Residents continue stand against township tax increase
● By Richard Gaw
The Kennett Township Board of Supervisors meeting on April 18 may have only been half the length of its previous meeting two weeks before, but even though it only clocked in at a little more than two hours, it certainly offered up the same vitriol.
From the time the board began the meeting at 7 p.m. to the time they concluded at 9:15 p.m., the board was again confronted by a select number of residents – many of whom were also heard from at the board's April 4 meeting – for its decision last December to increase the township's property tax by a whopping 475 percent, in order to help pay for the township's new emergency services fund.
The criticism against the fund served as a backdrop to what some residents perceived has been a frivolous overspending of the township's money, which also includes its investment with five other municipalities in a new emergency services commission, and its recent purchase of a historic building in the township.
Throughout the meeting, supervisors Dr. Richard Leff and Whitney Hoffman, board chairman Scudder Stevens, township manager Lisa Moore and police chief Lydell Nolt heard the words “bloated,” “unsustainable” and “gigantic” from the audience as they attempted to provide justification for the township's increase in property taxes, and its spending practices.
The questions and concerns began early. Soon after the audience heard the monthly report of the Kennett Fire Company, resident Patrick Rita questioned why the department answers calls outside of its immediate coverage area.
“Our taxes support an EMS tax in this township,” Rita said. “Once we exit the township, do we get reimbursed for the time and expertise to pay for the fact that we are paying for people to service a town that is not paying taxes?”
Stevens and Moore explained that the formation of the Emergency Services Commission, formed in October 2017, calls the township to pay a 20 percent fair share formula – paid this year in the amount of $470,000 – a figure that contributes to a $1.7 budget that provides fire and EMS services to the township and five other area municipalities. Prior to the formation of the commission, Moore said that the township gave the Kennett and Longwood fire companies $160,000 each a year ($320,000 total) for operating expenses.
“There really aren't any commissions like this in Pennsylvania,” Stevens said. “We are really setting a new precedent for how to address the needs of the community in the broadest sense, and in a way that is open and creative to all that are involved.
“Fire, ambulance and police are safety, and that's what our obligation is, and that's how we are meeting that obligation,” Stevens added. “We're doing it as economically as possible, and exercising as much creativity as we possibly can to make it efficient for everybody.”
Rita then asked Stevens how the township's inclusion in the commission was a “better deal” for the township than simply contributing a total of $320,000 every year to its two fire companies.
“You join a commission to even out our costs and our taxes go up 475 percent,” Rita said. “Slow walk me through how this is a better financial deal for us.”
Stevens invited Rita to visit the township to learn more about the township's expenditures to the commission, because he did not have the financial figures in front of him to refer to.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, township resident Phyllis Recca handed out a two-page accumulation of financial data that she retrieved from the township's website – which Moore confirmed were accurate numbers – that compared the township's rise in expenditures from 2009 to 2017. Recca made specific reference to the rise in property taxes over that time.
“In a recent newspaper article, [supervisor] Richard Leff said that this was a modest tax increase,” Recca said. “Ten thousand dollars might have been modest, but this was a ten-fold tax increase, and this was gigantic.”
Leff later denied that he referred to the tax increase as “modest.”
'What will it be in the future?'
Recca then pointed to the rise in public safety costs in the township, which were $901,410 in 2012 and budgeted for $1,549,291 in 2018, a 72 percent increase. She said that the general cost of township government has also spiked considerably during that time as well, rising 130 percent since 2012, and that benefits for township employees have risen 54 percent over that stretch.
“All three of these categories are racing each other to see whose cost can rise the fastest, and who wins doesn't matter, because it's the residents who lose in the end, with higher taxes,” Recca said. “Today, it's a 475 percent increase in property taxes. What will it be in the future?”
Looking at the rise in township expenditures since 2009, Recca said that the township “held the line” on spending from 2009 to 2012, but that expenditures began to rise “significantly” in 2013, and that the township's reserves have dropped from $10 million in 2012 to $4 million in 2017.
“What happened in 2012?” Recca said. “Scudder Stevens was elected to the board of supervisors, and he became chairman in 2014. So 2017 comes, and the township hits a financial wall. They have increased costs, depleted reserves, and it has become unsustainable. They had two choices – cut costs or raise taxes. They chose to raise taxes.”
Recca said that the township used its police and emergency services as “pawns” by eliminating these costs from the general fund and weaving these costs into the new emergency services fund, and subsequently, the substantial property tax increase. Any public backlash, Recca said, would create the perception that because residents did not approve of the tax increase, that they did not appreciate the services of the township's public safety units.
She said nothing could be further from the truth.
“Bye-bye police, bye-bye fire, bye-bye ambulance,” she said. “'Residents, you want them back? You pay in tax.' [The township] kept all their other bloated spending in general government, [and] not a penny [was] cut. In 2018, they increased their general government, even though they knew it was going out of control.
“This board of supervisors has a pension for spending, and they're on a spending spree. Will they miraculously stop spending now? Don't fool yourself. No way. Costs of townships are only going in one direction, and the trend says 'up.'”
Moore responded to Recca's comments by listing the township's investment in sidewalk repair, the creation of trails, its focus on economic development, its continuing road work projects and its grants program,
“Everything that Phyllis says is correct,” Moore said. “Could the supervisors cut all of these programs and cut staff in order to not increase tax for police? We absolutely could (but) then the residents need to decide if all of these programs that we're working on [are] a benefit to them.”
Leff responded to Recca by saying that the supervisors made the decision to “place a greater premium” on public safety.
“When we look at the emergency services property tax, the question we asked was, 'What is that safety worth?'” Leff said. “As a supervisor in Kennett Township, I believe in investing in full-time, local police, fire and ambulance, because it's important to safeguard a community and lives.”
Leff said that in 2018, the costs for all of the full-time emergency services for Kennett Township will be almost $1.6 million -- about $15 per month per resident -- a modest fee, Leff said, considering the increased coverage.
“In prior years, our costs were lower, primarily because our police force was not yet up to full strength, and we were still comfortably able to cover these out of our reserves and thus could delay a tax increase,” Leff said. “The Board of Supervisors chose a single property tax increase into a dedicated fund, to make it easier for residents to understand where the money was going and why.
“The resulting tax burden on residents of Kennett Township is still well within the range of those municipalities surrounding us, even though several of those do not offer the level of police service that we provide in Kennett Township.”
Township resident Gene Pisasale continued to hammer away at the current board's spending practices, calling them “shocking.”
“From 2014 to 2017, the rate of increase in general government spending was 16.4 percent per year,” he said. “The increase in insurance and other benefit costs were 20 percent, and the increase in spending for public safety were a whopping 24.3 percent, per year. Let that sink in. Per year.
“Every year, mostly under this board, from 2012 to 2017, the township incurred a deficit – expenditures exceeded revenues – averaging well over $900,000 per year, and some years, [the deficit reached] over $1.6 million. It's interesting to note that from 2009 to 2011, with the previous board, we ran a surplus every single year, averaging over $400,000 a year. There is no other way to rationally and reasonable describe this. Spending has exploded under this board, and it is unsustainable.”
Pisasale then called for a ”through and detailed, line-by-line review of all township spending” and permanent cuts made, wherever possible.
'Do we need a ten-person police force?'
Throughout the public comment session, the conversation kept returning to the township's investment in its police department.
“The question isn't whether or not we can cut other services,” Rita asked. “The question is, 'Do we need a ten-person police force?'”
Nolt responded to Rita, referring to standard levels that set the tone for the correct percentage of police officers per capita in Pennsylvania. Based on these averages, the township's police department is understaffed, Nolt said.
“The conversation as to whether or not you need public safety service is kind of a new discussion, because when anybody in this room calls for service, they expect services to come,” Nolt said. “Somebody has to pay for those services. When we look at the amount of police we're providing – you can say, four, six, eight [officers] – what you're getting now is the staffing that provides for a 24-hour coverage that's required.
“The board provides the funds in order to provide a full-service police response to the municipality. If you remove police officers out of that and only provide partial response, at some point in time, you will have a deficit.”
Nolt encouraged Rita to compare the township's services with those communities who have either eliminated or drastically reduced their public safety measures.
after you see that, come back to Kennett Township and ask, 'Do I want
to live here? Are there services here [that enable my family] to feel
protected and have the services I need? And in the event that I have
to leave this community, is the economic basis that provides for
stable real estate going to be able to hold my real estate value?'" Nolt added.
During the meeting, residents also took aim at the township's $200,000 purchase of the historic Fussell House. The building, which had been considered as a possible new home for the township's police department, is currently undergoing renovation – estimated at $280,000 – which includes $70,000 to repair its roof. During the one-hour-long public comment portion of the meeting, audience members questioned the reasons why the township bought the building, located on the corner of Old Baltimore Pike and McFarlan Road.
“Knowing how much the supervisors like to engage consultants to do studies, has any study been given to the cost effectiveness of creating a police station at that facility versus some other, more modern building in the township?” township resident Ted Moxon asked.
“We did do a study to determine how much it would cost to convert [the building] into a police station, and it is almost one million dollars,” Moore said. “Currently, Chief Nolt and I do not feel that it is a proper option.”
Given that the Longwood Fire Company is considering moving its location to Longwood Gardens property, Moore said, the township is exploring the option of relocating the police department to the fire company's current facility, which she estimated would cost between $25,000 and $50,000 to retrofit the department in the fire station.
“I don't know if the Longwood Fire Company would allow us to do it, but it's an alternative, because we realize that the Fussell House is not the alternative,” she said.
Stevens said the township is currently evaluating the Fussell House as a potential future site of township operations, and that the public will be given an opportunity to provide input as plans for the historic home continue.
Responding to a question as to whether the township anticipates raising taxes in the future, Moore said that at this time, the supervisors had agreed to a one-time tax, and that they would not increase it again.
“The board can change going forward,” Moore said. “I do not know what our future board would do, but that's what this board said.”
Nolt said that the police department's budget “will not change significantly.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.