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Cheltenham’s 2012 Budget Still Has Hole; Final Decisions and Adoption Expected After Public Hearing Thursday Night

With less than a week left for the scheduled adoption of the budget, Cheltenham Township is still working the numbers and Wednesday night’s Finance Committee meeting was Exhibit A – or make that E for excruciating. Like any level of government these days, the township is being battered by a range of needs, requirements and challenges most of which are central to the quality of life here, yet from a fiscal standpoint in these troubled times, it’s all just a ragtag list of competing budget items. But this year, with major restructuring being considered for garbage and recycling collections, lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Here’s where things stand. With the budget balancing act apparently ongoing until the moment of formal adoption, which is scheduled for this Wednesday night, the commissioners are now scratching for between $550,000 to $700,000 in additional revenue. That’s going to require a sewage rental/fee increase of seven to nine percent, shared equally between the basic rental charge and excess use fee. Last year’s sewer increase was about 5.5 percent. No other tax or fee increases are being contemplated. However, other revenue enhancers already penciled in include: elimination of the sewer fee early payment discount ((107,000); elimination of the refuse fee early payment discount ($40,000); outsourcing for past due property tax collections ($168,000); and a burglar alarm fee increase ($24,000).

If there is a headline issue in the 2012 budget plan, it is the possible move to automated garbage and recycling collections, for an annual savings of $460,000. But that savings comes at the price of laying off nine employees in the Department of Public Works, as well as a sizable capital investment. The automation option involves reducing the crews on the collection trucks from the current three to a single driver operating new high tech “one-armed bandits,” like those in Abington. The new vehicles would pick up standard-sized refuse containers weighing about 36 pounds (a figure for the largest size, updated since the Wednesday meeting), according to Kraynik. The capital investment involved for the purchase of five trucks and refuse/recycling carts is projected at $2.5 million and assumes a useful life of 10 to 15 years.

There could be some negative spill-over effects, including the potential for less grass cutting due to a staff stretched thin and a further strained relationship with the union, Teamsters Local 115. In terms of dollars and cents, significant increases in gasoline, maintenance and repair costs are possible, as well as additional snow removal costs, but “at the end day of the day, it’s a financial winner if we go to automation,” said Kraynik.

In a straw vote at their December 7 meeting, the Finance Committee approved going to full automation by a bare majority. However, only a week later, it seemed that the enthusiasm for automation had melted away in the face of concerns raised by township employees and residents Wednesday night. Additional options which could reemerge are automation only for recycling, at least in 2012, resulting in one layoff and a capital cost of $1.2 million and a longer phase-in based on the pace of retirements in the public works department over the next few years. If full automation is rejected for this year, which is far from assured, the township would need to come up with an additional $270,000, a figure included in the range of possible increases in sewer rental/fees (above). An automated system, if approved, would not be up and running in 2012 until about September.
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The Wednesday meeting put some real faces on the dry budget numbers for the seven commissioners.

Pete LaRue, a staffer in Public Works and a lifelong township resident from Cheltenham Village, argued that automation was not a sensible approach, especially from the standpoint of the cuts in staff which would compound existing problems for grass cutting, snow removal and leaf raking. He claimed that the department is currently understaffed and gave an example of the last two weekends, when, he said, some 32 men racked up 10 hours of overtime clearing leaves. “Does it make sense to lay off 9 men? What’s going to happen during the next storm?”

“I have a wife and 4 kids to support,” he continued. “When I was hired here, they told me that this is a job you can retire at . . . I could’ve gone somewhere else and made more money, but I wanted to be close to my town and be close to my kids. My kids go to school here, we live here, we work here, we play here. I don’t want that taken away from me.”

Susan Mellus of Elkins Park said, “From what I see, these guys work very very hard. I lived in Philadelphia all my life. If you didn’t pay the trash guys, they didn’t pick up your trash. If it rained today, they didn’t pick up your trash And if you had any kind of weather conditions, the trash was all over the street. These guys, you know when they’re going to come; if it snows, they’re a day behind. But they work their tails off and I think it’s a disgrace to cut out decent paying jobs in order to then have some huge truck that somebody in some other country makes money on. You have to pay for repairs and now we’re down more jobs in the township.”

Joe Shearing of Glenside Avenue, an employee in the public works department and a Cheltenham resident for almost 30 years, has raised three children and educated them here. “I want you to see one of the faces that will be seriously affected by your decision,” he said. “Me. I’m 51 years old. Where am I going to go? I have a little home on Glenside Avenue, three kids, the dog, the picket fence, everything. Where am I going to go? When I can give 10, maybe 12 more years to this township and have some kind of retirement. That’s what I was also told – it’s a job for life, it’s a job you can retire on. I’ve had my problems . . . I’ve hurt my back and I did go out with workers compensation. But I honestly did not mean to get four screws in my back . . . There’s got to be other ways to save money without taking nine families out of the equation. And you know with the nine families, its unemployment and then it’s Wawa . . . I love my home on Glenside Avenue and I don’t want to lose it. I’ve worked hard for my home . . . I’m asking that you consider your decisions and just find a way to keep the men working to support their families. There has to be a better way. I’m fighting for my life right now and for the lives of eight other men that are behind me. Thanks for your time and please search your conscience. I trust you’ll find the right answer.”

Ward Two Commissioner Art Haywood responded by showing a blow-up of a chart of how Cheltenham tax rates compare with those of neighboring townships. “The commissioners on behalf of the township, in my opinion, must avoid a widening tax gap between where we are and our neighbors. Now, to avoid a widening tax gap between where we are and our neighbors requires significant change in the government, in my opinion.” Haywood called the potential savings of $460,000 annually “a significant consideration.” He termed any loss of employment “undesirable,” but countered that the 10,000 families in the township could be affected by a widening tax gap between Cheltenham and neighboring communities.

Mellus spoke again: “I feel that it’s extremely important that the things that we start cutting in this township are not jobs. Because I think that that’s a problem that we have in this country all the way down the line and we’re going to get bit in the ass later.”

Peggy Hoffner, a realtor here for 40 years, now living in Franconia Township, shared her perspective. “Buyers would rave about township services. They raved about the police department; when you call they’d be there in two minutes. When you put your trash out, they’re friendly, they talk to you, they greet you. It’s amazing, this township. The services that they have here are wonderful. This is what sells houses. Your school taxes right now are killing you. It takes me nine months to a year to sell a listing in Cheltenham . . . And the prices are dropping like a rock.

“Most people come from the city and they value the services here,” she continued. “They value the parks, they value the swim clubs . . . You start playing with that and you’re going to watch more people leave. You’re going to have a lot of empty properties and your values are going to continue to go down. That’s your front line, that’s your person for the township (refuse and recycling collectors) that almost every resident gets to meet. It’s the guy that comes along to pick up the trash. And they’re very good township representatives. They work very hard.”

Ward Five Commissioner Mike Swavola suggested the need for substantive discussions between the township and the union to come up with cost savings equivalent to the $153,000 that could be saved this year through automation in order to preserve the jobs. Kraynik responded that the discussions were ongoing, at one point saying, “I have very little faith in discussions between management and the union that will result in 152,931. I have no faith – none.”

He also emphasized the recurring budget challenges that the township will continue to face and pointed to the sizable cash infusion that will likely come from the fund balance in 2012. (A fund balance is a financial cushion based on surpluses accumulated over time used by bond rating agencies to evaluate for creditworthiness and influence ratings, which affect interest rates.) $1.7 million is earmarked for transfer from the fund balance to the operating budget for 2012, $600,000 of which is a one-time bonanza from the state pension system that arrived late this year.

But heavy use of the fund balance to plug budget holes is unsustainable, he said. Last year (2011), the budget included a $1.1 million transfer, however Kraynik told Citizens’ Call that with the unpredicted $600,000 and some other unanticipated revenues in conjunction with tight management, he is hoping that it will, in the end, be unnecessary to tap the fund balance for 2011. Cheltenham’s fund balance for 2010 was about 12 percent of the operating budget. Financial advisers say that a five percent ratio is generally considered adequate to maintain the township’s Aa bond rating, according to Kraynik.

The public hearing and final decision on the 2012 budget will occur at the regular meeting of the board scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, December 22 at Curtis Hall, 1250 W. Church Road in Wyncote.

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  1. Charles

    To Everyone involved in stopping Automation Thursday night, THANK YOU! You saved my Christmas and my Brother’s in Public Work’s Job’s ! I hope You Have a Blessed Holiday Season and a Great New Year!

  2. John Dunphy

    It seems that we keep coming to the same conclusion about transparency…..and that’s a good thing.
    Televising/archiving Commissioners’ Meetings is part of the answer. It would broaden the conversation and make important discussions available to the whole community in a timely manner. People want to be informed and will respond to issues if they are kept in the loop. It is encouraging to hear the voices of the citizens of our township. It is also encouraging to see our Commissioners responding to issues. Maybe “business as usual” has changed in favor of a more participatory format. Now that the conversation is engaged, my hope is that it will continue.

  3. Vince Menniti

    As a trash man in the public works department and one of the nine guys that was about to loose my job I would like to thank each and everyone of you for the support that you showed last night.

  4. Stephanie Wietecha

    That most of us heard about this pending travesty through word-of-mouth is unconscionable. Commissioners, where is the transparency in government? Where are the “elected” representatives (yes, you, Commissioners) who should be working hand-in-hand with the Community who elected you? With such a drastic proposed change in Money and Management, would it not have been in everyone’s best interest to physically canvas this Township for input / alternative ideas / community buy-in? Or, are we talking about township oneupmanship and techno jealousy prompting proposed passage of backroom discussions and fly-by-night approval until actions are caught by the Community and subject to scrutiny under full light?

    I expect better and hope that we, as a Community, are capable of rising to the challenge of being our best, especially in this time of challenging recession. But, we should not give short shrift to the employees who work for us, the Community, at jobs most of us would be unwilling to do — and they do it with cordiality and friendliness each week they pass my house — and all for a technical promise that does not work well in other townships?

    Happy Holidays… Let us look for a better New Year.

    • Anonymous

      The school board did a good job and holding several meetings for community to share and gather cost saving ideas. This should be a great example for the commissioners. Unfortunately their egos have always gotten the best of them and throwing in last minute changes does not fly in Cheltenham. Instead of some of you spending so much time on reelecting yourselves focus on what your job is – working for the community of Cheltenham.

      • Commissioner Charlie McKeown

        Why is XXXXXX so anti Commissioner’s ? As all of us as Commissioner’s Elected by the People, work many , many hours a week to keep Cheltenham Township as nice as it has been for many years………There are no EGO’S, all of us are very proud to be elected by the residents Independent, Democrats, and Republican !

        Those of us that just were re-elected by the people, had not only work very hard with the Township, they also had to find time to run an election. XXXXXX, remember our job pays us only $ 6,000.00 a year, and many people can not understand why so little.
        We are available to all residents many days and hours a year, and we also work many hours a week doing our job, even when we are up for re-election.
        XXXXXX, I see you write often on Citizen’s Call, but I do not see you involved on any Township Committee’s. That would be a good place for someone who has so much to say but so very little to give back to the Township. I also find it very interesting that you do not look at how great we are doing as Commissioner’s dealing with the so many various situations that face us everyday.
        And did you know, that we also have families ? And do you know how many hours a day we take from our families to take care of your and our Communities ? Did you ever think of saying thank you Commissioner’s for keeping our taxes down and community services fine ? How about this XXXXXX, there are many residents that do say thank you, I get them every week, but as I have watched your letters to the Citizen’s Call, you forgot how to thank your Commissioner, or any Commissioner !

        The election is over, and let it go, the people have spoken, and there is not one of us that can make everyone happy, we have a very difficult and very important job as Elected Officials in Cheltenham ?

        XXXXXX, it is what it is, and a few of us that do serve the public, actually do it because we have a record of being involved in the Community for many years.

  5. Tom McHugh

    All six commissioners in attendance at Curtis Hall tonight listened to citizens speak against automated trash collection. For two hours the citizens spoke. Not a single person spoke in favor of automation. All of the reasons mentioned above were brought up, plus numerous other well reasoned objections. All six commissioners at the meeting voted against automation of any kind for the 2012 budget, and Commissioner Michael Swavola actually stated that the concept of “pay as you throw” trash collection, that has been mentioned by a few residents, has merit and should be considered during 2012 for future years. It was a night for everyone to be proud of the community of citizens that is Cheltenham Township.

    Residents are looking forward to being able to co-mingle recyclables and it is hoped that the percentage of recycled material tonnage will significantly increase compared with overall refuse tonnage.

  6. Joyce Weiner

    Although I am interested in anything that could result in Township tax abatement, I am currently opposed to automated trash collection as proposed in the “alert” email from Art Haywood.

    My house is 300 feet from the street; our driveway is uphill. I don’t think it would be physically possible for me to lift a trashcan filled with trash–a can that is already 36 lbs. empty–to get it into the trunk of my car. Likewise, it would not be possible for me to drag the can up a 300-foot hill.

    Also, I don’t think it’s fair that the Commissioners are voting on this this evening, as Township residents have had no time to discuss this with you. The decision to automate trash collection in Cheltenham Township will have a negative impact on many, starting with the hard-working people who have been collecting our trash all these years. The Commissioners are supposed to be representing our best interests. Making a decision such as this without input from Township residents would be reprehensible. Taking a vote on this important issue this evening is a slap in the face to all of us.

    The Commissioners need to find other ways to cut back on expenses.

  7. Olga McHugh

    I think it also plain stinks that the Commissioners chose to vote on this change in trash service right before the Christmas Holiday and in the middle of Hanukkah. They chose a time that is most inconvenient for most residents to vote. Accident? No. I’m sure it was done deliberately.

    I’ve been hearing from my sources that this automated trash collection has been discussed for months – but, not in a township official forum for residents to provide input.

    Have you all read the e-mail that Commissioner Haywood has sent out? Funny how he neglects to say that there is a capital expenditure of $2.5M to automate the trash collection. Why don’t we cut the health coverage – for life – for out of office commissioners and their family? Why don’t we cut the township cars that are taken home and only keep 2 on the township property? Let the staff get to work on their own. Why don’t we turn the thermostats down in the public buildings to 68 in the day and 60 at night, and lower on weekends. We could save fuel costs.
    I copied it:
    ************************************************************************************************************

    Renewing Community Alert

    18 December 2011

    Dear Olga,

    The Board of Commissioners will make a decision on whether to start automated trash and recycling collection at a meeting on Thursday, 22 December at 7:30 PM at Curtis Hall. We are balancing an effort to moderate our real estate taxation, maintain quality services to the community and address anticipated expense increases in 2013 and 2014 and beyond. Cheltenham needs to narrow the difference between our real estate taxation and that of neighboring townships. Township staff recommended moving to automated trash and recycling collection as a partial solution.

    Automated trash and recycling collections involves the use of an automated truck to pick up trash and recycling. Resident would get a 95 gallon trash container on wheels that weighs about 36 pounds and a smaller recycling container. The automated collections would begin in September 2012.

    It has pros and cons. The cons are that we will suffer painful layoffs of up to 9 employees, only the trash and recycling containers that we will distribute for free can be used, the automated trucks cannot maneuver through the narrowest streets and the trucks are expensive at a one-time cost of over $250,000 each. The pros are that automated trash and recycling collections reduces injuries to staff, it will save us over $500,000 a year, we will retain a truck and a crew to handle the narrowest streets, this type of collection services is used in many places in the US and generally works well, recycling often increases with this collection and some jobs loss from attrition would occur anyway. Plus, our snow removal should not be adversely affected.

    I support moving to automated trash and recycling. This approach makes Cheltenham more attractive by reducing cost that will allow us to moderate taxation while maintaining quality government services and minimizing layoffs. However, there is an emerging campaign against the automated trash and recycling collections from some union members.

    The Commissioners have made numerous budget cuts this year including eliminating vacant positions and freezing merit pay increases. In the 2013 budget we may find additional ways to improve our position. However, we now have a chance to generate long term savings and we should take it.

    Please let me know your thoughts and please attend the meeting on Thursday 22 December.

    Happy Holidays.

    Please visit my website at http://www.arthaywood.com for updates. Help a neighbor and a stranger. Thanks.

    Art

    Art Haywood
    phone: 215 887 5320
    ahaywood@cheltenham-township.org

  8. Cathleen Capriotti

    People you don’t want to go down this road. They are not looking at the big picture here! All they see is numbers on paper. When Abington changed to these trucks they had 50 meetings about it before changing over to automated service AND STILL they had to buy more trucks because IT WAS NOT WORKING! The workforce is already short handed it has been for 3 years now with no new hires even after several employees where lost.

    When you look around Cheltenham now, they can’t even get the parks’ grass cut. It’s sad to see this decline in service’s and they want to make it worse?

    The men have been working Saturdays cleaning up leaves this year because of shortages in manpower — not due to poor weather conditions such as in past years.

    I have told many residents about this plan — NO ONE knew about this plan and when they hear about it they all say NO WAY !

    We can not allow this to go thru! Come out and speak your voice tonight on the 22nd don’t let this happen to hard working Men in your town ! The Country needs to stand up to the Powers that be and say NO — find another way ! Stop picking on the little guy fighting to make a living for his family! Go back to the chalk board and find that money else where! You cant tell me that this is the only way we can save! Take a long hard look in the mirror Gentlemen can you look yourselves in the eye and say I’ve done all I can do before having to lay off good workers at Public works? I don’t think so – certainly not in 3 meetings you haven’t — Shame on You for hiding this from us and not Giving the People a voice in it. After the Nov.11th meeting you never sent an email to residents about this! You are in for a shock come next election! You are supposed to be REPRESENTING US – OUR WANTS AND NEEDS! Try looking at the top heavy administration of this county – there is where you can save money – lay some of them off!
    ——————————————————————————–

  9. Gail Post

    Steve, Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I hope everyone looks at the wonderful points that Olga makes about all of the many reasons this is a completely inappropriate decision. I understand that the commissioners need to cut expenses. But their decision-making process is frighteningly short-sighted, hasty, and shows poor reasoning skills. Their choice is the opposite of “sustainable”, a buzz work they embrace but do not embody.

  10. Olga McHugh

    Here are some disturbing things about this rush to a vote about our trash, leaves, snow removal service:

    1. The new “trash cans” will be 95 Gallons!!!
    2. Empty the cans will weigh 35 lbs!!! I’m thinking about all the Commissioners who talk about seniors citizens and how they are an important demographic of our township…..can you visualize a 75 or 80 year old having to get this 95 gallon trash can to the curb for trash pick-up? My guess is that many will just leave the cans in plain site of the street curb, all week, because of the size and weight.
    3. The Commissioners talk a good game. Commissioner Haywood is the chair of the Sustainability Committee and yet he has sent an e-mail endorsing the automation of trash pick-up. To be a sustainable community we must find ways to limit the paving over of our open spaces (not to mention the more paving – the more storm water runoff) or the reducing of paved/black topped areas. So, street parking should be encouraged everywhere possible. The streets are already paved. And yet, if we park on the streets the monster automated trash trucks will not be able to pick up the trash at the curbs.
    4. The big giant trucks used for the automated trash pick up are heavy they will damage our road surfaces, block traffic, spew more CO2 in the air, guzzle more gasoline…. and how is any of this going to help make the township a sustainable community?
    5. 95 gallon containers are enormous….why is the township encouraging the disposal of more waste products?? How is this sustainable? Our household recycles as much as possible and does not generally fill a regular size trash can that we put out for trash each week.
    6. The plan that is to be voted on this Thursday will also eliminate jobs…jobs for those who pay taxes here.
    7. The plan necessitates a substantial investment, $2.5 Million. How does this save money?

    This plan is shortsighted and does not think of the future. More time should be given for public input and more time should be given to present – in detail – all of the costs associated with this scheme; indirect costs of road damage, encouraging more trash to be dumped in the landfills, less need to recycle since the cans will be so large, loss of jobs which will reduce taxable income etc. Additionally, since the 95 gallon cans are so large and no one will know what is being put out for trash, I imagine paint, electrical appliances, and other items that are not collected by our trash crews will most certainly find their way into the landfills.

    I want to see other alternatives to closing the budget gap. For instance, all township vehicles used to drive to and from home to work should be eliminated. Everyone should get to work on their own – just like the taxpayers do. Reduce the number of holidays given to administrative staff. There are way too many. And we must eliminate health insurance coverage for Commissioners and their families after they are no longer in office. This is a big expense to the taxpayers. Community service should be done without detriment to those they serve. Eliminate the overtime to snow plow parking lots in our parks during the wee hours of the night – actually don’t plow them until all the roads are plowed first. Stop scheduling loose leaf pick-ups when the leaves are still on the tress! Let’s hire qualified people to run the day to day operation of the township so we don’t have maintenance neglected – like our sewer system – to the point that we are paying exorbitant fines and costs to replace it. Let’s hire qualified people who have the capability of seeing the “big picture” and stand up and stop letting stormwater from other municipalities damage our streams, roads, homes and businesses.

    Lastly, why the rush??? Why the rush to vote on something that affects all of us in such a fast and rushed manner?? Who will benefit from a rushed vote to automate the weekly trash pickups?

    • Sara Koval

      I just received a letter from one of the commissioners stating this study has been going on for many months to years…interesting…I’m a well informed resident and this is the first I’m hearing about it.
      Shame on the commissioners to bring this up as a last minute change….per my letter above I would love the commissioner to outreach to the residents like the school board did to try to get ideas on how to save money.

  11. Cathleen Capriotti

    Talk to your Friends and neighbors don’t let the Board of Commissioners force this down your throat! They have taken away the Democratic process and will vote this into effect this Thursday unless you stop them ! This Automated System will limit you to one Trash CAN at the curb! You will have reduced services when it comes to bulk pick up, furniture removal, appliance removal, bagged leaf collection and brush too. It will slow down collection times and will cost taxpayers money in overtime pay due to longer working hours, higher fuel costs and more expensive maintenance costs. Automated Collection will lead to Layoffs of up to 9 Public works laborers.!! And 2.5 million in spending for Trucks and cans!!
    They are setting the table for privatized collection in the next several years!! AND YOU WILL PAY MORE!
    DONT let this happen get out this Thursday night 12-22-12 At Curtis Hall in Wyncote @ 7:30 and let your voice be heard!!!!

  12. Sara Koval

    Just made a call into the township to complain (215-887-1000). I honestly don’t want to switch – but the biggest problem is a quick decision/vote and not enough time to research and discuss. I am not convinced (as a taxpayer) that switching is the right decision. PLEASE CALL/CONTACT YOUR COMMISSIONERS AS THEY MAKE THE FINAL DECISION!!!

    • Sara Koval

      Here is the letter I wrote to the commissioners:
      Dear Commissioners,
      I’m writing to let you know of my frustration for the upcoming commissioners meeting and budget. I honestly don’t want to switch our townships garbage system and hope you will vote against changing the system.
      The biggest problem I have is the quick decision/vote that is coming up. There was not enough time to research and discuss. I am not convinced, as a taxpayer, that switching is the right decision. I find this to be not just a problem but a big issue overall. Why rush to a quick change in our garbage system when other options in the budget haven’t been thoroughly thought out.

      I appreciate the way the school system asked the community of cost cutting ideas. I wish the commissioners had done this and maybe there would be creative ideas from the community instead of drastically changing things. The last minute decision making is the worst way to making decisions.

      Please reach out to the community next year and you’ll find a good resource of people and ideas.

  13. Pete LaRue

    Kudos to citizens call for reporting on this. Thank you very much Steve!