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.

Bunker’s Mentality on Better Sidewalks

I attended the Council’s Administration and Finance Committee hearing meeting last Monday to discuss the budget, PennDOT’s Multi-Modal Fund, and to present this blog’s $25 Sidewalk proposal.

First, the committee’s explanation as to why the projected 2014 $2.2 million budget carryover didn’t necessarily constitute a “surplus” did not clarify things much. As it was explained  to me, Council budgets money so that they need to buy stuff for the next year.

“So the money is earmarked?”

Well, no, but we may need to buy a fire engine.

“So, the money is discretionary?”

Not exactly.

I will leave this issue for a discussion with an accountant with no ties to the Borough and plenty of patience. And I will take the Council up on their invitation to attend the budget planning meetings.

Second, I asked whether or not the Borough applied for — or at least considered applying for — the state’s Multi-Modal fund as  a possible source of money to pay for repairs to our sidewalks. The committee and Borough Manager George Locke expressed awareness of the fund, but didn’t seem to think that it applied to Jenkintown’s needs.

Mostly, my sense was that no one even considered the fund for this project. George Locke asserted that with regards to sidewalks, the state intends  the fund to go to commercial districts that feed to transit. Given that the Jenkintown train station sits in a mostly residential section of town, one might reasonably assume that PennDOT would make an exception if indeed one needed to be made. Besides, I have a list of applicants from the PennDOT website that would belie this assertion.

rick bunker
Councilor Rick Bunker says, “No better sidewalks for you!”

Finally, after presenting my $25 Sidewalk plan to the committee, Councilor Rick Bunker showed that he continues to labor under the false assumption that the Borough does not own the sidewalks. I pointed out to him that in fact, according to my property markers and the county’s website, the sidewalks are indeed part of the public right-of-way.

Then, he flat out told me, with hand pounding on the desk, that he didn’t see any reason why Jenkintown should break with the rest of the state and take on the maintenance of sidewalks, despite the fact that it’ll be cheaper and produce better sidewalks. In his own words, “This is the we’ve always done it, and it’s the way the rest of the state does it. I see no reason to support this change. No one is complaining about the way we’re doing this.”

In the words of Admiral Grace Hopper, “The most dangerous words in the language are ‘It’s always been done that way.'”

Much to her credit, Councilor Laurie Durkin interrupted Bunker’s tirade, saying, “I do think this is worth considering. I think we should look into it further.”

After all, this is all I’m asking.

13th heaviest property tax burden and no trash pickup (or sidewalks)

This is the average amount of residential property tax actually paid, expressed as a percentage of home value. Some states with high property taxes, like New Hampshire and Texas, rely heavily on property taxes in lieu of other major tax categories; others, like New Jersey and Illinois, impose high property taxes alongside high rates in the other major tax categories.

Source: How High Are Property Taxes in Your State? | Tax Foundation

Results of Jenkintown’s Beautification, Part 4

Yesterday, I toured Greenwood Avenue, where a good part of the curbings appear to be made of granite, not slate. This interests me only because my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts typically used granite curbs, which typically hold up better against the elements and snow plows. My mom’s neighborhood, built in 1971, and sees about the same amount of traffic as your average Jenkintown side street, has yet to repave the street or replace any of the curbs. No, she did not have sidewalks, but if she were still alive, she’s probably say “See? I told you so.” This, despite the fact that Springfield maintains its sidewalks. City ordinance only requires residents keep them clear.

The Verizon building near the train station does indeed cut a fine presence in our town, but it would appear that the Borough conveniently overlooked this patchwork. This meets code? [UPDATE: Soon after we published this photo, this section of sidewalk was fixed.]

How do we pay for this? A few suggestions…

I would hazard a guess that if you polled all twelve of Jenkintown’s volunteer councilors about finding a better way to pay for sidewalk and curb repair, to a person, they’d likely respond, “but how do we do this without raising taxes?” Indeed, Councilor Laurie Durkin said just that via email, following with, “Residents must pay one way or another.”

Maybe, but a one-time, four-figured, out-of-the-blue financial broadside hurts far more than a long-range, pedestrian-focused plan.

So when Ms. Durkin asks me, “Do you have another suggestion or source of funding?”

As a matter of fact, I do.

Document published by the Advocacy Alliance that’s all about paying for sidewalks in a more sensible manner. Best parts start on page 18. Click to download.

Over last week, I received a reply to my request for information from The Alliance for Biking and Walking. I was sent a link to a document that contains twenty-eight pages of information on the topic. In case no one at borough hall had a chance to look this over, I will present some of the more salients points here.

In the introduction, the authors acknowledge the problem of funding. Many towns struggle with this issue, but they seek sustainable solutions because:

The response we heard from communities who are overcoming this challenge was remarkably consistent across community size, context, and project type: We build and maintain our bicycling and walking facilities because they are a priority for our community. [Emphasis theirs.]

The portion on sidewalk maintenance begins on page 18. Among other reasons, sidewalks are great ideas because they:

…provide tremendous value to communities by making walking safer and easier. Even without sidewalks people will walk, leading the FHWA to recommend that “[g]iven that people walk despite not having facilities—for exercise, going to friends’ houses, accessing transit, etc.—it is neither rational nor acceptable to build places that do not have places for people to walk.” [emphasis mine] In addition, sidewalks, like trails, can be more than transportation facilities; they can be “a place to abide, to meet others, and to participate in neighborhood life.” The uniqueness of sidewalks as multi-functional facilities should be a great asset for their construction and maintenance.


…sidewalks often face challenges, particularly related to maintenance. Even where sidewalks are recognized for the integral role to access transit and other activities, the maintenance of sidewalks can be a complicated picture that, in the worst case, leads to disrepair of facilities and community and developer resistance to new sidewalks.

Suffice to say, the document shows the many ways to skin this cat, but the city of Long Beach, California — a state like Pennsylvania in terms of its sidewalk repair policy — fully funds sidewalk maintenance by budgeting a repair program according to a schedule. For its efforts, the city has been cited as “Silver Level Walk-Friendly Community“.

The City of Long Beach has good sidewalk design standards and 100 percent sidewalk coverage on arterial and non-arterial streets. Sidewalks are repaired on a regular maintenance schedule and the City has almost complete curb ramp access in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On page 23, the document finally asks “How are cities funding sidewalk maintenance programs?” Of the sixteen suggestions, I would direct Ms. Durkin to these:

Community-wide Assessments: Ithaca, NY was identified for its yearly assessment of between $70 and $140 to be used for sidewalk repair and construction.

Coordination with other improvements: Ironwood, MO; and Davidson, NC were identified in the FHWA Research Report that accompanied the Guide as communities that were using coordination to facilitate and fund sidewalk improvements. In Ironwood, the city coordinated sidewalk replacement with water and sewer line replacement. In Davidson, the city has had success informally coordinating with developers.

Sidewalk millage tax: Ann Arbor, MI was identified as a community with a millage (property) tax that generated $560,000 or more per year for sidewalk repair and replacement. The tax was approved by over 60% of voters.

(Much of this information is sourced, believe it or not, from the Federal Highway Administration.)

Nobody wants to see their taxes go up, but we typically accept that the public at large pays for public goods. I would again further contend that because the borough does a poor job in explaining its actions or describing the inflows and outflows of our tax dollars at their brand new website, that perhaps we take a closer look at its fiscal behaviors. Maybe the borough is doing things it shouldn’t be doing. Given the shocking lack of detail in its latest budget posting, I think this is a fair concern. The borough does us a disservice, not a favor, by publishing a summary of a $6.7 million budget.

When you consider that no one reports on council hearings and that the borough hasn’t posted an agenda since April or meeting minutes since last February(!), then only a fool would not wonder how well the borough governs itself, never mind us.

In any case, the borough’s activities of late would indicate that no one, least of all our former-building-inspector-turned-borough-manager, has bothered to do even the slightest amount of research on the topic of sustainable pedestrian infrastructure. Time to crack the books, Mr. Locke.