Monday, March 29, 2010

Don't Rain on My Parade

Yesterday I had the opportunity to do something I've wanted to do for a long time, but due to scheduling conflicts never did...I attended the Conshohocken St. Patrick's Day parade (because it had been rained out on its original date and rescheduled to yesterday probably helped make this happen). Aside from my pride in celebrating my Irish heritage, I enjoyed it as  a wonderfully executed event and recognized that it spoke volumes about that community's commitment and unity. A community parade is as much a part of Americana as are Chevrolets and apple pie.

It reminded me of the time back in 2005 when Lower Providence held a parade as part of its yearlong Bicentennial activities. As I was on the Board of Supervisors at the time, filling in for a member who'd had to resign mid-term due to health issues, I had the privilege and pleasure of participating in that parade, riding in a convertible with one of the other supervisors at the time, Jim Dougherty. Passing by and waiving to residents who'd parked their lawn chairs and blankets along the parade route to watch, I distinctly remember how  proud I felt of our township  that day and how amazing it was that everyone had come together for an event whose sole purpose was to celebrate our beginnings all those years ago and our two hundred years worth of history since.

There was talk at the time of making it an annual event, but nothing ever came of that. While I recognize it's a lot of time and effort to put something like this on, I suspect that if you know you're going to do it every year, some things become easier. We could tie it to the Fourth of July fireworks and do it the same day, leading up to it. Corporate sponsors would likely be willing to underwrite some or all of the costs, which would primarily involve traffic control and public works - and they already do cover the costs of the fireworks event.

It would be a great opportunity for our civic groups, athletic associations and other local organizations to promote themselves and maybe do a little fundraising while they're at it. Think about it: we could have Methacton's reigning homecoming king and queen and marching band participate. Float entries from ARA, the Wolverines, the Cougars (and other sports organizations). School organizations, such as Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD). Perhaps the Optimists Club, the Lower Providence Historical Society, Mill Grove and Daughters of the American Revolution would participate.

Institutions such as Visitation, Lower Providence Presybterian Church or St. James Episcopal might want to celebrate their longtime presence in this community. Veterans' organizations. Ethnic organizations. Classic cars. Horse-drawn wagons. And of course, our fire department, public works and police departments could show off their latest equipment and units (K-9, motorcyle etc.). Neighboring community organizations in Worcester, West Norriton, Skippack and Collegeville would be welcome to have entries too. Last but not least, it would be yet another opportunity for our elected officials to be seen in public and available to those that elected them.

To make it even more interesting, perhaps their could be a competition for the most creative float design. And, since in my opinion there are really two 'main drags' through the township - one being Ridge Pike and the other along Egypt Road in Audubon - perhaps we could alternate parade routes between the two every year.

I think a community like Lower Providence could especially benefit from something like this. Too often, it seems to me that the residents here tend to be concerned only with what's going on only in their part of the township - Trooper or Audubon or Collegeville - and forget that people in other parts might think differently. It can become easy to forget that we all share the same government, school district, and community. 

Possibly, an annual parade might bring us all together and remind us that outside of our own neighborhoods, Lower Providence is populated with people from all over its boundaries, people with different concerns, priorities and perspectives that also need to be weighed when decisions are made that affect all of us. An event such as this can, I think, go a long way toward helping to unify us when we are presented with issues that threaten to divide us.

And yes, I realize that when one proposes something like this, one is essentially volunteering to coordinate it. I have no problem with that, but it's really up to our elected officials whether we do it or not. Let them know your thoughts.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Picking Up The Check

Unless you are living under a rock, or are independently wealthy, it should be obvious to everyone that we are in the midst of the severest recession since the Great Depression. I don't know anyone, myself included, who has not had to cut back somewhere and do more with less.

Senior citizens are feeling the pinch especially hard, since their income is fixed, and they received no COLA increase this year as their expenses continued to rise.  Many of us still in the workforce and fortunate enough to remain gainfully employed have had to forego annual raises, bonuses and other compensation that had become as expected and certain as Spring's melting of winter snowfalls.

As I drove around the Township this gorgeous weekend, I passed numerous projects for new businesses that, largely due to the economy, have stalled or evaporated. They're projects that, as proposed, would have brought much needed jobs and tax revenue to our community.

There was the proposed Turkey Hill gas station and quicki-mart that would have gone in opposite Brother Paul's. There was the new WaWa that was going to go on the former Norristown Ford property. There have been a couple of proposals for use of the Collegeville Inn property.  There was the strip shopping center that would have gone on the corner of Egypt and Pinetown Roads, and there were also several projects proposed down in the Corporate Center.

And, of course, the American Revolution Center museum project, which, while driven out more by a vocal special interest group than the economy, would have brought in the neighborhood of a million a year in revenue to the community as well as several hundred jobs.  Ouch! I think we're going to miss that.

And that's not counting some of the businesses that were viable but have closed and gone away, like K-mart, or the Hullabaloo party store.  I'm hearing that Blockbuster is nearing bankruptcy, so I guess that building may be empty soon, too.

To be sure, we've had a few new businesses locate here, but by and large, they are small, mom-and-pop type stores like the Morning Mug, Keystone Grill and the Collegeville Bakery, which don't add large-scale revenue or employment.

Keeping all this in mind, and realizing that new residential housing construction starts and the revenue they generate are at practically zero, too ... how are we, as a township and a school district, going to continue to pay the bills this year and in the next couple of years afterward until, hopefully, the economy fully recovers?

Although Lower Providence has enjoyed six years or more without a tax increase to its residents, I think it's realistic to say those days are over. The last Board of Supervisors did a fantastic job of keeping or increasing the levels of service without raising taxes for that period of time, and trying to attract and keep businesses here, but only so much can be done. Grant money has largely dried up and there's more competition for what's out there. Our federal and state governments have less to pass onto us as well.

And don't get me started on Methacton's property tax bills. Everywhere I go, that's the No. 1 complaint I hear about local government.  Yes, it even beats out the trash issue.

In fact many people think that when their tax bill increases, it's the Township's doing. Especially if you are one those folks who never sees your tax bills because they go right to your mortgage holder's escrow company for payment, you may not realize that your school property tax bill and your township tax bill are two different things. One's risen dramatically, the other has not risen at all in recent years.

Here's what I want to know. Considering that local government will have to either cut services or raise taxes, or both, what things do you think should be on the chopping block? What things as a community would we choose to do differently, put on the back burner for now, or do with less of?  And let's assume that raising taxes is not an option, shall we? I don't know anyone who can afford it at this point.

It's going to require some hard decisions, but our local elected officials will begin the budgeting process in six short it's worth thinking about now. Unless, of course, by some miracle we start attracting new business and stop driving out the ones that want to be here, as the current BOS seems to be adept at.

Do we cut back on after-school programs and sports, as some school districts nearby have done?  Do we increase class sizes and reduce staff? Forego all the cutting edge gizmos like smart boards for class instruction?

Do we reduce the size of our police force and forego some level of safety and emergency preparedness, or ask local nearby communities without one to help us share the cost of providing protection to them when called upon to do so?

Do we eliminate donations to worthy institutions like the fire department , ambulance center and library?

I think the Township staff is doing a good job of trying to manage investment revenue smartly, streamline costs, work out sourcing deals, use service vehicles as long as possible, etc. but perhaps more ideas are out there. 

I have no idea what Methacton's administration has been working on in this regard (there are only so many hours in a week, I can't attend every meeting around here), but maybe someone familiar with their efforts in this regard can enlighten us.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, and I'm sure our elected officials are listening, too.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why? Why Not!

I get asked all the time why anyone in their right mind would want to get involved in politics or local government in Lower Providence. We have a well-deserved reputation around Montgomery County for being a township where such involvement is considered a ‘full contact sport’.

It’s a problem in that many times, good, qualified people refuse to run for various positions or seek board appointments because they don’t want to deal with the firestorms of controversy and personal attacks that come with it. They want to volunteer and help out, and make a difference in their community, but they don’t want the other ‘stuff’, for themselves or their families. It takes a very strong person to be willing to stick their neck out to take a position about something and then get slapped around regularly for defending it.

It’s definitely not for people looking for light entertainment or an ego boost, because no matter what you do, someone is unhappy with you. You truly can't please everyone, all the time, and you get beat up for even trying. Especially in Lower Providence, where the Republican Party in particular spends more time, energy and money openly battling itself instead of finding ways to unify and work together and further its conservative agenda.

I got involved, and stay involved despite the regular pops to my jaw, because our residents deserve someone who tries to look out for the community's overall interests, and is willing to withstand heat for doing so, instead of someone whose agenda of personal and petty vindictiveness inspires them to focus their resources on how best to stick it to so-and-so.

Lately, a few have asked why I started to write this blog. I think it’s a great question. Simply, it goes back to wanting to make a difference and using every opportunity available to do it.

I grew up here. My late husband grew up on Fifth Avenue in Audubon, right next to Valley Forge Park. I met him at Methacton; we got married at Artillery Row in Valley Forge. We settled down here. My daughter graduated from Methacton in 2007 and my son attends the high school now. I think I have good ideas, I know others share my values about how good government functions and what a community should be. I care about what Lower Providence was, what it is, and more importantly, what it can be. I had a great experience here growing up, and live a very full and happy life here now. I’d like for others to view and experience Lower Providence the way I know it.

This is 2010. We reach people through various media these days. I know people who get their news entirely on the internet, or through Facebook. And, I strongly believe that the more educated our residents and voters are, the better.

It’s not out of a desire, as my ‘haters’ would say, to be negative or mean. When the Times Herald runs a story, pointing out something that seems amiss, it’s not being negative…it’s giving the facts as their reporter sees it. I don’t see this as being much different. As Will Rogers once said, “I just watch the government and report the facts."

Sometimes, reporters aren’t privy to all the sides of a story or all the facts of a situation. Sometimes, I suspect focusing on one part of a story might sell more newspapers. And, obviously, as we’ve seen, sometimes, one side or the other would like to keep certain things quiet. If that can unfairly affect your perception of a project or a person, I think whatever other 'side' exists should be put out there for discussion and evaluation by our residents. Ultimately, it’s about holding people accountable for what they say and do, especially if they are doing it with your tax dollars or, allegedly, on ‘your’ behalf.

That’s why I’m doing this. For those of you who don’t agree with me, or like me, or approve of what I do or who my friends are (and most of those folks have never even spoken to me or met me), I’m fine with that. I invite you to skip my blog and carry on in your narrow-minded world. My target audience is people who are open minded and don’t rush to judgment until they know all sides of a story – or until they’ve actually spent some time with a person before assaulting their character.

And, if you ever want to ask me a question or debate an issue in person, I welcome it. My number’s in the book. I’m not hard to find in person. Most Thursday evenings I’m at the township building.

For the record, if I truly enjoyed the limelight, as one poster on Stan's Blog suggested, I'd go try out for Methacton Community Theater instead of being involved in politics. No haters there.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The meter is running

If you are an attorney practicing municipal law in Montgomery County, you might want to float your resume in front of Lower Providence's new Board of Supervisors.

Not content to have the customary one firm appointed as solicitor representing the interests of the Township, they saw  fit to hire an additional, 'special' counsel, to 'review' (read: attempt to undo) the December 7 award of the latest five-year trash hauling contract to J.P. Mascaro & Sons.  Rick Brown and Chris DiPaolo were the only two of the five-member Board who discussed documenting the resolution that was put in front of all five for a vote that evening.  Rick, Chris and new member Don Thomas (who, judging by the deer-in-the-headlights look that always seems to be pasted on his face, probably had no idea what he was looking at) voted for the extra legal hire. The ladies voted against it.

All this 'reviewing' has a price tag of approximately $150/hour for nonlitigation work and $175/hour for litigation in addition to the charges our regular solicitor, Michael Sheridan, charges.

And this is a litigious group of people, our new Board of Supervisors. Between them, as of the last time I looked at the various dockets, Chris, Colleen, and Don have 10 (10!) attorneys working for them on other matters, and that's not counting the ones they just hired with your tax dollars.  That total doesn't include the guy Rick Brown hired last year to file his 'friend of the court' brief in the American Revolution Center case - which he filed AFTER they decided to leave and despite his position already being put on the record when he testified as a witness in the case. Oh wait...I think that was filed by Mr. Sheridan, before he became solicitor this year.  Geesh, I can't keep track.

Mrs. Eckman even sued the lawyers that originally represented her in the Mascaro case, seeking to have other attorneys permitted to represent her - rumour has it, a relative - and lost. She's appealing that decision...of course. She is, after all, one of the folks that helped chase the American Revolution Center out of town, so this is probably a walk in the park for her.

On top of that, the Board of Supervisors just directed Mr. Sheridan to intervene in a recent Zoning Hearing Board case in order to appeal it, because, allegedly, our new Board of Supervisors did not agree with it. This, despite the fact that one of the neighbors who originally opposed the applicant's plans (and by his own admission bankrolled the hefty cost of his litigation himself to the tune of $60K and counting)  has already filed an appeal of his own. He certainly doesn't need the Township to sue on his behalf.

This is all the more outrageous because the Township really isn't aggrieved; a lot that had been an eyesore and a longtime public nuisance was cleaned up, junk hauled out, buildings that were in disrepair were rehabilitated. It appears to be more or less an attempt to appease yet another special interest down in 'the Thumb'.

In fact, the irony  is that because errors or oversights were determined to have been made by the Township relative to the history of that property, and the applicant in the zoning case relied upon them, the Township could be culpable. The Township, in intervening, may actually be making the applicant's case for damages against the Township for him should he lose on appeal.  They certainly didn't get involved to defend their staff.  Bottom line: your tax dollars may well wind up being being spent to lead to more of your tax dollars being paid out in damages.

And let's not forget the lawyers. They make money no matter who wins or loses.

I can't imagine how much money Lower Providence will shell out in legal fees for what are arguably frivolous lawsuits over the next six years if this pace continues. As the rest of the county is painfully aware, we are in a severe recession and can ill afford to waste precious resident tax dollars - dollars that aren't flying into the coffers like they used to - on contracts that were lawfully awarded, unnecessary appeals and redundant briefs.