As is often the case, last night’s Board of Supervisors meeting conflicted with the Finance Committee meeting of the School District. I attended the Supervisors meeting as I was particularly interested in hearing about any Chesterbrook Village Center updates.
Prior to the regular BOS meeting, the supervisors held a public hearing on the proposed amendment changes to the Town Center zoning ordinance which would affect the redevelopment of Chesterbrook. The 122,216 square foot shopping center lost its anchor store, Genuadi’s supermarket in August 2010. With the departure of the 40,000 square foot grocery store, the Center saw a significant drop in foot traffic and began a downward spiral as the empty storefronts continued. The shopping center was sold at a receiver’s sale November 1 for $8.9 million to 500 Chesterbrook Boulevard, LP. As someone who lives in the western part of the township, I regularly use travel through Chesterbrook and I look forward to seeing its redevelopment.
Lou Colagreco, attorney for the shopping center owner, offered eight suggested changes to the township’s Town Center zoning ordinance. After much discussion from the supervisors and with opinion offered from audience members, there were a couple of sticking points that could not be satisfied.
Colagreco sought to decrease the parking requirement from 2.5 parking spaces to 2.25 parking spaces per townhouse, citing various national surveys and local development trends. Although Colagreco offered neighboring municipalities have decreased their parking requirements, he found little support for this change from the supervisors and definitely not from the residents, many of which live in Chesterbrook. He also hoped to change the stormwater requirements and exclude decks as part of impervious coverage requirement. Because of the severity of stormwater issues in the township, lessening this requirement also did not meet with a favorable response, particularly since these changes would affect the entire township, not just Chesterbrook. After a couple of hours of discussion, the supervisors decided to send the suggested Town Center zoning ordinance changes back to the Planning Commission for further review and revisions rather than approving.
I am anxious for the redevelopment of Chesterbrook and look forward to seeing the preliminary draft of the plan when it is available. The Town Center ordinance combines commercial and residential usage. Last night marked the last official supervisor meeting for supervisors Michelle Kichline and Phil Donohue; we thank them their commitment to the community and their public service during the last four years. On Monday, January 6, Murph Wysocki and Mark Freed will be sworn in and join the Board of Supervisors.
Ray Clarke attended the TESD Finance Committee meeting and I thank him for providing his notes from the meeting. I note that the school board is resurrecting the Public Information Committee which is great news. If you recall, Debbie Bookstaber chaired this committee but after she left the school board, the committee was disbanded. At that time, Betsy Fadem stated the committee was not necessary, as each existing committee would provide their own public communications. But as we have seen during the last year, communication could be improved and I am grateful that Scott Dorsey is taking over this role to chair the committee. Ray also mentions that the Board intends to have public discussion on the Affordable Care Act and its requirements. The aides, paras and substitute teachers received a reprieve on this TESD jobs for one-year that runs until June 2014. To meet the ACA requirements will require the school district to offer affordable health insurance to all employees so this discussion should start soon rather than later on this topic.
Here are Ray’s notes:
A note before getting to the meat of last night’s TESD Finance Committee – some encouraging signs on the communications front. The Public Information Committee has been resurrected, now under Scott Dorsey’s leadership. The FC meeting was structured to facilitate community input (although the competing Township event limited participants). And the Committee took steps to add back historical context to the monthly financial statements, so our analysis should become easier. Time will tell on all of the above, but the intent seems real.
1. 2013/14 Forecast. The budgeted $1.7 million deficit is now projected to turn into a break-even (including the one-time TEEA bonus). This is driven by the $0.65 million benefit from the Vanguard settlement, a $1.4 million favorable variance in salaries (factoring in all retirements, resignations, leaves), a $0.2 million reduction in salary-driven benefits, a $0.2 million savings in transportation, offset by (non-salary) special education expenses that are $0.85 million over budget. So, yet again, the budget under-estimated the salary “breakage”. The special ed development is perhaps more of a surprise and although it wasn’t clear, seems to be made up of outside tuition and legal costs driven by an unexpected influx from early intervention programs. That seems like an especially large variance given a total special education budget of $16 million.
2. Preliminary 2014/14 budget. The FC voted to approve for discussion at the January 6th Board meeting a draft that calls for a 3.2% property tax increase: the 2.1% Index and 1.1% PSERS exception. This looks to me like a budget with enough leeway to absorb costs of a TEEA agreement and AHA solution, both of which are left as “status quo” in the first pass. The ~$3 million expense increase is a result of a $1 million net PSERS increase, and a $2 million increase in “other” expenditures. The breakdown of the “other” number was not quantified, although Special Ed and Maintenance cost increases were cited. Interestingly healthcare costs are expected to be flat. The salary line is level also, but results from a number of puts and takes: absence of the $1 million plus bonus and savings from the new TENIG agreement, offset (completely?) by nine additional teachers, six due to enrollment, two due to special ed, one for mental health. No sign of the (in) famous breakage in this calculation, though!
1. The Board needs to be persistent in seeking a full accounting of the projections, as the high level numbers net out and obscure many different trends (more detail was requested). Also, it’s too easy, as was done last night, to place the blame on Harrisburg/PSERS, when in fact that’s only one third of the expense increase. Everyone last night quickly accepted that all cost savings opportunities have been implemented after the efforts of recent years. It may be helpful to the community to recap what possible next steps would be (eg are we really down to major and unlikely options like class size, arts programs, transportation, facilities capital spending**, etc., and what would be the magnitude for those?). [**Capital spending is paid for by tax payers, too].
2. The size of the Special Education program in total, the “miss” this year and continuing above-index increases are clearly a budget concern. The district has taken steps to control costs, but those are being overwhelmed. I think it would be helpful to the community to have an exposition of the program, perhaps at an Education Committee meeting? A description of the services offered, the utilization and price trends, steps we have taken and plan to take, comparison with other districts and so on.
3. There is no sign yet of any increase in the real estate assessed base value, which is budgeted flat, but signs of development suggest that any change will be to the upside. On the other hand, residential development will increase enrollment, and as Dr Motel is quick to remind us, that’s a net negative for the school district. So the pressure on real estate taxes to increase above the rate of inflation will continue. (Although PSERS will be more or less leveled out by 2018/19, even with the just-released slight increase in planned contribution rates). I continue to believe that it makes sense to share the tax burden between property and income via an EIT, although of course implementation would be a huge problem.
4. The community needs to pay attention, starting with the January 6th Board meeting. Although the budget evolves as more data comes in, and exceptions advertised may not be requested or indeed taken, early numbers have a way of being sticky.
A final note: President Buraks informed us that the district is putting together a full analysis of the options associated with the requirements of the Affordable Healthcare Act. This would be presented for community discussion rather than as a Board recommendation. The idea seems to be to do this soon, although no specific timing was given.