John Mack - Newtown Supervisor

Mack’s Guide to the Newtown Township Website. Lesson 2: How to Access Financial Information

This lesson will show you how to access important township financial information. It specifically will focus on how to find Bills Lists (and Treasurer’s Reports) on the township website and how to analyze the data for useful insights. [View the Video below.]

As a resident, you may be interested to see exactly how you tax dollars are being spent, by whom, and who gets those dollars. The Bills List is a great way to find that information.

As always, the first step is to go to the homepage, which is www.newtownpa.gov.

The logical place to start is Finance Department page, which you can access via the DEPARTMENTS drop-down menu (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Newtown Finance Department Webpage

There’s lots of interesting financial information here such as the approved and annual budgets, financial statements – which are yearly audits - and monthly treasurer’s reports, etc. These are high-level data, but not data about who gets paid for what. We’ll look at the Treasurer’s Report at the end of this lesson.

But there is no folder for Bills Lists!

OK, so here’s my first secret I have for finding the Bills Lists: You have to open the GOVERNMENT drop-down menu and roll your mouse pointer over “Boards and Committees” and then careful move the pointer over to the submenu and click on “Board of Supervisors.”

This will bring you to the Township Board of Supervisors page, which you may think is not the most likely place to find Bills Lists. Stay with me and we will find out why the Bills Lists are available from this page.

Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the screen below the pretty faces of the five supervisor guys and up will pop “Supervisor Meeting Minutes & Agendas” with a list of years (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Bottom of Newtown Supervisors Webpage

Suppose you are interested in seeing one or more Bills Lists approved by the BOS in 2021.

Although this list does not mention Bills Lists, if you click on the year 2021 you will see a “Bills List” folder along with folders for Agendas, Minutes, Treasurer Reports and Zoom Meetings! [View the video below.] These are all items that Supervisors might be interested in and so they are located on this page. That’s my guess anyway. If it were up to me, I would include the Bills List folder on the Finance Department page as well.

Anyway, let’s click on the Bills List folder to open it. Let's look at the Bills List for July 14, 2021, which is at the end of the list. [View the Video below.]

Note that all the Bills Lists are PDF documents. If you click on "07 July 14", you will see a preview of the July 14, 2021, Bills List.

 
SIDEBAR: The naming of files is very perculiar! "07 July 14" by itself would not let you know what this file is about. I only know it's the Bills List for July 14, 2021, because of the folder names it is stored in (i.e., 2021/Bills List). I have no idea what "07" means! It may have something to do with Google docs, which is used by the Township to store documents.

You can scroll down this preview and see every invoice that needs to be paid or was paid in this cycle (actually these are bills that were approved to be paid at the July 14, 2021, BOS meeting; that's why Bills Lists are found on the Supervisors page). For example, on page 1 you will see a bill for $1,213 from Bella Commercial Services for June Janitorial Services/Parks.

Up at the top of the screen you should see several options such as printing or sharing the document. You also can download the document. Let’s try that. [View the Video below.]

Click on the downward pointing arrow and voila! The document should open up on your computer if you have a PDF reader set up to automatically open PDF files when downloaded.

A Secret About PDF Files

There are two types of PDF documents: ones that are “searchable” and ones that are NOT. A searchable PDF file is a PDF file that includes text that can be searched using the standard Adobe Reader “search” function. In addition, the text can be selected and copied and pasted into other applications such an Excel spreadsheet.

Unfortunately, the Bills List PDF documents are NOT searchable. You call tell that by the shape of the cursor, which is a crosshair rather than a bracket.

Let me show you what that means if you try and search for information. [View the video below.] Say you want to find bills related to legal fees related to the proposed Wawa on the Bypass. Now, you don’t know if this Bills List includes any invoices for that so you logically would use the PDF reader’s search function to find any Wawa-related legal bills. Let’s try that.

Type Wawa into the search box and click on “Find Next in Current Document.” Whoops! “No matches found.” Oh, well, I guess there aren’t any such bills.

But wait! Even if you search for a word you know is in this document such as “Newtown” it says not found! That can’t be right. What’s going on?

In order to search for text in a PDF file, it must be a converted to a searchable PDF file. Because I have the proper software, I can convert this non-searchable/non-readable Bills List into a searchable/readable document by using the Adobe’s built-in OCR Text Recognition function.

[BTW, early on in my Supervisor career, I got the township to post only searchable Minutes of meetings show that residents can sift through these sometimes lengthy documents to find what they are looking for without the need to have and know how to use OCR Text Recognition software.]

Now that this is a searchable PDF, if we search for "Wawa" what we find is that there are two bills from KILKENNY LAW LLC related to WAWA, one posted in MAY21 for $1,764.00 and one posted in JUN21 for $2,254.00.  [View the Video below.]

There is no information about what these bills are for. To learn that, you must request copies of the invoices. But I can tell you that these bills are for representing the township at the Zoning Hearing Board opposing Wawa’s requests for variances to the zoning. For more on that, listen to my audio clips from the July 8, 2021, ZHB meeting.

Let’s see what we can do with the KILKENNY LAW FIRM data.

Basically, now that the PDF file is readable, it is possible to copy and paste the data into an Excel spreadsheet. Unfortunately, this involves a few steps. I’ll skip the details and show the results. As you can see, the total for KILKENNY bills is $13,157.67 and bills for Wawa make up 30.5% of the total. See Figure 3 below.

Figure 3. Kilkenny Law Data in and Excel Spreadsheet.

That’s interesting, but what is more interesting is an analysis of how much money the township spent on legal fees for a whole year, including a breakdown of how much was paid to each law firm and for what general purpose. I did this for 2020 (see Figure 4 below).

Figure 4: Summary Section of 2020 Law Firm Bills Spreadsheet

First, you can see that there were more than 200 bills from law firms paid in 2020 for a total of $161,111.16. [View the Video below.] This happens to be 8% over the 2020 budgeted amount of $149,000.

I broke down the bills into 3 broad legal categories: Solicitor, Litigation, and Labor. 73% of the 2020 paid bills were for “solicitor”, which is a fancy term for a lawyer advising the various committees and boards regarding correctly applying local, state and national laws. Only 16% involved “litigation.” The KILKENNY fees for Wawa, for example, fall into that category.

In 2020, the budget allocated $65,000 to pay for solicitor fees from KILKENNY. Actually, KILKENNY was paid nearly $126,000, which is 78% of the total legal fees paid by the township in 2020.

Treasurer's Report

Unfortunately, I cannot do this type of analysis every year for every type of expenditure. The Treasurer’s Report is a good source of information of this sort but on a monthly basis.

For example, we can go back to the Supervisor webpage and access the May 2021 Treasurer’s Report. Figure 5 shows the page related to POLICE SERVICES for that month and Year-to-Date and compares that to what was budgeted.

Figure 5: POLICE SERVICES page from the May 2021 Treasurer’s Report

While the Treasurer’s Report is very informative it does not break down payments into specific categories such as legal fees paid to specific law firms for which purpose. So, I still rely on the Bills List for that sort of detail.

I hope you found this lesson interesting. Perhaps you will do your own different analysis and get back to me about what you learn.

View The Video

Posted on 21 Jul 2021, 01:17 - Category: Communication



June 2021 Newtown Fire & Emergency Services Report

According to the the June 2021 Monthly Report for the Emergency Services Department (ESD) and the Newtown Fire Association (NFA), there were 111 combined calls for service that month. The breakdown according to the type of call/incident is shown in the following chart:

There was a total of 111 calls/incidents in June, 2021.
EMS=Rescue and Emergency Medical Service;
Good Intent Call=Someone thought there was a fire or emergency but it turned out otherwise (e.g., smelled smoke, but no fire or cause found).

Of the 111 calls/incidents in June, 2021, 90 (81%) were in Newtown Township and 12 (11%) were in Newtown Borough. The rest were in Northampton Twp (5), Middletown Twp (3), and Lower Makefield (1). The locations of these calls are shown in the map below (multiple calls to the same location are not shown):

NOTE: To determine which calls were made by the paid Newtown Twp ESD (NT-ESD) versus those made by the volunteer NFA, you must refer to the June 2021 Monthly Report, which includes the date and time of day of each call. NT-ESD operates 5 days a week from 6 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday. NFA handles calls on weekends and other times during the week.

Posted on 18 Jul 2021, 01:19 - Category: First Responders



My Official Supervisor Activities for Q2 2021

The following is a summary of my Supervisor-related activities for the second quarter of 2021 (April through June) of 2021. In Q2 2021 I spent, on average, 39 hours per month on official Supervisor business. This compares with an average of 37 hours per month in Q2 2020 during the height of COVID-19 lockdown.

Log of Hours Spent on Official Business

My log keeps track of the time spent on the following:

  • Attending “Required” Meetings
  • Preparation for BOS Meetings
  • Attending Optional Meetings/Activities
  • Interaction with Residents
  • Travel To & From Meetings

The following chart shows the breakdown in percent of hours spent on these various official activities.

The following tables shows the numbers:

For the second quarter of 2021 I earned a “stipend” of $1,031.25 before taxes. That’s works out to $8.77 per hour or $127.31 per hour if I just attended required meetings. Compare that to PA’s minimum wage of $7.25. Luckily, unlike many working people in PA, I do no depend on that for a living.

What a travesty!
Interaction with Residents

In my opinion, personal interaction with residents regarding their concerns is an important part of my responsibilities as Supervisor. I want to be sure that I spend enough time reaching out to and responding to residents via personal contact, official email via my johnm@newtownpa.gov account and via my personal john@johnmacknewtown.info email account, and via phone, Nextdoor and/or Facebook.

BTW, if you need to contact other Newtown Township Officials, access the Directory of Newtown Township Officials.

What This Report Does Not Include

My log of Supervisor-related activities does not include the many hours I spend posting to this blog, maintaining my personal website, writing a newsletter, creating and posting video clips from meetings, hosting podcast interviews, summarizing decisions made by the Board of Supervisors (BOS Definition), etc. Also not included is the time I spend posting to my personal Facebook page, Twitter account, and Instagram account. These activities are NOT part of my official duties as Supervisor, but represent my personal views.
Working for You Every Day!

I can truly say that I work for residents EVERY day of the week, but mostly Mondays through Thursdays.

I decided to keep track of my activities as a Supervisor on a monthly basis partly because I want to be accountable to residents, but also to make sure I am making the best use of my time. It's really an honor to serve the community! I learn something new every day and have met many fine people and volunteers who also put in a lot of time without any compensation at all. Thanks to everyone who help keep Newtown in business and safe.

Posted on 02 Jul 2021, 12:18 - Category: Open Records/Transparency



As COVID Restrictions Ease, DUI Arrests in the Newtown Area Are Zooming!

I've been noticing that arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) account for a majority or large portion of incidents in recent weekly Newtown Police incident reports. In the June 11 to 17, 2021, Incident Blotter, for example, 5 of the 12 incidents involved a DUI arrest. One involved a vehicle crashing into a tree and overturning! Most (4) of these incidents occurred between the hours of 10 PM and 2 AM, one was at 4:30 PM.

I wondered if there was a trend related to the easing of COVID-19 restrictions on serving alcohol in restaurants and bars. So I plotted the data for a 24-month period from July 2019 through May 2021. See the chart below.

A: Effective July 15, 2020, nightclubs had to shut down, bars were closed
unless they also offered dine-in meals, and bars and restaurants
were be limited to 25% capacity. B: Effective May 31, 2021,
restaurants and bars no longer have capacity limits.

What's interesting is the fact that in the months PRIOR to COVID restrictions that began in March, 2020 (Jan 2019 through February 2020), there were, on average, 4 DUI arrests per month. In contrast, the average for the months from January 2021 through May 2021 when restrictions eased is 15 DUI arrests per month!

NOTE: In April and May 2020, the Newtown Police made fewer patrols to protect the force from infection. Consequently, the number of DUI arrests for those months are perhaps lower than usual.

What About Other Substance Abuse Incidents?
Projections are based on the April, 2021, NT Police Report 
presented at the May 12, 2021, BOS public meeting.

According to my survey of issues important to Newtown voters this year, only 20% of respondents during the period of 2020-2021 (YTD) consider “Drug Abuse” of HIGH IMPORTANCE compared to 38% in the period 2018-2019 (before COVID).

From the police data shown in the chart above, drug abuse increased dramatically during COVID-19, yet people seem to be ignoring the problem or are not aware of the problem. A reporting system called ODMAP shows that the early months of the pandemic brought an 18% increase nationwide in overdoses compared with those same months in 2019. The trend has continued throughout 2020, according to a report by the American Medical Association.

It seems to me that we are going through a period of excessive indulgence in previously restricted activities, especially out-of-home eating, drinking, and taking drugs; i.e., we're on a binge! And there's no telling when it will end.

NT PD Statistics for May 2021

See the embedded PDF below or download the file here.

Posted on 24 Jun 2021, 01:39 - Category: Police



Mack’s Guide to the Newtown Township Website. Lesson 1: How to Access Official Meeting Agendas and Minutes

Let's suppose you wish to attend an upcoming public meeting such as the next meeting of the Board of Supervisors (BOS) or Planning Commission or other official committee. But you want to make sure you know what’s on the agenda so that you don’t waste your time going to a meeting that won’t cover any issue you care about. This lesson will show you how to do that using the Newtown Township website. You can use the same steps to access the minutes and Zoom recordings of previous meetings.

EXTRA BONUS: The steps outlined here can also be used to access approved minutes and Zoom recordings of past meetings.

 
CAVEAT: This lesson, which was created on June 13, 2021, will show you how to get the agenda for any public meeting. If you are following the steps at a later date, what you see may be different than what's presented here, but the instructions remain valid no matter when you access the website. You might find it easier to view the video version embedded at the end of this post.

The first step, of course, is to go to the homepage, which is newtownpa.gov. You should see this nice page that includes a big scrolling video (Figure 1). Kind of cool, right? No other municipal website that I know of dedicates so much of its homepage to graphics.

Figure 1: newtownpa.gov Homepage

In any case, you also see the main sections of the website: HOME, COMMUNITY, BUSINESS, GOVERNMENT, DEPARTMENTS, and CONTACT. Since the BOS is part of the Newtown government, it would be logical to click on “GOVERNMENT,” but I like to first see the calendar. You need to scroll down to see that.

Click on the down arrow and up will pop the bottom of the screen (see Figure 2). Very useful links and information here, but no calendar. You have to scroll further down to see that.

Figure 2: The Homepage Below the Visuals

Further down the page, we see the column of “Upcoming Township Meetings.” Here you will see most – BUT NOT ALL – of the upcoming scheduled meetings. For example, I do not see any Board of Supervisors meeting listed here.

What you have to do is scroll further down until you see the calendar icon near the bottom of the screen. Click on that. Now you will see the “Newtown Township Calendar of Events and Meetings” (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The Calendar Page Showing the Meetings Scheduled
for June 2021.

If you scroll further down this screen you will see that there is a "BOARD OF SUPERVISORS ZOOM MEETING” scheduled for June 23, 2021. When you click on that you will see that this meeting will be on a Wednesday at 7 PM. It says the LOCATION is the Newtown Township Public Meeting Room, but that cannot be correct because this is a Zoom meeting.

There are also links here that allow you to add this meeting to your personal calendar. I don’t like to mess with that. What we want is to find is the agenda for this meeting, but I see no links to get me to that.

Now what?

Maybe we should have clicked on the GOVERNMENT menu item on the top of the page and saved a lot of time! Let’s do that now. Actually, you only have to roll your mouse pointer over “GOVERNMENT” and you will see a menu pop up.

Whoops! I don’t see “Board of Supervisors” on the menu, so I guess we have to click on “Boards & Committees.” Actually, don’t click on it, just roll your mouse pointer over it and ANOTHER menu will pop up and lo and behold there’s “Board of Supervisors” as the number 2 choice.

What you have to do now is carefully roll your mouse pointer over to the second pop-up menu and click on “Board of Supervisors”. This will get you to the “Township Board of Supervisors” page (see the video at the end of this post).

 
BE CAREFUL: When moving your mouse pointer from one menu to a submenu it could venture outside the menu limits. If this happens, the menus will disappear and you will have to start over. This might be a problem for older people with less dexterity or experience with mouses.

On the Township Board of Supervisors page you learn that the BOS meets on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month. This is true, except when it isn’t, such as when a meeting is cancelled for some reason or another.

Anyway, you will see a list of past Zoom meetings and other information such as a link to watch previous meetings and the mission of the Board of Supervisors.

Step-by-Step Guide

OK. Here’s a step-by-step guide on what you need to do to get to the agenda of the June 23 BOS meeting (see the video embedded at the end):

  1. Scroll down further on the Township Board of Supervisors page and you will see “Supervisor Meeting Minutes & Agendas.” This is what we need.
  2. Scroll further down and click on “2021”. There’s an information icon (the letter “i” in a circle) that you can click. But that just tells me when this item was created. Forget about that!
  3. Click on the highlighted “2021” menu item and you will see a number of choices. Again, this is useful non-agenda and non-minutes information such as the “Bills List” item, which will lead you to all the bills paid by the township in 2021!
  4. But we’re interested in finding the agenda for the June 23, 2021, meeting, so click on “Agendas.” You should see a list of  2021 meeting agendas to date.

Unfortunately, the agenda for the June 23, 2021, meeting is not yet available because most agendas are not posted until just a few days before the meeting. Actually, the law requires that the agendas – or at least public notices announcing the date, time, and location of official meetings – be posted no later than 24 hours before the meeting. The Board of Supervisors agendas are usually posted at the close of business on the Friday before the meeting. Thus, the agenda for the June 23, 2021, meeting will not be available until June 18.

Let's find a meeting that is closer to our search date (June 13, 2021). If we go back to the Calendar we see that there is Planning Commission meeting scheduled for June 15, 2021. Let’s try that.

First, click on “PLANNING COMMISSION ZOOM MEETING” in the Calendar. You will see the time and location – correctly noted as “Zoom” – for this meeting, and other “Event Details,” but no direct link to the agenda.

Let’s go to the Planning Commission page and see if we can find the agenda for the June 15, 2021 meeting there. Click on “Planning Commission page” under EVENT DETAILS in the Calendar. Unfortunately, you’ll need to roll you mouse pointer over items like this to realize that they are clickable.

The Planning Commission page looks very similar to the Township Board of Supervisors page. However, if you scroll down you do NOT see a “Meeting Minutes & Agendas” list as with the Supervisors page. This is true for every committee page.

Darn!

Here’s My “Secret” to Finding Meeting Agendas

In order to find agendas for upcoming meetings of any committee other than the Board of Supervisors, we need a different way of doing it. I’ll let you in on my secret way of accessing more information about upcoming meetings including agendas and minutes of past meetings PLUS the agenda of the next scheduled meeting (if we are lucky).

  1. Go back to the top of the page and open/click on the GOVERNMENT menu.
  2. Click on “Minutes & Agendas.” This is the door to the magic kigdom of agendas and minutes!
  3. Scroll down the list until you find the board, committee, or commission you are interested in. In this case, click on “Planning Commission.” It may require two clicks before it works.

Now we can follow the same procedure we followed with the Board of Supervisors:

  1. Pick the year you are interested in; i.e., 2021. Click/double click on that.
  2. You now should see just 3 folders: Agendas, Minutes, Zoom Meetings. You might think to click on the latter, but don’t unless you want see the archive of PAST Zoom meetings. Click on “Agendas.” BONUS: Obviously, from here you can also access approved minutes and Zoom recordings of past meetings.
  3. Aha! There it is at the bottoem of the list! It's a file titled “06 June 15.pdf”  (ignore the “06” in the name – it’s a mystery). Click on that and you finally see the agenda, which you can download to your computer (see the video at the end of this post to see how to do this). It may take a few moments to load – have patience. This is a Google function we are working with and who knows what evil lurks there!

Hurray! Success!

Just SIX not so “easy” steps. I’m sure, however, that once you do this 5 or 6 times. It will be second nature!

UNFORTUNATELY, this is the ONLY way you can get the login information you need to join the Zoom meetings, like this one for the Planning Commission. For live meetings, you just show up; i.e., get dressed nicely, drive to the township municipal building, park, and walk in to take a seat.

NOTE: When you attend live committee meetings, try to sit close to the committee members if you wish to hear them. For some reason, only televised Board of Supervisors meetings use the speakers in the room so that members of the public sitting at the back can hear what’s going on.

 

As COVID-19 restrictions are being eased or lifted entirely and as more people are fully vaccinated, townships are planning to return to live in-person meetings or are already hosting hybrid in-person/online public meetings (read "Incorporating Zoom Into Live BOS Meetings" and "Middletown Township Hosts Successful "Hybrid" Public Meetings").

This survey asks your opinion regarding whether or not townships such as Newtown should implement hybrid public meetings where officials meet in person as before COVID-19 but the public has the option to participate remotely via Zoom (or other technology) or in person.

No identifying information is collected via this survey unless you opt-in to provide such information for purposes of follow-up by subscribing to John Mack's email newsletter. After completing this 2-minute survey, you will be able to see a de-identified summary of the results to date.

TAKE THE SURVEY NOW!

DISCLAIMER: This is not an official Newtown Township approved survey. Its purpose is solely to inform John Mack – a Newtown Supervisor – of the public’s opinion regarding this issue.

View the Video

An Easier Way

Now that you know my secret, let me tell you another secret. I do all this work for you so you do not have to. Just visit the “Upcoming Meetings” on my website.

Better yet – subscribe to my email notification/newsletter service. I sent out notifications of upcoming meetings once or twice a month depending on activity. Subscribe here.

Posted on 13 Jun 2021, 11:09 - Category: Communication



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The opinions expressed here are solely those of John Mack and do not represent the opinions of any other person or entity.
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