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Biden administration extends forbearance and foreclosure protections

Bucks County
Big developments move forward in Bucks

Chester County
Phoenixville to consider repeal of per capita tax

Delaware County
Media’s open space, parks and recreation survey closes soon

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Lower Merion ranked among best places to live and work from home

Philadelphia County
‘Once-in-a-generation’ anti-poverty plan sends $4.5M to community groups


News Briefs Archive December 17, 2018


General News

William Penn school funding lawsuit goes to trial in 2020
A lawsuit about public-school funding against the state will go to trial in the Commonwealth Court in the summer of 2020. Commonwealth Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer released an order tentatively scheduling trial for two summers from now. This will be the first trial on the issue of how the state funds public education in its 500 school districts since the court originally dismissed the case in April 2015. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed that decision in September 2017. “We are pleased that the court has set a timeline for bringing this case to trial so that legislative leaders cannot continue to postpone and delay,” said Education Law Center legal director Maura McInerney in a prepared statement. “Every day that legislative leaders fail to act is a day that students are deprived of basic resources, and our children who need the most continue to get the least.” At the center of the case are 14 petitioners, including families, associations and school districts, led by William Penn, who claim that the state’s funding system violates the Pennsylvania Constitution, because of underfunding and other disparities that affect lower-income districts. Pennsylvania Senate Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R-25) and Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-28) unsuccessfully argued over the summer that the lawsuit was moot because a new funding mechanism — the fair funding formula signed into law as Act 35 of 2016 — has addressed the original funding scheme that was in place when the lawsuit was first filed in 2014.
Source: Daily Times; 12/10/2018 

State Supreme Court to look at short-term rentals
A case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court may soon clarify whether single-family homes can be used for short-term rentals, such as those offered on Airbnb or HomeAway. The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Slice of Life LLC vs. Hamilton Township Zoning Board on a four-year-old case that originated in the Poconos after a property owner was cited for operating a short-term rental that was an alleged violation of local zoning code. The suit was initiated by neighbors who complained about the boisterous guests. The complexity of the case thus far — a trial court sided with Hamilton Township, while the state’s Commonwealth Court sided with the homeowner and his business — underscores the confusion that local governments face in attempting to regulate home-sharing platforms. Although some cities, such as Philadelphia, have created clear policies about how short-term rentals can operate, many others have struggled to adapt decades-old zoning codes. In the Slice of Life case, the Supreme Court will attempt to decide whether Hamilton’s zoning code was clear enough in banning short-term rentals operating out of a single-family home.
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer; 12/10/2018

Bucks County

Fitzpatrick asks Gov. Wolf to halt Rockhill Quarry operations
U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-8) wrote a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf requesting that “any redevelopment of the Rockhill Quarry be suspended until a more thorough environmental review of the site can be conducted.” The letter comes after several recent developments. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approved the construction of a rock-crushing plant at the quarry after “careful” review of public concerns. The crusher is of key concern to residents near the quarry, which resumed operations in December 2017 after decades of lying dormant. However, on Dec. 5, 2018, activities at the quarry were halted after the quarry notified the DEP that it had found naturally occurring asbestos while “beginning work in new areas.” The DEP says no asbestos material is thought to have left the site. Fitzpatrick noted the recent finding of asbestos: “Unfortunately, the DEP approved the application despite objections from area residents concerned about air quality effects from dust emanation. This is in addition to concerns regarding noise pollution and infrastructure deterioration due to increase traffic flow.” Fitzpatrick sent an earlier letter outlining similar concerns to DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell. Click here for the press release. State Rep. Craig Staats (R-145) also sent separate letters expressing alarm at the “serious potential public health risks” of the asbestos discovery. Staats wrote: “While I am grateful that swift action was taken by DEP to shut down operations at the quarry, I am asking you to please do everything necessary to ensure that work will not resume there until these health concerns have been fully addressed.” DEP inspectors will be meeting with the quarry operators to discuss more detailed investigations at the site.
Source: Buck County Courier Times; 12/5/2018, 12/10/2018 & 12/11/2018 

East Rockhill proposes 19.5 percent tax increase
In October, East Rockhill Township officials had discussed the possibility of a 29 percent tax increase due to continuing litigation with Rockhill Quarry. Township property taxes will indeed increase in the 2019 budget, but only by 19.5 percent. The proposed 2 mill property tax increase would add about $80 to the tax bill of a home assessed at the township average of $40,000. Township Manager Marianne Morano said the township expects to spend about $171,600 on the Rockhill Quarry dispute in 2019. Legal expenses are the primary reason for the projected deficit of $43,000 in the proposed budget — a deficit that will be closed by the proposed tax increase. “The reason for the increase is to protect our residents,” said Supervisor Gary Volovnik. “We would do the same thing regardless of where this was happening in the township.” Supervisor David Nyman said that once legal and zoning battles with Rockhill Quarry end, the township could potentially lower the municipal property tax rate in a future year.
Source: Perkasie News Herald; 12/11/2018 & Bucks County Herald; 12/6/2018 

Telford approves 4.1 percent tax increase
Telford Borough Council unanimously voted to approve a tax ordinance that will increase taxes by 4.1 percent for 2019. The general fund millage will increase by 0.25 mills, bringing the total tax rate to 6.04 mills. Borough Manager Mark Fournier reported that the average homeowner will see a property tax increase of about $34.
Source: Souderton Independent; 12/11/2018 

Yardley to consider fence ordinance for floodplain district
Yardley Borough Council will hold a public hearing on Tuesday, Dec. 18, beginning at 7:30 p.m. to receive comment and public testimony regarding an ordinance that would create new regulations for certain private fences. If enacted, the ordinance would permit fences in Yardley’s Floodplain Conservation District, but restrict “spite fences,” which would be defined as an “unsightly fence that serves no purpose other than injuring or annoying a neighbor.” The meeting will take place at Yardley Borough Hall, 56 S. Main St. A full copy of the proposed ordinance can be viewed at Borough Hall during normal business hours.
Source: Bucks County Courier Times; 12/4/2018

Chester County 

Avon Grove sets $127M max for school construction project
Avon Grove school directors voted on a plan to build a new high school, renovate and convert the current high school to a middle school, and realign the remaining schools, at a cost not to exceed $127 million. School directors approved the Avon Grove High School schematic design plan, which allows the district to enter into the design development phase of the construction project. The millage required to fund a maximum of $127 million for the construction projects has gone down from initial estimates of 2.95 mils to 2.82 mils. The financial impact to Avon Grove taxpayers is estimated to be about $99 per year, based on a home at the median assessed value of $169,600. Realigning the schools would involve Avon Grove Intermediate School serving grades two through five and Penn London Elementary serving kindergarten and first grade. The project is needed, school directors say, because Avon Grove schools are bursting at the seams. The schools now operate at 141 percent of functional capacity and have 31 percent less square footage per student than other Chester County schools. Study halls take place in the auditorium and the school can only accommodate a fraction of the demand for STEM education classes. In addition to a lack of space, Avon Grove High School, built in 1957, and Fred Engle Middle School, built in 1961, have heating, plumbing and electrical issues.
Source: Daily Local; 12/11/2018 

Kennett Township officials hold the line on taxes
There will be no tax increase in Kennett Township. A tax hike last year to pay for emergency services brought upset residents out to several township meetings. But the supervisors’ confidence then that the increase would cover the township’s police force for the foreseeable future seems so far to have been justified. Township Manager Lisa Moore foresees a 13 percent decrease in general fund expenditures from the year before. The 2019 budget, which passed unanimously at the township supervisors’ meeting Wednesday night, foresees general-fund revenues of $4.1 million and expenditures of $3.1 million. Moore said the township saved money because an events coordinator left and they plan on cutting back grant development work to focus on currently applied-for grants. The township also expects some increase in earned-income tax revenue, she said.
Source: Daily Local; 12/10/2018 

Chesco airports get substantial funding for upgrades
Two airports in Chester County received substantial state funding for infrastructure and equipment upgrades that will improve and maintain safety. The two airports are among 26 statewide that received a total of $6 million in state investments for safety upgrades and to expand aviation-related operational and economic opportunities, the Wolf administration announced. The Brandywine Regional Airport in West Chester will receive $150,000 for the design of new hangar site infrastructure, and the Chester County/G.O. Carlson Airport in Coatesville will receive $1 million for the construction of new hangar site development infrastructure and $18,750 to install an airport communications link between aircraft and air traffic control. Included in the grants is $2.2 million in state funding from PennDOT’s Aviation Development Program, which comes from the state’s jet fuel tax, and $4 million from the multimodal fund. The two funding streams leverage $2.1 million in local matching funds. The Chester County projects are part of more than $6 million in state investments allocated to 26 public-use airports across the commonwealth.
Source: Daily Local; 12/8/2018

Delaware County

Upper Darby budget holds line on taxes
The 2019 Upper Darby Township budget, which includes no tax increase, was adopted by a 6-5 vote after a lengthy debate by council. A homeowner with a $108,000 average assessment will pay about $2,260 next year, the same amount as this year. The annual $190 trash fee and $205 sewer fee to homeowners remained the same.  “Given the significant cost drivers facing Upper Darby and many other municipalities, developing a no-tax increase budget was a challenge,” said Mayor Tom Micozzie said. “But I know that many of our township residents are struggling under the weight of existing property taxes, so I worked with our municipal staff members to find opportunities to tighten our belt and identify new revenue sources besides property tax increases. The end result was a fiscally responsible budget proposal that continues to invest in important municipal programs and meets our pension obligations without burdening property owners with another tax hike.” Micozzie noted that the largest increase in expenditures in the budget were for the township’s fire, public works and police departments. He said that new, innovative programs, such as hiring a collection firm to capture delinquent trash and sewer fees, will help bring in new revenue to cover the increased costs in certain areas. In addition, the budget proposes to use $2.2 million of a general fund surplus that is projected to be $6.37 million at the end of 2018.
Source: Daily Times; 12/8/2018 

Nether Providence panel: Demolish Summit School
Nearly three years after Nether Providence Township acquired the former Summit School property, an 11-member study committee has determined the building there is in such poor shape it should be demolished. The township commissioners agreed with that conclusion and authorized the solicitation of bids for razing the structure at the Plush Mill Road site. As to what might happen next with the property, the study committee has recommended: the development of new athletic fields and a playground; the construction of a community center; and possibly the addition of a passive park, bird sanctuary and/or walking trail. The estimated price tag for repairs and renovations of the existing building was pegged at about $3 million.
Source: Daily Times; 12/10/2018

Concord passes budget that keeps tax rates steady
Concord Township has its budget set for 2019. Taxes will remain the same this year at 0.981 mills for those with property in fire-hydrant areas and 0.848 mils for properties outside a hydrant district. The spending plan passed by a 6-1 vote. Voting no was council member Joshua Twersky, who proposed cutting a portion of the township tax burden by 25 percent. His fellow council members disagreed, with some speaking out against his proposal. Twersky said he wanted the general-purpose portion of the budget to be reduced by 25 percent, but Council President Dominic Pileggi said that represented only half of the township’s tax levy, so the proposed cut was actually 12 percent, which would amount to an annual savings of less than $27 for a home assessed at a value of $230,000. Council members Libby Salvucci and John Crossan also said they preferred to keep the taxes where they are so more money could be used for open space acquisition. Council members voted to move some of the general fund balance to other fund areas. Council moved $1 million to the open space fund and another $3.5 million to the capital reserve fund. That $3.5 million, Pileggi said, is earmarked for open space.
Source: Chadds Ford Live; 12/5/2018 

Change comes to Baltimore Pike in Upper Darby
The face of Baltimore Pike in Upper Darby Township is changing. Pizza Hut, at the corner of Baltimore and Oak Avenues, is gone, and the adjacent Burlington Coat Factory is next to fall under the wrecking ball. Burlington was located in an old Penn Fruit supermarket building, known for its oval shape and tower. Demolition of the property began last week to make way for a Wawa convenience store and gas station with six pumps under a canopy. The project was approved by the township in October 2017. The project also includes construction of an unnamed retail store, fronting on Baltimore Avenue, north of the new Wawa. “I’m excited they’re getting started,” Mayor Tom Micozzie said. “The entire block will be redesigned from Oak Avenue to Planet Fitness and 5 Guys. Right now it’s a hodgepodge. This property was always an eyesore. ... This is huge for Upper Darby.” The 11 variances approved by the Upper Darby Zoning Hearing Board on the lots in the C-2 Commercial Zoning District included 85 feet of landscaping on the corner, planting strips along the rear of the property, decorative pavements for pedestrian crosswalks, and a reduction in parking spaces from 188 to 177 near the retail store and fitness center. Officials also specified that service and loading areas not be visible from the street. According to Micozzie, the entire Pizza Hut-Burlington property should be cleared by February or March when the pad site will be turned over to Wawa for construction, expected to start in May or June.
Source: Daily Times; 12/12/2018

Montgomery County

Horsham considers 20 percent tax increase
The proposed $19.3 million 2019 budget for Horsham Township calls for an increase in the real estate tax rate from 1 to 1.2 mills. If approved by council, it would mark the first tax increase for Horsham residents in 16 years. The new rate amounts to a 20 percent increase, meaning a resident with a home assessed at the township average of $180,000 would pay about $216, or $36 more than 2018. Township officials say the increase will go to support the fire tax rate, which was requested by the Horsham Fire Company. Fire officials reported that despite increases in call volume for fire and EMS, revenue has been on the decline. Township Manager Bill Walker said that the fire company had not requested an increase in fire tax funding since 2000.
Source: Public Spirit; 12/11/2018 

Pottstown approves 9.5 percent tax hike
Pottstown Borough Council unanimously approved the 2019 budget with a tax rate of 12.675 mills — a 9.5 percent tax hike. For a property assessed at $85,000, the property tax bill will increase about $93 for a total borough tax bill of $1077. In addition to the property tax increase, the Pottstown Borough Authority voted in October to raise water rates by 5 percent a year for the next three years, adding $27 in water charges to the average user in the borough. The 2019 budget totals just under $50 million, compared to the $54.4 million budget in 2018. Borough Manager Justin Keller reported that the primary reasons for the tax increase are a $1 million obligation to the borough’s pension plans, and tax refunds to large properties that had successfully challenged their property assessments.
Source: Pottstown Mercury; 12/12/2018  

North Penn to extend tax rebate to renters
Members of the North Penn School District school board have decided to expand a tax rebate for low-income residents. The board voted to expand access to the program to a group that is not currently eligible – renters. The school board voted in 2017 to implement a new rebate for seniors or other low-income residents who meet certain criteria, but the number of users and cost of the incentive have come in well below budget. After much discussion, the board opted to maintain the 25 percent rebate level for property owners for 2019-2020, add an identical 25 percent rebate for renters, and remove the cap on the rebate amount. The board directed staff to prepare formal motions including those terms to be ready for approval at a future meeting. Click here for more about the NPSD Property Tax Rebate Program.
Source: The Reporter; 12/6/2018

Telford approves 4.1 percent tax increase
Telford Borough Council unanimously voted to approve a tax ordinance that will increase taxes by 4.1 percent for 2019. The general fund millage will increase by 0.25 mills, bringing the total tax rate to 6.04 mills. Borough Manager Mark Fournier reported that the average homeowner will see a property tax increase of about $34.
Source: Souderton Independent; 12/11/2018


Following a $165K windfall, Kenney cracks down on public land flipping
Mayor Kenney issued a directive to crack down on land speculators and unscrupulous developers, following news reports about no-bid sales and profitable land flips aided by the city’s disjointed process for selling its vacant lots. In a letter to Bridget Collins-Greenwald, commissioner of the Department of Public Property, Kenney wrote that future sales of city-owned lots must include deed restrictions that require developers to follow through with their rehabilitation or construction plans within 18 months. Kenney’s directive was effective immediately. The changes follow an Inquirer and Daily News story that outlined how a childhood friend of a city councilperson was able to make $165,000 over the summer by essentially acting as a middleman between the city and a Baltimore-based developer. The deal was also influenced by an unwritten tradition known as “councilmanic prerogative,” by which Council members defer to one another when it comes to development in their districts. Despite other developers' interest in the lots, the city’s landholding agencies viewed one buyer as the only “eligible purchaser" because of the councilperson’s support, which was needed to get the sale through City Council.
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer; 12/10/2018 

Reports of flawed records and improper sales trigger call for investigation of city land deals
A coalition of activist groups and labor unions is calling on City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart to launch a review of public land sales — and city council's role in facilitating them — following Inquirer and Daily News reports on major flaws in the city's land disposition procedures. The Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities (PCAC), a 62-member group that includes community, labor, disability, faith and urban agriculture organizations, wants Rhynhart to delve into five years of land sales with a focus on how "councilmanic prerogative" may have impacted them at the expense of taxpayers. Under that unwritten tradition, council members effectively have a veto over public land sales in their districts. Nora Lichtash, a member of PCAC's steering committee, said politicization of the process can undermine the city's attempts to professionalize how it sells public property through the city's Land Bank, which was created in 2014. "Publicly held land is not meant to be a land grab for friends of council members who flip the properties for profit, as recently reported by the Inquirer," the PCAC wrote to Rhynhart.
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer; 12/5/2018 

Philadelphia renters win new protections with passage of 'good cause' bill
City council unanimously passed Councilman Curtis Jones’ “good cause” eviction bill, which is meant to protect renters from being suddenly and arbitrarily forced out of their homes. The new protections could go into effect before the end of the month, depending on when Mayor Jim Kenney signs the bill into law. “You saw a unanimous vote because of a year of negotiations,” Jones said of the bill he introduced last October. “Some members would not have voted for the bill without changes.” Jones amended the bill last week to only apply to month-to-month leases, which experts agree are a small minority of the rentals in the city. Even if Jones hadn’t shrunk the bill’s scope, however, it still would not have protected the majority of tenants who face eviction. Most tenants get evicted because they cannot afford their rent, and nonpayment is a “good cause” under the bill’s definition.
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer; 12/7/2018

Report: Tax abatements cost city schools $62M in 2017
Tax abatements and other tax breaks cost the School District of Philadelphia $62 million in 2017, according to a study released Monday. Good Jobs First, a think tank that monitors economic development subsidies, analyzed new abatement disclosure data from 5,600 school districts throughout the country and found that Philadelphia lost the second-highest amount of revenue. At the top of the list was the Hillsboro School District in the western suburbs of Portland, Oregon, which lost $97 million in potential revenue to tax breaks last year. Lee Whack, spokesperson for the Philadelphia schools, said it was not possible to gauge the net impact of the incentives. "Do tax breaks result in increased activity with benefits that outweigh the value of those tax breaks?" he said. "The study doesn't answer that question." The report was compiled as the result of new accounting rules that require municipal governments and school districts to disclose for the first time the value of corporate tax breaks they grant in the name of economic development.
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer; 12/4/2018

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