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Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County, is a quiet suburb of Philadelphia. Of its seven commissioners, Drew Sharkey was the youngest individual to hold the office when he was sworn in, in 2008. He is currently the chair of the Public Safety and Public Works Committees and was formerly the Chair of Public Affairs. He is also Vice Chair of the Montgomery County Association of Township Commissioners and President of the State Association of Township Commissioners.
In his time as Commissioner, Sharkey has seen the Township resort to cost-cutting measures to make room in the budget for its pension obligations. “With these rising costs, we have to cut in other areas,” Sharkey said. “So, a police department that should be at 84 officers, is down to 71. A public works department that should be in the 70s is at 53.” Cheltenham simply cannot afford to hire the people it needs because of pressure from existing pension obligations. “It’s unfortunately hurting our ability to fill positions. It’s basically a job killer, so to speak.”
More Work, Fewer Hands
The employees they do have must work even harder, says Sharkey, by being reassigned from special programs to cover basic services. “We had a community policing unit that did a fantastic job, but unfortunately we had to reassign those officers back to normal patrol.” Even now, some services are not fully supported. “We’re not able to enforce speeding. We only have two people in our highway safety unit.”
To keep pace with the situation, the Township has been forced to regularly increase taxes. In 2016, Cheltenham raised taxes 2.7 percent over the year before. Sharkey says that this hurts the town by pressuring residents financially. “The problem is the more we raise taxes, because we’re already so high, the more burden is placed on property owners. And it makes it very difficult to sell homes in Cheltenham and attract new residents and businesses because taxes are so high.”
“It’s just not affordable to continue on the path we’re going.”
Sharkey believes that the Township’s efforts are necessary, but they can’t go on forever. “My philosophy is to honor the promises that were made to the retirees and the current employees, but the people who have not come to work for local government yet need to understand that times have changed. Economics are not what they were.”
Many communities around the state share Cheltenham’s problems. The laws need to change with the times. Contact your Pennsylvania Representatives and Senators and tell them to support municipal pension reform. Tell them to fix the numbers.