In a community where typical questions to local officials include "What can you do about my neighbor's dog?" and "When and where may I practice firing my shotgun?", it's rare to draw more than 10 citizens to a township meeting.

But at a Nov. 17 supervisors meeting in Franconia Township, a crowd of more than 200 people overflowed into the hallways and up to the doors of the building. In less than an hour, chants of "Recall! Recall!" went up in the room.

Unbeknownst to most residents, the rural township in upper Montgomery County had run up nearly $3.2 million in budget deficits since 2011, an average of 15 percent per year. With little public notice, the supervisors voted to lay off six police officers and four other staffers - nearly a third of the township's employees - and raise taxes 19 percent.

For the typical taxpayer, that means a hike of about $50. But the uproar is less about money than it is about trust and good governance in a small town.

"I don't understand how, after five years, suddenly the lights went on that you folks ran out of money," one man shouted to the supervisors that night. "Why can't you folks live within the confines that we give you and trust you to spend on an annual basis?"

Residents said they had no idea the township was in trouble, and wanted a discussion about priorities before slashing the police department.

"You couldn't see this shortfall coming in advance?" asked Larry Frederick, a lifetime resident.

Questions and accusations piled up, with the four supervisors in attendance saying they could not answer due to litigation with the police union over the layoffs.

The one official who is answering questions - Township Manager Jon Hammer - has been on the job only three months.

"They were using a lot of reserve funds," Hammer said last Wednesday. "If you start using one-time fixes, that's not sustainable."

Jack and Jo Ann Conklin, longtime residents, said they had not made up their minds about the police cuts, but were not happy about the tax increase.

"That's the last thing we need," Jo Ann Conklin said. "We're very high already."

About 86 percent of the property taxes for Franconia's 13,064 residents go to the Souderton Area School District. And municipal millage has gone up in recent years - 14 percent in 2011, 11 percent in 2013, 15 percent in 2014. But the rate was so low to begin with that those percentages did not translate to significant dollars.

In 2014, Franconia's local millage was 40 percent lower than that of Lower Salford, a neighboring township of similar geography and demographics.

With the 19 percent increase, the average local property tax will rise from $257 to $305 a year. Without layoffs, Hammer said, taxes would have to jump 70 percent.

As the township descended into debt, it paid its full contribution to the pension fund, and invested $4.4 million for farmland preservation. The township budget for 2013 was $5.2 million and the projected 2014 budget is $5.9 million.

Under the proposed budgeting, Franconia expects to break even at the end of 2015 and be in a good fiscal position by the end of 2016.

Most of its neighbors are already there.

Joseph S. Czajkowski, the township manager in Lower Salford, said supervisors there slightly increased the millage a couple of years in a row. As the recession waned and "things turned around, that kind of blossomed."

Salford Township, similar in size but with about one-fifth as many residents, has a committee looking at budgets out to 2020.

"It's real simple: I believe in planning ahead," Supervisors Chairman James Styer said last week. "We have not had a tax increase in several years, and if we do need to have one in the future, we want to be able to plan ahead for it."

When facing limited revenue, said David Sanko, executive director of the State Association of Township Supervisors, municipalities have to "make assessments, put a value on the services it provides. Make a distinction between what are needs vs. what are wants."

Salford, for example, relies on the state police instead of staffing its own force. Styer said that arrangement works fine for a town of only 2,500, with little crime.

Franconia's police department, where layoffs took effect Nov. 1, is now smaller than that of Lower Salford, Hatfield, Lower Moreland and Hilltown. Hammer said the remaining staff is sufficient to maintain 24-hour patrols. Police data show Franconia's per capita crime rate is half that of Montgomery County as a whole.

Residents at the supervisors' meeting told them a strong police force is about more than crime.

"Everyone here is telling you, we don't like the decision that you made. We don't want you to put us in jeopardy, our safety in jeopardy," said Carrie Horchuck. "If I call 911 because my son has an exposure to eggs, peanuts or shellfish, I want to know that my officers will be there right away."

Said Michael Paul: "One officer at night in a 15-square-mile township? It's atrocious."

The police union has filed a grievance accusing the township of violating labor laws and its contract, and retaliating against the union representative, Officer Kurt DeForrest. With eight years on the job, DeForrest was the fourth-least-senior officer, and thus the last to get laid off.

Supervisors Chairman Grey Godshall - son of State Rep. Bob Godshall (R., Montgomery) - said residents who wanted to comment could write him a letter or relay a message through Hammer. The silence didn't sit well.

"I was not expecting that you would just sit there," said one attendee, Tara Gray. "I get a better reaction from my dog, to be completely honest."

As the meeting ended and the supervisors left, residents were still standing, demanding another hearing before the final vote Monday.

No hearing has been scheduled and the supervisors have made no changes to the budget, Hammer said.

The supervisors and their solicitor did not respond to calls and e-mails from The Inquirer. In an e-mail, Hammer said: "The township looks forward to the successful conclusion of the litigation, at which time township officials will answer any questions of the public."

BY THE NUMBERS

13,064

Franconia's population per the 2010 census.

$3.2M

Franconia's total budget deficit since 2011.

19%

Proposed municipal property tax rate increase, raising the average local property tax from $257 to $305 a year.

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