Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Moody's Sours on LP

Last week Moody's Investors Service, a New York commercial credit rating outfit, downgraded the bond rating for LP's guaranteed revenue sewer bonds from a rating of Aa2 to Aa3. This rating affects all the township bond holdings and more importantly impacts its ability to cheaply borrow funds into the future for projects such as road paving and capital improvements.

I spoke to township manager Richard Gestrich on this subject Friday afternoon (4/24) and he told me substantially the same thing as was reported by LP TAP before I had a chance to write up an article, so I won't repeat that conversation here; you can check it out for yourself.

While Gestrich's outrage about the changes in rating methodology and his feelings that the township was victimized in its treatment by Moody's may be legitimate, it's worth noting that no surrounding townships were similarly lowered, nor was Methacton School District's bond rating (although their business manager recently mentioned in a school board meeting that he 'is concerned' about eroding tax revenues in the district, a harbinger of a potential downgrade). Anyway, it's all about the ability to repay debt, which obviously Moody's sees as a potential problem brewing for LP.  The Board of Supervisors should be very concerned about whatever is giving Moody's agita because a downgrade is, any way you cut it, a big deal.  Moody's earns their keep by risk rating bonds much like auditors review loan portfolios and giving people bond ratings upon which they can make investment decisions; it does not serve their purpose to issue random downgrades without a solid reason.

I did ask Gestrich whether our Finance Committee was aware of the downgrade and if so, what they had to say about it. I noted that according to the Township's website, this committee did not appear to have met for months (although I have heard that they do meet, and Gestrich has publicly referenced this committee meeting, I don't know how 'public' those meetings are since there no agendas or minutes). A constituent who was tapped to serve on this committee told me over the weekend that he was frustrated with it because they sought him out to serve, and he was eager to do so, but then they never met. Gestrich told me he believed the Finance Committee was going to meet Monday evening, April 27.

(As a follow-up, Gestrich told me in a 5/1 email that he had passed the full Moody's report to Finance Committee member Lucien Calhoun, who is also with the Delaware Valle Finance Authority). He said "Lucien opined that since the Township remained at a Prime 1 rating, that it would not make a difference on our interest rates going forward".

Moody's downgrade comes on the heels of a glowing audit review which Gestrich presented in March to the BOS. While we ended 2012 with a thin balance in the general fund going into the next year, we had a much more comfortable cushion going into 2014 to the tune of almost $1.4 million, which was attributed to increases in earned income taxes and real estate transfers. After the BOS voted late last year to raise taxes for the first time in ten years, Chairman Eckman stated earlier this year that the Board expects to give more frequent financial updates to residents.

Among the reasons Moody's provided for the downgrade was 'continued erosion of tax base'. This is something I've been sounding the alarm about for some time. In recent years our Board of Supervisors seemingly had a policy of harassing and obstructing businesses from coming here and bringing jobs, revenue, and taxes and fees with them (sometimes spending ridiculous tax dollars in legal fees to do so). While this environment was primarily driven by former supervisor/chair Rick Brown, a couple folks who have supported those actions are still serving. Chasing out or creating a less-than-welcoming, hostile business environment for proposed businesses like the American Revolution Center, the YMCA, Bestline, WaWa and others has a cost.  You can't provide services without adequate revenue streams coming in and you will surely have a harder time borrowing money.

It pains me to drive through West Norriton, King of Prussia and Upper Providence and see not only new businesses that went there instead of here, but also businesses that used to be here, but have moved to those communities. It is also heartbreaking to drive through the township and at every entrance be greeted with an empty building...the former Collegeville Inn...the former Bud's Bar....the former Norristown Ford...nobody seems to be focused on making it a priority to find suitable uses for these properties or changing the zoning so that they can be repurposed. 

Also, former township manager Joe Dunbar raised a concern circa 2010 that the LPT Sewer Authority appeared to be using capital reserves to fund operations and presented specifics. Then, when former supervisors Brown and DiPaolo got control of the BOS, they dumped the auditor who developed the findings, Maillie Falconero. As the Township is the guarantor of all township debt, including the Sewer Authority, I can see why this would have been concerning at the time and could be having an impact now.

A damning move like this from Moody's tells me that Job One for our BOS ought to be to get the word out ASAP that we are not only open for business but we will bend over backward to bring you here and try to work with you. Stop being a NIMBY township and reverse Rick Brown's legacy for LP: a lowered bond rating.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Methacton Post Prom 2014: And the Award Goes To...

Please see the You Tube video I uploaded which has numerous photos of all of the exceptionally well done decorations.

As if getting all glammed up and attending your prom (and perhaps being driven to and from in a limo), wasn’t enough to make you feel special, Methacton High School students attending the post-prom festivities afterward had the opportunity to walk a real red carpet as they entered the high school this past Friday evening for the all-night event. Greeted by ‘paparazzi’, a large replica of an Oscar statuette and movie posters, they began to fully view and experience the event’s theme, “Lights! Camera! Action! It’s Showtime!

As I have noted in previous articles about this event, it’s a function more than 400 Methacton parents and volunteers, with school district support, put on every year to give students a safe place to spend the overnight hours after prom. Studies show that the evening a student attends prom is one of the most potentially deadly nights of the year. With attendance free for the students & their dates, and the event paid for entirely by donated funds and in-kind services in the range of $40,000-$50,000 worth of goods and services, it’s no wonder we boast a 98% attendance rate and parents enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing their children are safe and enjoying a drug and alcohol-free evening having a blast with their friends. It takes about 2000 manpower hours the night of the prom to provide services to the approximate 900 student attendees.

If all the fun activities themselves weren’t enough to encourage attendance (a casino, hypnotist, balloon artist, trike races, dodgeball and volleyball tournaments with pre-registered teams and team-designed shirts, lazer tag, Wii and arcade games, billiard, ping-pong and air hockey tables, a movie studio in the library, romantic cafĂ©, photo booths, massage therapist, fortune teller, inflatables, ‘cash cab’ contest etc) students have opportunities to win fabulous prize for staying all night. Prizes include iPads, gift certificates, concert tickets, iPods, flat screen TVs, computers, digital cameras, DVD players, and video game systems.
This year, as in past years, I volunteered to work the 2-6 am shift, one of the most difficult to get volunteers to cover. I’ve worked in the casino, security, check-in/check-out and this time around, helped out with the trike races. I never cease to be amazed at how much energy the kids can still manage to summon in the middle of the night.  I’m a night owl but even I start to fade at 3 am or so!
In the 15 years Methacton has been doing this it has only gotten better and better. Planning for next year’s event will begin shortly after the conclusion of this year’s. Monday morning, all junior and senior attendees will complete a survey to let planners know what worked well and what improvements could be made for the following year. In June, after a six-week break, planners will meet to do a 360 degree evaluation of the event, consider the student feedback, and begin to structure the following year’s planning committee. Starting in the fall a team of about 30 people will work each week on decorations right up until the event.
As in past years, each of the elementary schools adopts one of the high school bathrooms and is responsible for decorating it. In keeping with this year’s cinematic theme, the bathrooms were decorated representing ‘The Great Gatsby”, “World War Z”, “The Sound of Music” (complete with a rendition of the song tripped when you walked into the loo) and “The Fast and the Furious”.
If there were awards for the large cast that pulls this event off, it would have to go with thanks to all the volunteers, sponsors, donors, teachers, school administrators, parents and students in our community who work tirelessly and selflessly all year to pull this event off flawlessly. They make it look easy, but I suspect moving military supplies across Iraq is probably less difficult than coordinating all the moving parts that go into post-prom. We’ve become a benchmark for other communities here and across the country.

By the way, waiting in line just in front of me to take the walk-through tour Friday evening was new superintendent Dr. David Zerbe and his family. I bump into him around town fairly often, and it's refreshing to have a superintendent who lives in our community and attends our events. What a welcome change!

As for 2014’s event…that’s a wrap!!!




Sunday, April 20, 2014

Going To The Mat

Update 4-26-14: I heard a rumor late last week that Coach Maida would be reinstated as wrestling coach soon. This morning a text was received by those in the wrestling program indicating that this was indeed the case. My understanding is that the decision to relieve Maida in the first place may have been unilaterally made and that protocols will be put in place to ensure that such decisions in the future are reviewed and approved by more than one individual.
To parents with kids in Methacton School District’s wrestling program, a mystery began a couple of weeks ago on April 3, when a cryptic email landed in their inboxes.

“I’m writing to inform you that as of Tuesday morning this week [this would have occurred on 4/1/14] I have been told that because I no longer fit with the high school principal’s [Judy Landis] philosophy of coaching I will not be retained as the wrestling coach at Methacton High School effective Monday, April 7th. I appealed to the Superintendent [David Zerbe] Tuesday afternoon and met again with him yesterday where he indicated that he would support the principal’s decision. I would expect that the school board goes along with the superintendent’s recommendation. While this ends my tenure as your son’s coach I wanted to say thank you for the opportunity to be a part of your children’s lives over the last 7 seasons. Over the past several years I’ve made some incredible relationships with some amazing families and have probably learned more from you and your children than your kids ever have from me.
I’m actually not sure how to end this email so I’ll just say that I hope you all understand what this job has meant to me both personally and professionally and that my one desire would be to continue coaching at Methacton with the family that I think we’ve made together.
            A.J. Maida”

Shortly thereafter, I received emails from several parents asking what on earth happened, and, given Methacton’s propensity for scandal in recent years, you can’t blame them for wondering whether there was a more disturbing undercurrent that they should be aware of. 
Ever since receiving the parting email from Maida, frustrated members of the Methacton wrestling program and their parents have been left scratching their heads and asking unanswered questions of the school district as to what happened…why was this clearly beloved coach unceremoniously and inexplicably dumped after 7 seasons that were by all accounts successes both on and off the mat?
Anthony (AJ) Maida, center (2011)
How is it possible that a coach parents tell me embodies the very traits one hopes to find in all those people our kids spend hours with each week, is removed from coaching? 
For decades, Methacton has had an enviable and venerable wrestling program. From the storied accomplishments of Bill Berardelli, Dennis Kellon, to late coach Nelson Stratton, Chris Lloyd, Tony Haley and Bill Moser, Maida, a veteran of the US Armed Services (Marines), seemed well-suited to the wrestling program’s long history of success, and competently filled the big shoes that our former wrestling coaches left as their legacy.  To bear witness to that, 48 of those students and fellow coaches stood up and testified in front of the school board at their April 15 meeting as to just what an impact he’d had on their lives and what wrestling for him had meant to them. I know there were more who either couldn’t be there that evening or were afraid to speak up (employees of the school district).
Maida supporters speaking at 4/15/14 school board meeting
My understanding is the school board has only heard one side of the issue, after the fact, although clearly the superintendent has heard both. But the school board appears unswayed and unlikely to investigate, revisit or reverse the decision to remove Maida from his coaching position.
What I’d like to know is what exactly is this ‘philosophy of coaching’ that principal Judy Landis has, and in what way doesn’t Maida measure up? Has her philosophy evolved or has Coach Maida such that he ‘no longer fits’?  It seems a little odd to me that a high school principal would even have a coaching philosophy, but if so, shouldn’t that be public?
MHS principal Judy Landis
When I called the school district to get answers for the parents who reached out to me I was handed off to the Athletic Director (Paul Spiewak) for response. It wasn’t Spiewak’s decision, so why would anybody want to talk to him about it? I couldn’t find this ‘philosophy of coaching’ anywhere on Methacton’s website, so I put in a Right-to-Know request to see if we can shed any light on it. It might be helpful for all our current, as well as future, coaches to be aware of, not to mention the parents and kids struggling to understand what went wrong here.
Of course, it might have just been damage control at the April 15 meeting when Zerbe stated “Any conflict of personality or philosophical differences between Maida and Landis are unfounded and not the reason for opening the position”. Maybe, but evidently that’s not how it was explained to Maida.
One of my son’s closest friends wrestled for Coach Maida. He told us that an example of how Coach Maida cared enough about the kids and the program was that if the boys couldn’t get a ride to school for an early morning lifting session before school he’d pick them up and get them there. We all know teenagers aren’t famous for being early risers, but these kids WANTED to get up early to become better wrestlers and athletes for this coach, in this program. Coach Maida knew how to motivate them and get the best out of them. He even went out of his way to work with the middle school kids, ensuring a good pipeline of talent flowing into the high school program.  

This is a road Methacton has gone down before, with similar backlash. In 2006, longtime and charismatic football coach George Marinkov was unceremoniously replaced by Coach Bob McNally. Granted, the Warriors had several back-to-back losing seasons and Marinkov was replaced after a winless year, but the football players and parents circled the wagons in support of “Coach” much as they have for Maida. The McNally experiment didn’t net much on-field success, and he stepped down after 4 seasons with an overall record of 11-33. Coach was – and is - also the kind of guy who took a genuine and sincere interest in his players on and off the field and prided himself on treating them like the young men they were becoming (Coach has been back on the sidelines with current head football coach Paul Lepre and the coaching staff since 2010).  In contrast, in the 7 years Maida has coached Methacton wrestling they’ve gone without a losing record.  

I’ll tell you what I think our ‘philosophy of coaching’ should be. It should involve finding and supporting coaches who are paying attention to what is going on with our kids outside of school as well as during the time they are IN school, and it should go without saying that it should be about more than just a paycheck to them. Ideally, they’ll have a passion for the sport they coach, and some expertise in it, but it should always be – to the coach as well as the school district – about more than just wins and losses and what goes in the trophy case. I’d argue one learns more from losses than from wins anyway. A good coach can motivate kids to find the keys to leadership and success as well as how to pick oneself up, make corrections, and keep going in the face of defeat. A good coach inspires accountability, dedication and commitment…self-esteem, discipline, work ethic, teamwork….the list goes on. It would seem we’ve lost this and more with the removal of Maida as our wrestling coach. 

If Maida truly has no idea why he was relieved of duty, instead of smoke and mirrors, I think the school district owes him an honest answer as much as they do the wrestling team’s parents. I get it that personnel matters are often kept private, largely for liability reasons, and perhaps they could cite these specific “laws surrounding school personnel” they claim muzzles them so parents can determine the truth of that for themselves, but I don’t see why Maida couldn’t offer to waive his right to privacy in this matter and insist the school district be transparent as to their rationale. If it’s a sound decision, it should be defendable. 
Maida was not dismissed from his job teaching social studies at the high school, so whatever reason the school may have had to remove him from coaching can't be too egregious. My guess is if there is in fact no legitimate performance reason that more than likely, it’s political. Somebody knows somebody who wants the job.  It’s happened in this school district before (under Dr. Quinn, the prior superintendent), and unfortunately, it’s possible it’s happened again.  If true, that would truly be a big “L” for Methacton’s wrestling program as our loss will surely be another school district’s gain. Maida will coach another day, somewhere else, but in this instance, it looks like this is a match Methacton’s wrestlers cannot win.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cause for "Concern"

 ‘Watching. Listening. Acting”.  This was the credo of local citizen activist group Lower Providence Concerned Citizens Association (LPCCA), whose logo was a wise old owl. Over the past few years, if you’ve donated money to or been a member of LPCCA, you might want to ask if you knew who you were dealing with and what  really happened to your money, particularly if you thought it was tax deductible.
The words they selected to represent themselves apparently don’t include ‘complying’, because according to the federal government, LPCCA is an IRS scofflaw, appears to have inappropriately solicited funds, and possibly misappropriated the donated money they received. This supposedly nonpartisan group represented to donors that they held status as a 501(c)3 charitable organization.

Created back in 1981 (according to the PA Secretary of State's office) by (primarily) former longtime Township supervisor Rick Brown to fight Moyer’s Landfill, this organization lay dormant for a long time until revived in recent years just in the nick of time to fight the American Revolution Center (ARC) project and run it out of town. Their more recent members have come from the anti-ARC ranks (including current supervisor Colleen Eckman, a former vice president of the group), Planning Commission member Harold “Ted” Baird, who, courtesy of Brown has helped LPT rack up thousands in legal fees fighting a local business on his behalf and whom I've written about several times previously on this blog;  virtually all of the current Zoning Hearing Board members, and Arcola residents Cathy Beyer and Mary Kaczor (whom I've also written about previously), who have been embroiled in battle – at considerable Township expense - with the 5 other member municipalities of our regional sewer authority.

In addition to collecting membership fees, LPCCA held several functions in recent years to raise funds to support its aims (mostly, fighting the ARC, the interceptor project, and any other projects (and people) Brown and his minions didn’t approve of.

The candidate for supervisor in last year’s BOS race that Brown supported – Democrat Jim Donohue - stated in campaign materials and online that he was LPCCA’s  latest secretary, having assumed that role not long before he threw his hat in the ring for the 2013 election. Other than that, the members of their executive board were not widely known.
In 2011, LPCCA facilitated and hosted an allegedly nonbiased candidate forum in that year’s supervisors’ race -- in which I (the chair of the ZHB during the ARC hearings) was a candidate and Brown’s Public Enemy #1 – the first and only such candidate debate they ever held. They didn't bother to hold one last year.
Curious about this group after they inserted themselves into my race and their members were publicly supporting my opponent, I started to look into them a couple of years ago and learned that not only had they not obtained a 501c3 determination letter from the Internal Revenue Service, as they’d been representing, but according to IRS officials, they had never even applied during their entire 30+ year existence.

Over the course of a year, I checked the IRS' online so-called 'cumulative list' and called them three different times, thinking that maybe it was (very belatedly) in the works and delayed during the IRS’s Tea Party targeting scandal, or that I’d happened to get an IRS agent on the phone who didn’t know what he or she was doing and provided incorrect information. Each of the three times the agent on the other end of the phone gave me the same information. Each time I checked online, there was no charitable organization listing with the IRS for LPCCA. I guess this may explain why they had never filed annual 990 reports and why there was no official record as to whom their executive board officers were or how much money they had raised.  
Any citizen has the right to request a copy of a charity’s IRS determination status letter in order to determine their legitimacy, and since the IRS did not have it, I was directed to try to obtain directly from LPCCA whatever documentation they had that they felt supported their claim to 501(c)3 status. I asked a friend to write both an email and a formal letter to LPCCA to request their determination letter (since I presumed they wouldn’t respond if it was me asking for it); no response to her inquiries were ever received. They never even acknowledged receipt of her correspondence.
The IRS indicated it would look into this group and take whatever action they felt necessary if they determined LPCCA had falsely represented their status to potential and actual donors.  The IRS itself will not disclose whether they investigated and if so, what the outcome of that investigation was. FOIA laws, they claim, preclude that.
However, the group is no more. Last fall I learned from a local attorney that on October 21, 2013 the officers of LPCCA had abruptly met and voted to disband LPCCA. Could it have been because the IRS was breathing down their necks?  Since they never filed anything with the government and other than Baird, never put their officers’ names and titles on their website, we can only know who was involved from materials the group themselves put out and quotes attributed to them in the press (such as here and here).
If you contributed funds to LPCCA that you thought were tax deductible, you might want to check with your accountant before the IRS catches up with you.  Otherwise, since I also discovered another local charitable entity with 'Lower Providence' in its name who has had their 501(c)3 status revoked for non-filing of annual reports, let the donor beware.