HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Almost one month after ABC27’s investigation into the use of tax dollars for Lower Paxton Township supervisors’ food expenses, the elected leaders have published a response.
The October report showed township supervisors spent more than $20,000 tax dollars to feed themselves before public meetings. Public records show they raised their own food expenses by 73 percent over a five-year period while also raising taxes.
ABC27 repeatedly tried to get answers from Lower Paxton supervisors, but they refused. At a recent public meeting, they promised concerned taxpayers that they would publish a response in the township newsletter.
The Printed Response
Most people who live in the township received the newsletter on Thursday and Friday. Read the full letter here. It says, in part:
“Yes, we, your Supervisors, have pizza or hoagies, combined with either tossed salad or fruit salad, prior to meetings that begin at or before 6:00 p.m. These meeting nights are typically long, lasting 4 to 5 hours. Supervisors come to these meetings from work and from other activities.”
“Pizza or hoagies, and tossed salad or fruit salad – that is it! And only on meeting nights that begin at or before 6:00 p.m. Supervisors meet 40 or more times a year, while a meal before a meeting is provided, on average, 20 times a year.”
“Citizens may agree or disagree with this practice – that is their right. But, we believe the practice to be reasonable.”
Taxpayers who have been waiting for answers say they feel let down.
“I don’t think the questions were answered,” Patrick Henderson said. Henderson lives in Lower Paxton Township and expressed concerns about the food expenditures at a recent public meeting.
“I think it’s disappointing,” he continued. “I also found the tone a little defiant – sort of questioning why did they have to respond to these questions. And I don’t think that’s an appropriate response from our elected officials when there are legitimate questions before them.”
Government watchdog and Central Dauphin school board member Eric Epstein, who also lives in Lower Paxton Township, took issue with what he called “an attitude of entitlement” from the supervisors.
“I don’t feel just because I ran for office I deserve, A, B, C, or D,” Epstein said. “I did that on my own volition. I’m a public servant and quote on quote public servant means making sacrifices.”
Epstein calls the supervisors’ reaction to the investigative story “an avoidable public relations train wreck” but says that’s not his biggest concern.
Tax-Funded Lobster Dinner
In the original report, ABC27 uncovered two receipts showing large purchases from the police department at high-end restaurants. One receipt was from The Progress Grill; it was not itemized and showed an expense of $305. The other was a $384 receipt from Mount Hill Tavern showing lobster, lobster ravioli, and crab cakes purchased on the township credit card with tax dollars. Upon further investigation, ABC27 discovered Lower Paxton Township’s credit card policy is only a few sentences and does not prohibit the purchase of alcohol with tax dollars or require receipts to be itemized
In the newsletter, the township supervisors say:
“Supervisors have never purchased food for themselves from these two establishments, or any similar establishment, through Lower Paxton Township. Yes, these two purchases did occur, and they were properly documented. Both were in support of our Police Department and its efforts to maintain state-wide accreditation. The Public Safety Director, at the time both purchases were made, took assessors from the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association and select staff to dinner after multiple days of work analyzing police policies, practices, procedures, and operations.”
“I do believe that was a good use of township funds because they make major decisions affecting the accreditation and that has a huge impact on a lot of other areas that we do business on,” Chair Bill Hornung said during a public meeting.”
Based on those statements, Epstein says he wonders whether taxpayer-funded meals were used as an attempt to influence the people evaluating the police department.
“I mean, accreditation, auditing is a vital function of government,” Epstein said. “You want to find out where your weaknesses are, strengthen them, and move forward. You don’t want to pin your hopes on a lobster dinner at a high-end restaurant.”
ABC27 found inconsistencies in the newsletter. For example, it says the food was purchased for meetings starting at or before 6 p.m. However, meeting minutes and receipts show food was purchased on several nights when public meetings started well after 7 p.m. Meeting minutes from many of those nights do not announce executive sessions.
The newsletter also references financial documentation verifying the purpose of a Lenscrafters purchase. In July, ABC27 filed a right-to-know request for all documentation of Lenscrafters purchases. Township manager George Wolfe responded, saying the township “has not been able to identify any financial documentation regarding spending at Lenscrafters.”
Support for the Supervisors
ABC27 received an email from one person defending the township supervisors. That person did not want to go on camera but gave ABC27 permission to use portions of what he wrote. He said, “These are a great bunch of individuals who work hard for our township and their teamwork approach has rubbed off on many of us in the community … getting a free meal, whether a sub or a lobster tail makes no difference when you consider the holds they place on spending, noticeable improvements, and tax control.”
Others argue that as the supervisors continue to raise taxes, every penny counts.
“I was raised old-school,” Epstein said. “You watched every penny. And I remember being taught that if you watch the pennies, the dollars take care of themselves. So when you have a habit of being somewhat lax with taxpayer dollars, it may not seem like a lot here or there or over there, but it adds up. It takes a toll.”
“I certainly have great respect for elected officials,” Henderson said. “They’re giving of their time and their effort and their talents. I think the average taxpayer understands that and respects that, but regardless of whether this is a $60 million budget and they believe this is a relative drop in the bucket, it raises questions about whether or not they’re being prudent with our taxpayer dollars in other decisions that they’re making.”
“I think it’s important that the media and certainly the constituents and the taxpayers follow up,” Henderson added. “Hold our elected officials accountable and ask questions that deserve answers.”
In public meetings following ABC27’s investigative report, the township supervisors have discussed setting aside $50,000 to hire someone to manage township public relations.