Local Economy Trumps All Else in 2012

January 2, 2012

Twenty years ago, the governor of Arkansas was preparing his strategy to take on President George H.W. Bush, who was considered almost unbeatable because of his huge popularity following the ground invasion of Iraq. History shows us that Bill Clinton was elected. And Clinton's catchphrase, which has endured for two decades, was simple: "It's the economy, stupid".

Wallets trump everything. That lesson isn't lost on the American public, even 20 years later. The current horrendous approval rating of Congress, hovering just above ten percent, isn't because of the middle east wars, or foreign policy, or childish party bickering, though they all do contribute. It's the economy, stupid, from government de-regulation to Wall Street finagling to taxpayer-funded corporate bailouts to double-digit unemployment.

One of the favorite cliches of journalists describing the economy involves the connection between Wall Street and Main Street. And in Upper Bucks, we are the Main-est of Main Streets. Municipalities like Quakertown, Richland, Milford, and Haycock are barometers for the nation, and, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

No one would mistake Milford Supervisor Bob Mansfield for either Bill Clinton or Bob Dylan, but he spoke for all of the local towns when he described Milford's gameplan for 2012: "We're taking a very conservative approach, and will keep an eye on things." Milford will have no tax increase this year, and may not spend the $760,000 in the budget for open space acquisition.

With decreased income from home sale transfer taxes, and Earned Income Tax revenue tied to employment, every community has tightened its belt. But the silver lining to this conservative approach is that there are no real estate tax increases for Quakertown, Richland, Haycock, or Milford, this year. However, important quality-of-life improvements are still being made. And, with the political squabbling pretty much ended, only the (nationwide) employment issue mars the vision that so many families had when they settled here.

In fact, after almost nine years of writing about Upper Bucks issues, it is a distinct pleasure to be able to start a new year by saying "no news is good news". We have had our bumps and bruises, overcome various mean-spirited and personal-agenda characters, and survived some poor decision-making, but 2012 is dawning with relative peace and tranquility in our towns, and the best community-minded school board in anyone's memory.

The most visible changes are in Quaketown Borough. Long gone are tyranical former police chief Jim McFadden, and disgraced borough manager Dave Woglom. The new-look council, which now focuses on the future rather than waxing eloquent about the past, is presiding over the $1 million Streetscape project that will give the downtown area an attractive, distinctive look. Phase One is already complete, including the new Triangle Park, with antique-style wrought-iron streetlights, a fountain, and signage. 2012 will bring Phase Two: new crosswalks, more street lights, and additional signage. The revitalization effort will hopefully attract new developers, and shops, in the borough.

The town is also starting the redevelopment of the Krupp property into additional parkland, with a new bandshell, as well as looking at the feasibility of redoing the skate facility at Main Street park.

Council President Jim Roberts, the longest-serving member, credits Borough Manager/Police Chief Scott McElree with much of the turnaround, both economically and developmentally. "Scott's insistent prodding stresses that we all must do more with less. That was reflected in the budget process, as we had to really watch how much we were willing to dig into the fund balances. But in the end we did not have to raise taxes or electric rates, while still providing the high level of service that has become the norm. We did have to raise water/sewer rates, but it is minimal, about $8 month.

Our police department is now fully accredited, maintains good morale, and has attained top-notch operating statistics like call response, crime solving, and drug busts. This community is truly safer than it was several years ago."

Richland Supervisor Rick Orloff echoed Milford's Manfield in citing the economy's effects on municipal administration: "Finances dominate everything we do these days. Our biggest expense is labor costs, which we have maintained by attrition, and retaining some early retirees as part-timers. Our taxes will stay level at 9.5 mils, and the belt-tightening resulted in an increase of $400,000 in the Fund Balance reserve, which ended 2011 at $3.2 million. Earned Income Tax revenue has basically been flat for the past four years, which is both good and bad news. No decrease means means no massive unemployment. In the current national and state economic climate, that's terrific. But no increase means that it is difficult to keep up with the ever-rising costs of running a government. As result, the road crew has been one man short, and the police are still not 24/7."

The poor economy, and the sewer moratorium at the Quakertown processing plant, have allowed Richland to use Open Space funds to lock up some tracts that might otherwise have been developed. But Orloff notes that there will be conflicting forces once the economy turns. "Many of our residents are tradesmen. They will be thrilled with the opportunity to again find work, and the resulting payrolls will benefit local businesses. I think the public would welcome the idea of a boost in the local economy, but at the same time there will be push-back about development."

Richland just completed a major renewable energy project that has both fiscal and environmental benefits. In about 10 years, the township will have little or no net electric costs as a result of direct savings on its electric bills, and the sale of renewable energy credits. Veterans Park has been a huge success: movie nights, community days, and sports tournaments have injected several hundred thousand dollars into the area economy, as visiting families spend on hotels, food, and shopping.

Orloff pointed out the best example of local peace and harmony: "In 2001, the supervisors met twice each month from 7PM to midnight; now we meet monthly from 7PM to about 8PM."

Bucolic Haycock is the shy sister to its more contentious neighbors. Hilly terrain, and an abundance of protected parkland, have always restricted development, and 2011 brought the same economic issues as other towns. Supervisor Henry DePue explained "The only Haycock Planning Commission Meeting that was held was the required reorganization meeting in January, 2011. I believe there was only one new home built the entire year. Our projected revenue for 2011 came in a little over what was budgeted. Many homes are still for sale, and real-estate transfer fees are down again this year. The township tax rate will not be increased for 2012, and our budget is up only 2/3rds of a percent, or a total of $4995. No large equipment purchases are planned."

On a bittersweet note, the 50-acre Guenst Property was preserved using the Bucks County's Municipality Grant Allocation Funds. But after six years of working on this preservation project, Fred Guenst died a week before closing. We will all miss you, Fred.