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Lower Merion Township adopts budget in tense final meeting

At the final Lower Merion Board of Commissioners meeting of the year, the board passed the 2012 budget, and several other agenda items despite tension.

Lower Merion commissioners ended the year with a lively final board meeting until next year, where all board members except Commissioners Jenny Brown and Lewis Gould approved the 2012 township budget.

Toward the end of discussion on the budget, a heated discourse took place. The tension, among commissioners and not from the less than five-member audience, carried over into a debate over whether or not Township Manager Douglas Cleland should be authorized to enter an agreement with landowner Donato Spaventa, of Donato Spaventa and Sons, Inc., over the purchase of less than acre of land in the Belmont Hills section of the township.

The discussion and commissioners' attempts to amend the Belmont Hills agreement lasted significantly longer than the budget debate during the slightly more than five-hour meeting.

Approving the 2012 budget

Commissioner Philip Rosenzweig and Scott Zelov commended the team assembling the budget since it's the first time the township won't have a real estate tax increase since 2006.

Gould expressed skepticism about this feat and added that he thought the budget's spending increase was significant, in addition to expressing disapproval of the approved 2011-2014 contract of Lower Merion Workers Association's 206 non-union employees in the township, which he thought offered especially high pay and benefit increases.

"I don't want taxpayers to think that because there's no tax increase, there's no spending," he said.

The point of contention came when Gould inquired about the Workers Association increases. Board of Commissioners President Liz Rogan insisted that Gould state all of his questions up front before Cleland answer them.

"This is not an interrogatory court room thing where you're asking and answering. It's your comments on the budget," Rogan said.

Gould responded that Rogan was precluding him from asking his questions. Brown got involved shortly afterward.

"This is [the township manager's] budget. He should be able to answer commissioner questions. How rude is this that he's not answering and that you're trying to stop him from answering," Brown said to Rogan.

Commissioner Daniel Bernheim interjected on what he called a "power struggle," and asked Gould to concede, "so we can get out of here and unlike last year, not set the record at 3.a.m."

Gould said he wouldn't concede, and said he disagreed with the way the meeting ran and felt disrespected as a commissioner.

After his questions regarding workers compensation in the budget, Gould finished his comments that he did not think the taxpayers of Lower Merion would "appreciate the fact that in enacting this budget we are approving giving to non-union management the same compensation benefits that the Workers Association got."

Rogan explained that it didn't happen yet because board couldn't approve the compensation without approving the budget.

Gould still disagreed and wanted to note the high increases in pay and benefits, he said, because these were benefits the taxpayers don't get.

Commissioner George Manos weighed in, saying that the budget was good, and explaining that revenues, expenditures and the "quality of the township" comprise the budget. He concluded there were certain costs that enable Lower Merion to be the kind of township it is and that the board must think about the costs to maintain the township's quality.

Following clarifications and end of deliberation, the budget passed 12-2, just minutes before midnight.

Belmont Hills

The small acre of land that caused several back-and-forth amendments among commissioners is located at 130 Highland Ave.

The agreement presented this week proposed to pay the full amount, $325,000, to Spaventa, who owns the property.

About two weeks ago, the board voted and approved a recommendation to proceed with an agreement where Spaventa would donate $25,000 of the full amount to the township for trails.

This week's agreement included no donation provision. Several commissioners also added that amount to be paid was double what Spaventa paid for it years ago.

"The concept of paying this much money in this real estate market for this particular property is so blatantly offensive that I don't know how anyone could support it," Rosenzweig said.

The board deliberated and Commissioners Brian Gordon and Cheryl Gelber attempted to motion for amendments to address the cost but none approved.

In an 8-6 vote, the board approved a recommendation to proceed with the agreement of an orginial $325,000 purchase of the land.

Other agenda items approved

The other agenda items approved at the meeting include the following:

  1. Authorization of job offers to 13 of 20 candidates to fill positions in the Lower Merion police department.

  2. A contract for Bala Cynwyd Library's materials to be moved and put in storage while it undergoes renovations after it closes Dec. 31.

  3. An amendment to the 2012 budget to add more than $21,000 to amend a computational error, which increases annual contribution of the Township's Volunteer Fire Companies by more than 3.5 percent.

At the end of the meeting Bernheim attempted to address the fighting that occurred during the budget debate – a fight that was brought up again when Brown pointed out that Gelber's questions regarding the Belmont Hills property were answered without conflict – and said that commissioners need to respect one another whether they agree or disagree. He added that the commissioners owned a reflective apology to each other and the township, sentiments Rogan echoed.

Rosenzweig commended the remarks but thought they should have been made before Brown and Gould left after voting on the final agenda item of the evening.

The board approved a motion to table action on a second contract regarding an owner's representative that would review renovations occurring at the Bala Cynwyd Library.

The board's first meeting after the holidays is Tuesday, Jan. 3, the Board of Commissioners' Reorganization meeting.