Sunday, April 23, 2017

Oh The Places You’ll Go! En Route To The 2017 Methacton Post Prom

A whirlwind trip around the globe awaited Methacton High School students planning to attend the 2017 post-prom event, themed ‘Oh The Places You’ll Go! (after the Dr. Seuss story by the same name) but when they arrived, they needed no passports or luggage,  only a desire to have fun and stay out of harm’s way.

The same goes for the more than 1000 family, friends and curious attendees from other school districts who lined up well in advance of the 6:30 community walk-through start time to learn about this amazing endeavor and to get a sneak preview of the decorations, activities and features of this year’s domestic and internationally-themed event, many of whom will have kids gracing the newly-converted high school hallways in a few short hours when the prom is over.

2017 marks the 18th year of the premier post-prom event in Montgomery County, attracting close to 100% participation by students attending the prom (93% of prom attendees as of last year, and between 800-900 students in total, some of whom do not attend the prom) and the aforementioned 1000+ visitors who take the walk-through preview tour. Created to give students a safe place to spend the overnight hours after prom, it’s blossomed over the years to be something students AND parents look forward to experiencing.

Post-prom came about largely because studies show that two of the most dangerous nights for high school students are the evenings following the prom and graduation. As soon as the prom ends, students spend the entire night inside the high school in a safe, drug and alcohol free environment. Free to all junior and senior high school students and their dates, attendees are expected to sign in and stay all night – if they want to leave, parents are called and the students are not released until they arrive.  Students are free to go after 5:30 am but must stay til the end to be eligible to win awesome door prizes.

The high school interior becomes virtually unrecognizable, having been transformed into an entirely new environment. Activities available throughout the night include a casino, sporting events such as dodgeball and volleyball tournaments, a coffee house with entertainment, inflatables, a bull riding machine, an arcade, laser tag, a comedy/improve group, hypnotist, yoga, trike races, and roving performers. There’s even a dash of reality TV in the form of Cash Cab. Food is available throughout the evening for students and volunteers.

There’s no cost to the students to attend – all expenses incurred in making the props and decorations, providing food and entertainment, and the prizes that are offered to those who stay all night are paid for by generous donations of hundreds of hours of time, and cash, goods and services from community sponsors, businesses, organizations and families – this year’s operating budget topped $46,000. Several fundraisers are also held during the year to raise funds, such as the annual summer golf outing at Shannondell, and the adult dinner dance held in the wintertime.

Enjoy this compilation set to music (via You-Tube) of the gorgeous decorations created for “Oh The Places You’ll Go”, and these fun facts provided by the post-prom committee:

·       - It takes more than 450 volunteers to work the night of post-prom, for setup, manning the functions and security at post-prom, and clean up the next morning.

·       - 61 local businesses and over 100 families provided cash donations for this year’s post-prom

·      -  Post-prom is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit volunteer organization and is not affiliated with Home & School or Methacton High School.

·       - Each year a student logo design contest is held, with the winner receiving two free tickets to the prom.

·        -Over 65 volunteers work behind the scenes starting in October each year lending their various talents to design, build and create the decorations and displays for post-prom.

·        -Post-prom are loaned out to seven other Methacton School District schools, five surrounding local school districts, and many local community groups.

·        -The post-prom Education Committee sends notes to all of the local florists and tuxedo shops to tuck into students’ corsages, boutonnieres and jacket pockets reminding students to make good choices on prom night and thanks those shops who’ve agreed to help us keep our students safe.

It’s never too late to donate to support this very worthy cause. If you’d like to contribute, mail your tax-deductible check payable to Methacton Post Prom to: PO Box 39, Eagleville, PA, 19408-0039.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Museum of the American Revolution: Falling Out of Valley Forge and Marching Into Philadelphia

If you don’t walk out of Philadelphia's newest jewel, the new Museum of the American Revolution (MOAR) with a new understanding of and appreciation for the sacrifices people suffered in order to settle the colonies and fight for independence, in the process creating a new nation and becoming a new player on the world political and economic scene,you've missed one of the main points of the experience.  (Click here for a visual tour).

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending a founding-members only preview grand opening of the new Museum. I left with a renewed sense of awe that, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and odds stacked against the American colonists in taking on the most powerful and wealthiest empire in the world, and the sheer luck - and unlikely alliances  - that emerged to help us prevail, We the People somehow accomplished something unbelievable and unheard of – a republic form of government in which the people rule themselves.

We may have drafted the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776, but we didn’t gain true freedom until 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and even then for some time thereafter the greatest focus was on the rights of each of the thirteen colonies. Having just thrown off a far-away powerful central government (a monarchy), Americans were in no mood to even consider the kind of strong central government eventually framed by the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. This museum tells these tales, and many other, lesser-known facts and stories surrounding the American Revolution.

The path that the MOAR took to arrive at its new home at Third and Walnut in Philadelphia, and the length of time it took to accomplish it, lasted for more years than the actual revolution itself, and similarly, was no small feat against many obstacles over a long span of time. The gorgeous facility is a testament to the tenacity and dedication of its champions in finding a home for it, getting it built, and finally, at long last, dramatically displaying the artifacts and paying appropriate tribute to the War for Independence.

Efforts to bring the Museum to our area here in the suburbs date back as far as 1999 when the National Park Service and the MOAR (formerly known as the American Revolution Center, or ARC) collaborated on plans for a museum next to Valley Forge National Historical Park’s (VFNHP) welcome center.

In 2005, however, the ARC announced plans for its own museum and conference center two miles away. Philanthroper (and new chairman of the museum’s board of directors) H.F.”Gerry” Lenfest was brought in to try to move the project forward. He personally ponied up the $4.1M to purchase 78 acres of privately owned land adjacent to the VFNHP from the St. Gabe’s protectorate (Archdiocese of Philadelphia) in Lower Providence Township the day after the LPT Planning Commission approved the ARC’s request to rezone the parcel to allowed development beyond a museum.

The reasons for pulling the plug on the VFNHP location were referenced as park service red tape, federal fundraising concerns – the ARC board was nervous about the Park Service’s difficulties funding the maintenance of property and collections they already owned – and size restrictions on the proposed building footprint.

toppling a statue of King George III
However, the residents of primarily the Audubon portion of the Township (and other nonresidents outside the Township) were opposed to the development of the 78 acres. What soured many Audubon residents at the time on the project was the addition of a hotel and conference center and several small retail options to the project, added to help fund the cost of running the Museum and preserve the collection going forward. Also, at the time, the new four-way cloverleaf at 422 was just a fantasy, and traffic in Audubon, already difficult and of necessity directed through Audubon for access to and from the Route 422/Oaks, was envisioned to only worsen with the addition of the traffic the Museum would undoubtedly bring. Zoning challenges and legal battles ensued.

After spending millions of dollars developing plans and fighting in court, and years’ worth of time and effort, in 2009 Lenfest and the rest of the executives on the board realized that they had to rise above the local political squabbles and courtroom drama – that getting this long-envisioned project built and open to the public was of far more importance than the longer-term legal and political efforts of trying to convince a suburban community that it should want a project of national significance that would put it on the map and bring jobs, tax and tourist dollars to its coffers.

Lenfest and Ed Rendell brokered a deal for a land swap:  the ARC would abandon their plans to build the museum in or near VFNHP and moved the project to Center City. The new museum would be located at 3rd and Chestnut Street in downtown Philadelphia, within a 55-acre federal park space, on the site of the former welcome center built for the 1976 bicentennial, in exchange for the National Park Service receiving ownership of the 78-acre parcel of private land owned by the American Revolution Center within the boundary of VFNHP.

(Many, many articles [including my own] have been written detailing the headaches of trying to work with the National Park Service, and in trying to get the project built here in LP, which I won’t revisit here – Google or check out some of the links at the bottom of this article if you want more information).

Locally, I played a role in this effort circa 2008-2009 as a member of and chair of our Zoning Hearing Board that conducted many evenings’ worth of hearings, listening to hours of witness testimony and reviewing over one hundred exhibits in a validity challenge to the zoning of the 78-acre parcel. At one point there were a total of ten attorneys representing various parties in the hearings!

 Also, one of our current township supervisors, Colleen Eckman, had a starring role, arguably launching her local political career on this one “not in my backyard” issue, after becoming a vocal opponent of the project (which would have been located not far from her home in Audubon) and also serving as one of the witnesses in the zoning validity challenge hearings questioning the proper zoning of the parcel.

So – at long last, in 2017, here it is and here we are. Lower Providence's loss is Philly's gain. Much has already  (here, here,  here,  hereherehere, and here -- both in the NY Times and Philly Inquirer) been published about the Museum since it opened, detailing its displays and collection.  Maybe it's just that as a member of DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution, who donated the painting "Siege at Yorktown" to the Museum) I had more than a casual interest in the subject matter, but I found it totally absorbing and, of course, long overdue. Most importantly, take the time to go see this wonderful addition to the Philadelphia historical scene in person. Consider becoming a member to help support the museum going forward. Check out the gift shop, well-stocked with items not typically found in tourist traps, to which a section is devoted specifically to items about the Continental Army’s brutal winter at Valley Forge.

And last, but certainly not least, the next time you feel defeated about something, allow yourself to be inspired by the story of We the People to think about how much American success in the American Revolution illustrates the impossible odds that can be overcome and the things that can be accomplished by brave, determined people with tenacity and the courage of their convictions.                                                                                                                                                                       )

Gerry Lenfest at 4-19-17 ribbon cutting

Friday, April 14, 2017

Paying Up for Police Services

We have a terrific police department here in LP. Well trained, accredited, highly responsive and with excellent leadership, we enjoy being one of the 50 safest communities in Pennsylvania. link But, all that comes with a cost to our residents.
One of my long-time personal pet peeves, and a long-term state debate, has been whether taxpayers across Pennsylvania should be footing the bill for police services in municipalities that forego the expense of hiring their own police force. These are municipalities who instead rely on the closest Pennsylvania State Police barracks for law enforcement services, effectively asking the residents of the entire state to subsidize their law enforcement needs.

Or, as is often the case, they also rely on the response of local police departments in surrounding municipalities. Exhibit A in our case is Worcester Township, an affluent community by all standards. Our LPPD officers often have to respond to incidents at the Methacton High School (situated in Worcester Twp) since they can respond more quickly than PSP. According to a Skippack supervisor I know, PSP takes 30-40 minutes to respond when they need something, and their barracks is IN Skippack). That’s a cost we are not compensated for.

Here in LP, the cost of salaries, pensions and benefits for our 31 officers, 2 dispatchers and a part-time evidence clerk is approximately (based on 2015 figures) $3,330,278, consuming 28.3% of our annual budget. LP residents not only pay for their own law enforcement services via their township taxes, but via their state taxes, they’re also paying for communities like Worcester’s law enforcement needs. In the case of some rural townships, there simply isn’t a tax base strong enough to support having their own police department, and in some cases there’s far less need for one due to the remoteness of the area and distance from more densely populated areas, but many, including Worcester Township, arguably can and should shoulder that burden.

In any event the free ride may soon be over. Governor Wolf’s $32.2 billion dollar spending plan is about $1 billion short of funding. Especially if there are no spending cuts or tax increases, other sources of revenue must be found. The governor announced in late February that one way being considered as a revenue source to help raise money is to levy a $25 fee per person on those municipalities that have elected not to bear the cost of staffing their own police departments and instead rely on the state police to respond to crime in their towns. He estimates the fee could raise about $63 million and help fund the state police, reducing reliance on the Motor License Fund, a reserve set aside to pay for roads that the legislature has tapped to meet state police costs. Roughly half of Pennsylvania’s 2,562 municipalities do not have their own police force. Right now, residents in the rest of the Commonwealth are effectively subsidizing those municipalities, and paying twice for police services – to their own municipality AND to the state.

It’s important to note that individuals would not pay the fee directly; it’s an assessment to the municipality which would likely raise their own local taxes to accommodate its collection. And there’s nothing saying that once it’s in place, it won’t be increased. However, it does put the burden more on those regions that use the PSP services exclusively (regional police departments would be exempt from the fee).

If that sounds preposterous, consider that towns with dedicated police forces pay far more that than per person – on average $155 per resident.

Here in Lower Providence, based on 2010 census figures of a population numbering 25,436 and 2014 reported cost figures, our cost per resident is $126.80 (source: )    
A few years later, it’s undoubtedly more than that.  Per the 2015 LPT annual report, the cost to provide police service here had risen to $3,330,278; assuming population is essentially unchanged from 2010 the cost per resident for police services rose to $130.93.

For comparison, here are some other local municipalities’ spend (source: More Than The Curve):

·    Conshohocken has a population of 7,833, spent $2,575,879.00 on police in 2014, for an average of $328.85 per resident
·    West Conshohocken has a population of 1,320, spent $1,792,125.00 on police in 2016, for an average of $1,357.67 per resident
·    Plymouth Township has a population of 16,525, spent $6,397,210.00 on police in 2014, for an average of $387.12 per resident
·    Whitemarsh Township has a population of 17,349, spent $5,020,436.00 on police in 2014, for an average of $289.38 per resident

$25 per person looks like a bargain, doesn’t it?  Perhaps, but some disagree. Smaller and more rural municipalities are concerned.

Officials in North Whitehall Township, supervisors Mark Hills and Bruce Paulus, said that “Rural areas like ours are what the state police were intended to cover," Hills said. "We already pay for the state police in our taxes. I don't think it's fair to ask us for additional monies”

"I think they could say this applies maybe to places with 5,000 or more [residents]," Paulus said. "When you're a large municipality, maybe you should have your own or maybe you should be charged for your state police coverage. But the small rural communities are what state police were meant for." link
As Kenneth Grimes, president of PSATS, the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors notes in the most recent volume of “Townships Today”, those communities won’t be getting any MORE police services in return for the fee. He says “The State Police will continue to operate, much like they always have, with very limited manpower. House bill 1500 won’t do anything to increase coverage or decrease response times.”

However, the bill’s sponsor, State Rep Mike Sturla, believes that municipalities that do not have a full-time local police force have been ‘draining the system for too long and should be required to pay an extra fee for State Police services. “My legislation is about fairness and equity because it is obvious there is a serious inequity in how we fund police services in our state”, he said in a recent press release.  

Then again, some contend that few municipalities really qualify as small or distressed enough to avoid the fee. Many are seeing booming growth and are becoming more densely populated and should have to pay up.
Bottom line, while generally I’m not in favor of new fees and taxes in lieu of responsible spending and cutting costs at the state level, this is one area that is long overdue for a more equitable solution.