Cheltenham Township slashes funding in half to Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership; wants partners to pay more

TTF leaders and the Cheltenham Township Manager Robert Zienkowski have a meeting on Monday to try and come to an understanding.

Conklin Pool Wetland along Jenkintown Creek.

Conklin Pool Wetland along Jenkintown Creek. (Courtesy of Julie Slavett/TTF)

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Breaking from a long-standing tradition, Cheltenham Township has cut its municipal dues to the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership in half — upsetting TTF leaders and some community members.

“The impact on us is pretty serious. I mean, some of it’s sort of an existential impact, which is that we’re a partnership. And in order to do the work, the really good work that we’re doing, it takes partners to do that … water quality problems and flooding problems don’t respect municipal boundaries, that’s why we exist,” said Julie Slavet, the executive director of the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership.

Despite the books likely being closed, TTF leaders and the Cheltenham Township Manager Robert Zienkowski have a meeting on Monday to try and come to an understanding.

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“Our goal is really to sit down with our partners and get a really good understanding about what they’d like to see the partnership provide and to ensure that they have a really good understanding about … what we have been providing to these townships for two decades,” said Joanne Dahme, board president of TTF.

Founded in 2000 by the Philadelphia Water Department, the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership is a collaborative effort to protect water quality, engage the community, provide stewardship of the waterways, and restore the environment in and around the 33-square-mile watershed that stretches across parts of Montgomery County and into Philadelphia.

It is one of the city’s five main watersheds. Whatever happens upstream affects everyone downstream, so communicating with neighboring municipalities is vital to watershed work.

From neighborhood trash clean ups and stormwater infrastructure projects to watershed and planting education, the partnership has invested heavily into the surrounding communities since being formally incorporated as a non-profit in 2005.

In 2019, TTF co-managed a large-scale restoration project with Cheltenham Township to address their pollution reduction plan and remove concrete pipe next to the Charles D. Conklin Jr. Pool to let the Jenkintown Creek flow more freely — and improve water quality downstream at the other creeks by installing wetlands. This project is one of many that the TTF leads throughout the area. Throughout the pandemic, the TTF curated many outdoor events to keep the community connected.

Map of TTF restoration projects (TTF)

Several municipalities pay membership dues to help fund the initiative. Philadelphia pays $40,000 and so did Cheltenham — until now. Cheltenham will pay only $20,000 in 2021. The partnership expects to bring in nearly $950,000 for the 2022 fiscal year, so a $20,000 decrease won’t sink the ship.

However, it will prove to be a challenge, because the dues provide the base funding for the operation.

“The municipal fees are really important because it’s what we call unrestricted dollars,” Dahme said.

While the projects are largely funded by grants, staffing and other operating costs are covered by the municipal fees. Therefore, a $20,000 decrease is significant, according to Dahme.

Cheltenham is on a different fiscal year than TTF, and they get billed twice a year.

“Because of the pandemic, and not … being sort of under pressure, we didn’t bill them when we were supposed to when we ended up billing them for the entire 40,000 all at once in April,” Slavet said.

This came to a shock to the board of commissioners, who were only expecting to pay out $20,000 even though they were not billed during the previous period, according to Slavet.

The move to cut funding was officially made at a June 2 township public works committee meeting. It was a continuation of a previous discussion on payments to the watershed. There, Slavet told the township about the purpose of TTF: to help support municipalities in executing the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

She also claimed that since 2010, the township was obligated to uphold the $40,000 payment as part of an agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Philadelphia Water Department “to attenuate the impact of sanitary sewer overflows.”

According to the meeting minutes, the township solicitor, Joseph Bagley, countered by saying that the township has since sold its sewer system to Aqua PA. Additionally, township board of commissioner president, Daniel Norris, questioned why Cheltenham’s payment is so large in comparison to the other suburban townships.

Slavet pointed out that it is because Cheltenham has a much larger portion of the watershed within its boundaries.

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Ultimately, the commissioners all seemed to have slightly different opinions on the matter although none were completely against taking all funding away from TTF.

Susan Harris, an environmental consultant, (back) and Julie Slavet, executive director of the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership (front) are managing the restoration project at Conklin Recreation Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Commissioner Ann Rappoport proposed a recommendation of a $20,000, rather than $40,000, commitment to pay to TTF, which passed by a 5-2 vote.

WHYY News reached out to several of the township commissioners and the township manager in order to learn more about their decision. All but two did not respond to a request for interviews.

Rappoport directed WHYY News to her public comments from the June 23 meeting where the board of commissioners voted on the recommendation. Rappaport was among two other commissioners, Matthew Areman and Irv Brockington, who tried to get funding back to $40,000.

“Ms. Rappoport said that Cheltenham cannot afford to not invest in clean water and stormwater management. This is a high priority for the Township. TTF has returned over $2 million of funding, not to mention the additional services they provide that were not a part of the $2 million. Ms. Rappoport is in full support of funding the full $40,000 to TTF,” according to the minutes.

Commissioner Mitch Zigmund-Felt was the lone township official to provide WHYY News with a statement on the matter. He prefaced his comments by acknowledging the work that TTF does.

“Our Board reduced our funding for TTF recently to $20K as a result of our significant revenue and fee decreases due to COVID. Hopefully, a one-time action. But over the last dozen years, Cheltenham has contributed over $420K to TTF. Check out our contributions made by our neighbor Abington Township, a large and well-funded municipality, whose parsimonious annual allocation of $2,500 to TTF reflects a lack of appreciation,” Zygumnd-Felt said.

Abington Township is one of several other suburban municipalities at the headwaters paying smaller membership dues to TTF. Others include Rockledge, Jenkintown, and Springfield, who are all contributing $300 or less.

WHYY News reached out to several Abington Township commissioners, but did not receive a response.

TTF has looked into asking their other municipal partners to increase funding in the long run.

“They probably wouldn’t be able to, to ramp it up in one year, but maybe we could look at a five or 10-year horizon. That would be great,” Dahme said.

Ever since funding cuts became a possibility, some members of the Cheltenham community have been active in trying to convince their commissioners otherwise.

Steve McCarter is a former state representative, who previously represented the area. McCarter is a part of the state’s Climate Change Advisor Committee and believes that addressing stormwater issues on a warming planet is a pressing concern. He believes true impact starts at the local level in initiatives like the TTF Watershed Partnership.

“And the decisions that are made to cut back on funding for those projects or those groups that are the ones that are the primary agents for helping to try to alleviate stormwater issues that are becoming more pronounced — that’s a concern,” McCarter said.

He said that flooding has been a long-time issue in the area.

Creekside buffer along Jenkintown Creek at Beryl Road home (Courtesy – Julie Slavet and TTF)

As a donor to TTF and Cheltenham resident, McCarter has some prior knowledge of the Abington stormwater situation. He points to a feasibility study that was conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers on the Tookany Creek.

“​​That study showed that we really needed nine basins up and down the TTF watershed, some of which would have been in Abington, the bulk of which would have been in Cheltenham and the three that would have been in Abington. Unfortunately, Abington did not go along with [the plan],” McCarter said.

While he understands the commissioners questioning Abington’s role in the partnership, he believes they are “two different issues,” and that ultimately, Cheltenham’s decision to cut funding was not a good call. He has also raised his concerns with the commissioners.

“This is something that we really have to be committed to. It’s not something you can just cut in half, and you get the same result,” McCarter said. “The cutback of $20,000 is symbolic. It has its obvious impacts in terms of staffing for TTF, for the projects that they do. But it’s symbolic, in a larger vein of our commitment to try to deal with climate change.”

If you’ve been on the township’s community Facebook group or if you’ve taken a look at the minutes from public works meetings, Dottie Baumgarten’s name has come up quite a few times.

As resident of Glenside who is actively involved with different watershed organizations, she believes that stormwater is going to become an increasing local issue amid the global climate crisis.

“I totally see TTF as one of the solutions. That if we are connecting across the watersheds, connecting across businesses and nonprofits and for-profits and individuals and municipalities, that big connection is how we’re going to be solving some of these watershed issues,” Baumgarten said.

She is “very disappointed” in the township, however, she is also worried that if the township is unable to pay $40,000 to TTF then they must be in a grave financial position.

She is hopeful that this break from tradition is simply a misunderstanding that can be patched together through a conversation. If it is not worked out, Baumgarten believes that this would be a missed opportunity.

“What I would hope for the township is that they would broaden their understanding of the connections that TTF can provide,” Baumgarten said.

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