Upper Darby Township Council approved an ordinance Monday night to allocate $6 million in federal funds for upcoming payroll expenses, thereby avoiding what some in the township were saying could have been a government shutdown.
The vote temporarily allays concerns that paychecks could bounce for township employees, but does little to quell a fight in which some on council accuse the mayor of hiding financial details, while the mayor has accused council of using employees as “pawns” in a political chess game.
The $6 million approved at the emergency meeting was broken away from the full $20 million allocation the township received from the federal American Recovery Plan Act, or ARP.
An effort to pass the entire $20 million — which included other line items such as gun violence prevention and stormwater improvements — failed last Wednesday after a contentious council meeting in which many members alleged Mayor Barbarann Keffer’s (D) administration was stonewalling on financial transparency requests.
Monday night’s vote passed 10-1, with only Councilman Brian Andruszko (R) voting no.
“It was never my intention to vote against township employees being paid,” Andruszko said in a statement. “I had planned to make a motion to amend the ordinance, following the vote, in the range of $3M to ensure there was money to cover payroll for the township for the next few weeks.”
Despite the lopsided vote, the meeting signaled that the broader fight was not finished.
Councilwoman Meghan Wagner (R), one of the group calling for more financial information from Mayor Keffer and Chief Administrative Officer Vince Rongione, made a motion asking the council to approve an investigation into the administration.
That motion was dropped but will likely be revived. Wagner was advised that the idea needed to be put on a public meeting notice to be certain that it would be in full compliance with Pennsylvania’s sunshine laws.
Wagner’s push for an investigation came despite a pledge from Keffer for an audit.
“Because we take the concerns of the public and Council seriously, we are engaging an independent, third-party forensic accountant to examine the township’s financials over the last few months, and, in fact, the last few years,” Keffer said at the meeting, and also in a press release.
At last week’s Wednesday meeting, Treasurer David Haman gave a brief presentation that raised questions as to whether some of the $20 million in ARP funding had already been spent or allocated in some other fashion without council’s approval.
“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,” Haman said at the end of his presentation.
After Haman’s presentation, a bipartisan group of council members voted to table the ordinance after heated discussion. Keffer and Rongione characterized the presentation as a “surprise attack,” that was not in good faith.
Monday night, Wentz said she had proof that ARP money had been spent or moved without council approval but didn’t go further in backing up those claims.
Keffer and Rongione had tried to quell those accusations earlier in the evening, when they presented a letter from a trust fund stating that the full $20 million was accounted for and residing in a single, isolated account.
Meanwhile, Andruszko says he’s concerned that the township may have already violated the federal ARP law.
“As stated by Councilwoman Wentz at Monday’s meeting, the federal government has put a limit of $10 million to be allocated to revenue replacement. Should $6.3 million of the ARP funds have already been spent, allocating $6 million more would put us above that $10 million threshold, putting the township at risk of financial penalties from the federal government and potentially jeopardizing our second round of $20 million in ARP funds,” Andruszko said in a statement to Broad + Liberty.
“Given my financial background, I felt it was fiscally irresponsible to allocate $6 million, potentially putting this township at risk,” Andruzsko continued. “I also could not vote to provide discretionary funds to this administration until transparency concerns have been fully addressed. Given the CAO’s request for an additional $4 million in funding above the townships payroll obligation at last night’s emergency meeting begs the question: what else is not getting paid?
The budget battle emerged because township revenue is heavily dependent on real estate taxes, and many of those monies won’t start coming in until March. Typically the township has been able to cover any gaps by using a financial tool called a tax revenue anticipation note. But because the township has not had an audit in recent years, it would pay a higher price than normal for that kind of loan.
Nearly 75% of the meeting was public comment, and the room seemed evenly split between supporters of both the administration and the council transparency group.
Standing out in the public comment section was Gary Merron, who previously served as finance director for the township. Merron resigned under protest, however, last September.
“This particular cash crisis is just the first in what I fear will be a continuing parade of management mistakes if action is not taken,” Merron said. He also alleged that Rongione was “unfit” for his role, claiming that the current crisis was a direct result of a lack of “proper accounting management.”
Rongione saw things differently, stating in a press release between the two meetings that the council was “negotiating in bad faith.” He went on to assert that “Frankly they seemed hellbent [sic] on shutting down the government to prove some kind of a point or to hurt me and the Mayor but the people they are truly hurting are the residents of Upper Darby and the Upper Darby government employees.”
The next meeting of the council is a week from Wednesday, Feb. 16.
Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Councilwoman Laura Wentz made a motion to begin an investigation. The motion was made by Councilwoman Meghan Wagner.
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