NEWS BRIEFS

Stay up to date on current News & Issues.

General News
PUC seeks comment on terminations and consumer protections

Bucks County
Middletown to consider anti-discrimination ordinance

Chester County
West Chester’s new budget reality — $9 million in cuts

Delaware County
County drafts housing plan

Montgomery County
Public input needed for Montco Pikes roadway plan

Philadelphia County
How will the repeal of the fair housing rule affect Philadelphia?

 

News Briefs Archive April 27, 2020

 

General News

Wolf outlines three-step reopening plan; real estate returns in ‘yellow’ phase
Gov. Tom Wolf extended the statewide stay-at-home order until May 8 but also unveiled a staged plan to release parts of Pennsylvania from public health restrictions. Construction will be allowed beginning May 1, with other steps beginning May 8. The plan would classify counties and regions of Pennsylvania in three phases — red, yellow and green — that would determine how fast the restrictions would be lifted. Real estate activities would be permitted during the yellow and green phases, according to the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors®. All of Pennsylvania is red at the moment, but the first regions to be moved to the next stage, yellow, would be in northwest and north-central Pennsylvania on May 8. The timeline for other parts of the state will be released later. The specific measure that will be used is the incidence of COVID-19 per capita, with a goal of an average of less than 50 cases per 100,000 individuals over the course of 14 days. Also key to the plan to reopen will be an increased pace of testing. Moving a region from red to yellow releases stay-at-home restrictions, allows in-person retail, and means businesses with in-person operations are allowed to be open with physical distancing and other measures, although telework "must continue where feasible." It also allows child care to be open "with worker and building safety orders," but continues to limit bars and restaurants to carry-out- or delivery-only services, and keeps nursing home and school restrictions. Also restricted will be large gatherings as well as indoor recreation, gyms and health and wellness centers plus entertainment venues. The measures will be studied carefully to keep the virus from spreading. "This is not going to be resuming operations as they were in February," Wolf said. "We still do not have a vaccine. We still do not have an antibody test, and we still don't have a way to cure COVID-19."
Source: Philadelphia Business Journal; 4/20/2020 and 4/22/2020

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance application available onlineSelf-employed and independent contractors can now file for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance through the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry. The department has posted a set of frequently asked questions, including details on what types of documentation are acceptable to prove previous income, and employment or self-employment. In general, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance:

  • Provides up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits.
  • May not be more than the state's maximum weekly benefit rate for regular UC of $572.
  • May not be less than half of the state's average weekly benefit amount of $195.
  • Payments will be backdated to Jan. 27 or the first week you were unable to work due to COVID-19 (whichever is later).
  • Benefits will end Dec. 31.

As this is a new program that is expected to have a high volume of interest, updates will be posted on the Department of Labor & Industry website.
Source: PAR; 4/18/2020 & PA Office of Unemployment Compensation

SB 841 passes with three provisions that could impact real estate
Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law Senate Bill 841 — now known as Act 15 of 2020 — which helps communities and businesses respond to the coronavirus emergency. The bill became effective immediately, and while it covers a range of topics, it has three elements relevant to real estate.

  • Property tax relief — Local government taxing districts have the option to extend the property tax discount payment period to as late as Aug. 31 and/or waive late payment penalties for property tax paid in full by Dec. 31.
  • Local government meetings — Any local governmental entity is authorized to “conduct hearings, meetings, proceedings or other business through the use of an authorized telecommunications device” until the expiration or termination of the current emergency declaration.
  • Remote notary — Recent waivers allowing for remote notarization of real estate documents have been extended until 60 days after the emergency declaration is lifted. However, there are many hoops for a notary to jump through before being allowed to do remote notarization. If there’s a notary you use on a regular basis, don’t assume they’re able to work remotely yet. Also, nothing requires an entity to accept a remote notarization instead of a “wet” signature (signed in ink).

Read more details about the legislation on the PAR website.
Source: PAR Justlisted; 4/21/2020

Senate passes deal to replenish coronavirus relief funding
The U.S. Senate passed legislation to replenish funding for several coronavirus small-business relief programs championed by the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) and available to Realtors®. Under the Senate agreement, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) will receive $310 billion in new cash, while the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) fund will receive an additional $50 billion. The bill sets aside $60 billion of PPP funding exclusively for small and medium-sized community banks. “The PPP ran out of money in about two weeks and the EIDL was running on fumes,” said Shannon McGahn, NAR’s top federal advocate. “These are two of the most extensive rescue programs in our nation’s history. We are hearing from brokers around the country who were able to keep their employees on the payroll because of this help and from self-employed members who have been able to keep their businesses afloat.” NAR is encouraging all members who qualify to check with their lenders and apply for the relief funds. Visit NAR’s CARES Act FAQ to read answers to common questions about what the PPP and EIDL programs are, who is eligible and how to apply.  According to an Associated Press report, battle lines already are forming over the next measure amid growing demands to approve additional billions for state and local governments, the Postal Service and even infrastructure.
Source: Nar.realtor; 4/21/2020 & Associated Press; 4/22/2020

Pennsylvania boosting efforts to promote voting by mail amid pandemic
Gov. Tom Wolf's administration is boosting its efforts to get voters to cast their primary election ballots by mail, saying it would help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The administration sent 4.2 million postcards to primary voters and is mounting an awareness campaign on radio, television, social media, streaming services, mobile apps and email, officials said Wednesday. Wolf's administration has not heeded calls from several heavily populated counties to move to an all-mail June 2 election, by mailing a ballot to every registered voter. But the state's efforts to get voters to apply for a mail-in ballot or absentee ballot have gotten traction, with more than 462,000 voters applying for a mail-in ballot and more than 139,000 applying for an absentee ballot, according to administration figures. Republican and Democratic party officials in Pennsylvania have encouraged people to vote by mail amid concerns from county officials who fear the virus will make it difficult to find and staff polling locations. Election officials in various counties say they probably will be forced to operate far fewer polling places than normal. Registered voters can apply online for a mail-in or absentee ballot through May 26. Wolf's administration said it will use federal aid to provide counties with funding to promote mail-in voting, purchase protective supplies for poll workers and hire additional election staff.
Source: 6ABC; 4/22/2020

Killion introduces bill to halt commercial foreclosures and evictions
State Sen. Tom Killion (R-9), of Delaware County, introduced Senate Bill 1116, which would temporarily halt evictions and foreclosures of businesses affected by measures implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Killion’s legislation piggybacks on a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court order suspending residential foreclosures and evictions. “Small businesses are vital to our economy and an essential part of our communities,” Killion said. “The COVID-19 emergency has taken an unimaginable toll on them. Halting business evictions and foreclosures will make it easier for small business owners and the hardworking Pennsylvanians they employ to get back on their feet as we restart our economy.” The bill has bipartisan support with nine Democrats and six Republicans who have signed on as co-sponsors.
Source: Pottstown Mercury; 4/18/2020

Bucks County

Bensalem mailing homeowners Parx checks early
Since the opening of Parx Casino in Bensalem, the township has annually drawn $4.5 million in proceeds from the gambling hall and distributed checks to each homeowner. The checks normally go out in October, “but we figured why not send them out now when people really need it,” said Mayor Joe DiGirolamo. “It should hit the mailboxes by the end of this month.” Bensalem homeowners will each get a $300 check to help pay the bills during the coronavirus pandemic. The shutdown of local companies, restaurants and the casino does more than strangle the economy, DiGirolamo said. Taxes and other business fees allow Bucks County’s largest municipality to function.
Source: Bucks County Courier Times; 4/21/2020

Train whistles to go silent in Middletown
At a recent virtual meeting, Middletown Township supervisors approved an agreement with CSX Transportation that is one necessary step toward establishing a railroad quiet zone through the township. The 1.25-mile quiet zone will prevent trains from blowing their whistles and disturbing nearby residents. Establishing a quiet zone required coordination with SEPTA, CSX, PennDOT and several other organizations, and has taken a long time to pull together, Supervisors Chairman Mike Ksiazek said. In the absence of whistles, the quiet zone requires roadway and sidewalk improvements to enhance safety, including four new gate arms at the Woodbourne crossing, Township Manager Stephanie Teoli Kuhls said. Construction is expected to start in the summer and take 60 days to complete.
Source: Bucks County Courier Times; 4/18/2020

Bucks County reopens public parks
Bucks County officials announced that the county park system will reopen to residents. Bucks County has one of the largest county park systems in Pennsylvania, with more than 4,000 acres. Officials hope that is enough space for residents to safely recreate at least six feet apart. A complete list of park hours, locations and maps is posted on the county website. Public facilities at state-owned parks, including Nockamixon in Upper Bucks, remain closed, but the public can still use walking and hiking trails.
Source: Bucks County Courier Times; 4/16/2020

Doylestown public works department develops sanitation device
The Doylestown Borough Public Works Department has developed a “disinfection rig” to disinfect a variety of public spaces. Phil Ehlinger, borough deputy manager, said the department developed the device that uses a solution of water and 2% bleach to clean playground equipment in borough parks, picnic tables, bus shelters, public bike racks, trash cans, pedestrian push-buttons at traffic signals and public benches. The mobile unit is attached to a landscape trailer and fed by a gas-powered pump. “Hopefully, it helps reduce fears of our residents and re-instills confidence in our shared public facilities when they reopen,” said Ehlinger.
Source: Bucks County Herald; 4/16/2020

Chester County 

County takes steps to purchase West Chester office building
After having leased a six-story building on West Market Street for 11 years, the Chester County Commissioners have opted to begin the process of purchasing the building from its owner, a prolific county commercial real estate developer. The move could save county taxpayers as much as $16 million over the next 10 years, the remaining length of the lease. The commissioners directed the county solicitor’s office and other agencies to formally inform building owner E. Kahn Development that the county intended to exercise its purchase option for the property at 313 W. Market St. According to a timeline laid out by County Administrator Bobby Kagel, if all goes well, the county could take possession of the building in March 2021. The 123,500-square-foot property stands just west of the county’s Justice Center and houses its administrative offices — including the Commissioners’ Office, the Controller’s Office, the Treasurer’s Office, and the Recorder of Deeds Office, among others. If the sale does go through, the property would be removed from the tax rolls, meaning a loss of about $88,000 to the borough, $273,000 to West Chester Area School District, and $38,000 to West Chester Business Improvement District.
Source: Daily Local; 4/20/2020

Former township manager waives hearing in theft case
The criminal case against the former Kennett Township manager who allegedly embezzled millions of dollars in taxpayer funds over a period of seven years has moved to Common Pleas Court. Lisa Moore waived her right to a preliminary hearing on the charges that were filed against her in late 2019, which accused the longtime township employee of using its finances to fund a luxurious lifestyle that included buying designer clothes, taking trips to Europe and splurging on expensive jewelry. Preliminary hearings are proceedings at which the prosecution must present a minimal amount of evidence of the defendant’s connection with an alleged crime, after which the case, if upheld, is held over for trial at the higher court level. Waiving such a hearing and formally transferring it to the trial court in West Chester signals that there may be a non-trial disposition of the case — with Moore possibly entering a guilty plea with either an agreed-upon sentence or asking a judge to formally choose what punishment she should face, or, conversely, seeing the charges dismissed prior to trial by a judge because of flaws in the prosecution’s case. The matter has yet to be assigned to a specific judge.
Source: Daily Local; 4/21/2020

West Chester acts to balance budget and reinstates health insurance benefits for laid-off workers
West Chester Borough officials took action at a virtual meeting to balance the budget and reinstate health care insurance benefits for laid-off employees. The borough was short on cash and in danger of not being able to fully pay April salaries, including for police. “The borough is going underwater this month,” Borough Council President Michael Galey said. Borough Manager Mike Perrone noted that the borough carried a deficit and spent $600,000 more than was budgeted during 2019. Council voted to enact four 2020 budget recommendations: stop all non-essential purchasing; push capital improvements to 2021; defer purchasing new equipment; and if necessary, borrow funds from the Capital Operating Reserve Fund. The borough pads the budget with $400,000 per month in parking revenues. Since parking meters are not being enforced, and with 11 members of the parking authority out of work, the borough has lost a major revenue source. There is currently $8 million in the reserve fund. In voting to pay for health insurance for laid-off workers, the council included a caveat — if an employee does not return after the emergency or stops working for the borough within a certain time period, they will be asked to pay back at least a portion of the cost.
Source: Daily Local; 4/17/2020

Phoenixville Area School District budget and per capita tax notice
Phoenixville Area School District will present and adopt its final budget at a school board meeting on Monday, May 18, at 7 p.m. Visit the district website for information on how to participate, as recent school board meetings have been conducted virtually. Notice is also given that new adult residents are required by law within 12 months after becoming residents or reaching age 18 to notify Richard Fazio, the district’s interim business manager, at 484-927-5020 regarding the district’s per capita tax and occupation tax. Any person failing to comply with the requirements of this notice will be liable, in addition to the tax, for a penalty equal to the tax.
Source: Mercury; 4/21/2020

Coatesville enacts curfew citywide
The Coatesville City government announced the implementation of a mandatory curfew for residents from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. The curfew was a decision made to spare the people of Coatesville from the devastation inflicted upon the African-American population elsewhere in the state and across the nation. “Members of our city council, city management team and emergency management committee, which includes our police and fire chiefs, all raised serious concerns about the health and safety of our community given that residents have continued to congregate in groups of five or more, without masks and less than six feet apart, even though guidelines have been in place,” said Michael Trio, city manager. Council members unanimously supported the emergency ordinance that Trio described as a “soft curfew.” “We anticipate that people will comply,” Trio said. “If someone is unaware of the ordinance, law enforcement members will inform individuals of the ordinance without penalty. Should the need arise, the ordinance can be enforced with a nontraffic citation of up to $200, but we don’t expect that to occur.” About 13,000 residents live in the city. Given the curfew, the city government encourages residents to shop prior to 8 p.m. and to follow Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order and maintain social distance measures. Essential businesses shall remain open, Trio said. For more information on the curfew and other important city notices for residents, visit the city website.
Source: Daily Local; 4/17/2020

Delaware County

Delco to temporarily furlough 400 workers
About one-eighth of Delaware County’s workforce will face temporary unpaid leave because of economic pressures related to coronavirus. About 400 employees in the Delaware County Courthouse and Government Center, out of 3,200 total county employees, will face the temporary leave. “The financial strains that [coronavirus is] creating for every organization, it doesn’t exclude county government,” County Councilman Kevin Madden said. “We also have to be managing for the taxpayer. It’s causing all of us to make difficult decisions.” Various economic stressors on the county include the loss of revenue from the reduction of county services and fees garnered from business activities that have been impacted. In addition, unemployment across the county, state and nation has been at historic highs. The furloughs are temporary. “We are going to lift it as safely as we can,” Madden said. “It depends on how the numbers play out over the next few weeks.”
Source: Daily Times; 4/20/2020

Delaware County Record of Deeds update
The Delaware County Recorder of Deeds has released two new policies. The office is allowing title searches by appointment only in the office. The office has also developed emergency procedures for any business conducted there. If Realtors® are working with clients who have sold homes and need to be able to close on the house they are due to move into, they should let the title company handling the closing know that it is time-sensitive. The title companies have been asked to prioritize their searches, since capacity will be limited.
Source: Delaware County Recorder of Deeds; 4/19/2020

Chester to open bids for water authority sale
Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent declaration of a “fiscal emergency” in cash-strapped Chester City appears to have reignited a dispute about who owns the assets of the Chester Water Authority — and who can sell them. City Council was scheduled to vote April 22 on authorizing commencement of a bid process for those assets during a virtual meeting according to a meeting agenda. But CWA solicitor Frank Catania said there is an injunction in place as part of more than a dozen pending legal actions that would preclude that vote from taking place. The tug of war currently playing out between the city and authority goes back to at least 2017, when Aqua America Inc. first offered to buy CWA for $320 million. Aqua CEO Chris Franklin previously said the company proposed a 10-year moratorium on rate hikes as part of that offer, but CWA rejected the proposal, foreseeing unabated future raises and development of currently protected land. Facing mounting pressure from deficits in recent years, however — particularly those related to mounting pension costs — the city has continued exploring a possible sale to help boost itself out of “financial recovery” status under Act 47. Then came the fiscal emergency declaration last week. One line of a “concise statement of facts” issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development supporting the April 13 declaration appears to assign the CWA to Chester as an “asset” – a determination the authority has staunchly contested in its multiple legal challenges. Selling the utility assets of the CWA could generate millions of dollars in support of Chester’s long-term fiscal recovery, but “a resolution to the litigation related to the sale of authority assets is not imminent and defeat [in court] would result in the loss of a huge source of potential revenue for the city.” The CWA said in a blistering seven-page response to the statement that “the idea that the authority is the panacea to the city’s problems is short-sighted government thinking at its worst” and that selling its assets would be “a counterproductive theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from ratepayers throughout Chester and Delaware counties.”
Source: Daily Times; 4/22/2020

Delco Times editor retires after 38 years at paper
Phil Heron, who served as the top editor at the Delaware County Daily Times for two decades, retired on April 17. He spent 38 years in various roles at the paper. Amid all the changes in news media, he said, the Times’ essential task did not change. “We cover Delaware County, 49 municipalities, 15 public school districts, a slew of private and parochial schools, and a growing cadre of charter schools. That is our mission, to be the eyes and ears of citizens, the traditional watchdog role, keeping tabs on what our leaders are doing with your money,” Heron wrote in his farewell column. “Increasingly, that mission is in danger these days. … Democracy survives in the light of day, provided by vibrant journalism and those souls who practice the craft. I urge you to join us in this mission, and to support this daily endeavor.” No new editor has been announced, and Heron is still listed as editor on the website.
Source: Daily Times; 4/17/2020

Montgomery County

Pottstown online tax-payment system experiencing delays
The Xpress Bill Pay website used by Pottstown Borough to collect online tax payments is currently experiencing heavy usage. The borough's vendor has had to temporarily disable the customer site at various times during the business day, according to an alert issued by the borough. The site is still available during after-business hours, so the best time to access the website is after 7 p.m. The borough has made the decision to extend the borough/county real estate property tax due date for the discount period from April 30 to May 31. Additionally, the tax office will be open for walk-in payments from May 20 through May 23, and from May 27 through May 29. All other due dates will remain in effect.
Source: Pottstown Mercury; 4/17/2020

$60K gift to Pottstown Area School District for Chromebooks
The Foundation for Pottstown Education recently received a $60,000 gift from an anonymous donor in support of purchasing Chromebook laptop computers for Pottstown School District. The Chromebooks will enable students in families currently without computers to work on school enrichment activities online. After reading an article in The Pottstown Mercury, the donor contacted the foundation to work out the details for the gift. The donor did not want Pottstown students left behind due to a pivot to online learning. The donor said, “At some point, Harrisburg needs to fix our very broken school funding system so that zip code does not determine the level of educational resources for children. But it struck me that if Pottstown couldn’t find computers for each household now, the students in Pottstown would not be on an uneven playing field — they wouldn’t be on the playing field at all. It is my hope that this donation will help the district’s efforts to get a computer into every home so that Pottstown can implement distance learning through the current crisis.”
Source: Pottstown Mercury; 4/21/2020

Swamp Pike traffic realignment begins in Limerick
Limerick Township announced that detours for the realignment of Swamp Pike and Lewis Road were set to begin on April 20. The realignment is part of the construction of the $50.1 million, 30-acre, 450-unit Arcadia retirement care facility off Ridge Pike. The realignment includes an extension of Lewis Road from its intersection with West Ridge Pike north, through the development property, to intersect with Swamp Pike in a new traffic circle. According to the statement, "The contractor plans to enact the anticipated detour of Swamp Pike on April 20, with an anticipated completion date of May 8. Detour notices will soon be in place, and motorists who routinely use the Swamp Pike corridor should pay special attention to the detour plan posted on Limerick’s website, Facebook and Twitter accounts."
Source: Pottstown Mercury; 4/17/2020

County grant program receives 1,500 requests
When Montgomery County announced that it would accept applications for grants for small businesses impacted by the spread of the coronavirus, officials knew there would be a big response. Within 90 minutes of the application period opening on April 8, over 600 applications had been received. That prompted the county to announce that it would stop accepting applications for the program by 5:30 p.m. that same day. According to County Commissioners Vice Chairman Ken Lawrence Jr., by the time the acceptance period ended, 1,500 applications had been submitted — requesting a total of $33 million. The MontcoStrong Small Business Grant Program made $1 million available to provide grants of up to $25,000 to eligible small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. The program is being administered in partnership with the Montgomery County Commerce Department and the Redevelopment Authority of Montgomery County. Lawrence said the county hopes to have grants awarded by the end of the month.
Source: Pottstown Mercury; 4/10/2020 

Philadelphia

Home offices won’t replace Philly office towers anytime soon, analysts say
Philadelphia’s regional office sector may well be poised to weather an expected economic crash linked to COVID-19. A new report from real estate consultancy CBRE saw surging demand and rising office rents throughout the end of the first quarter of 2020, which ended shortly after Pennsylvania went into a statewide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The report predicted a short-term recession with the possibility of a modest recovery as early as the third quarter of 2020, with withering losses in retail, hospitality and transportation sectors across the nation. But the CBRE report predicted “office-using employment may be less negatively affected than in recent recessions” in Philadelphia and its suburbs. “The big takeaway is the office market here was staying the course pre-COVID. There was interest in new development, rents were beginning to rise,” said CBRE senior field research manager Joe Gibson. “In the short term, Philadelphia might fare better than other metro regions.” He said the region had a more “mature, diverse” office economy than other regions, compared to those dependent on single sectors for much economic activity. A separate analysis found the city and region had a higher concentration of office tenants with more limited exposure to the impacts of the shutdown, such as those connected to life sciences or health care industries. “Fifteen percent of office tenants regionally were associated with more stable industries,” Gibson said. “I don’t expect the second-quarter numbers to show a tremendous amount of office vacancy.”
Source: Plan Philly; 4/15/2020

Philly families search for a safe place to stay as city quarantine hotel rooms go empty
Some families are finding themselves without options as shelters turn people away. While Philadelphia has leased hotel rooms at the 13-story Holiday Inn for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results, roughly two-thirds of its 150 rooms were unoccupied last week. And families aren’t being admitted at all. When city officials reconfigured the Center City hotel as a quarantine site last month, they made accommodations for short-term stays for homeless individuals that had contracted the virus — not children and their parents. “The quarantine site at the Holiday Inn Express is not homeless housing,” Philadelphia Director of Homeless Services Liz Hersh said in an email. “It is also not suited for families.” In addition to the Holiday Inn, the city has opened two other quarantine sites with the goal of providing a safe place for first-responders who cannot shelter at home. That leaves homeless Philadelphia families caught between a rock and a housing safety net that is strained even during the best of times. While a small percentage of family beds are still available, Hersh said, citywide shelter capacity is down roughly 10% overall as operators have less bed space due to social distancing. Sterling Johnson, a tenant rights lawyer and housing advocate, said Philadelphia does provide separated shelter space for families, but most of those facilities feature “congregant settings” with high potential to become hotspots for coronavirus infections. Johnson said that, between the city’s three existing quarantine facilities and emergency housing funding available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the city could be doing more to help homeless families. City officials said they are “actively pursuing” FEMA General Assistance and Community Development Block Grant funds.
Source: Plan Philly; 4/21/2020

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