Bailiwick News - May 20, 2020

Calling bullshit. May 18 State College Borough Council meeting and May 19 COG Executive Committee meeting. Non-fiction.

Image above: COG Executive Committee at Zoom, screenshot May 19, 2020

Despite April Council request, staff presented no budget-cutting options to Borough Council in May

At Borough Council's April 20 meeting, Finance Director Dwight Miller presented information showing COVID impacts of negative $1.7 million from increased expenses and lost revenue by the end of May, projecting lost revenue from trash ($250,000 shortfall), sewer and water service fees ($320,000 shortfall), and parking fees ($729,000 shortfall) but not estimating earned income or local services tax losses.

At that April meeting, Councilman Peter Marshall acknowledged Miller's presentation and then asked Miller to prepare budget-cutting options for presentation to Council at the May meeting, so that Council and the public could begin to grapple with the financial issues. 

Miller stated he and Assistant Borough Manager Roger Dunlap would prepare budget-cutting options for Council review at the May meeting.

However, there was no budget-cutting options review listed in the May agenda when it came out last week.

When asked if there would be an addendum, or if the discussion had been cancelled or postponed to a future Council meeting, Miller responded:

"It is too early in the recovery phase to fully understand the financial impact to the Borough.  Because the State College economy is largely dependent on the activities of Penn State University, the Borough cannot fully assess the impact and make prudent decisions until the University makes an announcement about its plans for the fall. Staff is working on best- and worst-case scenarios related to the financial impact and will share them with Council in the near future."

However, at the May 18 meeting, Miller presented a table showing an already confirmed gap of $573,000, without counting the shortfalls in water, sewer and trash revenues he had estimated in his April report, which will be available in firm numbers after the second quarter ends on June 30.

I call bullshit.

Penn State has already directed all institutional units to prepare budget-cutting plans for 5%, 10% and 15% revenue-loss scenarios. 

There is no good reason for the Borough Finance Department to have blown off Mr. Marshall's April request and not produced similarly-scaled budget-cutting plans in time for the May 18 Council meeting. 

The missing money from parking, water, sewer and other fees and taxes is not going to magically reappear at the end of June. Losses and shortfalls will be brought into sharper focus with more financial data, but the sooner Borough Council and the public begin to grapple with the predicaments, the better.

Borough Council approved DCNR grant application for Action Sports Park at High Point Park

Throughout July and August 2016, dozens of distraught residents of Greentree Neighborhood spoke at Borough Council hearings on a proposal to build an Action Sports Park (ASP) in Orchard Park.

Speakers noted the low level of public interest in the project (Patti Thor of Greentree Neighborhood Association noted that only 52 out of 4,000 Centre Region Parks and Recreation survey respondents in 2008 said they were interested in an Action Sports Park [1.3%]). Most neighborhood speakers urged Council to reject the proposal, citing anticipated effects on flooding, noise, light pollution, crime and policing pressure, budget and tax impacts , and property value impacts. One speaker said nearby skate parks drop property values by up to 40%.

A handful of project supporters also spoke.

In response to these citizen objections, Council pulled the ASP project out of the Capital Improvements Plan for 2017-2021.

After a couple of years of committee discussion in several municipal and regional committees, the ASP project reappeared in the CIP for 2020-2024 adopted during the 2019 budget cycle, with a line item of $150,000 to come from "various sources."

This week’s May 18 Borough Council agenda asked Council to authorize Borough Manager Tom Fountaine to execute an agreement with DCNR to apply for a grant to develop the ASP in High Point Park. The agenda noted that, because the engineering estimate for the ASP is $500,000, if the DCNR gave State College a $300,000 grant, the Borough would be "responsible" for the other $200,000. 

I asked Council to remove the item from the consent agenda for further discussion and then to vote down the measure, on grounds of unaffordability given the Borough's increasingly precarious budget situation.

At the May 18 meeting, Councilman Peter Marshall requested the item be removed from the consent agenda for discussion. During discussion, Fountaine told Council that if DCNR awards State College the requested state taxpayer funds, the Borough Council at that time would be able to assess the budget situation and the status of private fundraising efforts. If the $200,000 local contribution wasn't available at that point, the Borough could decline the DCNR grant and not proceed with the project.

After that brief discussion, Council members voted to approve the resolution, six in favor (Barlow, Myers, Lafer, Engeman, Marshall and Behring in favor, Murphy absent).

I call bullshit.

In recent years, many Council members have repeatedly played at being fiscally responsible leaders - righteously indignant about rising costs and rising taxes. Then come vote time, they play at being pandering spendthrifts, unquestioningly supporting every staff-proposed program and capital project. Severe, selective amnesia taking over between their public statements about restraint and profligate budget votes.

The mechanism works like this. Early in the process, they refer to each new program or project proposal as "just a study," "just an exploratory committee," "just a prioritized wishlist," "just a grant application," and similar minimizations.

Later, when the study is completed, or the exploratory committee makes a funding request, or a wishlist get approved in a budget, or a grant is awarded, the same Council members turn around and say "Well, we asked for the study/grant/proposal, and it’s in the budget, so now we have to appropriate local funds for the project."

They rely on public amnesia about government two-facedness. And they're absolutely right to rely on public amnesia, because public amnesia is extremely reliable.

Time will tell if a) DCNR awards the grant and b) Council at that time appropriates $200,000 in public funds for the project, or instead recognizes the dire financial straits we’re all in, and cancels the project.

Borough Council approved Climate Action and Adaptation Plan moving forward 

Centre Region Council of Governments Sustainability Planner Pam Adams gave State College Borough Council a presentation on Centre Region greenhouse gas emissions. Adams commended Borough Council for its internal actions (since Resolution 944 of 2007) to reduce energy use and cut energy costs through retrofits and upgrades of municipal buildings and vehicle fleets, and presented a chart purporting to show how the regional governments can work together to get local homeowners, landlords, business owners and commuters to cut fossil-fuel emissions by 45% in the next ten years. 

After Adams’ presentation, Council members agreed to continue moving the CAAP project forward.

I call bullshit. The plan has no substance, and more importantly, can't have substance. 

Adams acknowledged that Penn State's emissions were not included in the Centre Region greenhouse gas inventory. Council members had a brief discussion about Penn State, noting that Penn State allegedly has its own emissions-cutting plan, and expressing interest in inviting someone to come talk to Council about Penn State's emissions plans.

But Councilwoman Theresa Lafer also pointed out that Penn State officials have never, in the past 12+ years of public discussion on energy and climate issues in committees and public forums, been willing to make public commitments, speculating that perhaps it's because they don't know what their plans are, and in any case, they demonstrably don't want to be held accountable for achieving specific goals on specific timeframes.

I think Penn State lies in its energy and emissions reports by underreporting energy use and emissions volumes. There's no mechanism for independent third-party verification of their reporting, and no appetite or staffing levels at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection or any other state agency to verify corporate reporting even if there were a mechanism.

So when Penn State officials claim to have reduced energy usage in the past couple of decades, despite massive build-out, I don't believe them. I think they're playing shell games with coal and natural gas comparisons that elide wellhead to smokestack figures, and playing shell games with on-campus to off-campus energy generation figures, always in the direction of minimizing the scope of Penn State’s institutional environmental footprint. 

Two, I'm among those who believe that climate is far too complex to be understood by human scientists, much less addressed constructively by human politicians. In Dmitri Orlov's phrase, "climate is a largely autonomous (no independent variables except the sun, which is itself unpredictable) highly nonlinear (the effects are not exactly proportional to their causes) time-variant (never responds quite the same way twice) system." See The Global Warming Apocalyptic Cult, February 21, 2020.

Instead, my personal drive to protect and improve local watersheds, agricultural soils and skillsets, and reduce local pollution and fossil fuel energy dependency (including the fight against Penn State's expansion of the West Campus Steam Plant and its associated increased pollution emissions) is about improving the immediate local survival odds and medium-term thriving opportunities of the local population. 

Others are motivated by "saving the planet," and when I can make common cause with them, I do. But saving the planet isn't what drives me. Making State College a relatively self-sufficient, water- and food-secure, healthy, comfortable place to live for the people who live here, is.

Third, a reader pointed out that, beyond the operational energy usage and constant expansion of building and parking footprints at the university, "there is no way to mitigate 100,000 people traveling here from who knows where, tailgating, and driving back to wherever they came from. All the bikes in the world aren't going to offset that impact. And all the energy usage and related impacts such as [Penn State football tourists] not recycling. As usual, the biggest impact is the one that is ignored."

The COG Climate Action and Adaptation Plan should be thrown in the paper recycling bin, and formation of the associated steering committee should be scrapped as a waste of government time and money.

Proclamations and resolutions by Mayor and Council who are betraying the trust of the electorate

At the May 18 Borough Council meeting, Mayor Ronald Filippelli announced four proclamations, in honor of National Police Week, National Public Works Week, Immigrant Heritage Month and Men’s Health Month. Those were followed by Borough Council adoption of two resolutions, one "condemning Racist and Xenophobic Hate and Bias during the COVID-19 Pandemic" and one "in support of State College Area School District Graduating Seniors."

I call bullshit. 

The only way for Borough Council to demonstrate a commitment to the wellbeing of police officers, public works workers, immigrants, men, Asian-Americans and graduating high school seniors - and everyone else who lives, works and studies here - is to be sensible stewards of public resources, including our tax dollars and the essential workers and public services infrastructure those tax dollars buy us. 

Borough Council's voting habits - blindly endorsing just about every budget increase demanded by staff at the Borough and at COG without reference to tax and debt burdens on taxpayers, or the difference between essential public workers like firefighters and luxuries like new parks - demonstrate that they have no such commitment to the wellbeing of those they claim to be interested in supporting.

COG Executive Committee - All hail self-reappointed dictators for life!

The COG Executive Committee is currently engaged in a power grab, taking advantage of the COVID-19 emergency situation to cut the rest of the General Forum legislators out of decisionmaking on non-emergency-related issues. The power grab was accompanied on May 19 by a money grab by the Centre Region Parks and Recreation Authority.

Some of the background and the May 19 voting report below.

The COG website as of 9 p.m. on May 19 included the following 2020 meeting records for General Forum and Executive Committee:

  • General Forum Agendas: Jan. 27, Feb. 24, March 16 special meeting, and March 19 notice cancelling March 23 meeting

  • General Forum Minutes: Jan. 27 only

  • Executive Committee Agendas: Jan. 21, Feb. 18, March 17, April 7 (Special), April 21, May 19

  • Executive Committee Minutes: Jan. 21, Feb. 18, March 17, April 7

The March 16 General Forum Special Meeting agenda makes no mention of transferring General Forum power to the Executive Committee; the only listed item was the appointment of new Executive Director Eric Norenberg. 

There are no minutes from any General Forum Special Meeting held March 16 or March 17 posted at the COG website.

But in the text of the March 19 General Forum cancellation notice and other subsequent records, outgoing-Executive Director Jim Steff reported that General Forum members had - at some time on March 16 or 17 - unanimously adopted a resolution conferring emergency powers on the Executive Committee, through a declaration:

“that the Centre Region Council of Governments General Forum hereby authorizes the Executive Committee to act on its behalf except for decisions involving a unanimous vote of the General Forum for the period of time beginning March 17, 2020, and ending Thursday, April 30, 2020. The General Forum unanimously endorses that this resolution may be extended beyond April 30, 2020, as the Executive Committee deems necessary.” 

At the April 7 special meeting of the Executive Committee, new COG Executive Director Eric Norenberg informed the members that

"after the successful passage of the initial declaration, it was learned that the language as currently written, required the Declaration to be renewed weekly. He added that under the advice of the COG Solicitor it was suggested that wording be written to include that the Declaration of Disaster Emergency would remain in effect until the Governor of Pennsylvania ends the disaster emergency declaration for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

Patton Township Supervisor Betsy Whitman (who is not the Patton Township representative to Executive Committee, which is Elliot Abrams) then proposed an addendum:

"STILL FURTHER, we authorize officials of the Centre Region to act as necessary, at times making time sensitive critical decisions to meet the current demands of this potential emergency, namely: by the employment of temporary workers, by the rental of equipment, by the purchase of supplies and materials, and by entering into such contracts and agreements for the performance of public work as may be required to meet the emergency, all without regard to those unnecessary constraint from time-consuming procedures and formalities such as open and transparent meetings of elected officials normally prescribed by law, mandatory constitutional requirements excepted." 

The Executive Committee approved the addendum 5-1 (“Yes” votes by Elliot Abrams (Patton), Jesse Barlow (State College), Danelle Del Corso (Halfmoon), Nigel Wilson (Harris), and Anthony Fragola (College); “No” vote by Steve Miller of Ferguson Township), and then ratified the updated emergency powers resolution unanimously.

This week, at the May 19 Executive Committee meeting, the fourth agenda item was addressing an "extension of authority to act on behalf of the general forum during the COVID-19 public health emergency." 

Norenberg oriented committee members, stating that since the "yellow" status of Centre County restricts gatherings of more than 25 people, the committee had the option to extend its authority.

Norenberg also said that the committee had the option to reconvene General Forum through a Zoom meeting, which, while presenting technical and logistical challenges, was feasible.

Norenberg suggested that the committee move forward through the agenda and then come back to the question, because some of the subsequent items on the agenda could affect the decision about whether or not to reconvene General Forum.

Executive Committee Chair Elliot Abrams quickly replied, "Or we could have a motion made now and get it over with," and called for a motion.

State College Councilman Jesse Barlow immediately moved to extend the Executive Committee's special authority and keep General Forum out of session "until June 16 or until the Executive Committee deems necessary." 

Barlow's wording completely ignored the text in the original two resolutions that coupled the end of the Centre Region power transfer to Governor Wolf’s ending the disaster emergency declaration for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Halfmoon Township Supervisor Danelle Del Corso promptly seconded Barlow's motion. 

There was no discussion, and about 30 seconds after Barlow's motion, the committee unanimously voted to cancel the May 25 General Forum meeting and keep its own special powers in place indefinitely.

[Later in the meeting, during a discussion of hazmat team funding with Fire Chief Steve Bair, Abrams announced sua sponte that the June 22 General Forum meeting is also cancelled.]

Centre Region Parks and Recreation Authority Construction Loan Modification

COG Administrative Office Manager Scott Binkley then introduced agenda Item Five, "endorsement" of a loan amendment for the Whitehall Road Regional Park construction loan, and read my submitted comment into the record.

As reported previously, I asked the COG Executive Committee to refer the vote on extending the Whitehall Road Regional Park loan to the full General Forum for a unit vote. I also urged General Forum members - especially the State College delegation - to vote to direct the Parks Authority to immediately prepay the balance of the loan back to Fulton Bank and cancel the project. I cited the relevant section of the loan contract, and argued that cancelling the project will protect 100 acres of publicly-owned farmland for food production and water conservation uses, while saving regional COG taxpayers about $6.2 million in principle and interest payments over the next 10 years, before cutting a single existing public service. I also asked that individual legislator votes be recorded and minutes of the vote be kept, so that voters can hold legislators accountable for their votes at election time.

After Binkley read my comment into the record, Norenberg invited COG Finance Director Joe Viglione to give a presentation about financing options offered by the lender, Fulton Bank, and considered by the COG Finance Committee.

Before Viglione could begin speaking, Halfmoon Township Supervisor Del Corso interjected to make a motion that the Executive Committee accept the staff recommendation and endorse extension of the construction loan. Ferguson Township Supervisor Steve Miller seconded Del Corso's motion.

Viglione's presentation included the observation that staff recommended the loan be "endorsed" by COG representatives as done in 2017, rather than voted on as a "full refinancing" as "typically is done," and concluded with the comment that, once approved by the committee, the Centre Region Parks and Recreation Authority would act to execute the loan modification at its Zoom meeting Thursday, May 21.

No one on Executive Committee wanted to discuss the issue or my public comments on it, Abrams called the question, and the committee - including Del Corso - voted unanimously to "endorse" the loan modification.

I call bullshit.

First, the Executive Committee vote extending its own emergency powers following Centre County's transition from "red" to "yellow" status is illegitimate. COG has the technical capacity to manage large Zoom meetings; General Forum should be reconvened online May 25. 

There's a good reason for sunset clauses on power transfers. It's to prevent power grabs like this, by people whose power has been increased by a state of emergency.

Second, the Executive Committee's vote on the WRRP loan is illegal, because the WRRP loan is not an emergency issue subject to the committee’s special COVID powers, and the WRRP loan is a matter that must - by law, under COG articles of agreement - be voted on unanimously by all participating municipalities.

Financial obligation votes such as the WRRP loan are decisions requiring a unanimous votes of the General Forum, so they're specifically excluded from the special powers of the Executive Committee held during the COVID emergency, as conferred by the General Forum. 

Even the looser language of the April 7 amended emergency powers resolution defines the scope of the emergency powers as including those that "may be required to meet the emergency." Borrowing money to build a regional park is not a measure in any way related to meeting the COVID emergency.

Third, framing the vote as an "endorsement," rather than a "full refinancing" is a rhetorical trick used in May 2017, and being used again now, to reduce the implied level of responsibility General Forum members bear for their votes, by suggesting that the Parks Authority has its own full taxing authority, and General Forum members stand in a subordinate position, simply "endorsing" decisions made by the Parks Authority.

This is a false framing. The Parks Authority has zero taxing authority, and General Forum members bear full responsibility for each vote they cast to encumber their taxpayers' money, whether to establish a paid firefighting force, or build costly luxury park construction projects, or any other government expenditure.

Fourth, Del Corso was not eligible to make or second the motion on the WRRP loan, or even vote on it, because she represents Halfmoon Township. Halfmoon is not a participant in the regional parks program; its taxpayers do not fund regional parks  capital projects and have no financial "skin in the game;" and its representatives are therefore ineligible to move, second or vote on financial decisions related to regional parks programs.

So Del Corso's motion and her "Yes" vote were invalid. Procedurally, she should have recused herself from the entire agenda item.

The Parks Authority should not proceed with its execution of the loan agreement at its May 21 Zoom meeting, due to the improper actions of the Executive Committee yesterday, and the matter should be put on hold until such time as the General Forum reconvenes. 

Representatives of taxpayers with financial skin in the game must be asked for, and individually give or withhold their voluntary, informed consent, regarding the formal recommitment of $6.2 million in tax revenue over the next 10 years, from the taxpayers of the five municipalities that are legal parties to the regional parks program, to build a 56th public park in the Centre Region and add 2-3 soccer fields to the regional soccer field inventory.

I also call bullshit on Fulton Bank loan officers extending credit to municipalities during a state of emergency when the representative government is out of session. There's a good reason for sunset clauses on financial contracts like loan agreements. The financial circumstances of borrowers changes over time, as do the political representatives elected to office by voters, and the constituent views they are elected to represent.

Case in point: small towns like State College that were laboring under high debt burdens and rising costs for essential public services before COVID-19, are falling deeper in the hole now, confronting large revenue losses because of COVID-related economic damage.

And there are many current members of Borough Council, and General Forum, who were not in office in 2001 when the regional parks plan was hatched, or 2011 when the loan originated, or the intervening years as the plans and loan contracts were repeatedly modified.

Their voices should be heard and their votes should count.

The Centre Region Parks and Recreation Authority, backed by increasingly overstretched taxpayers in the Centre Region, is not credit-worthy. So Fulton Bank shareholders should be extremely skeptical of the risk assessments being conducted by loan officers on their behalf.

A special note to readers who are not elected local representatives or government administrators

As long as it's cool with voters for elected representatives to do expensive, unethical and illegal things, they'll keep doing them. 

Our institutions at all levels are failing us, but too few of us are giving the power-grabbers and looters any reasons to stop grabbing power and looting.

If you’re upset about what they’re doing, raise hell about it. 

And if the hell that you raise disappears into social media feeds and email inboxes and phone conversations, keep raising hell in as many new, different, less ignorable ways as you can, until things start changing.