The Heavy Jenkintown Tax Burden: Cost vs. Value

Jenkintown High School

Most people who live in Jenkintown will tell you they love living here, but they won’t tell you that taxes are reasonable. Most I’ve spoken with will express a sentiment along the lines of “they’re already too high”, especially when we start talking about paying for sidewalks.

The question then becomes, do we get good value for our money? The heavy Jenkintown tax burden might not pay for sidewalks, but it does fund one of the highest rated school systems in Pennsylvania. We have a right to be proud of that achievement, but a quick look at the raw numbers might have you wonder if the cost of that ranking exceeds the value it returns.

Results of Jenkintown’s Beautification, Part 4

Yesterday, I toured Greenwood Avenue, where a good part of the curbings appear to be made of granite, not slate. This interests me only because my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts typically used granite curbs, which typically hold up better against the elements and snow plows. My mom’s neighborhood, built in 1971, and sees about the same amount of traffic as your average Jenkintown side street, has yet to repave the street or replace any of the curbs. No, she did not have sidewalks, but if she were still alive, she’s probably say “See? I told you so.” This, despite the fact that Springfield maintains its sidewalks. City ordinance only requires residents keep them clear.

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The Verizon building near the train station does indeed cut a fine presence in our town, but it would appear that the Borough conveniently overlooked this patchwork. This meets code? [UPDATE: Soon after we published this photo, this section of sidewalk was fixed.]

Pleased to meet you, Jenkintown

Louise and I have lived together in Jenkintown since late 2002, marrying a year later. The year before, Louise’s mom had passed away, and while she stood to inherit the house, she considered selling it and buying elsewhere. We didn’t much like the house at the time, mainly because of its tiny kitchen and lack of porch. After an exhaustive and frustrating search for a better house in a location as good as Jenkintown, I finally said to Louise, “You can always improve the house, but you can’t always improve the location.” So, here we are.

My interest in pedestrian infrastructure stems from my personal and professional background. In 1990, I started publishing Roadside Magazine, that found an audience of people who loved traveling America’s back roads and Main Streets. The magazine initially focused on the charms of the great American diner, but the travels that took me there inspired a deeper appreciation for the towns in which we found them. Before long, we announced our “Recipe for an American Renaissance” and its ingredients: “Eat in diners. Ride Trains. Shop on Main Street. Put a porch on your house. Live in a walkable community.

Our house fullfills four of the five ingredients of the Recipe (still no porch), but I welcomed the opportunity to live in a town and area so rich in aesthetics, history, and culture, and I looked forward to getting involved in the community.

This blog represents my attempt to help make Jenkintown as great a community as possible. Thanks to my travels around this country visiting hundreds of other communities, learning how they have thrived or declined, I find myself in a unique position to compare our progress against similar neighborhoods and older inner-ring suburbs. No place is perfect, and they all have their quirks, but when they do things right, it shows in their downtowns, their parks, their schools, and certainly their streetscapes.

Forgive me, but I contend that our streetcapes are becoming a greater mess, and this latest project is not improving matters. Yes, the fresh asphalt certainly provides a smooth, uniform surface that makes driving our streets a sheer pleasure, but in a walkable community, I care more about the pedestrian experience. The policy that guides our Borough has rendered our sidewalks a patchwork mess of often substandard construction that will decay much faster than a uniform, wholesale approach to pedestrian infrastructure would provide.

Beyond that, despite the assurances by the Borough that pedestrian safety underlies this program, the end results will continue to hurt people, both physically and in no small way, financially.

I contend that a community asset should be a community responsibility. We don’t charge tuition to our schools, we share the cost of maintaining the streets, and we don’t levy an entrance fee to our playgrounds. Why are sidewalks (and curbs) excluded from this single-payer system?

We need to find a better way, one easier for everyone, not just the wealthier households. Sidewalks are, and should remain, a public right of way. I contend that we are spending individually far more than we would as a community for a better streetscape and we are getting far less for that money. The money so far spent just on the patchwork fixes on Runnymede paid to a single, lowest-bidding contractor would probably rebuild the sidewalks for the whole street.

Louise and I merely want this discussion to finally take place. Council thinks you have no real issues with this policy, but my discussions with other residents show otherwise. I know that my prose often suffers from an ascerbic and sarcastic tone, but I come from a hardscrabble background, raised by a single mom with no patience for nonsense. She had to battle her way to a comfortable lifestyle that only came late in life. I inherited her attitude if little else. Meet with me, and you’ll find I’m not just a crank. If I were, there’s no way I’d be lucky enough to marry a woman like Louise.

Maybe we can improve the location, and I’m happy to do my part in what should be a shared effort. A better planned, more equitable, approach will certainly bring this community greater benefits than what we have now. I’m betting my house on it.

August Council Meeting: What we learned

At last night’s council meeting, we attended with the plan to ask a few questions and then to observe. However, another resident who spoke after us brought up many additional concerns, which also received plenty of sympathy but no relief. Seeing an ally, we followed him out the door after he aired his concerns to compare notes.

Last night, I had some specific questions:

1. When will the borough post all the agendas and meeting minutes missing since last April and February respectively?

Answer: They’re up! I checked the website around 4:00 P.M. yesterday and nothing had changed. Shortly after, I posted on Mayor Ed Foley’s Facebook page asking him why minutes and agendas where still missing. He did not know, but he’d check. Talk about our government in action!

2. With regards to the debt service line item in the posted budget summary, what is that $244,000 in debt (or 4% of the budget) servicing?

Answer: As I expected, mostly the new parking lot.

3. Why does the borough only post a summary of the budget on the website? Where is the document with the breakouts?

Answer: No real reason. Borough Manager George Locke assured the council that upon request, he will provide a PDF of the entire budget to anyone who asks. I followed up by asking why not just post the entire thing online? Unless the borough is penny pinching and can’t afford the extra (insignificant) bandwidth or server space, there’s no need to post a summary.

4. What can anyone who does not comply with this ordinance expect to happen?

Answer: This discussion prompted Council to jump ahead in their agenda to display a two-slide powerpoint show that outlines the process. In short, those not in compliance face a court date before the Honorable Judge Elizabeth McHugh, where she can levy fines up to $600. Mind you, the law also states that jail is also in the offing.

In an earlier email sent me, Councilor Rick Bunker told us that we could expect the borough to slap a lien on our property and the borough will do the work, except that this isn’t exactly true, either. As it happens, the borough has no budget for performing any of the work itself.

We are not civil engineers, but one would reasonably expect that with a project of this scope, statistics already exist that show a rate of non-compliance. This is what you budget for.

Finally, it’s hard to shake a sense that we’re living in a kind of Bizzaroland. Even in the face of many stories of hardship, mismanagement, and potentially brutal enforcement, the councilors who in theory represent  our best interests as a community seem completely oblivious to the way they are dismantling it with this process. The councilors themselves used terms such as “onerous” and “hardship” in their discussions, but could only punctuate their remarks with shoulder shrugs.

I’m happy to say that we are finally hearing from a growing number of residents who have expressed utter disgust with how this program is being carried out. Please contact us here or via our Facebook page. We are planning to meet with other concerned residents to strategize for the September Council Meeting.

Let your voice be heard. The time is now.

Please spread this around.
Please spread this around.

How do we pay for this? A few suggestions…

I would hazard a guess that if you polled all twelve of Jenkintown’s volunteer councilors about finding a better way to pay for sidewalk and curb repair, to a person, they’d likely respond, “but how do we do this without raising taxes?” Indeed, Councilor Laurie Durkin said just that via email, following with, “Residents must pay one way or another.”

Maybe, but a one-time, four-figured, out-of-the-blue financial broadside hurts far more than a long-range, pedestrian-focused plan.

So when Ms. Durkin asks me, “Do you have another suggestion or source of funding?”

As a matter of fact, I do.

Document published by the Advocacy Alliance that’s all about paying for sidewalks in a more sensible manner. Best parts start on page 18. Click to download.

Over last week, I received a reply to my request for information from The Alliance for Biking and Walking. I was sent a link to a document that contains twenty-eight pages of information on the topic. In case no one at borough hall had a chance to look this over, I will present some of the more salients points here.

In the introduction, the authors acknowledge the problem of funding. Many towns struggle with this issue, but they seek sustainable solutions because:

The response we heard from communities who are overcoming this challenge was remarkably consistent across community size, context, and project type: We build and maintain our bicycling and walking facilities because they are a priority for our community. [Emphasis theirs.]

The portion on sidewalk maintenance begins on page 18. Among other reasons, sidewalks are great ideas because they:

…provide tremendous value to communities by making walking safer and easier. Even without sidewalks people will walk, leading the FHWA to recommend that “[g]iven that people walk despite not having facilities—for exercise, going to friends’ houses, accessing transit, etc.—it is neither rational nor acceptable to build places that do not have places for people to walk.” [emphasis mine] In addition, sidewalks, like trails, can be more than transportation facilities; they can be “a place to abide, to meet others, and to participate in neighborhood life.” The uniqueness of sidewalks as multi-functional facilities should be a great asset for their construction and maintenance.

But:

…sidewalks often face challenges, particularly related to maintenance. Even where sidewalks are recognized for the integral role to access transit and other activities, the maintenance of sidewalks can be a complicated picture that, in the worst case, leads to disrepair of facilities and community and developer resistance to new sidewalks.

Suffice to say, the document shows the many ways to skin this cat, but the city of Long Beach, California — a state like Pennsylvania in terms of its sidewalk repair policy — fully funds sidewalk maintenance by budgeting a repair program according to a schedule. For its efforts, the city has been cited as “Silver Level Walk-Friendly Community“.

The City of Long Beach has good sidewalk design standards and 100 percent sidewalk coverage on arterial and non-arterial streets. Sidewalks are repaired on a regular maintenance schedule and the City has almost complete curb ramp access in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On page 23, the document finally asks “How are cities funding sidewalk maintenance programs?” Of the sixteen suggestions, I would direct Ms. Durkin to these:

Community-wide Assessments: Ithaca, NY was identified for its yearly assessment of between $70 and $140 to be used for sidewalk repair and construction.

Coordination with other improvements: Ironwood, MO; and Davidson, NC were identified in the FHWA Research Report that accompanied the Guide as communities that were using coordination to facilitate and fund sidewalk improvements. In Ironwood, the city coordinated sidewalk replacement with water and sewer line replacement. In Davidson, the city has had success informally coordinating with developers.

Sidewalk millage tax: Ann Arbor, MI was identified as a community with a millage (property) tax that generated $560,000 or more per year for sidewalk repair and replacement. The tax was approved by over 60% of voters.

(Much of this information is sourced, believe it or not, from the Federal Highway Administration.)

Nobody wants to see their taxes go up, but we typically accept that the public at large pays for public goods. I would again further contend that because the borough does a poor job in explaining its actions or describing the inflows and outflows of our tax dollars at their brand new website, that perhaps we take a closer look at its fiscal behaviors. Maybe the borough is doing things it shouldn’t be doing. Given the shocking lack of detail in its latest budget posting, I think this is a fair concern. The borough does us a disservice, not a favor, by publishing a summary of a $6.7 million budget.

When you consider that no one reports on council hearings and that the borough hasn’t posted an agenda since April or meeting minutes since last February(!), then only a fool would not wonder how well the borough governs itself, never mind us.

In any case, the borough’s activities of late would indicate that no one, least of all our former-building-inspector-turned-borough-manager, has bothered to do even the slightest amount of research on the topic of sustainable pedestrian infrastructure. Time to crack the books, Mr. Locke.