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'Unexpected' $6.9 million revenue deliberated at Lower Merion public hearing

At the Wednesday, Dec. 7 Board of Commissioners and finance committee's final public hearing, commissioners debated how to handle the extra $6.9 million received from tax revenue.

The finance committee of the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners debated Wednesday night how to handle nearly $7 million in "unexpected" tax revenue.

Increase social services. Fix a street light. Return it to taxpayers. Those were just some of the suggestions that emerged from residents during a final public hearing on the issue.

Commissioner Scott Zelov addressed the audience before the public comment portion of the second public hearing on the proposed 2012 budget and 2012-2017 Capital Improvement Plan.

"I would encourage the members of the public that now, in this public hearing, is a very good time for members of the public to comment, ask questions or offer their views as to how the township should allocate the one-time revenue of $6.9 million dollars," Zelov said. "This is a public process, we welcome your input and now is the time during this public hearing to do that."

Last week, Township Manager Doug Cleland notified the board in a memo that Lower Merion's government garnered an "unexpected" $6.9 million from business tax revenue. The topic of discussion at the evening's meetings was how to keep the fund balance from exceeding the 18 percent as per the township's General Fund Fund Balance Reserve Policy.

Exceeding that percentage means Cleland is required to present a plan to reduce the fund balance between 15 to 18 percent, the respective maximum and minimum goal range.

Cleland recommended an increase in the proposed 2012 undesignated beginning fund balance from about $10.6 million to $17.5 million, and an increase in the proposed 2012 undesignated ending fund balance from about $9.2 million to $16 million. This would mean that township would end this year with a fund balance of 32.5 percent as opposed to the previously estimated 19.7 percent, while increasing the proposed 2012 fund balance to 28.9 percent of expenditures rather than 16.5 percent.

Public Input

James Wheeler was the first resident to approach the podium during public comment. Wheeler, president of the North Ardmore Civic Association, spoke on behalf of his fellow civic association members about the damage caused by storm water run-off they continue to deal with.

"With extra money to be allocated, we would like to see that money allocated to a study of ways that we can remedy storm water run-off in the township," Wheeler said at the meeting. "It's causing a great deal of damage and expense to some of the members of our civic association."

Wheeler added a proposal that the township consider the area's North Ardmore watershed as a "potential guinea pig" toward thorough evaluation of water run-off and what can be done to alleviate it.

Avri Dub of Penn Wynne spoke next, wondering if funds could be used to repair a street lamp at the corner of Wynnewood and Morris avenues. Dub said the lamp's light has been out for months, and he wasn't sure whether PECO or the township was responsible for fixing it.

Dub added that he made several complaints to Lower Merion via phone, and that one of the personnel who answered the township's phone told him to bring it up with the commissioners, adding that they weren't sure there was enough funding for maintenance employees at these time.

Speaking on behalf of more than 600 people, Elise Berardi, executive director of the New Horizons Senior Center in Narberth, came forward to bring awareness of the social services provided to senior citizens by New Horizons. Berardi said the center was expanding as a result of seniors from the baby boomer generation coming in, and wanted to draw attention to the center as a resource, as well as thank the board for considering a grant for which the center applied.

The board agreed that a feasibility study to address stormwater management was something that needed to be done. Ward 2 Commissioner Jenny Brown was pleased with this response and said that addressing storm water management hasn't been a priority for quite some time.

Cleland addressed Dub's concern over the street lamp light, saying not only that it was PECO's responsibility, but also that it was unacceptable of the staffer – whom Dub did not identify –to say that lacking maintenance was because of employee funding.

Deliberating the $6.9 million

Brown introduced a motion to return the $6.9 million to taxpayers through a reduction in the real estate tax millage rate, or apply an adjustment uniformly to every tax bill. Brown said she took the $6.9 million and divided it by the total assessed value of property in the township, she got a figure of 0.0009 per dollar of assessed value, translated into 0.9 a penny per dollar of assessed value.

Brown expressed concern over any hasty decisions regarding the fund's spending.

"Any decision to spend money should be a difficult one…it shouldn't be a matter of 'We have this pot of money, let's figure out how to spend it,'" Brown added.

The motion was met with criticism by several board members, including Ward 1 Commissioner Dan Bernheim, who suggested that the money could go toward the equipment fund and debt reduction. He said that debt reduction would do more for residents than a one-time tax rebate.

"Our options must be explored carefully," Bernheim said.

Commissioner George Manos of Ward 9 said that residents are concerned about resource and public works maintenance, as well as debt reduction.

"What I haven't heard anyone say is 'Lower my taxes,'" Manos added. "I hear,'I'm paying taxes, where are my services?'"

The board laughed briefly after Commissioner Philip Rosenzweig, Ward 6, disagreed with Manos's statements.

"What's your cell phone number," Rosenzweig asked sarcastically. "I'll give them [residents wanting lower taxes] to you."

Brown's motion was rejected by an 12-2 majority vote, with Gould as Brown's lone supporter.

Ward 10 Commissioner Scot Zelov proposed an alternative of reducing the tax rate by 0.4 mills. This would refund the 10.9 percent tax increase of this year, while putting money from the revenue towards debt and into capital projects. This motion also didn't pass.

The Finance Committee voted in favor of Cleland's recommendation.

The board votes on the proposed budget and Capital Improvement Plan on Wednesday, Dec. 21.