Friday, November 19, 2010

"Lead, Follow, Or Get Out of the Way"

From the 'better late than never' department...My last post suggested that our BOS consider donating part or all of their pay back to the Township to help close our budget gap, especially since a couple of them have thrown staff layoffs on the table for consideration. I suggested that true leaders don't ask their employees to do things they themselves would not - in this case, they were being asked to find more ways to cut expenses out of the budget.

In that spirit, because I walk my own talk, at our Zoning Hearing Board meeting Tuesday night, I and another ZHB member donated our stipends back to the Township, with the condition that the funds be earmarked for the always chronically underfunded Parks & Rec budget. A third ZHB member later indicated he, too would follow suit.

I have to give kudos to supervisor Chris DiPaolo for apparently following our lead and my suggestion. I had to leave tonight's Board of Supervisors meeting early to pick my son up from an event at the high school, but I understand that after I left, Chris donated his stipend (I believe the entire amount) back to the Township's general fund. Although I still contend that these actions originate with true leaders, regardless of when or why he did it, I am truly glad that he did and that the Township will have a little more money to work with in 2011. That's something every resident can celebrate.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Last night I attended one of several 2011 budget review meetings held by our Township in their attempt to figure out how to close the expected gap in the General Fund between revenues and estimated expenditures. This meeting was unusual and by all accounts was something of a fire drill in that it was quickly put together and advertised, even though the budget process for this year is essentially over, with only 3 meetings left in 2010 in which to vote on its approval. The fact that it got to this point so late in the year is a direct result, in my opinion, of one of the supervisors not making the effort to stay informed all along, but I'll save that for another post.

It appeared after the budget workshops held earlier this year that the Board was in agreement as to where to make cuts and would work with staff over the next few months to further identify areas of potential savings and closely monitor expenditures (and in the meantime the hope is that some projects that may bear fruit will come to pass). However, my understanding is that last night's meeting was called at the request of supervisor Chris DiPaolo ostensibly to further explore whether additional cuts could be made or whether taxes need to be raised.

There’s a long backstory, but bottom line, we’ll be carrying a balance forward into 2011 in the General Fund of only about a quarter million dollars. That’s very little wiggle room.

As comparison, back in the day when there was heavy commercial & residential development, it was not unusual to have a couple of million in the General Fund to carry forward into the next year. Now, not only are we substantially built out in terms of residential development, but in this economy, there's precious little commercial development contributing any money into the coffers either.

All the supervisors have previously gone on record as stating that a tax increase for 2011 is not an option, particularly in the severe economic conditions we're experiencing (even a half mil increase in taxes would net approximately $800,000 for the Township). That leaves cuts, cuts beyond what has already been identified since mid-year, when the budgeting process began.

At last night's meeting, the township manager and staff walked the Board through various potential areas that could be cut, or cut further. While there was one big potential bright spot - the possibility of about $120,000 in savings due to a reworking of the employee healthcare contract - it's still not enough to close the gap.

Let me stop right here and make an observation. Frankly, since Chris called this last-minute meeting, you would think that perhaps he had some great idea(s) as to how to close the gap to share with the rest of the Board, the staff and the public, but apparently not. Not only did he seem to expect the township manager to lead the meeting, but also appeared to expect staff to come up with all the ideas. Shouldn’t this be coming from the top down?? Shouldn’t the staff be getting guidance from the BOS as to what are sacred cows and what budget line items the BOS is willing to get complaints about when cut? Putting the responsibility for avoiding a tax increase squarely on the staff isn’t fair to them – they are not elected to these positions. Leadership and direction is supposed to come from the top down.

Among the areas the staff mentioned as potential areas for savings were things like eliminating televising the township meetings and printing the annual report; instead of having the county animal control officer remove dead animals from our roads, doing it ourselves; foregoing our annual donations to the fire department, ambulance squad, and library, Methacton's post prom, Visiting Nurses and Victims Services; and cancelling the annual senior citizen's dinner. Retiring our 2 K9 police dogs was another area offered up. It was obvious that staff worked long and hard and creatively came up with areas in which we could get by with less, or do without something entirely. Some of the proposed cuts were line items costing as little as $1000 a year.

(A big line item? Legal fees for the BOS and the Zoning Hearing Board. I've been saying for some time now that the alarming and expensive propensity of some members of the BOS to file legal challenges and appeals (particularly against it’s own Zoning Hearing Board's decisions) or hire 'special counsel', has led to a ridiculously high legal spend - which was reflected in the budget as a significant line item - for a municipality our size, and in a budget year such as what we are looking at, is especially distressing to me when one considers in what ways that money could be better spent. Don't get me wrong; some of the Township's legal expenses are legitimate, but in my opinion much of it is frivolous and instigated solely and vindictively to punish someone, make a point or help out a political friend, despite the slim likelihood of success on the merits. We simply cannot afford this nonsense any longer...but I digress).

Even after all this, Chris DiPaolo and Don Thomas made it clear that they expect staff to go back to the well yet again, and find another 5, 10 and 15% in cuts to present to them that could be made so that they can evaluate the impact if they enact those cuts - and if those cuts include staff reductions, so be it. Marie Altieri and Colleen Eckman were much less comfortable with the idea of staff reductions. And again, I think the staff should be getting their direction from the BOS and not the other way around.

Now, I understand that the BOS is trying everything they can to avoid raising taxes, and that is commendable. I wish our county and school district were so diligent, but they seem to find it quite easy to jack our taxes up regularly whenever they need more money. People are, even in this affluent area, losing their homes, experiencing long-term unemployment, and having their bills go up substantially. The last thing they need is to be taxed out of homes they are hanging onto by a thread.
However, I respectfully suggest that good leaders don't expect those who serve them to do things that they themselves will not do. One line item in the budget is the yearly stipends paid to each supervisor as token compensation for fulfilling their duties. None of our supervisors suggested that they themselves take a 5, 10, or 15% cut in their pay or, heaven forbid, forego the stipend altogether. Why is that?

As of 2005, when I was on the Board, said stipend amounted to $4000 per supervisor per year; it may be more than that now. Granted, it's not enough to support a family on and, if you are doing the job the way it should be done, it doesn't come close to fairly compensating you for all the hours you put in. However, to my knowledge, all the supervisors have regular paid employment that pays their bills or other long-term means of support.

If it were me, I'd forgo 100% of my stipend before even considering laying off so much as one police officer, public works, parks & rec or administration staffer, or asking them to work without the tools they need to do their jobs - especially since many of them have been doing the work of 2 or 3 people for a couple of years now. We're extremely fortunate to have such talented, dedicated and resourceful employees, and to punish them with layoffs when they've been taking it on the chin already - and are being asked to squeeze their belts some more - would be a real travesty. At a minimum, I'd cut my own stipend 15% before asking them for anything.

How about it, BOS?  Especially those of you who are suggesting that staff reductions should be considered, and who went on ad nauseam about how much you're personally aware of how our residents are suffering, what better opportunity to show us that you 'feel our pain' and that we're not the only ones who have to tighten our belts?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Open Season

When you went to the polls this past Tuesday in either of the two townships served by Methacton School District, you were greeted by a sign that read as follows, courtesy of our local Democrat party:

First, aside from the obvious factual error - there are really five positions up for election in 2011, not four - the sign claimed that 'school board member is a non-partisan position'.  Really? Maybe it should be, but the truth is that they are elected positions, and the only way to get elected as a school board member is to petition to get on the ballot for one party or the other (or, as some do, cross-file and run under the banners of both parties, a process that I think really should be disallowed for any elected position,since it muddies the water as to what a candidate's true ideology is).

In fact, at the website for PSBA, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (, Federal employees are reminded that they are subject to the Hatch Act and barred from running for 'partisan elective office' such as for school board.  

This is not a homogenous position, nor should it be. I think we deserve to understand the political and fiscal philosophy that drives a potential school board member who is controlling a $91 million dollar budget made up of your federal, state and local tax dollars. Personally, recognizing that while we all want the best for our students,  I prefer to see fiscal conservatives in the seats who understand that we want the best education and resources we can afford, not someone who thinks this is still 2005 and every household in the district has unlimited affluence.

Now, if the Democrats are truly open to considering ANY qualified candidate, and endorsing them without requiring them to switch party affiliation, I'm all for it. In the past, there were qualified Republicans who were rebuffed by their own party in favor of  candidates who were Democrats until immediately prior to filing their petitions to run as Republicans, and who were clearly favored over the known fiscally conservative proclivities of the authentic Republican candidates because the former Democrats were believed to be more likely to push through approval and spending to build the new 5-6 school, which they ultimately did. Folks, that project alone is costing so much money that we will won't even begin to start paying down principal until 2018. That's 5 years AFTER my sophomore student graduates.
I certainly hope this isn't the case in these recessionary times, but perhaps those Republican candidates - some of whom are still interested in running - will find more support from the other side of the table than they got (or may get) from their own. I know our side doesn't exactly have people leaping out of the woodwork to take on the free-spending legacy left to us by some members of the current and immediate past school boards, and I have to believe this newfound openness to outsiders by the Democrats is at least in part driven by a similar lack of viable candidates on their side as well.

Whoever runs in 2011, candidates are needed who are not afraid to make some tough decisions over the next several years.The 2012 budget is already shaping up to have serious gaps, and increasing taxes at a time of high unemployment is not the answer. Difficult choices will have to be made about more services to be cut, and no matter what is done, people will be unhappy. Both parties should look to find candidates with the backbone to do it and the stomach for dealing with the grief it will cause.

By the way, if you're thinking of throwing your hat into the ring on either side of the ticket, you may never have less competition. Although you may find yourself running as a Republican endorsed by Democrats!