A supervisor reflects back, looks forward
● By Steven Hoffman
From the moment he took the oath of office to become a London Grove Township supervisor in 2012 to the end of his six-year term last week, Mike Pickel helped the township tighten its financial belt, while assisting in its plans for its future. To the surprise of many in the township, he chose not to run for another term on the board. Pickel met with the Chester County Press to discuss how far the township has come during his time on the board, key issues that need to be addressed, and the possibility of re-entering politics.
Q.: Why leave now?
Pickel: It just seems like the right time. I feel like I had a very good term, and a lot of positive things happened during that time. I am not a fan of career politicians, whether it be supervisors, state representatives or congressmen, and when I became a supervisor, I wanted to do one six-year term, because that way I knew that I would never have to hold back what I wanted to say. I knew it would be one term, and therefore I never had to worry about offending one or another segment of the township, because I never worried about re-election.
I did say that if I had ever helped get the township into a mess, that I felt that I would be responsible for, then I would not have chosen to leave. But the township is in a very good place now. The board made a lot of changes to the administration, the staff is really working well together, and with the existing board and new supervisor Lee Irwin, I feel fine finishing my term when I chose to.
What were some of the issues that you faced when you first came on the board in 2012, and how have they been addressed in your term on the board?
When I started, all of our public works equipment was outdated, an equipment replacement plan wasn't being followed, and the township had a dilapidated public works building. We made a commitment to improving our public works department, and when you look at London Grove Township now, we're one of the most efficiently run townships, from a public works and an administrative standpoint.
As you depart the board, what are the key issues that the township and its leadership need to face in the next few years?
The thing that I will warn residents about is that, over my six-year term, we have elevated the services provided to residents, but haven't increased or changed our revenues. We've had the same tax rate for a decade or more. We have scaled back our expenses as much as we can on our employees. We've tried to control expenses, and now we're beefing up our codes department, bringing in a fire marshal and codes official, the departments of which should be revenue neutral in a few years.
But I don't see how we can keep increasing services while not also increasing revenue. While the economy is good right now, we should talk about implementing a tax increase now, as opposed to a few years from now. I've seen the ups and downs of the economy, and it will go back down in the next few years, so we should be talking about tax increases now, rather than if we're in the middle of another recession.
You're essentially firing a warning shot to residents, even though you'll no longer be on the board to enact the potential tax increases that you mention.
Every time we've talked about budgeting our taxes, I have added in that blurb at the end that we should be warning the residents and having the discussion that it's going to come. The other thing that had us high on the hog was the EIT for a two-year period. Our monthly revenues were high, but after the EIT expired in 2017, we were projecting a $200,000 shortfall in revenues against our budget, because we weren't getting those taxes.
This is not to mention that the Avon Grove Library is asking for more funding. The biggest expenses we have are fire and EMS with Avondale and West Grove. If you go back through our budgets, every year, these requests increase by ten percent. Each year, they're going to continue to rise, but we're not increasing our revenue, so at some point in time, the board will have a decision to make: What do we cut, or what do we pull money from?
For anyone familiar with the township's governance who is asked about Mike Pickel, they're likely to say that your biggest accomplishment on the board was your involvement in the development of Goddard Park.
The discussion began with the existing Park and Recreation Board when I came to the board. I told them that I was happy to help them. I can take zero credit for the park because it was already in play. There were already Park and Rec members who had been there, planting the idea, for the past 15 years. It would meet with Eric Schott, Marsha Scott and Paddy Nielson for three hours on the third Wednesday of every month, looking at playground designs, driving to different dog parks, and asking, 'What should the park have?' They all just allowed me to to be part of the discussion.
The only thing about the park I will take credit for is that I pitched the idea of calling it Goddard Park.
One of the key talking points in London Grove Township is the issue of whether or not residents are receiving adequate police service through the State Police in nearby Avondale. Some say “Yes,” while others, such as yourself, have publicly fielded the idea of folding the township into the coverage area of the Southern Chester County Regional Police Department, which provides service to New Garden Township and the Borough of West Grove.
Home ownership has changed in the township over the past decade. Those who have moved here from other areas are generally used to having a local police force, and as the population rises in the township, the demand for local police will increase. That conversation will keep coming up, and eventually, the idea of using the regional police will be received better by the residents who have been here for a very long time.
You've always believed that townships should not own golf courses. With the township currently in negotiation to renew its contract with the Heathland Hospitality Group to continue managing the Inniscrone Golf Course in collaboration with the township, have you maintained your stance?
The Inniscrone Golf Course is an internal struggle for me. Townships should not own golf courses. It's not what we should do with public money. The case has been made that buying the course does provide the township with the EDUs it needs for its sewer system, but in the end, there is no right or wrong answer. I use the analogy of, 'We bought a house that's cheap and we've fixed it up, but we're underwater on our mortgage, and if we sell it, we're going to lose money.' So it becomes a question of, 'If we do sell it, how much money are we going to lose?' The statement, 'We're making the best with what we have,' doesn't go over very well with residents, but I don't know what else we can do. Owning a course is not like fixing deteriorating roads, and we don't have the money to fix them, so we enact a two-year earned income tax, fix the roads, and sunset the tax. Owning and operating a golf course is not as simple as that, and it's ongoing.
Is there anything in the future for you, politically?
A lot of people seem very surprised that I'm done. Township Manager Ken Battin told me to join a few boards, and I told him, 'I've been involved with township politics for 11 years, and been an elected official for the past six years.' In years one, two and three, if a resident concern came up, I was right there to talk about it. Now when the same issue happens, I'm not as enthusiastic, and that's not the guy you want as your elected official. It will be good for me to step away for a year or two.
This year, I unregistered as a Democrat and registered as a Libertarian, because I can no longer relate to our two traditional two-party system. Unless something changes, I can't run for anything higher, because I will never be able to be a Democratic or Republican candidate. I will simply be 'your candidate.'
I don't know many people who are voting for Libertarians these days.
Which makes it easy for me not to have to worry about running again.
As you prepare to leave the board, who do you thank?
I thank the residents and township staff, from when I started to who we have now in our administration and on the board. Those people patiently and quietly watched a 26-year-old mature into a 37-year-old. I probably could have been a little bit more mature, but I do not have many regrets. I spoke my mind when I disagreed with issues or with people.
Now that I'm a little bit older, I tend to listen more and talk less. In the end, the two words that have come up as I look back are 'thankful' and 'proud.'