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Sparks Fly at Collingdale Council Meeting Over Tax Audit Plan

Tempers flared between Collingdale Borough Council members this week over a plan to hire a western Pennsylvania accounting firm to find $330,000 in missing property tax collections.

The discrepancy was discovered last December following an audit of tax collections from 2022 by borough auditor George Fieo. The money represents 13 percent of the borough’s tax collections for the year.

The council voted last month for an audit of the entire borough.

But Council President Ryan Hastings suddenly changed course on Tuesday. He put forward a resolution that limited the audit to just the Tax Collector’s Office.

The change astonished councilwoman and former mayor Felecia Coffee. “We went from that to this, for real?” she said.

Hastings said several certified public accountants turned down the Borough’s request for a full audit. Louis Plung and Company offered to review the tax collector’s office.

There’s a nationwide shortage of accountants with The Wall Street Journal reporting that more than 300,000 called it quits from 2019 to 2021. And fewer college students are going into accounting to meet the demand.

Collingdale could get a full forensic audit from the state Department of Community and Economic Development, however. And there are still questions on whether the Borough Council planned to make Tax Collector Diane Hunter a scapegoat for the missing cash.

Coffee and Stephen Zane are the only council members who have publicly said they had spoken with Hunter. She allegedly has a complete record of her activity as tax collector, including emails and any documents that have her signature.

The Tax Collector’s Office is also reviewing events surrounding the missing money. Zane said he was told some of the money had been found.

One part of the problem could be that Collingdale did not change its budget to accommodate adjusted property taxes. According to Coffee, Hunter said the borough has occasionally included tax figures from initial property appraisals in the budget instead of waiting for the property appeals process to play out to get a firm, final number.

“We lose the money that we once had assessed at one million dollars and we have to go with the money that was lesser than,” said Coffee.

Hastings rejected that argument. He said Fieo told him, “That’s not what the case is here.”

Tensions over the audit proposal boiled over during the council meeting. As Hastings and Coffee argued over the limited audit, Hastings said he didn’t want to be interrupted and muttered something under his breath that Coffee took to be directed toward her.

Coffee lashed out. “I’m not your child,” she said. “I don’t disrespect you or your mother. So don’t do me!”

Hastings and Coffee did not respond to emails asking for more information about the confrontation.

That wasn’t the only time that Coffee tangled with Borough Council leadership during debate on the audit.

She and Vice President Stacey Calhoun exchanged words as votes were being counted.

“Just make sure when you become mayor, everything is correct,” scoffed Calhoun.

“I’m not going to become mayor,” responded Coffee. “Thank you.”

Louis Plung and Company will be paid $15,000 to audit the Collingdale tax collector’s office. The start date of the audit is unknown.

Mandatory School Mask Policies Remain Divisive Among DelVal Parents

To mask or not to mask, that is the question that faces Delaware Valley school districts as parents on both sides of the politically divisive issue wrangle to keep their children safe and enforce their rights amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In West Chester and Downingtown, two mothers, Shannon Grady and Beth Ann Rosica, filed petitions in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas seeking the removal of board members who favor mandatory masking policies for staff and students in their districts.

States continue grappling with school mask mandates. In neighboring New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy announced face coverings would no longer be required for students as of March 7.

Grady and Rosica point to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in December that said Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration had no legal authority to require masks in schools and child care centers.

The justices didn’t touch upon whether districts could enact such policies. Instead, they focused on the Department of Health’s limited scope of authority to protect public health so long as it didn’t “act by whim or fiat in all matters concerning disease.”

That left the window open for challenges like the ones pursued by Grady and Rosica, who do not have formal legal training.

These two moms are representing themselves and mobilizing parents in other districts to take action against district leaders, saying those officials have caused “permanent and irreparable harm” to students by “fabricating, feigning or intentionally exaggerating or including a medical symptom or disease which results in a potentially harmful medical evaluation or treatment,” according to the petitions.

Those targeted include Downingtown board President LeeAnn Wisdom, Vice President Caryn Ghrayeb and board members Jane Bertone, Joyce Houghton and Audrey Blust, along with West Chester Area board President Sue Tiernan, and board members Joyce Chester, Karen Herman, Kate Shaw and Daryl Durnell.

“They can’t just create policy out of whole cloth. We try to have conversations with them. We speak about the adverse effects. It just falls on deaf ears,” said Grady, whose freshman son cannot attend in-person learning because the district wouldn’t grant him a mask waiver. “These tyrants are going to keep doing it until they’re told they can’t.”

District officials declined to respond to requests for comment.

The effort is playing out at the same time parents in the Perkiomen Valley School District in Montgomery County brought suit in federal court to keep a mandatory masking policy in place after incoming board leaders relaxed the district’s stance to optional in January.

A judge issued an injunction keeping the mandatory masking policy in place for now after the parents argued the district’s decision violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The children have chronic health issues, such as asthma and bronchitis, putting them at higher risk to contract and suffer serious illness or death from the virus that has claimed nearly 6 million people, their parents claimed. The available data, however, show children are at very low risk of serious illness from the virus, with a mortality rate of just 0.08 percent.

The students are vaccinated but haven’t received boosters so the district’s optional masking policy “has the effect of excluding these children from their public institution, or otherwise denying them the opportunity to participate in the services of the school district.”

The district’s 5,100 students returned to in-person instruction in March 2021, with a mandatory masking policy in place for all students except those granted exemptions because of conditions ranging from autism to anxiety.

District Superintendent Barbara Russell recommended that the district maintain the universal masking policy due to a surge in cases from the Omicron variant but the board voted 5-4 to lift the mandate, making it one of two schools in Montgomery County at the time to do so.

It had its first positive Omicron case four days after the new policy was enacted. Russell pushed board members at a Jan. 3 special meeting. to reconsider a more “methodical and thoughtful approach” as the county positivity rate surged to about 20 percent, according to court records.

U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Beetlestone wrote that district leaders “face excruciating choices” trying to keep students and staff safe from the virus while ensuring everyone has equal learning access. She cited a CDC study that found places without uniform mask mandates had double the cases as those enforcing mask mandates.

“The district and the board have a responsibility – which they have undertaken with admirable care and commitment – to grapple with the various and sometimes conflicting interests of many students – those who cannot mask due to a disability, those who are immunocompromised, and those who just want things to get back to ‘the normal we know’ as soon as possible,” she wrote.

The decision did little to soothe angry parents who, at a recent meeting, called for the resignation of board member Tammy Campli because she testified on behalf of the suing students.

Masking will remain a hotly disputed topic until the parents have their day in court, Rosica said.

“I’m not even arguing the science with people. It’s a losing battle. The issue is not whether [masks] work or not. I don’t want my kids masked. That’s how I feel. I’m the mom,” she said.