POSTED: 01/20/16, 1:22 PM EST | UPDATED: ON 01/20/2016
Originally posted by The Reporter
FRANCONIA >> Holding quarterly public meetings to review the township’s finances, along with other moves including posting financial information on the township website, gives all 13,000 residents of the municipality a chance to review the numbers, ask questions and make suggestions, which is a lot better than adding two residents to a township committee would have been, township officials said at the Jan. 18 Franconia Township Board of Supervisors meeting.
“All the residents are part of the process, not just a select few,” Township Manager Jon Hammer said following the meeting.
“You want to be as inclusive and transparent as possible,” Hammer said during the meeting.
“We’ll be able to solicit their input and transfer information to them,” he said. “I can’t think of anything that’s more transparent.”
Some residents, though, responding at the Jan. 18 meeting to the announcement at the Jan. 4 reorganization meeting that the financial information meetings will be held, but that the township will not be adding any members of the public to the group of township staff that reviews and advises on financial matters, questioned the township’s commitment to inclusiveness and openess.
The first meeting is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 2, at the township building.
That’s not a convenient time for many people, resident Ed Tosten said.
“For a working family, 4:30 in the afternoon is the busiest hour of the day,” Tosten said.
“You think you’re going to have a crowd here at 4:30 in the afternoon?” Tosten said. “Not a smart move.”
The meeting time and place will vary to attempt to provide times that all residents can attend, board Chairman Grey Godshall said.
“We’re mixing it up at different times and different locations,” he said.
Later in the meeting, Godshall again addressed the question, saying, “I guess 4:30 was a bad time to have the first one, but I promise you the next two will be later.”
Resident Gerald Thiel said the township has had a budget committee for several years to help create the annual budget and asked that members of the public be added to that committee.
The township manager and staff create the budget, which has then been reviewed by two board members before going to the full board, board member David Fazio said.
“I don’t call that a budget committee,” Fazio said.
The manager is responsible for creating the budget, Hammer said, which under state law is then publicly posted and reviewed before the board’s vote.
“The law is set up for people to be able to participate in that process,” Frank Bartle, township solicitor, said.
Hammer and Godshall also said much of the budget goes to costs the municipality has little or no control over.
“There’s not a whole lot of discretionary money out there,” Hammer said.
“I like the idea we’re having quarterly meetings and opening it to anybody who wants to be involved,” resident Bonnie Miller said.
She said she was surprised, though, to read in a news article that the idea of adding members of the public to the finance group had been dropped and wondered why residents who had volunteered and been interviewed for the group were not told about that decision.
“That should have been handled a little bit differently, don’t you think?” Miller said.
“It’s OK to change your mind. It’s OK to go in a different direction,” Miller told the board. “There was no communication of a change of mind.”
She also noted the list of appointments made at the 2016 reorganization did not include any new appointees.
“It’s the exact same people doing the exact same thing” as in the 2015 appointments, Miller said.
Godshall said that’s because there were no vacancies and the people previously on those committees and boards were willing to continue on.
Resident Tara Gray said the idea of sharing more with the residents is welcome, but there is a lot of mistrust from things that were done in the past.
Resident Joel Hackman pointed to requests for a Community Advisory Council, members of the public being added to the finance committee and the creation of a proposed new community day as examples in which the board’s initial response seemed to be favorable, but then faded.
“Eventually, it’s tabled and it ends up dying,” Hackman said. “People are putting a lot of time and energy into things that don’t ultimately come to pass.”
The community day could still happen, Godshall said, but it has to first go to the Franconia Parks & Recreation Board.
“I’m not telling you what to do or how to do it. I’m just telling you what I’ve observed,” Hackman said. “You make participation extremely difficult.”
After laying off 10 township employees, including four full-time and two part-time police officers, and raising property taxes 19 percent for the 2015 budget, the township says it has corrected years of deficit spending that was masked by improper transfers from restricted-use funds, created a five-year plan, added financial controls and reduced long-term debt, leaving the township with a safe community with lower tax bills than in comparable communities and no municipal tax hike for 2016.
“There’s a very good financial story to tell here,” Hammer said following the Jan. 18 meeting. “It’s a tremendous community, which is why people want to move here.”
Budget and actual expense information for the 2015 general fund, posted on the township’s website, shows the fund ended the year with $171,488.29 more income than expenses, compared to the $18,476.73 net income that had been projected, he noted.
The $5,745,160.25 of general fund revenues puts the township at 108.58 percent of the $5,291,187.25 of budgeted income. The $5,573,671.96 of general fund expenses is 105.71 percent of the $5,272,710.52 that was budgeted.