‘It’s been a tumultuous two years’: Upper Darby’s dispute over final pandemic recovery funds

Upper Darby’s dispute over the final pandemic recovery funds has reignited once again.

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Upper Darby Township officials are again clashing over the township’s remaining allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Township Council voted 7-4 last week in favor of forwarding a proposal to recall upwards of $14.4 million in federal pandemic recovery money previously assigned to a handful of projects.

The goal of first-term Democratic Mayor Ed Brown and his administration is to shield the federal government from reclaiming the dollars. According to staff projections, the money will likely remain unencumbered past its expiration date of December 2024.

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“We’re just going to pull that money back and make some smarter decisions and have a definitive process on what we’re going to do first and how we’re going to utilize that money in the best way possible,” Brown said.

A majority of council plans to move the $14.4 million to revenue replacement — and then into a restricted capital expenditures account. This would stop the federal government from taking back the funds, but it would leave the status of the previously approved projects up in the air.

Brown said with finite resources, the township must adequately prioritize which projects it undertakes.

“In no shape, form or fashion are we just balling them up and saying we’re starting from scratch and none of those will see the light of day — that is not what we’re saying at all,” Brown said. “We’re saying that some of those will see the light today. Some of those will be acted sooner than others. Some of them are closer to the top of the priority list. Some of them are not.”

There’s a chance the township will ditch some of the older projects. The decision to reel in the funding has garnered some criticism. Two Republican and two Democratic council members, who represent a minority opposing the move, argue important projects could be lost in the shuffle.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to do something great for this township, and my fear is — and I hope it’s unfounded — is that we’re not going ahead and doing these things,” Democratic Councilmember Matt Silva said.

As a member of the minority faction on council, Silva and some of his like-minded colleagues are looking for assurances and guarantees.

“There’s concern that these things might fall through the cracks,” Republican Councilmember Brian Andruszko said. “So without any commitment and assurances that these same things are going to be covered, I can’t support reallocation.”

Why Upper Darby still has leftover pandemic recovery money

The federal government awarded Upper Darby nearly $41.8 million through the American Rescue Plan Act. Although allegations of mismanagement and infighting stalled the process, the township eventually found ways to use the money.

Upper Darby spent $16.7 million in ARPA funds before 2024. Through the end of the year, the township projects to dish out another $10.6 million. The remaining $14.4 million in question was greenlit last year through a series of ordinances. Andruszko noted it was unanimously supported.

But Brown said many of those projects have not been completed. While some of the money has been spent, some have yet to enter the design phase — hence his proposal to pull back the funds.

“I have no opposition to this kind of action taking place before the 2024 deadline,” Andruszko said. “I think it’s absolutely the right action to take. In no way do I stand for us losing these funds. Now that being said, I think that there was no action taken for us to actually take steps towards spending these funds.”

The affected projects include $4.7 million for community and economic development, $1.8 million for leisure services and $1.2 million for a Drexel Hill senior center. Silva is hoping money previously dedicated to township parks survives reallocation.

Council plans to vote on the ordinances to reallocate funds at its June 26 meeting, setting the stage for a contentious debate over the township’s priorities.

Further complicating the matters is active litigation against the township government initiated by a handful of citizens who want the township to act now on the ARPA funds.

How a $41.8 million lifeline tore a township apart

For more than two years, the township government has been plagued with infighting between two factions of officials over the ARPA funds and the subsequent lawsuits. Both sides wrestled for control of the dollars.

Three Democrats and three Republicans on the township council formed a coalition, then solidified a majority. The remaining five Democrats on council sided with former Mayor Barberann Keffer’s administration.

In February 2022, the then-council majority accused the Keffer administration of mismanaging a portion of ARPA funds. The allegations nearly plunged the township into a government shutdown.

“It’s been a tumultuous two years leading up to this time,” Silva said. “It hasn’t been great.”

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Two investigations, three court actions and six months later — the funds remained unspent. Along the way, former Chief Administrative Officer Vincent Rongione stepped down, and the township Democratic party decided to publicly disavow the three council members who were siding with township Republicans.

Eventually, council managed to allocate funding. In September 2023, the council members unanimously approved a set of ordinances to spend the final amount of funding. However, Democratic Council President Hafiz Tunis has concerns about the transparency of the process and the lack of expert input.

He said the council minority at the time was not brought into the planning process until the very end.

He believes he was put in a difficult position: vote against it and leave his constituents hanging or vote in favor of the ordinances which he believes shortchanges his district. Tunis is embracing Brown’s plan to re-allocate the money.

“I feel like a lot of my colleagues have made promises to some stakeholders on these funds and they believe that they won’t be met and that’s not necessarily true,” Tunis said. “Some of these projects will happen, but it needs to be thorough. The public needs to be involved and it needs to be transparent and it needs to be open to the public — not backroom deals, meeting at someone’s house over pizza and wine and that’s what really happened.”

Despite disagreements, township officials mend fences

He said the 19082 ZIP code, which encompasses the area near 69th Street, earns less than some of the more affluent districts in Upper Darby. To Tunis, the ARPA conversation is missing a cultural component.

“Those ARPA allocations, it shows that. $1.6 million to the Drexel Hill Senior Center — $250,000 to the Upper Darby Center. That’s a disparity. That’s over a million dollars,” Tunis said.

He believes reallocation allows for a fresh start.

Both Tunis and Andruszko entered the ARPA controversy, relatively speaking, as the new kids on the block. Although they still sit on opposing sides of the debate, both expressed a desire to change the tenor of local government through better communication.

“I just feel like that’s how government should work,” Tunis said. “People want this adversarial relationship where we hate each other — I don’t think that works. Mayor [Cherelle] Parker and [City Council] President Kenyatta Johnson were able to get a budget done together. That’s a big win for Philadelphia. Upper Darby wants to do the same thing.”

Even though Tunis disagrees with Andruszko’s stance on guarantees, he believes the Republican council member has the township’s best interests in mind.

Council meetings still have their tension, but they are a far cry from public meetings of yesteryear.

“It has improved, and I’m happy to see that, and I think we need to continue to focus on the residents, ensuring that our actions are respectful and that we’re taking care of them first, Andruszko said.

Brown said he welcomes opposing perspectives. As a newcomer, he wants to keep the peace inside of the municipal building.

“But I think that’s a collective effort, right? I don’t think this is solely my effort,” Brown said. “I will control myself, and I can control my administration to a degree, but I think other people who disagree also have to be committed to keeping the temperature down. There’s such a thing as respectfully disagreeing and accepting decisions that are made.”

Councilmember Silva said he plans to do just that. He described Brown’s administration as “honorable people” and said he has more confidence in them than their predecessors.

“If we can do this with a level of mutual respect and understanding and if we all have that same goal of trying to do something good for the people of this township, then I feel like we’ll be able to do this in a calm and rational way,” Silva said. “It’s entirely possible — and it might even be probable.”

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