Township criticized for what residents say is overspending
● By Richard Gaw
For nearly the entire length of its four-hour-long meeting on April 4, the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors absorbed a constant barrage of resident disapproval over what several in the audience called frivolous overspending practices, seen particularly in the increase in funding for its police and emergency services departments and in the purchase of open space.
The tone of the criticism was often harsh and its narrative was investigative, as residents pressed board members Dr. Richard Leff, Whitney Hoffman and Chairman Scudder Stevens – as well as Township Manager Lisa Moore and Police Chief Lydell Nolt – to provide justification for the township's expenditures.
It's a spending spree, several residents told the board, and in their opinion, it has been made even more glaring in the recent discovery that township property taxes have absorbed a 1.9 mils increase – about a 475 percent jump from last year, in order to pay for a new emergency services fund.
Approved by the board by a vote of 3-0 at its Dec. 6, 2017 meeting, the fund is a new addition to the township's 2018 budget categories. The tax is dedicated entirely to the new fund, and appears as a line item on residents' tax bills.
Outgrowth of commitment
The creation of the emergency services fund is an outgrowth of the township's continued financial commitment to the Kennett Township Police Department, and its inclusion in the newly-formed Emergency Services Commission, that consolidates Kennett, Pro-Mar-Lin and Longwood fire companies, in an inclusive effort to better serve the six area municipalities they serve.
While the projected payment into the commission – and the fire companies – will be $469,958 next year, the bulk of the new fund's expenditures will be seen in the $1.1 million the township has budgeted for its police department, which will include nearly $600,000 in salaries for its full-time officers and its police chief, as well as other operating costs.
During his report, Nolt was asked to list comparative line item crime statistics for the township, such as burglaries, in order to help justify the hiring of additional police officers for the department, which now employs seven full-time officers and two part-time officers. The number of crime incidents in the township have risen every year for the past three recorded years – 2015, 2016 and 2017, he said.
“In the relationship between the rise of crime incidents and the increased officers, there is a correlation to that,” Nolt said. “We're seeing that the increase in officers will increase incidents, because officers are more proactive in solving crimes that were not reported before the additional hirings. That's something that needs to be taken into consideration when you look at an increase in officers, and an increase in incidents.”
Township resident Phyllis Recca reeled off the police department's annual budget, which has grown from $297,000 in 2013 to its current budget of $1 million.
“They have been paying for the police out of our reserves, so that we have no reserves left,” she said. “They've been depleted. That money should have been spent on emergency things, and now we have our giant tax increase.”
As the meeting continued, the board took every opportunity to provide information that supported the creation of the emergency services fund. During his report, Bruce Mitchell, president of the Kennett Fire Company No. 1, was asked by Stevens what would likely happen in the event that it took the company an hour to get to a fire.
“There would be hole in the ground,” said Mitchell, who told Stevens that it normally takes the company about six minutes to get to a fire incident.
And what if it took EMS an hour to get to the fire?” Stevens asked Mitchell.
“Death,” said Mitchell, who told Stevens that it normally takes local EMS vehicles less than two minutes to respond to an emergency incident.
Referring to the additional costs that are likely to be tacked on to the rehabilitation of the historic Chandler Mill Bridge – which the township now owns and plans to renovate – Township resident Chris Burkett said, “We can't keep doing the things that this board has been doing over the last several years, and now, it's coming time to pay the piper. I don't want to compromise public safety in any respect, but we don't have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.”
Land purchases, township debt
Several audience members objected to the township's open space acquisitions in recent years, in light of the supervisors' decision at the meeting to enter the township into obtaining $7 million credit line, related to an agreement of sale to purchase a 103-acre property in the township for $3.2 million.
The township will make two interest payments this year on the property, and will make interest and principal payments beginning in 2019. The purchase of the property will come entirely out of the township's open space fund, which the township has taken $3 million out of to purchase Barkingfield Park, the Lord Howe property and other properties in recent years.
The location of the 103-acre property was not disclosed, because the negotiation process has not yet been completed. Township resident Bob Waters suggested that future agreements of sale include a contingency that discloses the location of the property to residents and discussed at a public meeting.
Stevens replied that Waters' suggestion is not relevant.
“It is relevant to this township, because you're not disclosing this location,” Waters responded. “I want to know where it is. What are you spending three-and-a-half million dollars on? You may think it's a good open space purchase, but I may not.”
“I have a serious problem with this, in light of the tax increase,” Recca said. “We're going to put the township in debt. It's going to cost us for this property $344,742 in interest money that is running flush down the toilet. The first year's interest is $100,000, which is ten percent of our police budget. Unless this property has a gold mine or an oil well on it, why is it critical that we go into debt to purchase this?”
“What is the compelling reason to take on millions of dollars of debt and hundreds of thousands of dollars of future interest payments to purchase additional open space?” asked township resident Gene Pisasale.
In his response, Stevens made reference to a township referendum that was passed on May 17, 2005, when 76 percent of residents voted in favor of devoting one-quarter of one percent of earned income tax toward the purchase of open space and farmland preservation. Ultimately, the township's goals are to preserve 30 percent of all land in the township.
“This township has a long-standing commitment to taking on open space,” Stevens said. “We have a commitment to having open space in this township, and when important pieces of property become available, we need to be able to take care of it when it happens.
“We have the money coming in, because the township residents have all said, 'We're committed to this,' and they have directed us to collect the money to do that,” Stevens added. “The money that we get will more than adequately carry what the charges are to buy this land and take care of it. We've been charged to do it.”
Township resident Michael Guttman supported the township's decision to pursue an open space strategy, which he said will lower the cost of township government, as well as help sustain its rural character.
“If we borrow money as we're doing now to buy this open space, we're proceeding along the lines of maintaining the nature of the township, and lowering the taxes necessary to maintain it,” he said.
While the board continues to follow the lead of its voters who have called for land preservation, it is also hampered by the costs involved in managing the anticipated increase in population. The board was criticized during the meeting for its commitment to help pay for the installation of an oval-shaped roundabout at the Five Points intersection, beginning in 2021, in order to address the existing and projected traffic flow, which is expected to increase there once the residential communities along Route 82 are completed.
The preliminary cost estimate for the roundabout would be $2.6 million, which would include a $1.3 million construction cost.
'Optimum protection of residents'
During the meeting's public comment segment, Moore addressed the township's commitment to supporting the efforts of the township's police department – and other emergency agencies. In addition to approving the new emergency services fund, the township also supports both the operating and capital costs of the Kennett and Longwood fire companies, and has contributed approximately $7 million to both departments in the last ten years.
The board, Moore said, was challenged with the difficult decision of whether or not to maintain a full-time police department – which would require a tax increase – or abolish the department and choose to have the township protected by the State Police in Avondale.
“The board decided that the best decision for the optimum protection of residents was to maintain a full-time police department,” and in order to do so, “a tax had to be enacted,” she said.
While understanding the tax increase is a significant one, Moore said that she and the board felt the increase “was necessary in order to fund the desired level of emergency services that we provide to our community.”
Nolt told the audience that the demands on the police department are increasing significantly. He pointed out that in 2015, the department responded to 3,450 requests for police service; in 2016, that number jumped to 4,854; and in 2017, the department responded to 5,519 requests for service.
Nolt then listed the services that the department provides, which include full, 24-hour service; a community policing program; patrol services and criminal investigations officers; SWAT, traffic safety, forensic and liaison officers; and connection to state and federal law enforcement agencies.
While some residents at the meeting praised the township for its spending practices in recent years, the board continued to field dissenting opinions from others in the audience. Perhaps the most vocal of those in opposition was former township board chairman Michael Elling, who began his verbal assault an hour into the meeting.
“I want to talk about the tax increase,” Elling told the supervisors. “I want to know why a tax hike of 470 percent was passed by you people. I want to know why this massive increase in spending occurred. Why did you buy the Fussell House? Why did you buy the Chandler Mill Bridge? Why did you take it over? You didn't have to. Is there anybody here who can give me a good reason why you took that bridge over?”
During the meeting's public comment segment, Elling again blasted the supervisors for what he called their “crassness” in voting for the tax increase, with “virtually no input from the citizens,” he said. Elling also criticized the postcard the township sent to residents on Jan. 10 – that announced the tax increase – for being a poor form of communication.
“I don't see how you could do this,” Elling continued. “This is political suicide, among other things. I don't think you're connected to the people you're representing.”
Recca said that in a conversation she had had earlier with Stevens, Stevens told her that the tax increase was a modest one.
“That is a quote, and if 475 percent and $780 is a very modest tax increase, then we need to be really concerned about next year and the year after,” she said. “We now have a 2.3 mil rate that they can increase ten percent, five percent, on going. They have the right to add three millage without any vote from the residents.
“We need to be very concerned. They are raising taxes. They're borrowing money. They've spent all of our reserves, and this is not the direction I want our township to go. I am not happy about it. And anything I can do about it, I will do it.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com.