Let's dive into the Jenkintown budget

Jenkintown Borough Budget review: Transparency takes another hit

Five percent increase still leaves Jenkintown with a $400,000 deficit

Last month, Jenkintown Borough Council voted to raise our taxes by five percent, exceeding the rate of inflation by sixty-two percent. Council Vice President and Social Media Bully Rick Bunker dismissed any concern by reminding Jenkintonians that our government spared us any increases for the past three years. In other words, be grateful that our government didn’t take more from us.

According to Bunker and Jenkintown’s nominally qualified Borough Manager George Locke (3% raise in 2019), most residents would see “only” about a $60 hike. We would ask if it’s only that much, then why raise it at all? Is there an institutional budget anywhere that couldn’t be cut 5% without the sky falling? (Answer: No. There is not.)

The only two council members to expressed anything approaching resistance were Chuck Whitney and Michael Golden. Within his brief statement about priorities, Whitney remarked, “I think though we need to understand this is not really our money. We have to be careful to distinguish between what’s nice to have and what we have to have.” Whitney acknowledged the added staffing, but continued, “Next year, I think we have to take a hard look at any additions. We can’t do everything.”

In a longer statement, Michael Golden supported Whitneys comments adding, “I’m a little concerned about how we communicate items with the borough with our constituents. I’m concerned with the communication effort and transparency above everything else. I think it’s difficult for people to see the budget and see why we make decisions and make other decisions. I think we can work harder in being transparent in how and why we act.” (Comments begin at the 35:10 mark.)

Golden also pledged to redouble efforts to communicate with the community.

In a rather specious retort, Council member Christian Soltysiak said, “All of our budget meetings are open to the public.”

If Soltysiak believes so strongly that the borough conducts itself with complete transparency, then why did most of the community, including some council members, find out about the purchase of the Cedar Street property after the fact? 

Simply putting up a notice and holding the meeting may fulfill the barest minimum of legal requirements, but in a town with 12 representatives for 4400 people, a little outreach might go a long way to counter the suspicions that our government does not have our best interests in mind. Any fan of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” will see the irony.

Here’s your five percent

So far, the Cedar Street property has cost us $268,000 just in budget outlays. Add to that the lost tax revenue to both the borough and the school district — which is not accounted for in the Borough’s budget — and that number easily crests $300,000 and will only increase. Have the properties around the proposed park increased in value yet? Just asking.

From what we understand, much of the raise comes from police pension obligations. Currently, Jenkintown has eleven police officers, and one full-time police sergeant earns about $100,000 in salary plus benefits and pension — a bill we get stuck with long after that officer leaves our force.

Wouldn’t ten be enough? How about nine? We ask only because we wonder if anyone else did. For a low-crime town such as ours, do we need so many cops or is this just more homeland security theater? Just curious.

We spend over $26,000 picking up leaves. You get charged directly for trash pickup, but your neighbor pays for your yard maintenance. Does that make sense? Is it fair? Only wondering.

The library will receive $240,000 of your money. Maybe you believe that’s money well spent, but we have a lot of wealthy people in town saving hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not millions) by sending their kids to public school rather than a private school. Their stock portfolios probably look better than ever and they’re getting a big tax cut this year. Perhaps if they believe we need a library, they could contribute more. Did you go to the library recently? If the town didn’t subsidize it, would you donate to it? If not, why not? Just asking.

Since 2015, the Hiway Theater has received $39,000 in subsidy from our tax dollars, not including the money they don’t contribute in property taxes as a non-profit. Have you been to the theater recently? If not, why not? The $6,000 the Borough will send to the theater in 2019 is the equivalent of about 120 memberships. Is there a reason why the theater couldn’t find 120 members in and around Jenkintown to get this off our budget? Kind of wondering.

These numbers admittedly make up a relatively small amount within an $8.6 million budget (with a $400,000 deficit), but five percent of that is $430,000 — or roughly the total of what we’ve outlined in possible cuts. These are only the items that stand out to us. You can bet there’s more. There always is.

Eliminate these amounts and arguably much more, and we could easily go another year without a tax increase, and we would bet our house that the sky won’t fall, houses won’t be left to burn, and your toilet will continue to flush.

Jenkintown toilet

Jenkintown Public Works committee plunges into sewer issue

Jenkintown Borough rarely sends out emails about its committee meetings. This month’s public works committee meeting was the exception, because of a particular challenge facing our town — where to send what we flush down our toilets.

Currently, Jenkintown sends all of its sewage through Cheltenham which then sends most of its sewage to Philadlephia. According to the engineers, Cheltenham has not kept up with maintenance, and now races to upgrade their system.

Since Jenkintown’s sewage accounts for just over 11% of their total flow, we’re on the hook for a little more than that percentage of the remediation costs. So far, this puts Jenkintown on the hook for $1.2 million.

Besides the cost, this impacts Jenkintown’s hopes for further redevelopment. Sewer capacity is measured in EDUs, or “equivalent dwelling units”. In Pennsylvania this amounts to about 400 gallons per day per household, and the Department of Environmental Protection allocates the number of EDUs depending on the capacity of a municipality’s (or company’s) treatment system.

Because Cheltenham receives and treats all of Jenkintown’s sewage, Cheltenham has veto power over any development proposal in Jenkintown if it exceeds our allocated number fo DPUs.

Penoni Asssociates brought a fact-finding presentation to the committee, outlining several options with projected costs ranging from $39,000 to $10.4 million. Penoni engineers and most of the council members present seemed to agree that doing nothing was not an option. No one is happy with the Cheltenham’s performance.

Much of the presentation focused on sending our sewage to Abington. This may or may not involve the construction and maintenance of expensive pumping stations.

Clouding the picture further is Aqua’s impending purchase of Cheltenham’s water system, including its sewers. A representative from the company on hand last night expects the company and the town to complete the deal before the end of this year.

No matter which option it chooses, Jenkintown is faced with a major and costly (for Jenkintown) public works project. Couple this with the exit of Glanzmann and their contribution to our tax roles, the ongoing struggles of our commercial district, and Council’s insistence on burdening this town with a park that no one wants, and taxpayers can expect to see more of its tax dollars flushed down the drain.

jenkintown's dubious achievements

A Jenkintown Christmas letter

Wondering what’s going on in Jenkintown? Glad you asked.

Thanks to six seasons of “The Goldbergs”, Bradley Cooper, and a glowing piece on the National Geographic website, Jenkintown often finds itself in the national spotlight. On paper, it sure looks like the type of town fit for a George Bailey and his savings and loan. Except that the deeper you dig, the more it looks like Pottersville.

Let’s take a look at Jenkintown’s dubious achievements of 2018:

Four of our major officials are being sued by a resident for civil rights violations for a bogus zoning violation because she had the audacity to run for mayor in defiance of the local Democratic political machine.

And what led us to this lawsuit? The Borough’s bogus zoning citation getting smacked down by the ZHB by a unanimous vote after nearly ten hours of testimony that starkly revealed not only George Locke’s incompetence, but Council leadership’s intolerance for dissent as well. Last we checked, the borough has spent more than $20,000 in defending its citation and prosecuting this resident. That number should increase almost exponentially by the end of next year.

Our Borough taxes are going up 5% this year. Despite this, Jenkintown Borough refuses to sell the property it bought two years ago for a quarter million dollars to build a park no one asked for and that will cost nearly a million dollars to complete.

School district taxes went up almost 4% to help pay off a debt load to buy things the district never really needed and for pensions enjoyed by teachers and staff no one can accuse of being underpaid. This comes after nearly five years of 3-4% annual hikes, so that Jenkintown now spends about $25,000 per pupil. Recently it announced plans to build a “security vestibule” to protect our kids from a shooter who won’t arrive for the next 10,000 years.

Our commercial district, long in the doldrums since on-street parking was removed to make our main street a four lane highway continues to molder, while surrounding towns have all fully revived since the Great Recession, becoming attractive destinations.

In November, we received the news that one of our major businesses, Glanzmann Subaru will leave town by the end of next year, leaving a huge gap in not only our commercial real estate market, but in our tax rolls as well. We can look forward to another significant tax hike next year as well.

Our borough manager who, thanks to his self-afflicted physical infirmities, can’t be bothered to get out of his Toyota Sequoia to perform actual inspections of properties he’s cited for violations received a 23% pay raise three years ago plus more since then. This year he stated under oath that putting a lawn mower in your pickup probably means you’re running a business.

Administrators of the Jenkintown Community Page on Facebook will turn off commenting on any posts that spread bad news because of the potential to scare away potential residents.

After more than thirty years of hand-wringing over what to do about residents parking on the Walnut Street sidewalks, we simply explained how the ongoing and documented non-enforcement of its own code exposed us to an ADA-related lawsuit. In a meeting, George Locke expressed his skepticism.

And prominent citizens who can afford to are getting out, usually right after their last kid graduates from school.

Bedford Falls or Pottersville? You decide.

Sean Kilkenny, Deborra Sines-Pancoe, Rick Bunker, George Locke
Clockwise from top left: Sean Kilkenny, Deborra Sines-Pancoe, George Locke, and Rick Bunker.

Jenkintown and its leadership hit with civil rights lawsuit

Dave and Peggy Downs have served the Borough of Jenkintown and its four de facto leaders with a Federal civil rights lawsuit.

The suit filed in Pennsylvania’s Eastern District Court, names the borough along with Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe, Council Vice-President Rick Bunker, Borough Manager George Locke, and Borough Solicitor and Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny.

The suit alleges that these four were responsible for prosecuting the Downs family for zoning code violation in retaliation for Peggy’s decision to run for mayor in 2017 against the wishes of the local Democratic Party committee. Peggy’s write-in campaigned garnered more than 35% of the vote.

The complaint alleges that:

Defendants engaged in multiple corrupt actions, conspired with one another against Plaintiffs and, after Plaintiff, Margaret A. Downs, exercised her First Amendment Rights to participate as a candidate and run for election for the public office of Mayor of Jenkintown Borough, Defendants used the Jenkintown Borough Zoning Code as a weapon to retaliate against Plaintiffs by falsely accusing them of operating an impact business, in violation of the Jenkintown Zoning Code, out of their residence and further trumping up evidence Defendants knew was false for the sole purpose to harass, intimidate, punish, embarrass and humiliate Plaintiffs and to cause great economic harm to Plaintiffs by forcing them to undergo the expense of appealing trumped-up zoning violations.

Specifically it cites that the “Defendants conspired to retaliate against Plaintiff by trumping up false evidence, including suborning perjured testimony from witnesses, and falsely alleging that Plaintiffs were operating an impact business from their home … in violation of the Jenkintown Borough Zoning Code.”

downs v. jenkintown lawsuit
Download the complaint here.

And further that, “Defendants did nothing to investigate and obtain evidence of the alleged violation because they knew that Plaintiffs did not operate a business out of their home.”

While the Borough is insured against the threat of such lawsuits, the insurer is not obligated to cover damages awarded in the event of “deliberate violation of any federal, state, or local statute, ordinance, rule or regulation committed by or with the knowledge and consent of the insured.” Courts typically award plaintiffs in such cases amounts extending into the high six figures.

The lawsuit caps off more than two years of contention between the Downs family and the borough, starting with a complaint the Downses filed with the borough against a neighbor who eventually was found guilty of not only running an impact business from his property, but also criminal harassment against the Downses after they filed the complaint.

You will find Peggy’s account of the events up until March, 2018 here.

A month after the election, the Downs were called to meet with Kilkenny and Locke under the pretext of discussing an ongoing dispute with the next door neighbor. Instead, they were handed a letter of complaint citing the operation of an unspecified business in violation of the zoning code.

When the county judge dismissed the violation for lacking detail, the Borough returned with a redrafted notice citing the operation of a landscaping business. The Jenkintown Zoning Hearing Board would later dismiss the complaint after nine hours of testimony in three hearings by a vote of 5-0.

To date, the Borough has expended more than $21,000 pursuing of this complaint, most of which benefitted Sean Kilkenny’s law firm, Kilkenny Law. Naming Kilkenny as a dependent precludes his firm from representing the Borough in this matter. The Borough has retained Suzanne McDonough from the law firm of Holsten & Associates of Media, Pennsylvania as outside counsel.

Deborra Sines-Pancoe is Associate Director for the Friends Council on Education. Sean Kilkenny is not only Jenkintown’s borough solicitor, he also serves as the Montgomery County Sheriff. Rick Bunker is president of Prescription Advisory Systems. George Locke has served as Jenkintown’s Borough Manager since 2013.

Read more here:

Jenkintown Lawsuit Complaint

Jenkintown 2035 tip-toes around issues it needs to address head on.

Jenkintown 2035: Not thinking big enough

Jenkintown adopts a long-range plan that tip-toes around issues it needs to address head on.

Last week, after five years of discussion, Jenkintown Borough Council formally adopted the Jenkintown 2035 plan. After a half a decade of notes, presentations, debates, and fact finding, the fact that no one involved with the plan — except for someone from the county — witnessed the vote came as quite the anti-climax.

The plan paints a lovely future for Jenkintown. It looks to a thriving commercial district, preserved historic housing, and enhanced transportation options among other other things. As these plans are typically the result of consensus, a reader will find almost nothing controversial in there.

As such, like any plans that attempts to accommodate such a variety of public suggestions, it is deeply flawed and it exemplifies the futility of the public process. StrongTowns addressed exactly this issue just last week in this post. StrongTowns founder and author of the article nails it when he writes:

I’ve come to the point in my life where I think municipal comprehensive planning is worthless. More often than not, it is a mechanism to wrap a veneer of legitimacy around the large policy objectives of influential people. Most cities would be better off putting together a good vision statement and a set of guiding principles for making decisions, then getting on with it.

The plan is well-meaning and could provide a blueprint for Jenkintown, but only if the Borough puts someone qualified in place to steward it. As best we can tell, that person does not currently have a desk in Borough Hall.

Here’s just a few things that the plan failed to address or got wrong.

Jenkintown 2035 rendering
Artist rendering of a future Jenkintown where people sip coffee in busy intersections.

York Road, York Road, YORK ROAD! Jenkintown’s core will never truly revive until York Road is put on a traffic diet. We hammer on this point all the time, but it’s true. Everything must begin from there. Until that happens, the only developers interested in bringing anything major to the town will be auto-oriented. You simply cannot get a critical mass of foot traffic unless you create more pedestrian-oriented commercial space, and you can’t do that until York Road is tamed.

Wholesale district development. There should be some major incentive or marketing push for a wholesale redevelopment of the area between Cherry and Cloverly. Right now that rag-tag bunch of mostly nondescript, auto-oriented buildings are doing no one any good, least of all the community.

Apples to oranges comparisons. The plan cited in inventory of over a million square feet of commercial space in Jenkintown and then went on to compare that favorably to Center City and Fort Washington. Really? In comparison to those places, how much class A commercial space, office and retail, do we have in comparison? By my reckoning, it’s tiny, and outside of the buildings by the train station and the old Strawbridge building, next to zero. Sadly, Jenkintown’s office and retail inventory is largely obsolete. Much of this would be addressed by the preceding point.

Streetscape. I find it odd and more than a little aggravating that the plan talked mostly about commercial streetscape. Company heads and entrepreneurs typically prefer to set up businesses where they like to live, and what improves the look of a residential streetscape? Great, well-engineered and well maintained sidewalks. You make a town a great place to live, and all else follows, and if you remove the burden of sidewalk repair from individual households and make it a wholesale program, you get more and pay less. There is simply no argument against that.

In simple terms, the plan does not think big enough. For such a small town like Jenkintown to survive, it must add density. It must do whatever it can to get more people to settle and work here, not fewer — and that includes bringing in more children. The whole Summit Hill issue exposed a rather unsavory attitude some residents had about the prospect of more kids in the school system. Sorry to have to tell them that this is not and should be a gated community.

For Jenkintown to survive as an independent entity, it needs to add density, not disperse it. I know there’s a mindset that wants to fight that, but there’s no denying the economics of it.