The latest tempest to thunder into our fair borough comes on the back of a chihuahua, that despite our laws against it, sports a drive-through window.

Taco Bell tolls for Jenkintown’s fiscal mismanagement

Is Council about to sell us out to cover for an impending financial crisis?

We seem to have a Borough Council that relishes controversy — or is perhaps clueless about how they cause it. The latest tempest to thunder into our fair borough comes on the back of a chihuahua, that despite our laws against it, sports a drive-through window.

My experience has taken me down dozens and dozens of main streets across this country. I’ve sat down and spoken with many from those communities and discussed the challenges that they’ve faced. Towns go into decline and stay there because of gutless or ignorant leadership eager to make any deal, no matter how Faustian.

When I lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, the city had just completed a magnificent $60 million restoration of its Union Station. Eager to spark more development around it, the city almost offered up a lot across the square to Days Inn for one dollar! This signaled to the business community and to the community at large how little City Hall actually valued the city it governed.

Jenkintown today finds itself at a similar crossroads. Old York Road, which traditionally served as our borough’s commercial heart and soul, has become blighted thanks both to PennDOT’s intransigence and the Borough’s inability to challenge it.

We’ve run out of band-aids.

I’ve lived here now for 15 years, and I’ve long heard all the heartfelt and colorful stories about how vibrant Jenkintown used to be. Like many traditional towns that could not adapt to the automobile age, it lost its way. It has since applied many band-aid fixes with mixed results at best.

People like to point to our Town Square and all the new restaurants, but the restaurants are here because of our demographics and improving economy, not because of any Borough policy. The Town Square, though not without its charms, is really a poor excuse for a public space. Frankly, it’s a back-alley consolation prize given to Jenkintown by the county and really provides little to no tangible benefit to the community or the businesses around it, as evidenced by how our school taxes keep going up to compensate for the declining assessments.

Doylestown, Hatboro, Manayunk, Chestnut Hill, Media, and West Chester have no such town square, and yet you would never mistake their economy with Jenkintown’s. What they do have are pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares — streets that they can actually close off when necessary and have a parade. Thanks to Jenkintown’s failure to convey to PennDOT or our governor that Route 611 is killing this town, we must funnel our festivals and parades onto side streets. In 1974, Jenkintown staged its centennial parade on Old York Road.

No standards. Lax enforcement. And soon, no plan.

So, yes, let’s bring a Taco Bell here and grant them a variance for their drive-through window. Then we can finally state the obvious and just declare that we’ve given up. We have no standards, and we need the cash. Sorry for the time you wasted helping us develop the Jenkintown 2035 plan.

The Borough needs the money to pay for a parking lot that doesn’t pay for itself, for leaves they have to pick up from private property, for a theater and library and other community programs that are not fully supported by the residents who use them, for the maintenance of six police vehicles, and for a pocket park that looks more and more like a holding yard for borough trucks and less like a bird sanctuary with every month.

Why should the Borough care about its own building codes and zoning? It has for years ignored ADA laws by willfully allowing cars to park on Walnut Street sidewalks, by failing to cite crumbling properties for health code violations, by ignoring pedestrian safety on disintegrating slate and brick sidewalks, and by gathering revenue from illegal stop signs placed throughout the borough.

When you remember that Council granted George Locke a 23% pay raise without a performance review, it recalls George W. Bush commending his FEMA director after Katrina destroyed New Orleans.

For the record, I have no issue with any business setting up shop providing that they adhere to our established rules. However, this Taco Bell idea smacks of desperation, especially when Michael Golden puts lipstick on this pig by saying “At least we’ll get a traffic light out of it.”

And that there strikes to the heart of exactly the problem with this proposal. Old York Road makes it impossible to develop foot-traffic and the types of businesses that would cater to it. Instead, we get more sprawl, with Taco Bell planting that flag. Before long, we will become another traffic-choked Willow Grove instead of another New Hope, or any town with a business district we can point to with pride.

We can and should do better, but we won’t if we continue to be led by the same tone-deaf Council and the machine that puts it there.

pocket park

 Jenkintown’s Pocket Park: Buy now, ask permission later

It took nearly six months, but the Borough finally decided to let us in on their quarter-million-dollar secret: A park no one asked for.

On Wednesday, we received like many of you the official email from the Borough announcing this transaction. As we know now, the ink has dried on the purchase. The two plots now belong to the Borough, or more appropriately, to you and us whether we want it or not.

The email essentially says this: It was great opportunity. We had to move fast, and we didn’t tell you about this because you would have said “No.” If you have kids, you’ve heard this one before.

While the unsigned eblast defends Council’s actions as prudent, Borough Hall still filled with disgruntled residents last Monday night who thought otherwise.

After an extended period of public comment, Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe responded with a prepared statement that served as a rough draft for what the Borough issued and posted on Wednesday. We appreciate the fact that an “opportunity” seemed to present itself, but a park represents a serious commitment of time and resources over a long period of time — especially for a small town such as ours. Despite the presumed benefits of the Council’s expediency, they voted to purchase this property without a plan, public approval, or adequate public disclosure.

Bad faith, inadequate disclosure

We indeed welcome the news that the Council found itself flush with funds saved from a loan renegotiation, but that was not their money to spend. As taxpayers, we have every right to feel like the Borough dipped into our pockets. Saved funds are not automatically discretionary.

Ms. Sines-Pancoe also justified this action because the Jenkintown 2035 Plan includes a call, albeit well down the list of priorities, for more greenspace in the Borough. Curiously, she dismissed the school playground at the school as School District property, suggesting that the Borough must step up with its own land acquisition. It’s all community property.

In the eblast sent on Wednesday, the Borough asserts that it followed all guidelines spelled out by the state’s “Sunshine Laws.” Looking over the timeline of these events, the Borough did post public notices in the Intelligencer’s Legal Notices section the day before each hearing. In other words, the Borough included none of this business into the regularly scheduled Borough committee or Council agendas.

This begs us to ask the reader: Do you read the legal notices in the paper? How many of you actually get the paper any longer?

According to Borough records, two special public meetings were held. On September 8, it staged a Special Council Meeting. The agenda for this meeting was created less than one hour before the meeting. We don’t know exactly when the Borough posted it on the website.

agenda meta data
The document metadata that reveals an agenda created less than an hour before the September 8 meeting.

On November 9, the Borough held a Public Budget Workshop an hour before the regularly scheduled Public Works and Public Safety committee meetings. As this link to the Internet Archive shows, the Borough had not announced the meeting even as late as the previous October 21st.

By the letter of the law, yes, the Borough has covered itself here. However, for those of us who live in the real world, this process was anything but public. Clearly, for whatever reason, Council and Ms. Sines-Pancoe slipped this transaction towards approval in the most unscrupulous manner possible without actually breaking the law. This is not acting in good faith.

Specious claims

Ms. Sines-Pancoe’s made a specious claim that they had to conduct this business during executive session — which legally excludes the public — because this is a real estate manner. The Borough did not go out seeking to buy land or enter into any negotiation. The owner of the property came to the Borough and effectively gave it the right of first refusal, with a price reportedly well under market value. In other words, the Borough had no competition for this property, and so should have broadly notified the community via email immediately upon the presentation of this offer and taken input before voting on the purchase. The meeting minutes from both special meetings reflect that there was no public comment.

If we have misinterpreted the rules for executive sessions, then the Borough should have dismissed the offer out of hand due to the framework that guides its actions. It would not matter if the land was bequeathed to the Borough. It represents a major commitment and thus needs to be presented to the residents before approval.

No plan

Transparency issues aside, now that Jenkintown owns it, what do we do with a piece of property for which they drafted no plan? According to the email:

Early ideas include a rain garden, community garden, or open play space. No decisions regarding the use of the property have been made.

And yes, despite what the Council now says, our sources tell us that a dog park was considered.

In other words, the Borough does not have a plan for this commitment. Any urban planner will tell you that creating park space involves far more than just acquiring the land. Budgets for build-out, upkeep, and other unforeseen costs require careful, long-range thinking. This too has not happened.

So instead of taking input and planning for the revival of the Jenkintown downtown, Borough hall will distract itself with this new obligation. Perhaps we could debate the need for this park, but for us, that has no relevance. The Borough acted in bad faith to acquire something with our money that no one had asked for. It is our opinion that the properties should immediately be put back on the market, sold to the highest bidder, and the profits returned to the taxpayers.

Further, the Council must address its transparency problem. Public notices for any special meeting should go out by email and posted on the Borough website at least three days before they take place. In a town as tiny as ours, they might also consider knocking on a few doors as well. A twelve-member council could probably cover our entire community in a weekend.

Examples of poor sidewalk construction on Greenwood Ave, Jenkintown

Poor construction on Jenkintown’s Greenwood Ave

We missed a few examples on Greenwood that show Jenkintown needs a more pedestrian-first policy.

And the point of this is? Yes, as we have already established, the Borough gives slate curbs a pass, but apparently the original developers of this street lined the entire road with slate. We still have a few quaint remnants of that construction, but a wholesale approach would have removed this once and for all, allowing for unified curbs designed to last at least a generation or more. This just looks sloppy.
Just six feet away, weeds have taken up residence in the cracks in that slate. More Jenkintown sloppiness. We deserve better.
It didn’t take long for that new sidewalk block to crack, and the patch has already crumbled away. Water will seep in, turn to ice, and destroy that block in short order. If the Borough itself contracted to do the entire street at the same time it paved it, everything you see here would look nice and clean, and last much, much longer.
Another shoddy, apathetic example of Jenkintown borough’s inspection process. Who cares if the sidewalks look like a stretch in North Philadelphia? The street is nice and smooth. Don’t blame the abutting property owner: They only need do what the Borough requires.


Paying for steak but getting McNuggets

Paying for steak, getting McNuggets

According to George Locke, Jenkintown residents pay double what it would cost the borough to repair our sidewalks and curbs on a wholesale basis.

Despite the hardship to our family, we have applied for our permit to repair our sidewalk. The borough marked off four blocks, but we will do six in order to have a more uniform look to our walkway. That leaves three blocks and our driveway apron for the next resident who decides to live in our bucolic community to fix. We could not have done this without the generous cooperation of our contractor.

In our discussions with this contractor, we learned about an elderly couple in their 90s on Rodman facing an $11,000 bill thanks to Jenkintown’s arbitrary and capricious pedestrian infrastructure  policy. I don’t know about you, but if I live that long and keep my wits, I’d tell the borough what they could do with their sidewalks.

For those who don’t live here, you might be wondering why more people don’t speak up about this issue. I can report that there is no shortage of outrage, and that Borough Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe and Vice-President Rick Bunker lie through their teeth when they claim that no one has complained about this process. To a person, everyone I spoke with directly finds this system outrageous.

George Locke proves our point

Sidewalk estimates
Numbers provided by the borough to show their cost of sidewalk and curb repair. Click to enlarge.

Which brings us back to Borough Manager George Locke’s estimate for repairing all of Jenkintown’s sidewalks and curbs. Last September, in response to our published research on the topic, Mr. Locke told Council that it would cost the borough $7,656,510 to do most of the borough-owned streets. He based his estimate on PennDOT’s “bid history list”. Mr. Lock neglected to remind Council that any sensible maintenance program would spread the work out over 30 to 40 years. The sidewalk blocks marked for repair in front of our house were poured in 1938, almost 80 years ago.

We had one contractor estimate $3800 to rebuild 30 linear feet of curb and 64 square yards of sidewalk. Using PennDOT’s “going rate”, the borough would pay $1690, or nearly half our cost for the same job

See how much your project would cost the borough by using our new calculator at right. Compare that number with what you have to pay. 

Spreading the $7.6 million cost out over 40 years adds $191,412 to the annual borough budget, or 3%. Do we have that money? According to Jenkintown’s 2015 budget:

  • The debt service on the parking lot alone has averaged about $100,000. After enforcement, maintenance, and debt service, the Borough’s parking program actually loses money.
  • The borough also spends over $1000 per officer on uniforms for its 13 officers.
  • We have five police vehicles, which is more per capita than New York City.
  • The Borough budgets $40,000 to purchase new police vehicles about every three years, up from $30,000. At this rate by 2031, the borough will have spent well over $200,000 for five SUV police specials, not including maintenance.
  • In 2014, the Borough spent 1,000 on computer software and increased it to $22,750 the following year.
  • For the past  four years, the Borough has given the Hiway Theater $26,363. I love the Hiway, but I don’t think local government should be in the entertainment business.
  • In 2015, the Borough gave $5,000 to the Jenkintown Community Alliance.
  • In 2015, Borough Manager George Locke received a 5.7% raise from $85,000 to $90,000. Last year, the rate of inflation was well under 2%.

This doesn’t even touch upon the cost and the wisdom of the Borough’s current pavement program and its current scope. Did they need to pave so much so fast? Highly debatable.

If you accept as I do that much of these funds are discretionary (i.e. better spent elsewhere), then you have a total of about $220,000 per year to put into a sensible 40-year sidewalk maintenance program without raising taxes a dime.

Granted, the Borough has already committed much of this money, but without public pressure, they will continue to allow this folly to continue, and you and I will continue to be played for chumps, shelling out thousands of dollars more than we should every year and getting a garbage streetscape.

Walking Away

We have made our case. Either the citizens of Jenkintown will accept and embrace the concept of public responsibility for public assets, or it will continue to allow the status quo to molder on and degrade our walkable environment.

The facts are these:

  1. The public financing of roads but not of sidewalks amounts to a subsidy for automobile usage. In an age of climate change and an obesity epidemic, it shows a misguided priority for machines over man.
  2. The borough claims facetiously that it cannot afford to take on this responsibility. Actually, it has the money, but it chooses to spend it elsewhere, and often on things where it should not. (For instance, we have more police cars per capita than New York City.)
  3. The borough does not choose to lead the way. It can if it wants, but an element on the Council sees no reason to change its ways or to even discuss it. Such attitudes speaks not only of ignorance, but it leads to dangerous long-term consequences for the viability of the community.
  4. The current sidewalk policy has resulted in an unsightly hodge-podge of substandard construction that will degrade far faster and cost more than a unified, single-payer approach. The process has proven arbitrary and subject to political manipulation. In other words, it helps to know someone.
  5. The current process currently does not accommodate hardship. You either pay up or you will go to court, face a fine, and ultimately find a lien slapped on your house. The borough shows no interest whatsoever in working with families that for reasons beyond their control cannot afford to maintain what is public space.

This situation will not change without public pressure. I have done my best to enlist the help of my neighbors, some of whom have urged me to draft a petition to get this changed. In fact, most of the people I’ve spoken with about this issue tend to agree with me, but what they will do to further this remains an open question.  I would happily help in this effort, but I cannot and should not do it by myself.

I stand ready to press on, but I will need your help. If you would like to meet to discuss what more we can do, let me know. Velvet Sky makes for a perfect meeting spot, and its one of those places that I’ll miss when my family and I can finally move away — which we will if this borough — and commonwealth — continues its oppressive policies against working class homeowners.