Why the Borough is Broke

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 solvent, limps along. A weaker town center means higher school tax.

The Borough knew even before Covid that it faced a grim financial outlook, and from the time we published that warning, prospects only worsened. Council’s Finance Committee chairman David Ballard 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 liability to cover our share of what we flush into Cheltenham’s system. 

The Borough then got hit with the reassessment of the Strawbridge Building. 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 more than twenty years ago — with interest and legal fees. Why the settlement of twenty-year legal battle coincided with the sale of the property to a major contributor to the county Democratic Party and to Sean Kilkenny is anyone’s guess. The loan amount, like all the Borough’s loans, does not show up on the Borough’s cash-basis budget — only the interest. To learn about the loans and their terms, one must file a right-to-know request.

Finally, the Borough knew it would face the wrath of citizens when it all became public, so it retained the services of Belleview Communications, a Philadelphia-based PR firm last summer for $20,000 to manage the damage control. In other words, the borough spent our money to better explain 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 do condemned entire neighborhoods and transfer them 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 during the four years where I attended nearly every one. 

Yet I know first-hand of the dissent that simmers on that board. 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 it all happened under his watch.

In the reality that exists outside of Jenkintown, a record like his 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 Police

Court forces release of Jenkintown PD audit

Consultant report reveals long-running department dysfunction and mismanagement

Walkable Jenkintown has obtained via a Right-to-Know request a copy of the audit conducted on the Jenkintown Police Department. This heavily redacted report reveals a police department afflicted with ongoing morale, organizational, and financial problems going back at least five years. 

The Borough was ordered to release the report to the public by Montgomery County Judge Jeffrey Saltz after he denied its attempt to block a Right-to-Know request by Jenkintown Police Officer Edward Titterton.

Download the report from W.R. Smeal here.

The audit was conducted by W.R. Smeal Consulting at the request of Borough Council in early 2020 to assist George Locke and the mayor in their search for a new police chief in anticipation of Chief Albert DiValentino’s retirement, which was announced just last week. 

The 75-page report examined the ongoing police operations between 2014 and 2019. Unfortunately, the Borough redacted almost all of Smeal’s findings and recommendations, but the audit clearly paints a picture of long-running departmental dysfunction and lax financial accountability.

Budget 

  • In the five-year span of the report, the budget for the general budget has increased by only 0.02% while the police budget has increased by 23%. However, the report determined that some police costs were inappropriately folded into the general budget, otherwise the general budget would have actually decreased. 
  • In 2019, the department went over budget by $460,000, or 26.72%.  
  • The department budget does not have a line-item for “event overtime”. 

What the audit tells us

Record Keeping and Policy

Smeal gives low marks for the department’s record keeping, this despite its accreditation by the Pennsylvania Chief of Police Association. 

According to the report: 

There are many areas of policing that require policy. [Redaction] For example, when asked about Job Descriptions, many members were unaware whether or not they existed. However, the Chief advised they did and provided copies. [Redaction] Other areas would include, but not be limited to: Duty Schedule, Vacations, Other excusals, Overtime, Other Compensation and Court Appearances, Headquarters Security, Uniforms, Records Destruction, Automated Data Based Information Systems, Performance Evaluation, Report Writing, etc. are among the needed topics.

Further:

  • The report also mentions that the department has been resisting the implementation of a more modern, computerized record keeping system. 
  • The Department does not have a policy manual for record keeping and no support staff to handle duties associated with this task. 

K-9 Unit

Jenkintown’s K-9 unit has recently generated controversy over control and care of the dogs and a since-dismissed civil rights lawsuit brought against the Department and Borough by Officer Titterton. The audit addresses some of this in great detail. Among other concerns, it states: 

On January 19, 2020, a K-9 officer while on vacation received a call from Upper Southampton Police department requesting canine assistance for a narcotics sniff of a vehicle. The officer responded and completed the work. The next day, an overtime slip for two hours was submitted and an incident was completed. However, policy also dictates the completion of an “overtime green card” that had not been completed as of February 18, 2020” 

The report calls into question the need for a K-9 in general. 

“In a department the size of Jenkintown, it appears problematic to justify one K-9 unit, let alone two units. …In addition, Jenkintown is providing services at Borough expense for outside jurisdictions.” 

Crime Rate

In terms of the crime rate, either Jenkintown is either doing something right or it’s been very lucky or it’s not reporting its crimes accurately. During the five years covered by the audit, Jenkintown’s crime rate has decreased by 36%. However, Jenkintown’s clearance rate, or the crimes reported it has solved, “has dropped significantly the last two years, especially during 2019 when it was a very low 4.23%”. 

Smeal discovered that the department “does not track conviction rate information” nor does it include information on the number of crimes occurring but not being investigated, arrested, prosecuted or convicted.” 

Personnel and Morale

The report cites the fact that Jenkintown has 14 full-time officers and one part time serving a community of 4430 people. It compares that with other communities, such as Hatboro that also has 14 full-time officers, but for a community of 7500. Douglas Township has a population of 10,258 protected by 12 full time officers. Ambler with 6,400 people also has a force of 12. 

Unfortunately, the force of 14 doesn’t spend much time or effort comparing notes about its activities, at least not officially. According to Smeal: 

There is very little communication other than via the computer or when unavoidable. Indications are that there has not been a staff meeting or awards ceremony for more than a year. [Redaction] There appears to be no standing committees… to work together on any issue regardless of its importance.

The report describes the department’s personnel that has divided itself into either an “A-team” or a “B-team”, with the latter having to involve Borough staff and Council members to address complaints and grievances. Further, “the well being and morale of the Police Department has become stressful for everyone.”

The department does not subscribe to any trade journals or related publications. 

Miscellaneous

Overall, the report doesn’t have a lot of good news for Jenkintown residents. 

  • Smeal describes an unkempt police building that “Generally speaking …is in need of attention.” 
  • The office has no personnel mailbox. When the Chief conveyed “Letters of Commendation” from citizens, he taped them to the officer’s locker. 
  • The department states that officers must have at least a high school diploma but does not put that requirement in writing. 
  • “Formal Line and Staff inspections are nonexistent.” 
  • The department could not provide evidence of job descriptions and “many members were unaware whether or not they existed.”
  • The Department does not have an inventory of Borough-owned property and/or equipment.
  • The Borough hopes to create a new computerized system for tracking time of all its employees, including the police, but “the police department wants no part of the time-keeping change.” 

Borough Stonewalling

As it has in the past, Jenkintown Borough sought to keep this report under wraps, employing the services of Sean Kilkenny’s law firm costing an as-yet undetermined amount in legal fees.

A Right-to-Know request filed by Officer Edward Titterton was initially denied by the borough, which then filed a Petition for Review by the court. The Borough argued that the report is exempt from disclosure based on the RTK law that allows it to withhold “certain records relating to an agency employee” including performance reviews. 

The court denied the exemption, stating that the report reflects a “one-time inquiry” and is not a detailed examination nor an official probe. The report is, according to the court, an assessment of overall departmental performance which should be a part of the public record.