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?


Anonymous said...

Instead of constantly criicizing the BOS while touting all your qualifications and expertize, why don't you offer your proactive suggestions to trim the budget without any staff reductions or budget cuts? It appears to me, and many of the general public that all your soapbox rhetoric is nothing more than verbal garbage in preparation for a run a at Supervisor yourself. Remember the old adage of "walking in anothers shoes..."? Janice you are a sham!

Zoologist said...

I wish that the current BOS would start to look at the Township like I look at my business.

They should be encouraging people to invest in our community.

Instead, they chase away viable opportunities.

If the ARC were here NOW, the Township would not have to worry about tax increases for years to come.

I sure hope that it was worth the 40 votes (that you didn't need) Rick!!!

Anonymous said...

Why don't they cut out the frivolous lawsuits?

How much is being taken out of the Township coffers to take care of Chris and Rick's buddy down on Pawlings Road.

Word has it that the Feds are looking into this frivolous spending.

I can't wait until the hammer comes down.

Just because you hold a pen, doesn't mean you can just write a check.

Spending like this is an outright abuse of legislative powers.


Can you say Cronyism?

Anonymous said...

I agree 100%, and they should also consider kicking back their supervisor pay if they decide to raise taxes. It should be equal opportunity sacrifice.

AG said...

Hey Anonymous from 8:06 am - are you in a coma ? because she did suggest an area to cut! The point was, the people who are supposed to be coming up with the vision and agenda, aren't.

JK: we haven't talked in awhile but I for one hope you do run, I don't know how you put up with such small minded people. You know whatever you need, you've got it.

Anonymous said...

Why are the BOS getting paid? The MSD Directors DO NOT get paid to tax us out of homes. They make a point at least once a year to tell the public the long hours they put in and how hard they work for no pay. The first thing that needs to be cut out is the salary for the BOS and health insurance for them. How much would that save the taxpayers in this township?

Anonymous said...

AG Regarding your post,small minded people like yourself do tend think alike. Go right ahead and support a "bought" candidate to be.

Anonymous said...

Maybe have the township building open four days a week instead of five, to save light/heat costs? I am sure if we residents can come up with ideas, the board should be able to. Thsi isn't rocket science.

Janice Kearney said...

"Anonymous" AKA the infamous Mike, please explain what you mean when you use the word 'bought'. By whom, in exchange for what?

I am proud to say that neither I nor my votes have ever been 'for sale' to anyone, for anything, and I intend to stay that way. Maybe that's how you (or your friends) do business, but please don't paint me with the same brush.

If you have something to say and can back it up with hard proof (and I know you can't), please, throw it down, otherwise, you're just another nobody blowing hot air.

Anonymous said...

I heard there was as injuction hearing to try to stop 1433 pawlings road from having commercial vechicles on there property. I thought this was cleared up during the zoning hearing board meetings last year. But yet the neighbor next store can run tow trucks in & out with no the problems from the Township. More & more tax payer money wasted to defend one resident!!!! Its got to stop!!!! Keep your eyes on the next few Township meetings it could get interesting!!!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you are correct there was an injunction hearing however it had nothing to do with commercial vehicles. It had everything to do with stopping several businesses from operating on a single use non conforming property. The property is permitted a single non conforming use not as many uses as the owner wants. Again you are right it has to stop. Right now you say don’t waste taxpayer monies because it is not in your neighborhood but if several businesses are allowed to operate without township approval then look out – your neighborhood will be next!