Borough Finances — Who’s Responsible?

Mismanagement, opacity, and complacency combine to diminish the community. What’s next?

With the Borough’s finances now finally in such a state that it has to actually consider disbanding our police department, it bears reminding of what we wrote here in 2019: 

Make no mistake, Jenkintonians: We are sailing into some stormy seas. We ended the last fiscal year with a half-million dollar deficit, this despite ten years of national economic expansion. Our business district, which the entire community depends upon to stay solven, limps along. A weaker town center means higher school tax.

The Borough knew before Covid hit that it faced a grim financial outlook, and from the time we published this warning, matters got worse. Council’s Finance Committee chairman David Ballard today claims that prospects for 2024 look better, but with the school district recently announcing a 6% tax increase for its upcoming fiscal year, one might reasonably have some doubts. When faced with declining revenues, a business typically lowers its prices. Government usually goes in the opposite direction, which only corrodes the viability of the community it serves.

The Borough already knew of the looming $1.2 million sewer bill to cover our share of what we flush into Cheltenham’s system. 

The Borough then got hit with the reassessment of the Strawbridge Building suit to reassess their property tax bill. The Borough and the school district has to return approximately $200,000 and $800,000 respectively. Those numbers do not include legal fees or interest. 

The Borough knew of improperly received commercial taxes from a business in Cheltenham “for many years” and that it would eventually be required to transfer those funds with interest to that township. 

The Borough knew that it would have to finally pay Salem Baptist Church approximately $1 million for the easement it seized in more than twenty years ago — with interest and legal fees. The loan amount does not show up on the cash-basis budget because the borough borrowed the money to cover the settlement. Why this twenty-year legal battle finally concluded with the sale of the property to a major contributor to the county Democratic Party and to Sean Kilkenny is anyone’s guess. 

Finally, the Borough knew it would face the wrath of citizens, so it retained the services of Belleview Communications, a Philadelphia-based PR firm for two months last summer for $20,000 to help it strategize a campaign to douse the expected taxpayer outrage. In other words, the borough spent our money for guidance explaining how they mismanaged our money. (See the letter and invoices here.)

In a comment on the Jenkintown Community Page, David Ballard explained in considerable detail the situation from the Borough’s perspective, but his narrative mostly tells a tale of a reactive Council, rarely prepared or mindful of the pitfalls that this tiny borough faces. We might now rightfully wonder if Jenkintown can afford its own existence — at least if it hopes to retain an economically diverse population. Or maybe that’s somehow the plan? 

Towns have condemned entire neighborhoods to turn over the properties to commercial developers. Review the Kelo v. New Haven Supreme Court case to better understand how this happens. There the city used its powers of eminent domain to seize Suzy Kelo’s house and the surrounding neighborhood to make way for a new Pfizer office complex that they later canceled, leaving New Haven holding the bag.  

Citizens of this borough should rightfully be puzzled by the lack of public outreach by our own representatives. Frankly, I think it’s a normal and welcome thing to have open debate in representative bodies, and especially in the public sphere. Our Council, however, toils in a cone of silence. Council meetings typically end with a record of one unanimous vote after another, at least for the four years I attended nearly every one. 

Yet, I know first-hand of the dissent. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing three ex-council members who unleashed a torrent of criticism of their colleagues. 

While Mr. Ballard waxes eloquently on social media about the details in this devilish problem, we all must remember that this all happened under his watch. In the reality that exists outside of Jenkintown, his is a record that usually gets people fired. But in this one-party town, he knows full well — as do we — that his seat is safe as long as Jenkintown voters remain complacent.

Jenkintown Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe

Lateral damages

The town that works harder to attract visitors than it does to keep its own residents eventually loses both. 

We keep sending that memo to Jenkintown, and it stubbornly refuses to read it. This week, realtor Andrew Smith sent out a memo of his own that asks Council to reconsider a 2017 ordinance requiring inspection of sewer laterals before a property sale. Of all the claims made, the assertion that these inspections waste large, equity-devouring sums of money and do no good should resonate the loudest.

Our borough council has a real problem truly understanding the concept of financial hardship. They pay lip service, but they do not act upon their feeble expressions of empathy. It makes one want to call for them to release their tax returns if only to show the hypocrisy of joining a party that blames the nation’s ills on the apathy of the one-percent.

With this ordinance, rarely does a “For Sale” sign pop up in Jenkintown without a backhoe appearing to dig up the front yard, a brand-new sidewalk, and sometimes a chunk of a freshly paved street. Don’t move here unless you can afford this council’s unsubstantiated environmental agenda.

The lateral ordinance was snuck onto the agenda and passed in 2017 despite Cheltenham’s eventual abandonment of a similar program that they found fixed nothing and cost too much.

This latest example of expensive municipal folly follows the surreptitious acquisition of the Cedar Street property, the vindictive persecution of Peggy and Dave Downs and their subsequent lawsuit, and the grossly mismanaged sidewalk repair “program”. In all three cases, the Council ignored the facts, leaving onerous and unnecessary burdens upon hapless homeowners. 

It’s no coincidence that this municipal dysfunction started about the same time Deborra Sines-Pancoe ascended to Council leadership. It’s also no coincidence that council has become a revolving door or that it has an open seat going into the general election. People who value their time do not want to share that board with her. 

Pancoe has not contented herself with running the main meeting, but she now exerts undue influence into the committees as well. Rick Bunker quit his seat in a huff during a fire commission meeting after Pancoe, who wasn’t even a member, hijacked it. She has even gone so far as to refer to herself alternately as Jenkintown’s manager and its leader. As Council President, she has no managerial authority at all. Officially, Jenkintown has no leader.

Pancoe, a Quaker, serves also as a director for Abington Friends Academy. Quakerism’s central tenet of non-violence should make one wonder how a professed believer can be so blind to the violence that financial disaster can bring to struggling families, the elderly, or anyone who desperately wants to jump ship before she steers it into the iceberg.

Twenty years from now, when the history of Jenkintown’s decline and annexation by Abington is written, look forward to an entire chapter devoted to Deborra Sines-Pancoe’s role in this sad development.

Mayor Allyson Dobbs

Jenkintown Borough Council Highlights

At last week’s Borough Council meeting we learned:

More apartments for Jenkintown. Jeffrey Lustig came before council seeking approval for his plans to build apartments on the second and third floor of the Wells Fargo bank building at the corner of York and West. He got it, but not before the owner of Buckets voiced his concerns about — what else — parking. Credit goes to Council president Deborra Sines-Pancoe for pointing out to Mr. Bramen that his signs posted all around his lot warn that he will tow cars that don’t belong there.

Parking meter fees will be doubling, from twenty five cents to fifty cents per hour.

The Borough has issued a demolition permit for the Salem Baptist Church property. Look for wrecking balls soon.

Melissa Ashton Young Resigns — right on time. Council’s agenda listed its intent to accept the resignation letter of Melissa Young and then to appoint Maxine Marlowe, a former council member, to her post. These two agenda items were tabled without explanation. Ms. Young has largely been AWOL on the board in the past year and made no secret of her displeasure of serving. Her term was set to expire this year, but in a classic tactic, she will resign early to allow for an appointment and to avoid any primary fight. Democracy at work!

Mayor Dobbs is camera shy? Someone needs to explain to our elected representatives, maybe upon swearing in, that they are public officials and when in a public hearing, they have no right to privacy. So, when a reporter or a citizen comes and starts taking pictures, maybe they should just shut up and deal with it. When I pointed my camera at Mayor Allyson Dobbs (above), she launched a tirade about my rudeness. “What would David Sedaris think?” Madame Mayor, I don’t give a rat’s ass what David Sedaris thinks.

Bunker suggests selling our sewers to Aqua. Social Media Bully and Council Vice President Rick Bunker raised an obvious question not asked at this months earlier public works hearing: In the face of the huge bill faced by the borough for sewer remediation and redirection from Cheltenham to Abington, why not just sell off the sewers to Aqua? As previously reported, Aqua is expected to close a deal to take over Cheltenham’s system, which may lessen our financial burden, but perhaps we can kill two birds. Pros and cons on both sides, so expect this issue to dominate community discussion for much of this year.

Jenkintown’s motion to dismiss, strike one

Jenkintown’s attorney fails with first attempt to dismiss civil rights lawsuit but tries again

The Times-Chronicle recently reported that the Borough’s attempt to have the civil rights suit against it dismissed failed — and failed rather quickly. Three days later, the Borough and its co-defendants, Deborra Sines-Pancoe, Rick Bunker, George Locke, and Sean Kilkenny updated the motion and refiled it yesterday.

To update yesterday’s post about the court’s rejection of the Borough’s motion to dismiss, the defense attorney almost immediately redrafted and resubmitted the motion.

These filings take up over 30 pages and involve many hours of billable time, all paid for by you and me.

Also, I have posted something similar at the JCP, but the admin saw fit to turn off commenting, citing how such bad news might scare away prospective residents.

I don’t know about you, but if I were about to sink $300,000-plus into a new community, I’d appreciate knowing what crawls under the municipal rocks before I sign on the dotted lines.

You may download a copy of the second motion here

Jenkintown Borough leadership may appeal Downs ZHB decision

Jenkintown Borough leadership considered appeal of Downs ZHB decision

[Update: The Borough had 30 days to appeal, and the window has closed. Nonetheless, it is our opinion that the Borough should have shut down this this matter well before the first hearing.]

Apparently a unanimous vote against them failed to convince the Borough to stand down after all. According to documents we’ve received today via a Right-to-Know request, Jenkintown Borough is or was considering an appeal of the ZHB vote taken last month regarding the notice of violation against the Downses.

I just received copies of the July invoices pertaining to the Downs ZHB hearing. What I’ve included here is the invoice from Rudolph Clarke, the firm representing the ZHB. The total for that month from all the invoices amount to another $3500. What stands out is the $1162 the Borough spent AFTER the vote researching a possible appeal. If the appeal window has not closed, this ordeal might not be over after all. If it has, another $1162 in taxpayer money just went up in smoke.

Question: Has Jenkintown Borough leadership gone insane?

Rudolph Clark invoice to Jenkintown for July 2018
f=””> Rudolph Clark invoice to Jenkintown for July 2018[/capt
The notes over the redactions reveal the easily discerned text under the marker ink. Click the image for a larger view.