Upper Darby’s mayor scheduled an emergency meeting of the town council this Monday to request funding that one official in the mayor’s administration says is necessary to avoid a government shutdown — one that could even jeopardize paychecks on Friday the 11th.
The move is the latest development in a furious three days of politicking and negotiating after the council voted Wednesday to table an ordinance that would have allocated about $20 million in federal money from the American Rescue Plan, or ARP.
Council delayed approval of the funds on Wednesday after a presentation from township Treasurer David Haman suggested that $6 million of ARP money was either already spent or somehow unaccounted for.
The 6-5 vote to postpone consideration of the motion illustrated that the transparency fight has crossed party lines, as three Democrats joined the only three Republicans on the council to approve the delay.
“I feel like the finance committee believes that we are not doing our due diligence as elected officials, as representatives of the residents of Upper Darby and the workers of our township if we allocate funds without knowing what has already happened to the funds,” said Councilwoman Laura Wentz, a Democrat who chairs the finance committee.
“I think that there are errors and mistakes in the accounting of funds that have been going on,” for some time, Councilwoman Meghan Wagner, also on the finance committee, told Broad + Liberty.
“We need clarification and vetting of what those mistakes are. I was told at the council meeting Wednesday night, by Deputy Chief Administrative Officer [Alison] Dobbins that there was some confusion as to where the $20 million in our funds were placed when they were originally received. That’s unacceptable.”
Mayor Keffer did not immediately respond to text and email requests for comment.
Late Friday evening, Chief Administrative Officer Vince Rongione emailed administration officials and council members informing them of the upcoming emergency meeting and letting them know the legally required notice was being handled.
“[P]lease be advised that we will be asking you to consider a very narrow emergency appropriation of the $6 million in lost revenue from the ARPA budget,” Rongione said in the email. “We feel that given all of the debate surrounding this issue this is the best way for the Township to move forward and to ensure the smooth and continued operation of Township services.”
Rongione told Broad + Liberty that “$6 million in lost revenue” is not an explanation that money was actually lost. He said part of the intent of the ARP bill was for the federal government to replace tax revenues that were stunted by the pandemic, and that “lost revenue” is actually a way of describing one of the different ways funding from the ARP bill can be categorized, and is governed by a formula in the federal legislation.
Still, Rongione said the unfolding of events on Wednesday constituted a “surprise attack” and that the council has been “moving the goalposts” on their requests for transparency, including items like full bank statements for various accounts.
Council President Brian Burke rejected those ideas, saying he still doesn’t have the financial information the council has been asking for repeatedly.
“I didn’t have the information as of four o’clock [Friday] afternoon. Now I did receive an email at 7:30 [Friday] night from Mr. Rongione that he has the information [requested], but we didn’t have the information Wednesday night at the council meeting,” Burke said on Saturday.
“Everybody needs to go back to October and read our minutes of the meetings” Burke continued. “They’re online. [The administration says], ‘We’re fine. We’re fine. We’re fine.’ Now he’s telling me we need to — he’s telling council he needs to do this? What happened between October and now?”
The budget concerns dominated the latter half of the town council’s meeting on Wednesday in a debate that was frequently combative and heated.
At the meeting, Township Treasurer David Haman gave a presentation detailing the town’s handling of roughly $20 million in federal funds received from the American Rescue Plan, or ARP.
Haman began by illustrating the many accounts he was tracking — accounts “where ARP money could be” — and pointed to the deposit of about $20 million of ARP funds the township took possession of in July, and then moved to an interest-bearing account.
When that happened, the $20 million in ARP funding was mixed with other funds in an interest-bearing account. But that account balance would begin to drop through the fall months as the township began to pay its year-end bills.
“We get to the end of December, and now there’s only $14,497,000 [and change] at the end of the month in December,” Haman explained. “And I have no other conclusion to draw, except that all of that [remaining] money is ARP money and…and we’re $6 million less [in ARP money] than we started with.”
Keffer and Rongione pushed back.
“The report that was presented by our treasurer was handed out to us just between the meetings started. Like, it just feels like, yeah, — it’s not done in good faith,” Keffer said, adding “it feels like this is an attempt to hijack the process, which I think has been really open.”
“This looks like something that you need to explore and, and answer,” Haman responded later. “You’re about to appropriate $20.5 million. And you might not have $20.5 million. That’s the point. It’s not saying anybody did anything wrong.”
Rongoine also said the treasurer’s report was premature.
“I think that we should actually be giving the council and the public the assurances that the money is there,” he said at the Wednesday meeting. “And to the question and the debate about a single bank account: there was some misunderstanding with council, because council was trying to act outside — or some members of council were trying to act outside of their statutory authority with regard to how they can direct the administration,” Rongione said.
In Rongione’s Friday email, he said the administration was working “very diligently to comply with all Council requests leading up to this meeting.”
Those actions include creating a separate bank account for the $20.5 million in ARP funds as well as producing “all bank statements for all accounts from 2021.”
Burke, meanwhile, says Rongione is creating two competing narratives: that the public should be assured “that the money is there” while also saying a government shutdown and missed paychecks are imminent.
“Are we in financial straits here or are we not?” Burke asked.
Rongione maintains that the council was “playing political games with people’s lives” when it did not appropriate money on Wednesday.
“There was a discussion at that [Wednesday] meeting about the township having $20.8 million in American Rescue Plan funding and another — roughly 2 million, or slightly less than 2 million — of operating cash on hand above and beyond the American Rescue Plan funding. So at that point, council was faced with a choice in full knowledge, ‘Hey, we can either appropriate the American Rescue Plan funding, or we will be very close to running out of operating cash.’”
Wentz says Rongione didn’t lay it out like that until a Thursday call with Council President Burke, and that the transparency issues still remain.
“CAO Rongione tried to tell us that we were OK because there was $22.5 million at the end of December in the bank of accounts — in all of our bank accounts,” Wentz said to Broad + Liberty.
“The problem is $20.8 million of that is ARPA funds, which left maybe $2 million for township funds at the end of December. We had two payrolls — a payroll could be easily 2.4 million per payroll. Still at no point in time, does CAO Rongione alert council that we are in some kind of financial stress or financial concerns. Nothing is mentioned to the treasurer. Nothing is mentioned to us at any of, of the, any of the two council meetings in the month January. We just find out the numbers that we did on February 2nd. And we were only talking about December.”
“So if we were — if he knew we were in financial distress, he never said a word to us until Thursday night when he called president [Burke] to say, we have a problem,” Wentz concluded.
Monday’s meeting is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. at the municipal building at 100 Garrett Road.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports