May 19, 2019
IT APPEARS SPRING has arrived just in time for summer. Finally, some warmer, less soggy weather arrives just in time for Memorial Day. Also, coming is Primary Election Day (see below) and the County has new voting machines. Other high-notes include some movement in the land development aspect of the proposed new middle school. The adoption of a new Zoning Code remains the # 1 initiative of the Board and we are proceeding carefully. Hopefully, this report will bring you up to date.
NO CHADS BUT THERE IS PAPER. When you go to the polls on Tuesday, May 21, you will discover that Montgomery County has a new voter-marked paper ballot system with a verifiable paper trail that will be in place for the May 2019 primary election. The new system will replace the electronic push-button voting machines the County purchased in 1996 which were nearing the end of their useful life. The old machines also did not meet the state mandate for counties to have a voting system with a verifiable paper trail in place for the 2020 Presidential election. With the new system, most voters will use a pen to fill out a ballot and have an opportunity to check it for accuracy before submitting it to a scanner that tabulate the votes and keep the ballot in a secure container for audits or recounts. It really is quite simple, but you might want to plan on a little extra time at the polls in that anything new requires adjustment.
NOT THE TWILIGHT ZONE. When we started the multi-year process of adopting a new Zoning Code to align with the 2016 Comprehensive Pan, we knew this was a daunting task. The first draft of the new Code from our consultants (DPZ Associates) was presented in October 2018. Since then there has been approximately 26 different public forums plus various meetings with Civic Associations, property owners other stakeholders and the 14 Commissioners have each attended various meetings. We have received over 500 substantive suggestions and questions all of which are well thought-out. This comes as no surprise – this is Lower Merion. As a result, we have adjusted our schedule for adoptions and plan to advertise the new Code as of July 31, 2019 with the intent to adopt on September 18, 2019. Recently released were revisions to Articles III, IV, V and XI which deal with Form, Bulk Area Standards, Uses, Processes and Non-Conforming Uses. The specifics can be found on the Township website (too much to detail in this email which is probably too long already) and please do not hesitate to contact me if there are any questions or comments.
IT IS WORTH SUSTAINING - THE ENVIRONMENT. In October 2018, the Fourth National Climate Assessment reported that, “Maintaining functioning, sustainable communities in the face of climate change requires effective adaptation strategies that anticipate and buffer impacts, while also enabling communities to capitalize upon new opportunities.” Many municipalities have developed plans to mitigate climate effects and plan for efficient investments in sustainable development. Lower Merion is preparing such strategies. In 1985 we created the Environmental Advisory Board (EAC) to provide environmental advice and have since adopted a number of energy savings programs. On May 3, 2019, a Resolution was adopted directing the EAC to provide cost-benefit analyses to reduce our carbon footprint and use cleaner energy and reduce solid waste. We have already engaged a consultant who will be implementing a program to change our street lights to energy saving LED illumination. Presently, we change 1500 bulbs a year the mere savings in man hours by longer lasting, more efficient lighting will result in a significant savings in dollars and energy. Add this to our new energy supplier which, with 100% green energy projects a total savings of $209,008/year.
SQUARE PEG IN ROUND HOLE. The School District (LMSD) is charged with the responsibility of educating our children and I agree with their assessment that a new middle school is necessary. Unfortunately, notwithstanding considerable efforts, we were unable to convince the powers-to-be so that the school could be constructed on the St. Charles lot in the eastern part of the Township (where most the students reside) which is for sale. As a result, the LMSD selected the 22 acre lot at 1860 Montgomery Ave. formerly part of the Clairemont Farm and later purchased by Morris L. Clothier. The grand mansion (designed by Horace Trumbauer) was later used by Northeastern Christian College and named “Boone Hall (after Pat Boone) and in 1994 it was acquired by the Islamic Foundation and fallen into disrepair. The 22 acre lot will be cleared and to the degree possible leveled. There have been efforts made to preserve some of the historic features albeit not enough for some. From a land use perspective – which is a BOC responsibility - we have required installation of sidewalks to increase walkability and based upon traffic studies will install new signals (provided PennDot approves) and will install traffic calming measures to limit possible cut-through travel on the surrounding roads. The site is significantly sloped and thus fields will be located on near-by properties which also present issues of walkability and historic preservation. Detailed information is available on the Township and LMSD websites. A copy of the latest sketch is attached.
BUMP IN THE ROAD. Ask any Commissioner the number 1 complaint they receive and all will tell you it is traffic and speeding in neighborhoods. While Pennsylvania remains the only State in the Union that does not allow local use of radar, I along with Commissioners of other townships have been pressing Harrisburg for a change, in LM we have recently enacted an Ordinance to allow speed humps in certain locations. First, only streets where the minimum length between intersections is 1,000 feet qualify. Next, petitions with at least 80% of the households on the affected street need consent. There are also requirements of the number of vehicles (1,000/day) and average speeds. An area is the evaluated with a ranking system which includes proximity to schools, history of traffic accidents. Currently under consideration is River Road, which at times is like the Indy speedway and others a parking lot.
I’LL TAKE LM TRIVA FOR 100. This data will not make you the life of the party, but for those who like numbers: In 2017 we earned $895,841 from parking meters and that declined to $774,231 in 2018. Similarly ticket revenues declined from $632,112 to $523,847. Contributing to this decline was construction at Suburban Square and the closure of the Cricket and Coulter Ave parking. Plus, the use the Parkmobile cell phone payment system allowed residents to avoid tickets. We did earn $70,097 from that system. We also discard a lot of junk. In 2018, we had 2,373 tons of commingled recyclables and 2,602 tons of paper. That went along with 258 tons of metal, 74 tons of tires, 31 tons of computers, monitors and TVs and 1,901 tons of brush and leaf bags. The total refuse collected at residential properties: 15,642 tons.
CLOSING COMMENT. Recently, I have had two opportunities to acknowledge one of my colleagues. Cheryl Gelber served as Commissioner for 15 years before having to step down due to her battle with Parkinsons. While elected by Ward 5, Cheryl understood that she served the entire Township and she did so with integrity and dignity. If you are not captured by Game of Thrones, click on the Township website for last Wednesday’s honor of Cheryl. It is a feel good moment where current and former Commissioners tried the say thanks.
Hope to see you at the polls.
Daniel S. Bernheim
Lower Merion Township Commissioner, Ward 1
President Board Of Commissioners
Ward 3, Commissioner McKeon: Read here
Ward 2, Commissioner Grimes: Read here
WARD 1 COMMISSIONER’S REPORT
PENN VALLEY, GLADWYNE, MERION PARK
January 23, 2019
WITH 2108 in the rear view mirror (and unfortunately the Eagles too), we look forward to an eventful 2019. On the horizon is the adoption of a new Zoning Code designed to adjust to our changing community and to upgrade and create a more user friendly document and land use process. With a target date for adoption of July 31, 2019 and no less than 26 planned public events, the new Code will dominate the Board’s activities for the next 6-7 months. Inevitably, it will not be possible to get everybody’s view into the final product, but anybody who wishes to express a view will have it considered before there is a final product. The Zoning Code will be featured in this and upcoming Reports. Also, we will be preparing a synopsis of the Code for an easier review to be posted on the Township website.
We also will continue working on some other major initiatives such as stemming the systemic problem of traffic speeding with a new ordinance for the placement of speed bumps. We will continue to finance small infra-structure projects which include identifying areas for sidewalks, especially around schools to enhance walkability. We continue to follow recommendations to enhance Police and Community Relationswith a sold out workshop on January 30 (and another to follow). Plus, we have a number of environmentally sensitive itemswhich include replacing street lights with LEDs, reduction in other electric consumption, acquiring hybrid vehicles and managing our stormwater runoff.
IN THE ZONE.
The Township hired the leading consultants in form-based zoning and after a year they produced a draft Zoning Code (available on the Township website) revising our existing Code. The concept, taken from our Comprehensive Plan is to focus upon lot-by-lot changes as opposed to larger land subdivisions. The new Code is oriented toward achieving a significantly smaller ultimate population than currently achievable. The new Code will present an ultimate population closer to the existing population based upon neighborhood preservation, quality infill and targeted redevelopment.
The new Code is divided into 11 sections. Those inclined to read it may wish to focus upon:
Article 3: General Districts. This section establishes general form standards for all districts including height, lot occupation, frontage, projections, fences and architectural standards.
Article 4: District Specific Standards. This contains the bulk, area and form standards.
Article 5: Uses. This establishes uses and limited process for exceptions
Article 6: Special Districts.
Article 8: Parking. Sets parking standards for various districts
On January 23, 2019, the Board will be addressing issues regarding Low Density Residential Zoning. Attached to this email is a chart converting the old 8 residential designations into 5 newly defined sections. The Township is comprised of 75% single family residential property. Ward 1 is mostly LDR2 with areas near Gladwyne as LDR1 and areas near Montgomery Ave LDR3.
EIGHT AND COUNTING.
For the 8th straight year, the Board has passed a budget without raising taxes and without sacrificing the quality of services. In large part, due to an increase in business tax collections and a health insurance rebate, revenues for 2018 were 5.2% higher than budget. This left us with a $20M General Fund reserve. 2019 projects revenues at $64.3M and expenses of $68.2M. This will create a deficit of $3.9M and an ending fund balance of $16.1M, which remains above the fund balance policy of 15% of operating costs.
Where does the money go:
Public Safety (police / fire) 41.7% $ 28.4M
Debt Service 14.3% $ 9.75M
Public Works 13.6% $ 9.3M
Gen Gov 12.0% $ 8.17M
Libraries 6.9% $ 4.67M
B&P 6.0% $ 4.10M
Parks & Rec 5.5% $ 3.74M
Almost 50% of our revenue is based upon real estate taxes with the other large sources being Business Tax (17.5%), Real Estate Transfer Tax (6.4%) and Licenses & Permits ( 9.9%). While there has been no reassessment of property values in over a decade, the actual values have been on a roller coaster in the past 10 years:
Year Assessed Value Market Value
2009 $7.5B $13.4B
2012 $7.4B $11.6B
2019 $7.65B $14.9B
The average single family home in LM has an assessed value of $359,000 and pays Township taxes in the amount of $1,504 or $125/month. Township taxes are 11.4% of local taxes. County taxes would stand at $1,382 (10.5%) and School taxes at $10,320 (78.1%).
We also approved our Capital Improvement Program which lists $34.3M in projects of which $16.4M form existing funding and new financing. The remainder is from other grants. Some of the major projects include:
City Ave Transportation Services Improvement $5.65M
Union Ave Bridge $4.68M
Belmont/Rock Hill Rd $3.78M
Rotomilling and repaving $1.50M
Facilities Improvements $864K
Fire Apparatus $800K
BATTLING BELMONT BACK-UP
Anybody who travels Belmont Ave in rush hour knows that from the Expressway toward Bala Cynwyd (either direction) can be a problem. For several years the PennDot has placed on the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) plans to dedicate funds for the improvement of this area. In order to move the process, however, the Township needs to pay for the engineering costs (in excess of $3M). The original plan was for 5 lanes and did not include widening the Suffolk-Northern railroad bridge. Absent expanding the bridge (which is 2 lanes) –what was the point? There would only be a bottle neck. The plans have changed (and 5 lanes was too many) and we will be funding the design – including the bridge. It is our anticipation this will move the project up on the TIP (or so we have been told) and will improve this congested area.
ATTENTION ACME SHOPPERS
In mid-February the Gladwyne Acme will go dark. According to Acme, the store was not profitable. There remains 2 years on the lease and at the moment there are no plans for what is next. On January 22, 2019 the Gladwyne Civic held a meeting at the St. Christopher’s Church to discuss this community concern. Approximately 200 people attended this event. There have been a number of rumors of future plans ranging from a Hooters to a high-rise. I have had the opportunity to speak with the owners of the property who share our disappointment in Acme’s decision (and not to upgrade during their leasehold) and as the lease permits will look for a tenant compatible to the community. While this is private property, we will do what we can to influence the use of the property to fit within the Gladwyne Village mold – and hopefully another supermarket will recognize that if they build it – we will come.
As we move forward with the new zoning process, those who wish to be involved or voice their opinions or concerns should not hesitate to communicate though the Penn Valley or Gladwyne Civic Associations or directly to me. Too much emphasis cannot be placed upon the importance of having the community’s input into this process. We are literally re-writing the law of the land and seek to do our best to maintain that which attracts all of us to live here.
Daniel S. Bernheim
Lower Merion Township Commissioner, Ward 1
President Board of Commissioners
SCHOOL IS OUT. Unless you have been totally captivated by Kim Jung Un, you may have noticed some excitement in Lower Merion regarding our School Board and their decision to find a site for a new school. More specifically, questions have swirled around where a new school should be located and might that include the Hass Estate, commonly known as Stoneleigh upon which some magnificent gardens open to the public now sit. Or should the School Board build at the Islamic Center on the western end of Montgomery Ave or are there other alternatives? As these events unfolded, there has been too much misinformation (no way will I use the term “fake news”). In this report, I will try to set the record straight where required and bring you up to date. This is a long one. Grab a cup of something.
FROM WHERE DO THE LITTLE RASCALS COME?. While the school enrollment is increasing and the projected increase (with a subsequent decline years down the road) depends upon which expert report you review and there have been several. A common misnomer is that recent development is the “culprit.” However, the numbers do not support that paradigm. From 2010 to 2017 there have been 2,658 units approved. 70 of those properties are knockdowns meaning they do not add to the inventory. About 3/4 have or will be constructed, the remainder have issues. The reports indicate that for every 100 new units there are between 4-8 students, again depending upon which report you read. For example, studio apartments do not generate students and some projects are 85% studios. The enrollment projections forecast for the next 5-10 years is an increase between 8% and 16% (again depending upon the report). Forecasting at the higher range, new development would then comprise 5% to 7% of the student population. Now, add the fact that in the last 10 years our overall population has remained basically the same (58,500) and, in fact, is less than in 2008, we can safely conclude that the student body resides in the existing housing stock. The actual identity of student addresses supports that fact. As older residents move out, new families move in. The bottom line is we are a victim of our own success of having excellent schools and being a great place to live. That still leaves the need to deal with an increasing student body.
NO VACANCIES. There is very little open space in the Township to build a school. Most who have examined this issue agree the best location would be at the St. Charles Seminary which is up for sale. Main Line Health (MLH), which owns Lankeneau Hospital across the street from the Seminary, has expressed its interest in some of the 72 acre property. There seemed to be a possibility of working a deal with the School, the Seminary and MLH. Accordingly, I was able to get all three groups together with their respective legal counsel. The Seminary expressed the need to remain in and use all 72 acres for a period of 5 years before they could re-locate. That timetable did not match the School’s need and thus those discussions fizzled. I still maintain a not-so-secret desire to see that work. Most of the students live in the eastern part of the Township and there would be enough space for onsite fields. Other alternatives – and many were considered – just did not work.
SQUARE PEG IN A SLOPING ROUND HOLE. The lack of alternatives led the School Board to look at 1860 Montgomery the Clothier Estate last known as Clairemont or to others as the Islamic Center. The property is about 22 acres, but with a number of steep slopes. Located at the property is a mansion designed by the renowned Horace Trumbauer in 1910. The house has been the featured in architectural books and the property has a top flight pedigree of owners but has been greatly neglected over the past decade. In order to build a school on the property planners and architects for the School determined they could not salvage or use any portion of the building it would need be demolished. Plans for the site, which are posted on the School Web page, show the carefully positioned 75,000 square foot print for a school on the flat area of the property and 30,000 sq. ft print for a separate gym, some fields (limited by the typography) and some tennis courts. Acquisition and construction has been estimated at $100 million. Building there will not be easy and will require other land relief for impervious space, height restrictions, parking, and setbacks to name a few.
HISTORY OF HISTORICAL PRESERVATION. About 10 years ago the La Rhonda Estate in Bryn Mawr was demolished and the Township cringed in that this historic jewel was removed without the ability to preserve a brick. This led to a change in our ordinance which allowed for historic preservation. Properties were classified pursuant to certain criteria set by our code and national recognition . More recently, in 2015, our Historic Commission was engaged to identify and recommend designation of protected and unprotected resources. A list of 30 potential properties was identified and a review by a consultant funded by the PA Historical & Museum Commission recommended 13 properties for designation. Two were removed from the list, namely, WCAU and the Bala Theater. The others, but for Clairemont proceeded. That property was temporarily removed from the list due to the expressed interest by the School and the need for more information. The rumor that the issue of Historic Resource certification came about because of the School’s interest in the property is not accurate. The Clairemont property was already considered a Class II resource and the recommendation to upgrade it to Class I was part of this several year process. So what is the significance between Class I and Class II? Very little. As a Class I resource, before it can be demolished, the owner need present to the Board of Commissioner reasons for which the property does not have an adaptive re-use. The School Board was reluctant to acquire the property and be subject to the Board of Commissioners’ decision on demolition. Candidly, there was an issue of trust albeit we are not the North Koreans. Thus, enter Stoneleigh.
THIS HAAS TO STAY. In 1996 the Haas family (as in Rohm and Haas) donated about 65 acres to the Natural Lands Trust to be preserved as a natural garden open to the public. The Lower Merion Conservancy monitors the property. If you have not been there, put this on the to-do list. The School district looking for land indicated that it would exercise its rights of eminent domain for either enough of the property to build a school and fields or a 7 acre section which they believed to available under the grant (a debatable point) just for fields. The uproar from the community was remarkable. 28,000 people signed a petition to save Stoneleigh (as it is now referred). Just about every State elected official who looks for votes in Lower Merion either directly or through their office contacted myself and other Commissioners asking that we not certify Clairemont as a Class I out of concern this would cause the School to move to condemn Stoneleigh. While the School indeed can condemn the property through its right of eminent domain and one cannot fault them for looking at all options, there was no doubt a legal fight would develop. If ultimately the Courts had a question about the right outcome, it was clear the public did not and the public always holds the last say at the ballot box. On more than one occasion I expressed the view that Stoneleigh would never be taken.
THIS IS LM – WORK IT OUT!!! For a number of years the level of cooperation and communication between the School Board and Board of Commissioners was less than ideal (putting it mildly). Although the 2 Boards have separate responsibilities, we serve the same community and while we may not always agree (as in where do you place the busses) there is no reason we cannot work together. Long before this issue surfaced (almost 2 years ago) we reinstituted an Intergovernmental Committee comprised of members of both Boards and Narberth Council. We meet quarterly and have off-line discussion followed by a public discourse. In addition, as president of the Board, I have had several meetings with Dr. Melissa Gilbert, the president of the School Board. Lately we have been in constant contact through phone, email and text with such regularity that her name comes up “bff” but I do not know what that means. As a result, we have been able to exchange information and work together. The end result, the School Board recognizes (and I believe they always appreciated this fact) that the community does not support use of Stoneleigh and that need immediately be removed from consideration. It will also be necessary to find adequate playing fields and the Township staff is diligently working on those alternatives. We will also need to deal with the multitude of land use issues (more complicated than Historic Resource certifications) and the details of those are being explored. As a result the Board of Commissioners did not proceed to certify Clairemont as Class I, the School has agreed to work with historic preservation experts to see what aspects can be maintained in some fashion, the School has not proceeded against Stoneleigh (and I await that public announcement) and we are reviewing the land development issues. In short, we are going to jointly develop a plan fitting of Lower Merion which will adequately serve our community well into the future.
FINAL NOTE. While I write this report from my perspective I wish not to overlook or fail to mention the hard work and countless hours of other members of the Board of Commissioners. While there were differing views about build a school or add on to existing schools, where to build a school, should Clairemont be certified Class I and whether no action be taken until Stoneleigh is off the table, each member of the Board was a major contributor with well thought out and researched ideas of how to deal with an issue which, for a large part, is outside our jurisdiction. This truly is a great group to work with and I suspect they will not mind our August break.
Hope you have a nice summer.
Daniel S. Bernheim
Lower Merion Township Commissioner, Ward 1
President Board of Commissioners
September 16, 2017
EVERYBODY should be back at school, back at work and hopefully had a good summer. Likewise the Board of Commissioners has returned from its summer break and begins to focus upon our 2018 budget and reaching some of the goals for 2017. Outlined below are some of those key items and it is always good to lead with the projection that, given our continued strong base, there is no anticipation of a tax increase in the upcoming year. This would be the seventh straight year of holding the line but, some of our enterprise funds, such as solid waste, may be more difficult to maintain without adjustment. (Just a little air out of the good news balloon). With that . . .
YOUR TAX DOLLARS. In 2017 we adopted a budget based upon revenue projections of $61.2M. Our mid-year forecast projects a 2.2% increase over budget which is 0.5% over 2106 actual (approximately $318,000). The drivers for this difference is the increase in our tax base assessed values, business tax growth (steady but slowing), real estate transfer tax revenues and license and permit fees. 52% of our revenue is from our real estate taxes and 20% from business taxes eventually leaving us with little options if we need more money (Unfortunately, cannot produce more widgets to sell). On the other side of the ledger, we appear to be headed toward expenditures 0.2% less than budget ($152,000) which is still 0.5% higher than 2016 ($325,000). Some of the costs savings resulted from less personnel turnover (salaries down $837,878, but benefits up $438,396) and the decrease in debt service resulting from the issuance of bonds in 2016 at a reduced rate. Debt service continues to be about 16% of our budget and our debt policy aims to decrease debt without sacrificing services. The majority of our expenses (44%) are for public safety, namely our police and fire service. As noted, we do not project a tax increase for 2018 and in part this is because we continue to maintain a healthy General Fund Balance. We aim to maintain 15% balance of expenditures and presently have in excess of that amount some of which will be used for operating costs or in lieu of borrowing for capital projects. Bottom line: we are looking at a good bottom line.
SHHHHHHH. After three years, the Board finally passed a Noise Ordinance. Undeniably, excess noise negatively contributes to one’s health. (Even those who deny global warming accept this fact). Accordingly, we implemented an Ordinance designed to reasonably regulate the timing and decibel levels of acceptable noise. Nothing, however, is easy. For example, some protested when they come home they wish not to hear the blaring mowers and blowers of landscapers. Reasonable. Whereas, others noted when they come home, since they cannot afford landscapers, that is the only time to do their lawn. Also, understandable. So, we crafted a compromise on the pieces of equipment at specific times. Most of the issues, however, centered around commercial establishments and start and stop times for contractors. The Ordnance provides for enforcement and fines. Our experts warned not to make the Ordinance too complicated (not so sure we complied) and to expect the need to make adjustments as we learn about its enforcement. In Ward # 1 we are mostly residential and common sense generally works without many (if any) complaints.
LAW OF THE LAND. In what can legitimately be considered the largest undertaking by the Board in no less than half a century, we are in the process of re-writing our Zoning Code. We hired one of the nation’s top consulting firms, DPZ Partners, from Florida who literally wrote the book on formed based zoning. DPZ has contracted to an 18 month process wherein they are to assess our current Code, draft new regulations present the proposal to the public and assist in the implementation of a new Code. If we thought the Noise Ordinance was difficult, no doubt this will have a number of competing views on a number of issues. However, the guidepost for this endeavor is our Comprehensive Plan, which was recently recognized with an award for its design and content. The Comp Plan is pretty clear about the community desire to preserve the attributes of Lower Merion and carefully determine where and to what degree there should be growth. There will continue to be public input into this process through a Community Engagement Committee, the Civic Associations and other public forums. Although not everybody’s view point will be incorporated into the new Code, we endeavor to make our best efforts to consider all of them.
MORE THAN JUST COFFEE WITH A COP. There were two incidents wherein our police interacted with members of our minority community which gained some local notoriety. Although we learned that the initial version of these events were not entirely accurate, the reaction, comments and perceptions were significant enough to recognize the need for improvement. Accordingly, we engaged the service of Major Ben Brooks, a police-community relations consultant for some guidance. Major Ben and his team met with various members of the community, police, the Commissioners and held some workshops. From that a Report was presented to the Board with some recommendations to improve training, policies and enhance Community Policing. It was never our intention to merely receive the Report and place it on the shelf. We truly seek to effectuate a difference. To that end, an ad hoc Committee was formed which has met with our Police Management and plans to meet with the Police Community Relations Committee (PCRC) The PCRC has been in existence since 1986 and although not an official Township committee, their involvement in this process is important. The most critical path to improving or increasing understanding between community members and our police is involvement with our youth. By working with the schools and developing more substantive programs and activities we seek to bridge the gap – be it reality or perception – that currently exists. Your help and suggestions are always welcome.
ITS NOT THE NEWS THAT IS FAKE IT IS THE ALRAMS. Last year we passed an Ordinance designed to address the alarming fact that of the approximate 2,000 fire calls received by our fire department approximately 50% are due to false or faulty alarms. In 2016 there were 2542 calls of which 1207 were false. The Ordnance imposed sanctions for repeat offenders (mostly contractors) and imposed requirements for registration and maintenance by property owners and alarm installers and monitoring companies. This is not the first time I have written about this topic or aired the problem publicly. (If interested, you may watch an interview with our Chief Fire Marshall. https://lmtv.viebit.com/player.php?hash=YII5YdBeKtME). The problem is we have not stemmed the tide in a significant manner. The numbers in 2017 are roughly the same. The strain false alarms place upon our Volunteer Fire Service cannot be overstated. Our volunteers leave their jobs and homes at all hours to respond and this becomes taxing. Plus, the wear and tear on the Fire Apparatus is also a concern. We need your help. Please check your systems regularly.
CLOSING COMMENT. As always, your feedback, questions and comments are welcome – in fact encouraged. Like many I am not ready to totally let go of summer (especially because the Phillies finally decided to make things interesting) but, nevertheless, GO EAGLES.
Daniel S. Bernheim
Lower Merion Township Commissioner, Ward 1
President Board of Commissioners
March 26, 2017
AS THE FIRST QUARTER of 2017 is about to pass, it is time to catch-up on some Township activities. Many of us are still shocked, bewildered, baffled or, possibly, elated (really?) in what is going on in the national scene. But whatever you larger politics may be regarding that which emanates from Washington, we are effectively pursuing an aggressive agenda locally from Ardmore.
LAW OF THE LAND. One of the most important take-aways from the Comprehensive Plan was the need to update our Zoning Code. The Code was originally drafted in 1927 (Babe Ruth was playing baseball) and has had numerous modifications since. The Code was designed such that if built out as permitted, the population of the Township would exceed 90,000. Our population has held steady at 59,000, but we have changed and are seeking a significantly smaller ultimate population with a Code that incorporates design standards to ensure new development is either consistent in form with prevailing patterns or visions of the Comprehensive Plan. To assist in this process we have engaged top rated consultants (DPZ Partners) from Florida who literally wrote the book on formed based zoning. Formed based zoning is a concept which incorporates not merely words into our Code but diagrams to demonstrate, height, density, setbacks and alike. This process has just begun and it is anticipated it will take from start to finish 18 months. A Civic Engagement Committee of citizens from different parts of the township and with different interests (residential, commercial, industrial) will become an integral part of communicating the progress. This clearly will be one of the largest undertakings of the Board with impact for years to come.
WHAT’S ALL THE NOISE ABOUT. For over a year we have been trying to update our Noise Ordinance. We have had more hearings than the recently failed attempt to replace the Affordable Care Act. This is a true exercise proving nothing is easy. The hard part has been to determine start and stop times for noise and the appropriate decibel levels in residential and non-residential neighborhoods. For example if “start time” is 8:00 a.m., commercial establishments are concerned that delivers will be too late or trucks will add to already congested traffic. Curtailing landscaping by 6:00 p.m. was suggested by some and seemed reasonable to stop the flood of noise from landscapers, but did not take into consideration those who care for their own property when they return from work. The latest iteration of the proposed Ordinance can be found on the Township website. The goal is to be sensitive to residents, not make the Ordinance too complicated that it cannot be enforced and recognize that each expert has advised us that it is unlikely we get it right the first time (although we will try) and we can always make adjustments.
SURF’S UP. Given that the most intense storms in the last 72 years have been in the last 10, it is likely you have witnesses water rushing down some street at a remarkable pace. The problem created by storm water is that increased velocity erodes properties, causes flooding and transports pollutants to our rivers and streams. In order to comply with the Federal Clean Water Act, which prohibits the discharge of pollutants, Pennsylvania’s DEP has a program known as MS4 which requires the submission of a plan to address the issue and for issuance of permits only where there is compliance. In order to help in our response to the MS4 requirements, we recently engaged engineers who specialize in such projects. This too is one of those long range impact events. It has already been estimated that we may incur $350,000 to $450,000 more in expenses per year to be compliant. If we fail to do so, that sum will – if you excuse me - seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the costs from erosion and pollutants. Once we identify that which needs to be addressed, we will address the method for payment of the costs.
WHAT’S THE RUSH. One of the most systemic and complained about problems in the Township is traffic safety – namely speeding. Zoom. People fly by in our Township as if speed signs are merely suggestions. Along with the traffic Safety Department, an Ad Hoc Committee of Commissioners has been created to address this issue. We are examining everything from education to traffic calming devises, including the dreaded speed humps. In the end it is merely a matter of slowing down to enhance safety, in large part, for our kids.
SHOW ME THE MONEY. The Township’s review of year-end 2016 showed financial strength. Revenues were actually $3.3M ahead of budget and $1.4M greater than the prior year. For the most part this was due to business tax collections. On the other side of the ledger (this is a little hard to follow), expenditures were $3.8M or 6.4% greater than the prior year. That however, is due to the fact that $2.5M was used from the General Fund for Capital Improvement Projects. Since we had more on balance than the upper end of our policy, rather than borrow funds for those projects, we paid from our General Fund account. This helps decrease debt and debt service, but as a matter of accounting increases our expenses. If the $2.5M is not counted in that fashion, the actual expenditures were only $1.3M higher than 2015 or 2.2%
THIS IS A GOOD READ. Finally, after a series of delays, the Gladwyne Library reopened on March 25. This building has been part of the Gladwyne Community since 1931 and was in need of a make-over. The addition of a youth room, remodeling of the children’s room, updating the bathrooms and an ADA compliant elevator are some to the key improvements. Many were instrumental in this project and funding was enhanced by a Keystone grant which helped pay for the elevator. Equally uplifting is that a similar grant was just procured for the last library to be remodeled, the Belmont Hills Library.
FINALLY, with my NCAA bracket in shambles (I really thought Middle Tennessee had a shot), I leave you with my prediction for the Fightin Phils. Contrary to the nasty comments by that unnamed portly gentleman from New Jersey who trashed the Phils and their fans, I predict their run for the pennant will have more traction than his run for the White House. As always, comments and questions are welcome.
Daniel S. Bernheim
Lower Merion Township Commissioner, Ward 1
President Board of Commissioners
COMMISSIONER’S YEAR END REPORT
DECEMBER 3, 2016
THANKSGIVING is over and at this point the left-overs should be over. The hangover from the election should be over (OK, maybe not). It appears the Eagles are over (61 days until pitchers and catchers report). However, before we turn over a new year at the Township, a few key items remain. The highlights – most notably the 2017 Budget - are the subject of this report.
WHAT IS COMING OUT OF YOUR WALLET? As it relates to Township taxes the answer is nothing (more). For the sixth straight year the Township has been able to hold firm with its tax rate and there will be no increase. Given the fact that the County (which is 10% of the local taxes you pay) and the School District (which is 78% of the local taxes) both have submitted increases, how do we at LM maintain the tax base without compromising services? Funny you should ask.
First a Look Back.
2016 Revenues were higher than budgeted by $3.4M mainly due to business tax payments, permit revenues and real estate transfer taxes.
2016 Expenses were $2.1M higher than expected, but in large part due to a $2.5M transfer from our General Fund to the Capital Project Fund so that we could reduce new debt to pay for projects. (That is a good thing). Other expense savings were from personnel savings from job vacancies not yet filled and the mild winter reducing snow storm expenses. In short we had a good year leaving a $19.6M fund balance.
A Forward Glance.
2017 Revenues are projected to be $61,268,573. 51% comes from real estate taxes and the next largest source is business tax (17.6%), followed by licenses and permits (10%) and the remainder from other assorted sources. This projection constitutes a 3.7% increase from the 2106 Budget, but a 2% decrease from 2016 actual revenue (as noted we collected more than expected).
2017 Expenses. Almost 40% ($25M) is dedicated to Police/Public Safety. Since we are in negotiations with the FOP for their contract, the exact final budget number is uncertain. Our next highest expense is debt service which is 15.6% of our budget ($10M). To curtail our increasing debt, in 2016 we instituted a Debt Policy designed to track the same criteria as the rating agencies which continue to rate LM as AAA – which only a handful of municipalities in the nation hold. Our debt has decreased from its high in 2010 of $113M to $105.8M in 2016. Other major expenses are Public Works (13.9% or $8.9M), General Gov’t (12.6% or $8M), Libraries (6.9% or $4.4M), Building & Planning (6.4% or $4.1M), Recreation (5.6% or $3.6M). Permeating each category is the personnel costs which comprise 64.2% of the budget. In 2016 we entered into a new Workers Assoc. Agreement which covers 4 years over which there is a 12% increase which, with insurance offsets will cost the Township $384,000. In 2017, there is a projected deficit which will be closed by use of the excess funds in the General Fund and the elimination of 3 fulltime positions and further reduced debt service.
New Initiatives. Included in the 2107 Budget are funds necessary to start the re-write of our Zoning Code –which was one of the major recommendations as a result of the newly adopted Comprehensive Plan. We also are going to update the prioritization of roadway improvements with a new inventory study and a separate study for maintaining the Township trees. We also continue to update technology and, if you have not visited the revamped website, it is a treat (searches actually lead to something), plus the new Report-It App which allows you to take a photo of a problem and send it to the Township which through GPS will know the location of the issue to be addressed.
TRULY ALRMING. The Lower Merion Fire Department responds to approximately 2,000 alarms per year. Almost one-half are false alarms. The drain on the Fire Department by unnecessary wear and tear of equipment but, more importantly, personnel needs to stop. Measures thus far have been ineffective. Accordingly, a new Ordinance has been put in place to hold those responsible – responsible. In short, fines will be imposed for false alarms. As for residents, however, State law precludes any fine unless there are more than 3 false alarms in a given 12 month period. In other words 4 strikes and you are out (of money). The major parts of the new Ordinance are:
* Alarm systems must be registered.
* Permits are required to install Alarm Systems
* Alarm Monitoring Services need contact Alarm users or and Emergency contact before transmitting the alarm.
* Must maintain the system in good working order
* Contractors (the biggest culprits) must disable alarms before starting work
* Citations will be issued in amounts of $200 for first violation, $400 for eh second and $600 for the third.
ANOTHER SCHOOL OF THOUGHT. The LM Board of Commissioners and the LM School Board are separate political bodies with different jurisdictions, but serve the same population. In 2106 we reconstituted an Inter-political Body Committee consisting of members of both Boards designed to merely share concerns and ideas, not set policy. Most recently, there has been much discussion about School taxes and recent litigation questioning that need. Although that is a School Board issue, it has led to discussion of whether new multi-family residential units approved by the LM Board has contributed to an increased need to expand our schools. I write only to share some statistics (as you can tell, I like data) generated by the Montgomery County Planning Commission. Their Report was presented to the LMSD on November 14, 2016. In short, new construction is not the major source of student population increase. The MCPC explained, “new construction has been balanced by reduction in average household size.” Contributors to increase in students includes an increase in births. In 2002 the birthrate was the highest at 660 (2001 must have been a cold winter) and dropped to a low of 532 in 2103. The rate is back up to 604 in 2015. In the meantime, private school enrollment has declined where in 2011-12, 31.4% of all new students went to private school. In 2014-15 that number dropped to 18%. The MCPC also reported that, “Older developments with more of a garden style apartment design tend to have more students, while newer developments with higher density that are closer to the employment centers in the District often have few children.” Of the 5,525 existing units there is 0.082 students per unit. Sales activity reported 299 incoming students from units sold, but at the same time outgoing students from units sold were 350 for a net loss of 51 students. MCPC also projected student increases if 1,769 proposed units “on-the-books” were actually built by 2022 (which I submit is highly unlikely). Over that 6 year period they projected an increase of 75 students.
In short, school population will increase, and in that regard we are a victim of our own success. Families want to reside in our Township because of all that it offers – including fine schools. However, as we analyze the situation, the data does not support the mantra that new approved residential developments are the major source of increased school enrollments and those actual enrollments need be carefully studied.
INAUGURATION. No, not that inauguration. In January 2017, I have the distinct honor of becoming our Township Board president. Over the past year I have served as the VP as per the Board’s vote in 2015 where current Board president Paul McElhaney and I switch roles. We have accomplished a lot in 2016 with finally adopting the Comprehensive Plan, a new Debt Management Policy, a new Workers Association Contract, a new Manager’s Contract and the budget referenced above. In 2107, we have equal challenges with a new contract for the FOP, re-writing our Zoning Code, infrastructure maintenance including upgrades to our Police Building, a new fire Apparatus Policy and the list goes on. The strength of our community is our community. The residents and their success is a key factor in our AAA rating. I look forward to the opportunity to serve in a slightly different capacity and to your continued comments and suggestions upon which I truly rely.
Hope you have a happy holiday season,
Daniel S. Bernheim
Lower Merion Township Commissioner,