Trashy Train Wreck

Hard to imagine how a simple litter control tax could run so far off the rails. 

If you haven’t caught PlanPhilly.com’s piece on January 4th’s explosive “emergency” Germantown Special Services District meeting — we’ll wait.

Now that’s a pretty spectacular civic breakdown in our book! Businesses are revolting, Board members are tap-dancing, leaders and landowners seem to be squaring off for some kinda showdown over who gets to manage trash collection in Germantown…

You can watch that meeting as a Youtube playlist (above) but, really, Jake Blumgart‘s analysis will bring you right up to speed for this recap of January’s Board meeting, which threw yet more spotlight on a situation where terms like “FUBAR” and “shit show” seem to apply quite aptly.

Quick synopsis including where we are now: the current Special Services District (GSSD) has been (by their own admission) grossly mismanaged under Councilwoman Cindy Bass’s appointments who are now scrambling to make amends. Developer Ken Weinstein has been very vocal recently on social media, calling to disband GSSD entirely and replace with a new Business Improvement District (BID) that can democratically elect its own board.

As you’d imagine, there are pros and cons to either model. And of course a good deal of local control for whoever’s in charge of the business district’s trash management, safety, and beautification. Financial benefits, too: contracts to award, grant money to spend, amenities and resources to distribute. When Ken declared in a January 6th Facebook post that he would only support 8th District city council candidates who are in favor of a BID, a lot of local business owners cringed at what kinda felt like a power-grab (especially after Pat Jones enthusiastically chimed in).

Ken’s since deleted that line from the original post but a petition he has been promoting (copied above) is still active. Over 80 supporters have signed their names, along with comments echoing desperation and frustration we’ve been hearing from business owners since we started covering Germantown last spring. Whether folks here are serious about starting over with a whole new organization or just sending Cindy Bass a message, it’s clear that this GSSD can’t continue any further without a serious overhaul.

Please for the love of god please watch this video and form your own conclusions – and questions! The GSSD has only just begun to tease out all the ways they’ve dropped the ball, and all the subsequent consequences, and how they intend to fix their mess and create better checks and balances in the future. Interim executive director Jamar Kelly specifically asked for neighbors and business owners to remain vigilant as the organization undergoes an independent audit, soooooo…. Let ‘em have it, I guess.

Next meeting is 9am Friday, February 8th (57 Maplewood Mall) – come early to get one of like a half dozen available seats for the public in their claustrophobic first floor conference room.

Highlights GSSD’s January Board Meeting (Monday 1/14/19)

For your convenience, we did our best to break down like 90 minutes of meeting footage into key points you may wish to investigate further.

(Video 1)

Board announced they’ll be opening a new bank account for GSSD at PNC Bank — ostensibly because the former chair Ingrid Shepard would not share access to their existing account. “As a fiduciary, what actions are you going to take against the previous Board chair for not allowing you to access the accounts?” a local landlord and neighbors’ association rep asked quite reasonably. “The Board will address that during executive sessions… but will not comment on that publicly for now,” Jamar answered.

Another audience member asked if the Board will be undergoing an audit – yes and yes again. Board has hired an external accountant with Pyramid Accounting Solutions who is helping them put the books in order for a separate, official audit by an independent firm.

Ken Weinstein asked how far back the audit will go –just the last year or all the way back to any previous year’s audit? Interim chair Trapeta Mayson explained that audits are expensive ($3,000 – $5,000 per year) so they’ll do their best but funds are tight right now so they’ll have to see.

With eight open positions on the Board, GSSD is now assembling an Advisory Committee to help their Nomination’s Committee find more people qualified (and willing) to be Board members. Anyone, though, is welcome to suggest someone. Or you can send in your own resume – there’s also a short application form, and they do a tax clearance… there’s a whole process, then you’re voted in by city council for this unpaid position with a 5 year term limit (that may or may not be enforced).

Some good news: Stan Smith doesn’t charge the GSSD to keep their dumpster on his property at 5547 Pulaski Ave. Some bad news: the City fined him $302.10 for their trash overflow last July – the bill is outstanding and needs to be addressed but meanwhile, they’ll have Keith Schenck’s organization “Friends of Germantown Northwest” to clean up the area next week.

(Video 2)

The Board has chosen Lee Herman as the GSSD’s new delinquent assessment collector. They also agreed to abandon any expansion plans for now and focus on getting their current district re-authorized.

(Video 3)

Since GSSD runs on tax money from businesses/landlords in their district, collecting on delinquent accounts is vital. Jamar has been focusing on sending out “Final Notice” invoices to the top 20 offenders — $129,000 in outstanding payments. The total of all past due accounts from “about 2013 – 2014” is $198,000, which includes late fees and finance charges.

Despite the huge outstanding balances, the GSSD imposed no liens in 2017 or 2018, however these “Final Notice” mailings are a necessary step in the process from delinquency to collections to property liens. Businesses and landlords with past due accounts will have until the end of “January-February” to work out a payment plan with GSSD. After that, they’ll be charged an 18% collections surcharge.

The GSSD has only $145 in their bank account. The organization also owes Ready Willing and Able $18,000 for cleanup services.

Trapeta acknowledged people are pissed, the Board is upset, and they’re not trying to run or quit, they want to make the GSSD work. And they’ll put “things into place” to hopefully help the organization move forward.

The GSSD is looking to bring services in-house, so Jamar can better manage things. Also, a street scape improvement project is going out to bid in February so they can hopefully break ground on it this summer.

GSSD is hosting an MLK Day clean-up for Monday January 21st. Meet 8am at Greene and Chelten.

Some applause at the meeting when Cornelia Swinson (GSSD secretary) pointed out the organization’s model wasn’t purely based on financials – there was also a social component: “It was important to us to give work to people in the community that needed an opportunity.”

Full disclosure: GSSD made a request of Financial Assistance to Cindy Bass and the Mayor’s office. Jamar announced that last Friday the Commerce Department summoned them downtown to “explain ourselves and plead our case” and hear their recommendations to “shore up confidence.” Part of this plan involves the new Nominations Advisory committee, a Governance committee, and public meetings where they engage neighbors and stakeholders.

(Video 4)

GSSD’s Board has been working on an announcement (Trapeta: “It’s pretty long”) they’ll be releasing soon to the public. They’re mostly done but will be finalizing details after a phone call Tuesday morning, so stay tuned for that.

Ken Weinstein pointed out that BIDs and SSDs need audits not financial reports so GSSD should look into that. Regarding nominations – Ken wanted to know if/when GSSD was re-authorized, what happens to the Board? Does the slate get wiped clean or do Board members stay on? Answer: the Board members whose terms are up will vacate their seats accordingly. Otherwise, the Board will remain.

An audience member asked for clarification regarding the two Board members who work for Cindy Bass (Charles Richardson is her special assistance & Angela Bowie is senior policy advisor). While yes Cindy signs their paychecks, as GSSD Board members they are strictly volunteers. No overlap at all. Nothing to see here.

(Video 5)

Head scratcher: Ingrid Shepard was removed as the Board chair because she went radio silence and locked GSSD out of their own bank accounts, their own Quick Books. You’d think that kind of insolence would get you booted as a Board member, too, but nope. She’s still on. (Wondering if she voted on the resolution to remove herself as Board chair? For not sharing her access codes with… herself…?)

Jamar stated that the “bare minimum” required at this point is a complete and thorough independent audit for at least a year – farther back, if possible. As soon as they have their accounts in order they will make a plan for who pays and how.

As Ken mentioned earlier, to qualify for state and city funding of any scale, they absolutely need to do an audit. So it’s necessary for them to get their records in order asap. Until that’s done, they can’t make any promises despite audience members’ calls for the Board to take some immediate accountability.

According to GSSD, they are only required to provide a 5 year budget for their city authorization. Best practices, however, recommend the organization create and follow annual budgets, too. While the GSSD’s bylaws do not currently require this added step, Jamar said that’d be something for the Governance committee to consider when they update GSSD’s bylaws (which haven’t been reviewed in toto since 1996).

Gtown Espresso Bar owner stumped Jamar with the following question, “How are we holding past and current Board members accountable for their mismanagement? Given the gross mismanagement of the organization.” Jamar’s answer: “That’s probably something I don’t have an answer for.” He went on:

“As a business owner and member of the community is incumbent upon you as an engaged citizen to show up. At a minimum, we need all of you to show up. Ask the questions. Provide the scrutiny. The double-check. Kick the tires, look under the hood so to speak. To make sure the Board and the organization is fulfilling its responsibility.”

Further, he apologized that the previous leadership wasn’t always receptive to the input but with the change in leadership they want as much feedback as possible. Feel free to follow up, and hold their feet to the fire. GSSD’s Board is committed to facing their issues and finding solutions that work for business and property owners as well as the community at large.

Train wreck or no, GSSD now has an opportunity to rebuild with lessons learned and a new commitment to serving Germantown’s needs moving forward.

What did we miss? Let us know in the comments below or submit your own recap to editor@eastfallslocal.com for a possible feature in the Local free monthly “hypervocal” newspaper for NW Philly.

Required Reading: Handouts from Monday’s meeting.

Don’t forget: next public GSSD meeting is 9am Friday, February 8th (57 Maplewood Mall) 

Feeback from Living in Germantown: All Together group (join the conversation on Facebook):

Yvonne H.  The news coverage has been a blessing to those of us who want success by the GSSD and had NO IDEA about the depth of the mismanagement and incompetence… This reporting was hours of work to get results… it has been super effective. Bravo to the Local!!

Camille F. How can they be locked out of their own bank account? There must be a way for them to show documentation to get access.

Don M.  There must be language in the agreement between the City and the SSD on how to handle situations that arise due to what seems to be mismanagement in the board charter. Also, language defining the responsibilities and role of the governance committee.

Kevin S.  The City should deal with getting them audited, and investigate what the heck is going on, not the GSSD. I don’t see how an organization that hasn’t been re-authorized hopes to collect any money, do they even have the legal right to collect money now?

 

3 Comments

  1. I offered a space for a new office rent free for three months with a reasonable rent to be negotiated after that, depending on the resurrected financial position.

  2. Excellent recap and insight article. You hit the nail on the head in the part about power.

    Thank you for your work and coverage.

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