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