government transparency

Proposed 6% Tax Increase in T/E School District – the Largest in Decades! Is It Possible that an Accounting “Timing” Error Could Change the Outcome for Homeowners?

Did you know that as T/E School District homeowners we are in line for the largest yearly tax increase for decades!

As it now stands, our school board has targeted us for a 6% tax increase! In December, as the preliminary budget for 2019-20 was in the early stages of preparation, the discussion indicated a possible tax increase of 6.1% but the Board assured us that they would work to bring down the increase. Three plus months later, the projected tax increase remains at 6% although at last night’s school board meeting, we were again told that the board is working to bring the number down.

The question is “why” the proposed staggering increase; the largest in decades! And to be clear, the proposed tax increase is not based on the Conestoga HS expansion plan – that capital project will be funded separately through new bond initiatives. Which brings me back to the question, WHY this looming large tax increase?

As we learned from Ray Clarke at the school board meeting last night, there appears to be an explanation (and suggested solution) for the proposed tax increase. And should the school board act on Mr. Clarke’s findings, it could reduce the proposed increase significantly. Taxpayers could see the proposed tax increase lowered by as much as 50%.

Mr. Clarke opened his remarks with the following:

  • There is ample public evidence that the allowable 6% tax increase presented in the preliminary budget is in error due to an accounting timing issue
  • The actual allowable tax increase is, most likely, much less
  • It would be in the best interests of the public, the Board and the Administration to address this issue in a prompt, transparent manner

( Click here to read complete Ray Clarke Special Ed statement)

According to information received at the District’s Finance Committee meeting of March 11, the accounting problem stems from unpaid invoice(s) of $1 million+ that were received in the 2016-17 year. The invoice(s) from the Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU) were paid, and more importantly accounted for, during the 2017-18 year.

The Special Ed exception for tax purposes is based on increases in annual expenditures; so getting the year correct is extremely important. By moving the Special Ed expense from 2016-17 to the following year (albeit by error/accident) causes a false reading by inaccurately inflating the expenses in 2017-18.

After Mr. Clarke read his statement, Neal Culligan continued with remarks imploring the board to seek further review before imposing a 6% tax increase.  I struggled to understand how the District can “miss” paying over a million dollars in invoice(s) and asked the Board for an explanation – how did this happen, whom was responsible and when did they find out? My questions were unanswered.

Mr. Clarke contacted Pennsylvania Department of Education and received copies of the District’s 2019-20 “Special Ed Expenditures” and signed “Summary of Referendum Expenditures filings. And although the District has known about the accounting “timing” issue since sometime before the March 11th Finance Committee meeting, the State has not been notified or the filings correctly updated.

As I stated at the meeting, we all make mistakes – but it’s all about owning your mistake when it’s identified, correcting it and moving on. Shouldn’t that apply to the School Board and the Administration – they knew there was an accounting “timing” issue; an error that could impact the proposed tax increase. Who is responsible and where is the accountability? Why don’t they do something?

Sadly, the takeaway from some School Board members re the accounting “timing” issue was simply to push back, become defensive and claim that they have been completely transparent.  What’s that line from Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”?

So what does the man with the District’s oversight of the financials, Business Manager Art McDonnell, have to say on this accounting matter? Remarkably, he disregards the analysis by Mr. Clarke, indicating that the “timing” of the Special Ed expenses and subsequent payment was inconsequential and; therefore, making no difference in the end result.

When called upon to comment, McDonnell further stated that if anything, the taxpayers would simply have paid a larger tax increase last year if the Special Ed expense and payment had not been delayed to CCIU.

This is crazy talk – and certainly doesn’t sound like sound accounting practice! It seems to me that if the District erroneously missed Special Ed expenses and a million dollar plus payment to CCIU one year, plays catch up the next year, that this practice skews the resulting financials of those effected years and for future years.

As a very wise former school board director stated, “The legislature passed Act 1 of 2006 specifically to limit a school board’s power to tax the electorate unchecked.”  Our school board knew about this accounting error at the March 11th Finance Committee meeting and residents questioned them about the issue at last night’s School Board meeting – are they not required to do the right thing? At a minimum, this should require immediate financial review from an independent source and then take necessary action as required, including notifying the Pennsylvania Department of Education..

We elected our school board directors to provide oversight; with independent thought and transparency.

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Tredyffrin Special Election Supervisor candidates – Where do they stand on the digital billboard, historic preservation ordinance and transparency? Know before you vote!

How many of you know that there is a special election on November 6 to fill an at-large seat on Tredyffrin’s Board of Supervisors? And that for the first time in township history, both candidates running to fill the vacancy are former supervisors! 

The last time that there was a special election on the ballot in Tredyffrin Township was in May 2011; a highly contested race between Mike Heaberg (R) and Molly Duffy (D) to fill an interim supervisor seat, as a result of Warren Kampf’s election as PA State Representative. If you recall, the special election results were so close that the winner’s name changed when malfunctioning voting machines required ballot hand counting. Ultimately, Heaberg was declared the victor and in the general election match-up race the same year, he won a regular 4-year term.

Now seven and a half years later, township residents will be choosing a supervisor in the special election on Nov. 6. In the sea of political campaign lawn signs are a couple of locally familiar names – Republican Judy DiFilippo and Democrat Mark Freed are the special election candidates running to fill the vacated at-large seat on Tredyffrin’s Board of Supervisors.

Republican Sean Moir, a second term supervisor abruptly resigned last month, having moved from the township and therefore no longer eligible to serve. The term for the vacated seat runs through 2019. The good news for residents is that both DiFilippo and Freed are seasoned township supervisors – Judy served for twenty years, six as its chair and Mark completed one four year term (2014-17).

Whoever wins the upcoming election will determine the party majority on the Board of Supervisors. With the departure of Moir (R), there are three Republicans (Heather Greenberg, Paul Olson and Trip Lukens (and three Democrats (Murph Wysocki, Matt Holt and Kevin O’Nell) currently serving. Because so often local township votes come down on party lines, the impact of who fills the seventh seat could be significant and if Freed wins, it will mark the first time in township history for a Democrat-majority board of supervisors.

The township and its residents is embroiled in a serious issue that would forever change the landscape and village feel of Paoli – the proposed digital billboard at the intersection of Rt. 252 and Lancaster Ave. I remain troubled that as a community we were kept in the dark for 18-24 months while township supervisors discussed the proposed digital billboard. The public only learned at the 11th hour with the township solicitor Vince Donohue using words like “negotiations” and “settlement agreement” in advance of the Catalyst presentation. I, like many others took that to mean that the digital billboard was a fait accompli.

With nearly 2,500 signatures showing support for the Change.org petition to “BAN the Digital Billboard in Paoli”) and a GoFundMe exceeding its goal, the community is fully engaged.  The laws signs are scheduled for delivery this week!

It is critical that voters know where special election supervisor candidates DiFilippo and Freed stand on important township issues –  the proposed digital billboard, historic preservation ordinance and transparency in local government. The candidates received 3 questions from me and were asked to respond in 100 words or less to each question. The following are the questions and the candidate responses, in the order received.

Question #1: As you are aware, the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors is entertaining a proposal to construct a digital billboard at the intersection of Rt. 252 and Lancaster Ave. in Paoli. The community has been told by the township solicitor that Catalyst Outdoor Advertising will initiate legal proceedings if the digital billboard is not approved. If you are elected before the vote occurs, how will vote and why.

Candidate Judy DiFilippo (R) response: I do not support the proposal by Catalyst Outdoor Advertising to construct digital billboards at the Route 252/Lancaster Avenue intersection.  In addition to the concern for safety of the traveling public, in my opinion, the mass of the signs proposed is not appropriate on that site. They do not reflect the overall aesthetic desired in Tredyffrin and do not respect the existing structure and its significance. If there is a deficiency in the Township’s sign ordinance relating to digital signs, a moratorium should be considered on any future applications for digital billboard signs until the ordinance is corrected.

Candidate Mark Freed (D) response: I oppose the Catalyst digital billboard proposal.  This billboard is wrong for Tredyffrin Township and would result in the destruction of a valued historic resource.  I have opposed the billboard since the concept was first floated by Catalyst when I was on the Board of Supervisors. I advised both my fellow Board members and Catalyst of my grave concerns.  I have not seen anything in the recent presentations to change my opinion and remain opposed to Catalyst’s proposal.

Question #2: Unlike most Main Line townships, Tredyffrin does not currently have a historic preservation ordinance. Please comment as to whether or not you would support such a township ordinance and why.

Candidate Judy DiFilippo (R) response: The Township has an award-winning 2003 Historic Resource Survey that lists hundreds of historic buildings and it explains the historic and/or architectural significance for each.  Valley Forge National Historical Park lies within Tredyffrin. We have a significant link to the founding of our country.  We should be proud to share that history.  I support the creation of an ordinance that appreciates and protects our most significant historic resources. Pennsylvania’s Municipalities Planning Code and Chester County’s Planning Commission have tooIs available to help us do that, including adaptive reuse.  We can protect historic resources and still respect an individual’s property rights.

Candidate Mark Freed (D) response: I support a historic preservation ordinance that protects our Township’s valued historic resources.  We must recognize Tredyffrin’s rich historic heritage.  We must also be mindful of the rights of the owners of historic resources. I understand that the Historical Commission has proposed an ordinance amendment that would prohibit the demolition of designated historic resources unless reviewed by the Historical Commission and approved by the Board of Supervisors at a public hearing. This amendment would prevent the issuance of over-the-counter demolition permits that have resulted in almost immediate demolition of our historic resources.  It would be a significant step forward.

Question #3: The support for openness and transparency in local government often appears on candidate campaign literature. What does it mean to you for local government to be open and transparent? Please be specific.

Candidate Judy DiFilippo (R) response: Transparency means you abide by the Sunshine Law. Certain matters dealing with Township personnel or pending litigation can be discussed in Executive Session by the Board and the Solicitor. When Executive Session meetings are held, it is announced during the Public Meeting. All Township Commissions, Advisory Councils, and Boards must abide by the Sunshine Law as well because their decisions and recommendations also impact the Township.  Open discussion by the Board and with the public is the only place for decision-making. The public should be able to rely upon that and upon the trust given to the individuals they elect.

Candidate Mark Freed (D) response: To me, openness and transparency mean providing the public with information in a timely manner, giving the public the opportunity to express their views at public meetings and elsewhere, listening respectfully, responding forthrightly, and letting the public know that their voices have been heard and respected.  They mean being clear and direct with the public about the Board’s decision-making process.  They mean remembering that Board members serve the public.

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Change.org BAN Digital Billboard petition: Over 1,400 signatures — GoFundMe & Yard Signs Next

Since launching the social media campaign less than 5 days ago to bring awareness to the proposed digital billboard in Paoli, the response from the community has been overwhelming. Thank you Caroline O’Halloran for updating readers in the latest issue of Savvy!

The Change.org petition has garnered over 1,400 signatures from people opposing the proposed digital billboard. The ‘welcome to Tredyffrin Township’ digital billboard monument planned for the intersection of Rt. 252 and Lancaster Ave. in Paoli would include the demolition of the historic R. Brogard Okie (“Clockworks”) building. The opposition to the proposal is significant – with comments ranging from safety concerns to the destruction of a historic building. (Remember folks, Tredyffrin Township is the township on the Main Line without a historic preservation ordinance of protection!)

One of the more disturbing issues with this proposed digital billboard is the fact that the public was kept in the dark for 18-24 months as the Board of Supervisors entertained the Catalyst Outdoor Advertising proposal. As I have repeatedly said, the public does not need to be involved with the details and decisions of all township business. However, I find it incredulous that something as significant as a digital billboard proposed for one of the busiest intersections in the township (41,000 cars daily) was not presented to the public until the 11th hour with a threat of a lawsuit.  Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the supervisors to have engaged the public from the beginning – to get a pulse from the community on this important and landscape-changing issue? How often have we seen taglines from political candidates touting support for transparency in local government? 

Sadly, since launching my BAN Digital Billboard campaign, some of the supervisors are now responding with statements to residents that the proposed digital billboard is “now in the hands of the Solicitor” and that the Change.org petition is “unsupported by data and/or are inadvertently misleading” and that digital billboards are actually safe. Really? Maybe digital billboards are safe if they are on Interstate 95!

One of the supervisors refutes my claim on the petition that there is no financial gain for the township — he states that “the proposed project will generate real estate taxes”. Let’s be real clear, the owner of the proposed digital billboard location (1819 Lancaster Avenue) already pays real estate taxes. The property is not changing ownership, it’s a lease agreement with Catalyst.

Also interesting to note that when responding to residents and attacking the Change.org petition, a couple of these supervisors neglect to address the lack of transparency issue over the proposed digital billboard and conveniently ignore the demolition of a township historic resource. Oversight or misleading?  I guess me and the other 1,400 petition signers will have to decide.

So where to go from here?  A number of residents have asked for BAN Digital Billboard lawn signs and as a result I have created a GoFundMe site with a goal of $1,000. The amount of money raised will determine the number of lawn signs. If you are interested in supporting the BAN Digital Billboard social media campaign, here’s the link for GoFundMe contributions.

It Takes a Community to Stop the Digital Billboard!

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