Monday, October 25, 2010

The 411 on stop422tolls

Driving around town over the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed red & white signs among this fall's crop of campaign signs, promoting a website ( This website is solidly against the idea of tolling Route 422 to raise money for the Commonwealth, and hopes to defeat the re-election hopes of the only elected official to come out in favor of it, Paul Drucker, the freshman Democrat state congressman (House) for the 157th district. But what's behind the movement? 

Put together by a group of residents from Audubon (Montgomery County) and Chester County, the effort is also championed by the Valley Forge Patriots. These are folks frustrated by current traffic congestion in the area and are strongly against any efforts to toll 422, which they view as adding to existing traffic problems in addition to objecting to the uncertainty surrounding what would be done with any tolls collected. In addition, other local elected officials have also come out against tolling 422, including Mike Vereb, John Rafferty, and Rep. Tom Quigley (Pottstown). Mike Vereb is on record as stating tolling of 422 is "a reckless idea" and that he is 'vehemently opposed to it".

As background - over the summer, representatives from the  Montgomery County Planning Commission, Chester County Planning Commission and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission presented their 422 Corridor Master Plan outreach program to various local municipalities. A new transit line, as well as tolls on Route 422 may be in the area’s future (albeit probably not in the immediate future). A possible rail line is seen as an option to provide an alternative to traveling by car — extending transit service beyond Norristown along an already-existing rail line.

The aim of the 422 Corridor Master Plan is to provide a comprehensive approach to planning development in the 24 corridor municipalities in Chester, Montgomery and Berks counties. An important element of the master plan is how to handle growth, development and the ever-increasing traffic on 422. The plan suggests the widening and maintenance of 422 in addition to ramp and interchange improvements, and according to Leo Bagley, assistant director of the Montgomery County Planning Commission, any funds raised by tolling would have to go first toward maintaining 422 and secondarily fund a rail line.

The county planning commissions took the 422 plan ‘on the road’ to each of the municipalities and asked elected officials and residents to provide comments. Township supervisors were asked to consider adopting a resolution endorsing the master plan’s principles and strategies. Getting the municipalities to work together in partnership with the county planning commissions was the goal of the road trip. Lower Providence heard the pitch at their June 17, 2010 meeting, with Board of Supervisors chairman Rick Brown stating that they (the Township) would try to adopt a resolution supporting the 422 master plan as soon as possible. Supervisor Chris DiPaolo motioned to adopt it at the July 1, 2010 meeting and the motion passed unanimously. (By contrast, two supervisors in Limerick Township went on record before they voted to endorse the plan on July 20 as being specifically opposed to any option to toll on 422).

 It is my understanding that the tolling of 422 is still considered a possibility to help offset the major land developments costs contained in the 422 Corridor Master Plan, although Drucker and others have suggested that the proceeds from tolls would go to fund the creation of the proposed 62-mile Schuylkill Valley Metro rail line, which thus far SEPTA has been unable to move forward. 

But seriously, though, when's the last time any government entity collected money which was supposed to be a 'dedicated funding source' (for whatever purpose) and actually used it for that? I have little to no faith it would happen in this scenario either. And ESPECIALLY when it comes to Harrisburg; I don't trust them to spend taxpayer money where it says it will. One need only remember the gaming legislation that allegedly was going to go towards funding property tax relief — well, guess what, folks, that money is being used for sports stadiums, to build college campuses, etc. And nothing has changed in property tax world. 

While Drucker has taken pains lately to flip his position and walk his earlier comments back, he was an early and vocal supporter of tolling 422, for whatever reason the funds would be collected. In an April Times Herald interview, he admitted he was not fully acquainted with some of the issues, but said the tolling of Route 422 to pay for the Schuylkill Valley Metro transportation project, was "a good idea".

Then, in May, he was thus quoted in the Times Herald "“I believe a light rail line to alleviate traffic on 422 has the potential to benefit our region, and I believe it can be funded in such a way that local residents don’t get stuck with the bill". Ahem....anyone who lives in a community surrounding the 422 corridor is going to get stuck with something, be it paying a toll for the privilege of sitting in traffic longer once ON 422, or being stuck with the cost of repairing wear & tear to local roads from the traffic driven off 422  by cars trying to avoid paying a toll.  And, as Rep. Vereb noted in a September 22 speech, "it would take catastrophic amounts of money to make it [a rail line] happen and would be a catastrophic waste".

In my opinion, tolling on 422 would be a horrible turn of events for Lower Providence. Any improvements that have been made in traffic flow (intersection improvements, traffic light coordination etc) - particularly in the Audubon area - over the past few years would evaporate as hundreds, if not thousands, of additional cars flood local roadways to escape tolls and idling cars sitting on 422. Many of those roads are roads that we LP taxpayers are on the hook for maintaining, and we just borrowed money to repair and upgrade - improvements that have to last the ten years it will take to pay off the loan. 

If you live in any of the areas of Lower Providence that are represented by Rep. Drucker (most of Audubon, Shannondell, and the area of Trooper surrounding Woodland Elementary School), I urge you to vote for his opponentWarren Kampf, Nov. 2 for state rep. And if you know anyone in any of the areas of LP or Chester County that are represented by Rep. Drucker, I suggest calling them, making sure they know where he stands on the toll issue, and asking them to be sure to get to the polls that day to vote him out. The best scenario? Join together at the polls, and make sure Mr. Drucker has to get on a toll road home after packing up his office when he's voted out on November 2.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Not Your "Average Joe"

At the October 7 Board of Supervisors meeting, the supervisors came to final agreement on a new contract for our township manager, Joe Dunbar. Supervisors Chris DiPaolo and Don Thomas were appointed back in March of this year to conduct negotiations with Joe, but it is my understanding that it took them until August to even begin the process. 

Conscious of the financial limitations that the Township and its residents are facing, Joe offered to take no increase for 2011 and, as reported in the Times Herald, asked for a three-year contract with no additional benefits. I was a supervisor when Joe's original five-year contract, which expired Sept. 1, was negotiated. The original contract had a provision for accrued comp time above 90 hours per pay period, to be payable only upon termination, resignation, or retirement. Otherwise, it would go unpaid. This is a fairly standard option in employment agreements for executive personnel.

This new contract they came up with was a bit different. What's perplexing to me is this: why would Chris, who I understand was the lead negotiator, present a contract to his fellow Board members that calls for a payout of the comp time now, especially in these tight economic times?

Chris ultimately voted against the final version of the contract he negotiated. Now, I may be biased, since I've negotiated all kinds of contracts with all kinds of entities as a large part of my job for more than fifteen  years, but for Chris to arrive at a set of terms and conditions that he felt comfortable enough presenting to the Board and having their solicitor put in writing, only to then turn around and vote against it, makes it patently obvious to me that either Chris isn't a very good negotiator or he's running for re-election next year and wanted to be seen as not voting for any expenditures.  Or, quite possibly, both. 

He's quoted in the paper, citing the contract's provisions as 'too expensive'.  Was he intentionally trying to overstate the value of the contract to bolster his position? Maybe Chris can explain his logic at the next BOS meeting, but it seems like posturing to me.

I happen to think Joe is worth every penny in his contract. He's very effective, a proactive, big picture thinker who's also good with detail, and a class act who knows how to get the best out of staff. Ultimately, the buck stops with him when something goes wrong and he accepts responsibility, as a good manager should, whenever there's a problem. He has earned the loyalty and respect of staff as a result. He's also earned the respect of local municipal officials, business leaders and governmental agencies. As an example, earlier this year, Joe was the recipient of the "Excellence in Public Service" award from the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. Montco Chamber of Commerce Spring 2010 newsletter

I can personally attest to the fact that the Township gets much more from Joe than just what he's obligated to do. During my time as a supervisor, it was obvious to me that he goes above and beyond on a regular basis. It wasn't unusual to get a phone call from him at night, early in the morning or on weekends.

I'm glad he'll be with us for another three years. He'll have served longer than any other Lower Providence Township manager, and longevity and stability can go a long way toward a municipality maintaining a favorable credit/bond rating. But, in my eyes, that's the least of the reasons his position with the Township is a good thing. Kudos to the BOS for getting the deal done, with or without Chris on board.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

One Man’s Retention Basin Is Another Man’s Treasure

On Sept. 2, 2010 the residents of Peacock Lane, a smaller development off of Park Avenue about halfway between Trooper and Audubon, were surprised to find notices stuffed in their doors notifying them that the retention basin in their development was next in line to be "naturalized", and that this project would essentially begin immediately. Earth-moving equipment arrived that day as well, dropped off behind several residents' homes,  and work was slated to begin on Friday, Sept. 3, before the long holiday weekend.
Naturalization 101 (from Breckenridge Blvd)
 As luck would have it, there was a Board of Supervisors meeting that evening, and the residents of Peacock Lane showed up in force to protest not only the last-minute, informal way in which they were notified, but the project itself. They wanted to opt out. But why? Retention basins and what happens to them are not normally the stuff of contention and drama.

This particular basin is unusual in that it is in the very front of the development. Also, several homes encircle it, abut it and have clear views off their front porch or back yard patio. It's park-like open space, and picturesque. As resident Mary Byrnes characterized it, "it's the heart of our community". Several residents spoke about how they sit on their patios or front porches and enjoy the peaceful view.

Peacock Drive basin 'as is' today
 Many of you live in subdivisions which have detention or retention basins for controlled handling of stormwater runoff. In the past, these basins have usually been fenced in, and left as plain grass which is mowed regularly, either by the subdivision homeowner’s association, by a neighboring resident, or Lower Providence Township.

You may not know, but approximately seventeen years ago, Lower Providence embarked on a mission to naturalize all of the approximately 26 stormwater basins within its borders. In recent years, municipalities have been pressured by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and watershed conservancy agencies to retrofit these basins to comply with and reflect updated standards, goals and methodologies. Goals include reducing soil erosion and maintenance, and improved handling of stormwater runoff.

Of course, there’s a cost to do this, but  some of these agencies provide grant money to help defray the cost of retrofiting and naturalizing the basins.  The basin on Peacock is one of 8 remaining in the Township to be done, and part (just over $5,000) of a grant totalling almost $19,000 was specifically allocated to be used on the Peacock basin. Grant guidelines dictate that half that amount be used toward shade trees.

What does it mean to 'naturalize' or 'retrofit' a retention basin? It certainly sounds wonderful. Naturalized basins are stormwater control facilities that are planted with native vegetation rather than maintained as mown lawn. The vegetation is allowed to grow wild, for the most part. Retrofitting includes the removal of low-flow concrete channels, removal of invasive species, and the planting of native trees, bushes and grasses. Generally speaking, it has a 'wilder', less maintained appearance. Normally, that's not a problem, as most basins are built toward the back of a development or are otherwise not right up against any homeowner's residence.

At first, the residents got a chilly reception. When they complained about lack of proper notice, and notifying them via a paper slip that could easily fall out of a door, blow away, or otherwise be missed, and the fact that the project was slated to begin immediately prior to a major holiday weekend, Supervisor Rick Brown at first admonished the residents that this is not a new program, they have notified residents of it via the newsletter and website and that ‘you have to take some responsibility to be aware and inform yourselves". He also mentioned (in what seemed to me to be a condescending tone), that ‘we’ve won awards for this’ with the underlying message that this is something they should want to be the lucky recipients of.

However, the residents were persistent, passionate and articulate as one by one they voiced their opposition. They were opposed to the loss of the parklike setting, and fear that naturalizing will provide a safe haven for rodents, mosquitos and ticks, as well as lower property values. Eventually, the Board agreed to revisit the issue. And, to their credit, the Township did. A meeting was held between representatives of the Township, the Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy and the residents. Four options were presented to residents. They were:
  • The Township could return the grant money and continue to maintain the basin as is;
  • The residents could buy the basin land;
  • The residents could enter into an agreement with the Township to maintain the basin themselves; or
  • The Township could move ahead with the current plan to utilize the grant money to naturalize the basin.
Peacock Drive, additional view
Obviously, the residents prefer the first option, but the Board fears that will set a bad precedent going forward, and any time you return grant money, you essentially go to the back of line in the future. The Township doesn't want to jeopardize future potential grant awards for any Township project from any funding agency.

Unfortunately there isn't a lot of time to figure out which way to go ... the expense receipts for the cost of the project must be turned into the granting agency by the end of November for reimbursement and to finalize the grant, and the end of planting season is fast approaching. 

Purchasing the land is not a preferred option. One resident I spoke to, Chris Spletzer, said he felt that there 'is really no good outcome here'...that the residents don't wish to assume the costs of maintenance and liability for the piping and land, which would be difficult to manage, given that there is no homeowners' association, and if residents move away or, especially in the scenario of a maintenance agreement, future residents may be unwilling or unable continue to make payments to the Township or to repair/upgrade the stormwater system. Additionally, since the land is valued above $1,500, it would have to be bid out, a process that takes time.

The Township has agreed to work with the residents to get their input on a planting plan as far as buffering, number, size, and species of trees and shrubs, and agreed to forego requiring a fence around the basin at this time. Still, as Mr. Spletzer said, he's spent many hours of time on this in phone calls, meetings and research, and in the end has no control over this.

A naturalized basin on Breckenridge Blvd in Trooper
 Going forward, the Township might want to consider picking up the phone to ask the residents who will be impacted by similar projects about their feelings on the 'improvements' prior to applying for grant money to change something they may very well be happy with 'as is', and providing more formal and timely notification about the impending noise and disruption such a project would cause.  Just because a governmental agency feels it knows best whether something is desireable or good for us, doesn't mean it necessarily is. The opinion of the people who have to live with it should have high priority.  Had that happened here, the residents wouldn't have to swallow a project they abhor so the rest of the Township doesn't suffer in the future.