoning laws. Some of those neighbors are planning on coming to the Council meeting this evening.

Accordingly, I plan to ask Council, how many more thousands of taxpayer dollars will they spend to continue chasing us for a violation (with a nominal fine) that did not occur and is not occurring? It is simply wrong! Finally, I hope that by bringing this matter to light, this type of persecution is never again inflicted on another Jenkintown resident.

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.

Old York Road Jenkintown

The York Road Diet for saving Jenkintown FAQ

Walkable Jenkintown calls for PennDOT to put York Road in Jenkintown on what planners call a “road diet”. In order to reduce traffic, its speed, and to catalyze the revival of commerce on the York Road and the surrounding commercial district, PennDOT must reduce road capacity by removing a lane of traffic in each direction through Jenkintown between Washington Lane and Cloverly Avenue.

Your questions, please.

Q: This idea is nuts. Where’s all that traffic going to go?

A: The short answer is, “somewhere else” but that’s just me caring more about pedestrians than cars. Let’s start with some historical background first.

York Road experiences such heavy traffic volumes simply because it has the capacity for it. PennDOT expanded capacity in the 1970s to deal with a classic 1970s problem: Getting cars from the city to the outlying suburbs and to expand an existing arterial into Philadelphia to accommodate commuter traffic — despite the fact that train service existed to do exactly that. People had begun to lose interest in public transit back then and the Reading Railroad was going out of business, so PennDOT stepped up and gave us lots more roads to drive our cars.

Attitudes have changed since then. SEPTA provides pretty good service between the city and the burbs (despite the constant complaints about it), but more people work outside of the city than within it now, yet York Road remains heavily used because it’s there, not because it’s needed.

So, where will the traffic go? Some will continue to pass through Jenkintown, but almost as much traffic passes through Rockledge as it does through Jenkintown, and Rockledge doesn’t experience the car-mageddon that some Jenkintonians have predicted for here. Speaking for myself, I stay away from Rockledge at rush hour because I know how congested it can get. I suspect thousands of potential trips are canceled in this manner every day. The same will happen in Jenkintown.

Second, alternative routes do exist. Washington Lane and Easton Road are just two. Route 309 exists for exactly this. If you go to Google maps and plot routes (for sample’s sake) between the H-Mart in Cheltenham and the Home Depot in Willow Grove, you save only 1 minute traveling through Jenkintown over taking the Turnpike to 309 south.

Several other technological solutions exist to alleviate traffic flow in this corridor, including the Waze app and other live GPS tools.

In other words, yes, this will largely take care of itself.

Won’t cars just use our side streets?

Have you ever tried to do that? I have. Trying to save time between the Abington Wawa and the Fern Rock terminal, I took the Runnymede/Cheltena/Cedar/Washington Lane detour. Big mistake. I’ll never do that again.

Jenkintown streets are too choked by one-ways, stop signs, oncoming cars on narrow streets, and speed humps. Only a true masochist would attempt that twice.

Isn’t it a state road?

Which is why we have to ask the Governor. For whatever reason, our own borough council has gotten nowhere with this. They keep appealing to PennDOT. PennDOT keeps shooing us away. We think they should go over PennDOT’s head.

Do you really think this is possible?

Yes, but it’d be a long slog made longer by the fact that our borough government can’t get anywhere with PennDOT. Why, isn’t clear, but this for at least the sake of raising the profile of this issue we are petitioning the governor. Nothing good will come from doing nothing.

Didn’t Jenkintown sell off the parking spaces in the 70s?

This is a common myth. The state has always owned that road, and in fact owns it right up to the storefronts. When Jenkintown issued it’s long-range plan in 1962, it planned to expand York Road to four lanes. Since PennDOT always owned that road, stories in the Chronicle suggest it could have removed the parking spaces any time they wanted.

Why do you say Jenkintown isn’t walkable? I walk everywhere in town.

In this context, walkability doesn’t mean ability to walk around, it means desirability. You can, if you want, walk from the Willow Grove Mall to the Olive Garden, but you won’t.

Is Jenkintown the kind of place where you’d park your car and spend the day? Maybe you have an appointment at Hot Yoga or maybe your kid wants a cupcake, but is Jenkintown a destination to spend an afternoon? No. It’s not.

By contrast, in Ambler, you can shop, eat, catch a movie, grab a beer, see a play, or get a haircut. Its atmosphere is more conducive to social interaction than Jenkintown. Ambler has Deck’s Hardware, one of the most amazing independent hardware stores within 50 miles. You don’t just have one brewery, you have two — and a wine bar. You have a barbecue place, a Mexican place, an old-guy bar, ice cream shop, a Rita’s, several gift shops, upscale and downscale dining options, and sidewalks used by people who live, work, and visit there in volumes that Jenkintown can only wish for right now. It has things I don’t yet know about, because it’s changing constantly. This was not the case only ten years ago. Jenkintown has made far less progress.

You don’t want to go to Ambler? That’s your choice. Maybe you don’t appreciate downtown experiences like I do. I love them. Nothing better. In every aspect of that, Jenkintown comes up short, and as a community, we are paying dearly for that.

I feel perfectly safe walking on York Road.

That’s what men say, and men will do all kinds of nutty things with no regard for their safety. Women, and especially mothers of small children, don’t feel the same way. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the true litmus test.

What does making York Road slower do for Jenkintown?

If we can create a more pedestrian-conducive environment on York Road, we have the opportunity to make the properties there more valuable and in the process raise their tax assessments. Jenkintonians are straining under the weight of our tax burdens, made much worse by commercial district assessments declining since 2009 (the year they opened that new parking lot, by the way).

If I told you that a two-lane York Road could lower your taxes, would you support it then?

Doesn’t our Jenkintown2035 plan have the answers?

The Jenkintown2035 plan does express a very high priority on proper development of the commercial district and along York Road, but the plan is essentially useless unless the Borough actually commits to it. The Taco Bell development is a very bad sign. The Borough does not have a Main Street manager. It has George Locke, who has contributed nothing that anyone knows about to this process, and under his watch, code enforcement along York Road has gone lacking.