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.