Fall Commissioner's Report

COMMISSIONER’S REPORT

September 16, 2107

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.

Dan

Daniel S. Bernheim

Lower Merion Township Commissioner, Ward 1

President Board of Commissioners

dbernheim@wilentz.com

TOWNSHIP COMMISSIONER’S REPORT

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.

Dan

Daniel S. Bernheim

Lower Merion Township Commissioner, Ward 1

President Board of Commissioners 

dbernheim@wilentz.com

Commissioner Dan Bernheim's Year-end Report is here...

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,

Dan

Daniel S. Bernheim

Lower Merion Township Commissioner,

Ward 1

dbernheim@wilentz.com