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Upper Darby’s Earned Income Tax off the Table–for Now

Upper Darby taxpayers may have dodged a bullet.

Lame duck Mayor Barbarann Keffer, a Democrat, had proposed the township adopt a 1 percent earned income tax (EIT), bringing dozens of unhappy residents to meetings to complain. They opposed a tax increase amid inflation and other economic woes.

A vote on the EIT was scheduled for Nov. 29. But Keffer failed to properly introduce the ordinance, so it was postponed. Perhaps, indefinitely, said Republican Council President Brian Burke. He believes Keffer does not have the votes she needs to pass it.

“There’s nothing good about it,” said Burke, about the possible new tax.

Council also drafted a revised budget discussed on Nov. 29 that will be on the agenda on Dec. 6, he said. That $88,717,242 general fund budget includes money for nine new police officers, a key item Keffer wanted to fund through the EIT.

Keffer did not respond to DVJournal’s question about whether she planned to try to get the EIT through the council in the last month of her administration.

A Drexel Hill resident told the council at the Nov. 15 meeting that the EIT is a bad idea.

“The financial burden on residents, we have Bidenomics going on, high inflation, and we suddenly might enter World War III,” he said. “Adding an extra tax like this will make it a lot worse. A lot of my fellow residents are living paycheck to paycheck.”

A woman said, “I wholeheartedly oppose the tax.”

The audience applauded another woman when she said, “Do something about crime. Don’t keep asking us for more money.”

John DeMasi, a resident, said the EIT would hit residents making $15, $16, or $17 an hour the hardest. He said rent is up “double digits,” and credit card interest rates have climbed 6 or 7 percent.

“They’re not just getting a raise because all of these things are going up,” said DeMasi. “And you are going into their wallet and saying, ‘Give us 1 percent more.’”

He added, “It’s going to affect me and my family, yes. Are we looking to move? Yes. Do we have that ability? Yes.” But many residents can’t afford to move, he said.

“I strongly encourage you to find other ways to cut… We have seen disastrous spending,” said DeMasi. “The only person getting rich by default is the solicitor.”

Making her case for the new tax, Keffer said, “The EIT is part of a multi-pronged financial strategy to secure the future of Upper Darby, which includes the implementation of the realty transfer tax two years ago, the inclusion of third parties to manage delinquent taxes and fees and the business privilege tax as well as a stronger project and purchase bidding process which has resulted in higher revenues and lower costs over the last four years.”

The EIT would generate $9 million in new revenue in the first year.

She said property taxes would be frozen for 2024; seniors on fixed incomes would not pay it, and it would spread the cost of services more evenly. Funding for five new police officers and pension and retiree health care costs would be included.

Revenue that now goes to other towns with the EIT would return to Upper Darby. A state Department of Community and Economic Development report recommended the EIT.

The EIT does not apply to interest earnings, dividends, Social Security, capital gains, lottery winnings, unemployment, third-party sick pay, insurance proceeds, gifts, bequests, inheritances, and active military duty pay.

Council Vice President Hafiz Tunis supported the EIT.

“The 1 percent Earned Income Tax will put our township in a stronger financial position. With the EIT, we can take the burden off our seniors, invest more funds in our police department, and bring back revenue to our community that has been invested in other communities for decades. I would like to applaud the Keffer administration for this proposal,” he said.

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Upper Darby Mayor Accused of ‘Playing Politics’ With Community Projects

Upper Darby Mayor Barbarann Keffer, a Democrat, is not running for re-election, but she’s at the center of the township’s current political debate.

Council President Brian Burke, a Republican running for her job, criticized her Tuesday for failing to release more than $13 million in funding earmarked for capital improvements.

“These ordinances were negotiated and approved by the council in a bipartisan manner and approved at our July and August meetings by unanimous votes,” Burke said. “But Mayor Keffer has decided to hold hostage funding and projects out of pettiness and political calculations. Residents need to understand that Mayor Keffer is playing political games with the services and finances of Upper Darby and call on her to do the right thing by releasing the funding already passed into law by Council.”

According to Burke, council approved ordinances for a new senior center in Pilgrim Gardens, long overdue park upgrades, business district improvements throughout the township, upgrades to the township’s firehouses, purchase of a new fire truck and three new trash trucks, a new arts and education youth facility in Barclay Square, and facility and equipment upgrades for the police department.

The allocation of the $10.2 million in federal American Rescue Plan Allocation (ARPA) funding was approved by a unanimous 11-0 vote of Upper Darby Council on August 2, 2023, as well as an additional $2.825 million was approved by a unanimous vote of Council on July 12, 2023.

Keffer has refused to act.

Keffer also refuses to follow ordinances approved by the council, including negotiating a lease for the Upper Darby Senior Center to be located in the Pilgrim Gardens Shopping Center. The lease and programs are fully funded for three years with unanimous Council approval of the ARPA allocation. The Mayor’s refusal to negotiate and move forward with these ordinances puts the viability of these capital and service upgrades at risk when the administration is seeking to impose a new Earned Income Tax to make such investments.

Councilwoman Laura Wentz, a Democrat and chair of the township Council’s finance committee, also accused the Keffer administration of “playing politics.”

“They empowered residents and unions to protest council meetings to ‘free the funds’, yet only a fraction of the funds have been invested in our community or unencumbered since we began to allocate them in September 2022.

“Their actions imply this mayor is hoping her party is victorious in November’s election so she can reverse these historic investments in our community and rewrite the ordinances to cover up her inability to follow a budget and be responsible with taxpayer dollars. She is basically disenfranchising the voters of Upper Darby by refusing to follow laws passed by a democratically elected Council,” Wentz said.

Burke believes Keffer is so intent on not giving some members of township council “wins” prior to the November election, such as the reopening of the senior center in Pilgrim Gardens, that she is willing to hurt the community.

The bipartisan approval of the ARPA funding allocations, which are mainly going to capital improvements, are consistent with a key recommendation made by the township’s municipal finance consultant, Public Financial Management (PFM), at a town hall meeting that Keffer held on September 20. PFM recommends that the funds not be used to temporarily cover the township’s operating/budget deficits. PFM noted that investing in needed infrastructure projects would “reduce the pressure to issue new debt, which has a recurring cost.”

The $13 million in funding approved unanimously by the council includes allocations for the following capital project initiatives:

  • Parks and Recreation: $2.26 million in total for improvements to Drexel Gardens ($75,000); Dermond Field for flood mitigation and two pickleball courts ($400,000); Scullion Field ($50,000); Naylor’s Run ($1 million); James Street ($25,000); Penn Pines ($50,000); Fernwood, McKinley, Oxford and Chapman ($100,000); Clark ($25,000); Windermere ($50,000); Huey ($10,000); Golf Road ($25,000); Sellers ($50,000); 69th Street ($400,000).
  • Upper Darby Business District Revitalization: $3.8 million for improvements to the business districts of Downtown Drexel Hill ($1 million); 69th Street ($1 million); West Chester Pike Business District ($1,000,000); Long Lane ($600,000); Garret Road East ($100,000); Garret Road West ($100,000).
  • Watkins Center: $250,000 for renovations
  • Fire Department and volunteer fire stations $1.9 million, including  $100,000 for renovations to the volunteer firehouses of Garrettford, Primos-Secane, Cardington, Highland Park and West Chester Pike; $1.4 million for the purchase of a firetruck at the discretion of the chief of the Fire Department.
  • Upper Darby Police Department: $2 million for upgrades, equipment, vehicles, and the purchase of property to enable the Department to operate efficiently to protect and serve the township’s residents.
  • Sanitation: $825,000 for the acquisition of three new fire trucks
  • Upper Darby Arts & Education Foundation: $800,000 to Create the Barclay Square Arts and Education Center (Rent, Remodeling & Operational Costs)
  • Reopening the Pilgrim Gardens Senior Center: $1.2 million for the Senior Center Lease and Improvements.

Burke also blasted Keffer for her poor financial oversight of the Upper Darby Township government. This prompted PFM to recommend that Upper Darby adopt an Earned Income Tax. PFM’s work on behalf of the township is funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development through its Strategic Township Management Program, a program available to municipalities in the commonwealth on the verge of being officially designated “Fiscally Distressed” under the auspices of Pennsylvania’s Distressed Municipalities Act 47.

The City of Chester is a municipality under state control through Act 47.

That recommendation was part of a presentation by PFM at a Sept. 20 town hall meeting that Keffer called. At the meeting, PFM painted a dim picture of Upper Darby’s financial future, noting that in 2024, the township’s budget deficit is projected to be $8.4 million, nearly 10 percent of the township budget.

In July 2022, S&P Global Ratings downgraded Upper Darby’s credit rating from A+ to A with a negative outlook, citing a string of budget deficits, low reserves, and a reliance on federal stimulus funds to balance the budget. Since then, the credit rating agency has withdrawn its rating entirely because the township cannot be rated because the Keffer Administration had not completed the needed financial audits.

While those reports are complete, they show the township is in such poor financial condition that the administration does not want to bring them to the credit rating agencies.

“In less than four years, Mayor Keffer has driven Upper Darby Township’s finances into the ground and failed to take proactive efforts to address the financial challenges until it was too late,” said Burke.

Keffer did not respond to a request for comment. Asked to comment, Ed Brown, now serving as school board president and the Democrat running for mayor, also declined.

DVJournal asked Burke why Keffer was holding up these projects, and Burke said he believes she hopes Brown is elected.

Burke said he went through the township’s finances and found $3 million unused from a now unlikely community center plan. He offered to use that money to lower any possible tax increase, but Alison Dobbins, the acting chief administrative officer, has not replied.

“It’s been three days, and I haven’t heard from her,” said Burke.

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Upper Darby’s Top Parking Cop Took Thousands in Coins, DA Says

You might call it a crime of opportunity. Or an overwhelming temptation.

In any case, Sekela Coles, the now-suspended Upper Darby parking director, is charged with theft, theft by unlawful taking, receiving stolen property, and related charges for allegedly raiding the money in the township’s new parking kiosks and keeping it for her own uses, District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said at a press conference Monday.

Stollsteimer said that she allegedly took more than $4,314 but began to return the money once she realized that the thefts might be discovered.

“We call that…consciousness of guilt,” said Stollsteimer.

Stollsteimer said  Coles talked to detectives and admitted to the scheme where she had her assistant divert bags of money from the kiosks to a bank not used by the township to be counted and turned into cash.

“She has literally admitted to county detectives she stole coins from parking kiosks,” said Stollsteimer. He said Upper Darby gets about $1 million a year from its parking meters, kiosks, and tickets.

Stollsteimer said that one bag was so heavy with coins that the assistant, Nikita Barnes, had to ask her husband to help her carry it.

District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer and Deputy for Special Investigations Douglas Rhodes at Monday’s press conference.

The couple are cooperating witnesses and are not being charged, he noted.

Stollsteimer attributed another issue–that of more than 18,000 parking tickets that were not turned over to the courts–to incompetence rather than criminality.

“This incompetency is what led to the investigation, which turned into a criminal investigation,” said Stollsteimer. But he did not believe he would be filing charges for failing to turn over the tickets for prosecution.

“There is no criminality here. Incompetence itself is not criminal,” he said.

Beth Stefanides, the Republican running against Stollsteimer this November, said the DA’s slow-walking of the case is a reason for voters to make a change.

“The lack of haste with which this manner has been handled speaks to the chaos and sheer lack of leadership occurring in our county’s legal system. County DA Jack Stollsteimer finally spoke publicly about this issue for the first time today – more than seven months since this issue has been going on – and, conveniently for DA Stollsteimer, just in time for the fall election.

“Delco deserves a leader who will speak up and take action when duty demands it – not just when it is electorally advantageous,” Stefanides added. “DA Stollsteimer is months late in addressing this issue. While he spent January through July in silence to protect Upper Darby, Democratic leadership, residents were left without due process, fairness, and justice.

“That’s wrong. I will take pride in actively leading and improving our county legal system so incidents like this never occur again.”

Coles, a former Upper Darby councilwoman, was put in charge of the parking enforcement bureau in 2020 when Mayor Barbarann Keffer, a Democrat, came into office. Keffer declined to comment.

Coles’ arrest followed months of turmoil in Upper Darby, with former chief administrative officer Vince Rongione resigning after the council fired him amid questions about the use of ARPA funds. And Keffer is not running for re-election after her arrest for DUI.

Stollsteimer said people who wanted to contest their tickets never got anything in the mail. After a township audit, officials rushed to send tickets to the courts, but he explained that most would be moot because there was only a 30-day window. So Upper Darby didn’t get parking ticket money for nearly two years.

Coles added the kiosks, Stollsteimer said. And he said that traditional parking meters make it hard to divert the coins, but the kiosks made it easy.

Almost from the moment the kiosks were implemented in November 2021, he said she began a scheme to steal what was in those machines. He said Coles used some of the money to treat her employees to gifts, parties, and lunches.

“At some point, she realized they were taking too much money,” said Stollsteimer. “It was going to potentially be discovered by the tax office. So, she had Ms. Barnes begin to repay some of the money to cover up the crime.”

Coles is also accused of obstruction of justice because she allegedly went into the township’s computer system and deleted eight tickets for family members so they would not have to pay them, said Stollsteimer.

He said Coles is also charged with official oppression because rental cars were charged $98 for parking tickets but $35 was the maximum amount. The probable cause statement noted Coles believed rental companies would pay additional money.

He said the investigation began last fall after officials learned about the parking tickets not being turned over to the courts. The mishandled coin issue came to light through that initial investigation.

Asked by DVJournal what penalty Coles is facing, Stollsteimer said he did not know but added the charges were felonies. DVJournal also asked him how much bail he would be requesting after Coles turns herself in and appears in court; Stollsteimer again could not say but added it was a “white collar crime,” and she is “not a flight risk.”

“All of us working in government have a sacred trust to act in the best interest of our communities. The defendant was entrusted with one of the basic functions of government –collecting parking meter money and depositing the cash,” Stollsteimer said. “However, rather than acting in the best interest of the citizens of Upper Darby, the defendant is alleged to have taken a portion of the parking meter cash and used it for the purchase of food, birthday cakes, office parties, and restaurant trips for the defendant and her staff. This kind of behavior erodes public trust and must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

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Confidential Audit Details Upper Darby Mistakes That Led to Unpaid Parking Ticket Fiasco

The Delaware Valley Journal obtained a copy of a confidential audit of the Upper Darby parking ticket scandal that resulted in a class action lawsuit lodged against the township.

The audit, really more of a report by the accounting firm Brinker Simpson, does not include some of the information that most people would like to know, such as exactly how many parking tickets did not reach the courts and how much money did the township fail to collect as a result.

Instead, it details how employees failed to send the tickets to the courts after a software change and that there appeared to be no oversight from the township administration under Mayor Barbarann Keffer.  Keffer did not respond to voicemail or email requests for comments on Wednesday.

“Before January 2021, there were no issues with unpaid parking tickets filed with the (courts),” the report said. “The change to the new Passport software system was not managed successfully, and there appears to have been no centralized decision-making. Our analysis indicates the township lacked the project management procedures and internal controls to prevent the breakdown that occurred as it related to the unpaid parking tickets and the failure of Upper Darby to timely submit the citations to the (courts)…the transition from the old system to the new system was not successful.”

The audit said, “The internal controls in the Parking Department are currently unsatisfactory to safeguard township assets, and we are making recommendations to clearly define levels of responsibilities through documented procedures and financial oversight.”

Also, “we were not able to identify a project manager or project team responsible for implementation of a strategic plan a schedule or oversight to ensure new software would have the functionality, integration and technical support needed….”

The audit said the township had two IT consultants who reported to two different managers.

In January 2020, the parking director was appointed as director of parking enforcement, and the audit said her emails were not forwarded. Also, the new program, Passport, did not have a direct interface with the courts, and it still doesn’t, the audit said.

And the parking department did not follow the court-required process of ensuring ticket batches were received.   The last files the courts received were in April 2021, until those sent in 2023.

In May 2022, Keffer and her administrative officer took steps to make parking violations civil rather than criminal issues.

The audit said that from 2016 to 2020, revenue from parking meter fines increased by $207,075. Parking lot revenue and district court fines decreased by $73,000 but included licenses and inspections.

In 2022, citation revenue increased by $130,000 to $599,433.

“Our findings suggest that a lack of communication and centralized oversight, restrictive access to IT support, and lack of internal controls and documented procedures led to the failure of parking tickets being filed timely with the state,” the audit said. “Evidence suggests that there was not a clear understanding of the complexities of the administration of the department that relied on consistent communication with (the courts), police, and IT, especially when adding new software.”

Constable Jack Kelly asked DA Jack Stollsteimer to investigate the parking ticket mess. Kelly said there are 15,000 to 22,000 unpaid parking tickets docketed most years.

“They bypassed the process and never sent anything to the courts,” he said. And people who did not their tickets paid never received their court summonses.

And then some cars got “booted,” he said.

“What gives you the right to boot somebody who has not been before  a judge?” Kelly asked.

Former Upper Darby Mayor Tom Micozzie blamed Keffer for firing all the people who knew how the township was run immediately after taking office.

“That’s a problem,” said Micozzie. “A serious problem. How can you run a $98 million corporation (the township) with 427 employees? I get you’re entitled to your own administration, which really means your CAO…But then you get into firing the L&I, the finance director…I would not have had him out on the first day, in the middle of budget.”

Council President Brian Burke said a court clerk reported the township suddenly sent 18,000 unpaid tickets through. At $35 a ticket, that would be $630,000 in revenue uncollected, not to mention additional penalties.

“I believe there’s a lot of problems,” he said. During a council meeting, Burke pressed solicitor Sean Kilkenny about why the township did not respond proactively to a Feb. 7 letter from the court about the missing parking tickets, Broad + Liberty reported. The Delaware County Court administrator then sent another letter about the tickets on May 1.

Vince Rangione, who had been the township’s chief administrative officer, left office in January after months of controversy and secured a severance deal from the township that allowed him to keep his salary through July 31 and health benefits until the end of the year.

The confidential report includes his memos to staff telling them they could not ask the IT people for help without permission.

“No employee is to contact (the person) directly unless authorized by Scott (Alberts),” Rangione wrote in that memo. Alberts is the director of administrative services.

Burke, who switched from Democrat to Republican and is running for mayor, believes he can do a better job.  Keffer, who was arrested for DUI and spent time in rehab, is not running again.  Democrat Edward Brown, the current school board president, will face off against Burke this fall.

“There’s nothing confidential about (the audit),” Micozzie added. “A lot of people are pushing for it. They want to see the audit.”

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Upper Darby Mayor Barbarann Keffer Arrested for DUI

Mayor Barbarann Keffer of Upper Darby was booked on DUI charges following a Thursday night traffic stop in Upper Chichester Township.

According to court documents, Keffer appeared to be drunk, got into a crash, and ultimately refused a blood test.

Charging documents allege Keffer was alone in the car while traveling westbound on Route 322 near Chelsea Parkway when an officer behind her noticed her Toyota Corolla had a flat tire on the passenger side, a broken headlight, damage to its front bumper, and was swerving into coming traffic.

The officer pulled Keffer over after 9 p.m. and smelled alcohol. According to an Upper Chichester officer’s written affidavit, Keffer also had “glassy bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and unstable balance.”

Keffer admitted to having three drinks, failed a roadside sobriety test, and then refused to continue with the test as the officer determined she was not capable of driving.

She was placed in custody and taken to the Upper Chichester Police Department, where she allegedly refused to be photographed and fingerprinted. Police say she was not hostile.

As the investigation continued, police reported township surveillance cameras revealed her vehicle was not damaged at one point during her travels.

However, police believe she hit a guardrail and found part of that guardrail damaged on the 700 block of Meetinghouse Road. Multiple reports say Keffer was returning from a Democratic fundraiser in the township that night.

While Keffer was released from custody later that night, Upper Darby officials released a statement on Friday afternoon on Keffer’s behalf.

“Last evening, Mayor Barbarann Keffer was involved in a traffic incident and plans to cooperate fully with local authorities in Upper Chichester. Mayor Keffer was arrested on suspicion of DUI and released. Mayor Keffer and her family request privacy as they deal with the personal aspects of this incident, and she will offer additional comment soon.”

Former GOP councilman and current Upper Darby resident Patrick Spellman said the mayor could be forced to resign if the council finds moral wickedness, defined as an act that blatantly violates the point of view of the accepted standard of the community.

“Obviously due process plays out, but early indication reveals so much bad behavior concerning this incident that she shouldn’t be holding public office at this time,” Spellman told Action News.

“Last night, Upper Darby Mayor Barbarann Keffer once again displayed poor judgment, this time choosing to drive a vehicle while intoxicated endangering herself and others, offering another example of why she should not lead our largest municipality,” said Frank Agovino, chair of the Delaware County Republican Committee on Friday. “These complex times require steady leadership and instead the Upper Darby government has been plagued with dysfunction, scandal, financial mismanagement, and a skyrocketing crime rate.”

“While I am sensitive to those that make mistakes or suffer from addiction, Mayor Keffer should recognize based on recent events that remaining as mayor is not in the best interest of Upper Darby Township,” Agovino added.

The news of Keffer’s arrest comes right after the ongoing controversy within the township as Chief Administrative Officer Vincent Rongione stepped down.

“I can assure you that the government is operating, as usual, to serve the businesses, residents, and visitors of Upper Darby, with our administrative leadership and their team members focused on providing municipal services, activities, and programs to the community,” Alison Dobbins, Upper Darby Township deputy chief administrative officer said in a statement.

The next council meeting is set for Wednesday, February 1. Keffer is scheduled to have a preliminary hearing on March 1.

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