Letter to the Editor:
In the Aug. 21 edition of the Chester County Press, Kennett Township Supervisor Michael Elling offered his explanation for the nearly $10 million General Fund surplus accumulated during his 18-year tenure. In short, Elling claimed the surplus was a big benefit to township residents, and the result of prudent financial stewardship. As a longtime resident and businessman who has following this issue closely, please allow me to point out that Mr. Elling's self-serving conclusions are contradicted by the following facts:
FACT No. 1: The real source of our oversized General Fund surplus has been the Earned Income Tax (EIT), passed by the school district in 1998. Half this tax, which falls entirely on wage earners, goes to our township, a waterfall of money that has never been particularly well managed. Prior to the EIT, Kennett was a mostly rural township with a budget of about $1 million. Since the EIT, over the course of Mr. Elling's three terms as Supervisor, the township budget has ballooned to over $3.2 million in 2013, with little if any improvement in actual services.
FACT No. 2: Mr. Elling claims the $9,676,000 surplus is for "contingencies" based on "best guesses." Concerned residents have regularly asked for written information about these "contingencies" and "guesses," with no response from Elling, who is now Board Chairman. Well-managed municipalities, of course, clearly identify their future capital needs in written plans and budgets, and then establish separate funds to meet those needs. Mr. Elling seems to prefer a big, unstructured "piggybank" that only he controls.
FACT No. 3: Mr. Elling and the Board have tried to cover up their financial mismanagement for years, first by failing to conduct any state-mandated financial audits, and then by hiring the infamous phony auditor "Ed Johnson" to perform phony "audits" - a fiasco which was fully exposed in 2011. Even then, it took the subsequent election of a reform supervisor, Scudder Stevens, to finally pressure Elling into hiring a true professional auditor.
FACT No. 4: In his 2012 report, that auditor revealed a number of significant irregularities. He also stated publicly that a reasonable General Fund reserve for a township would be three to six months of regular expenses or, in this case, no more than $1.6 million. Subtracting that amount from the $9,767,000 surplus Mr. Elling still insists on defending, we are left with a mere $8,167,000 in unbudgeted funds -- well more than $1,000 for every man, woman and child in the township!
FACT No. 5: In an attempt to explain this anomaly, Mr. Elling has invented the entirely mythical figure of $5,000,000 in Open Space funds that is supposedly a large part of that surplus. The June 2013 Open Space fund balance is actually $2,679,000 and it is in addition to the nearly $10M general surplus. Despite this staggering war chest, the Board of Supervisors preserved exactly ZERO open space from 2008 to 2011, a period of record low land prices and high land availability that should have encouraged major acquisitions.
FACT No. 6: Mr. Elling tries to blame his years of Open Space inaction on having to "fire" Gwen Lacy, Director of Kennett Township Land Trust, now known as The Land Conservancy (TLC) of Southern Chester County. However, Ms. Lacy and the TLC continue to manage the only truly successful examples of Open Space in our Township, and have gone on to preserve and manage yet more open space in neighboring townships. Mr. Elling, meanwhile, continues to capriciously block the TLC from involvement in any new township Open Space acquisition, allowing Kennett Township Open Space funds to continue to accumulate uselessly in his gigantic "contingency" piggybank.
FACT No. 7: Finally, it is true the Mr. Elling did arrange two very modest conservation easements in 2012, no doubt hoping to burnish his otherwise pitiful Open Space record. However, these consisted of parcels that provide little public benefit and were wildly overpriced, something a number of concerned residents and Mr. Stevens pointed out -- to no avail -- in public meetings at the time of purchase. Unlike most such acquisitions, they were also done without obtaining readily available matching grants, so that the costs were paid for solely with Township funds - so much for Mr. Elling's "sound and prudent" management.
Thankfully, Elling's days on the Board are numbered. Even his own party refused to support his bid for re-election when his disastrous third term expires this November. However, township residents should not assume that Mr. Elling's departure is a guarantee of future improvement.
Jim Przywitowski, one of two candidates running to replace Elling, claims as "experience" more than two decades on various Township committees. Sadly, much of that experience involved rubber-stamping -- and never publically challenging -- the many foibles of Mr. Elling and his ill-fated predecessor, Mr. Falcoff. On his website, Mr. Przywitowski is already on record specifically defending Chairman Elling's highly questionable policy of accumulating a massive "rainy day" surplus without any real accountability.
In contrast, Richard Leff -- running against Mr. Pryzwitowski -- promises to apply his extensive management experience in private industry to develop and fund a long-term capital plan, which will let the public know exactly how much money we really need to run our Township. Then, if prudent, Mr. Leff supports finding the best way to use any remaining funds to issue refunds to our chronically over-taxed residents or reduce their future taxes.
Clearly there is much at stake in this November's supervisor election, so township voters need to choose wisely.