In a lively and occasionally contentious townhall forum Wednesday night at the Lower Merion Academy, candidates for the Ward 9 and 13 seats on the Lower Merion Township Board of Commissioners engaged in wide-ranging debate, finding room for disagreement over not only the issues but their constituent facts as well.
The incumbent Democrats and insurgent Republicans diverged over:
- The rate at which the township is indebting itself: Barson said it will borrow another $40 million over four years; McGuire maintained that figure doesn't take into account the bonds the township will pay back.
- The likely total square footage of commercial development in the City Avenue rezoning proposal: Kaufman consistently cited 12 million square feet, while Manos said the figure is estimated to be 3.4 million.
- Details of the Ardmore Transit Project, and the various positions they have or haven't taken in the past.
In addition to basic facts, an area of particularly spirited debate was the Workers Association agreement the board ratified last month. Kaufman and Barson took issue with its sick-day allowance.
Kaufman, a physician, said "we've negotiated a contract that is far out of line" with what is available to workers in private industry. Barson added that "to leave in a contract 60 paid sick days per year" is inexcusable in "today's world."
Manos countered that the 60-day figure is misleading: each worker, he said, gets only 10 short-term sick days, but has 50 days of long term leave available to them in event of a serious illness. And McGuire reiterated that the contract, taken as a whole, was a favorable one. "It was a great deal for the township and a decent deal for the workers," he said.
Barson: "What are we going to have to cut back in 10 years?" Manos: Nothing.
Manos added that, had the union chosen not to negotiate at all, which was within their rights, the default agreement would have netted them an additional $1.7 million. Furthermore, he said, the new contract amounts to, on average, only a 50 cent per hour pay raise for each employee over the next four years.
The debt issue also animated the candidates. The Democrats defended the efficacy of the township's spending—emphasising the services its residents receive and the popularity of projects like the Cynwyd Heritage Trail—and pointed to their triple-A bond rating as evidence that their financial house is in order.
Kaufman and Barson pointed to the sheer size of the township's obligations. They cited the growth of the debt in the last decade—"It went from $56 million at the end of 2003 to $112 million at the end of last year," Barson said—and said that its impact is already being felt.
This fiscal year, Barson said, 16.7 percent of the budget will go towards managing the debt. Kaufman suggested that such a burden could, eventually, affect Lower Merion's ability to provide basic services.
"What are we going to have to cut back in 10 years?" he asked.
Nothing, argued Manos. He said that borrowing money for intelligent infrastructure spending ultimately increases property values, and so is justified. He added that considered against the aggregate market value of its properties, Lower Merion's debt is small.
On the City Avenue rezoning proposal, the candidates each staked out slightly different positions.
In Ward 13, Barson offered tentative support, and added said that while a comprehensive plan isn't necessary, the township should form a master plan like the one in Bryn Mawr to guide this and future development plans. McGuire said he doesn't have a firm position, but is simply trying to find common ground between residential and business interests. He also accused Barson of misleading voters on his position, saying his opponent suggested he had a "secret agenda" that may include a casino.
In Ward 9, Kaufman outright opposed the plan. He suggested a casino is a possibility for the site and emphasized its unpopularity among residents. "I can count the people who have even lukewarm support for this on one hand," he said. Manos meanwhile accused Kaufman of using scare tactics and suggested he consider a career as a "fiction writer," but didn't commit to any position.
There were also agreements. Each candidate expressed support for the ongoing Ardmore Transit Project—though Barson and Kaufman did so in the context of criticizing the board's management of it—and Democrats and Republicans agreed that addressing traffic should be a greater board priority and that commissioners meetings are too long.
"I don't know that we can do much about it, though," admitted Manos, summing up the lengthy remarks on the subject.