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.

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