2016 Articles

Cars, cars, and more cars

As long as people want to live on scattered housing lots and drive for all their daily activities, open land will be consumed and ever more traffic will be generated on our roads.

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Snow-Bound!

Let us pause in the pursuit of the latest electronic gadgetry for Christmas and contemplate a calmer, simpler time in America: John Greenleaf Whittier's "Snow-Bound."

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Pottstown's best bargain

The Pottstown Regional Public Library, the borough’s most cost-effective public institution, celebrated its reopening the first day of December.

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Why I love the public library

On Tuesday I described the Pottstown Regional Public Library as the town’s most cost-effective institution. Here’s why:

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Tax base still shrinking

Pottstown’s tax base continues to fall. As of Jan. 1, 2017, the total assessed value of Pottstown’s 8,380 taxable properties will be $803,730,299, nearly $2 million below last year.

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Careful economizing needed

School district spending and taxation have increased above the rate of inflation during the last 10 years. We need to change our culture from “more spending” to “careful economizing.”

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Bombarded with information

Once a mind is made up, it’s almost impossible to change it. ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts, my  mind’s made up.’ That's a way of life for most people.

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Clearance, not appearance!

PECO is currently trimming street trees in Pottstown to clear its wires. The utility generally trims trees every five years, and the results aren’t pretty.

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Our wealth in perspective

A 2007 study by a team of economists commissioned by the United Nations concluded that assets of $517,601 or more places a household in the top 1 percent in the world in wealth.

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Thanksgiving then and now

It’s easy to think most of us are worse off than previous generations, but this ignores the enormous improvements in life we quickly take for granted.

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Simplify, simplify

Henry David Thoreau's philosophy of simplicity, reflection, and appreciation of the natural world is a refreshing break from the commotion of the internet.

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Graham Hill: Living with less

In this age of technologically savvy young people who develop ingenious internet businesses and sell them for millions, it’s interesting to find one who also values simplicity.

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Ripping out riparian buffer

Riparian buffers are used along the banks of streams and rivers to prevent water runoff and to control erosion. Riverfront Park is replacing its buffer with grass.

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A cost-effective park system

Wyomissing has three times more parkland than Pottstown, and a municipal swimming pool, and allocates $212,000 for street trees, but its overall parks budget is still less than Pottstown's.

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Planet loses half of its trees

Humans have removed half of the planet's trees since the beginning of civilization 5,000 years ago. As deforestation continues, we are losing an area four times the size of New Jersey every year.

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Removing nature at Riverfront Park

Pottstown has its own deforestation project going on at Riverfront Park. The woods on either side of the walking trail have been replaced with grass.

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Everything comes from nature

We have always taken our natural environment for granted. To prevent irreversible and perhaps catastrophic climate change, we must start protecting it.

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Climate change No. 1 issue

Taxes, immigration, jobs, personal character — these are the issues dominating the 2016 presidential election. But the biggest issue is rarely mentioned -- climate change.

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Restoring a Pottstown jewel

Edgewood Cemetery looks better than it has for years, if not decades.

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Cemeteries as passive parks

Fencing in cemeteries diminishes their value as open spaces and passive parks.

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Technological revolution

Everyone knows we’ve had a technological revolution in recent decades, but you’ve probably had to live through it to fully appreciate it.

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"Talking" and "Leadership"

The third PottsTOWN Talks will be held 7 p.m. next Tuesday at Connections on High to discuss education. Participants should not shy away from hard questions.

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Personalized learning

Today's public schools emphasize specialization. But for centuries, children and youth have learned all the essential skills from family tutors. James Freeman Clarke is a famous example.

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Lessons from a one-room school

Educator and teachers' union president Albert Shanker wrote more than 1,300 columns as weekly advertisements in the New York Times. Here's a sample.

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Students first, subjects second

There’s a saying in education, “Elementary school teachers teach children. Secondary school teachers teach subjects.”

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Too much specialization

There are two major trends in public schools during the last 50 years. First, rising costs, at more than twice the rate of inflation. Second, there’s been a huge increase in specialization.

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More sprawl in Lower Pottsgrove

Last month, the Lower Pottsgrove commissioners gave the last approval necessary for another car-oriented, environmentally damaging development called Sanatoga Green to move into the final land development process.

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Schools becoming ever more costly

The Pottstown School Board has approved a three-year contract with the Federation of Pottstown Teachers that boosts pay more at the bottom of the salary schedule than at the top. The contract will cost the district $1.4 million in the third year.

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Money for parks, not for streets

We all appreciate our abundant parks, which cost borough taxpayers $1.1 million annually. Many people rarely if ever use our parks, but they all live on a street. The borough spends little on streets and nothing on street trees and sidewalks.

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Pet fair: best way to treat animals

The 6th annual Pottstown Pet Fair is scheduled to begin 9 a.m. Saturday at Memorial Park. But as we’re enjoying our pets at the Pet Fair, we might ask ourselves: Do we really want to eat animals?

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Ready made for college housing?

Now that the renovation of the long-vacant Fecera’s warehouse on Beech Street into apartments is underway, it’s time to look at another of Pottstown’s historic gems: the Pottstown Shirt Factory.

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Appearances count!

Walking or driving down the street, you really can’t tell what a building looks like on the inside. Many property owners show they care — with flowers, trees, and well maintained exteriors.

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Schools and financial reality

Last month, the National Penn Bank office at High and Franklin streets closed as part of the bank’s $1.8 billion acquisition by BB&T Bank of North Carolina. Hundreds of jobs were lost as the bank cut costs to increase efficiency.

Public schools must also face financial reality.
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Detailed budget needed

Want to know where $59.5 million in Pottstown School District spending goes?

If we school board members are serious about doing our jobs, we need far more detailed budget information than we have now.
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Library renovations underway

After an unexpected two-month delay because of change orders, renovations have begun in earnest at the Pottstown Regional Public Library.

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Housing bargains galore

Pottstown housing sales have picked up in 2016 over the same period last year, and prices have risen slightly, but homes are still amazingly undervalued.

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Pottstown pays for all to enjoy

Pottstown parks are heavily used by people throughout the region. But they are maintained solely with Pottstown taxpayer dollars.

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Park-like setting costs no more

Wyomissing maintains a larger parks system than Pottstown, and maintains 7,646 street trees, at less cost than Pottstown spends for parks alone.

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It's all about economics

The federal Housing Choice Voucher Program -- colloquially known as Section 8 -- is commonly blamed for the decline of Pottstown's residential neighborhoods. But more likely, it's the other way around.

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Pottstown highlights and lowlights

Recently, members of the Montgomery County Planning Commission visited Pottstown for a tour of the borough's success stories. But other prominent areas still need attention.

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Superintendent search on hold

Pottstown school directors will delay their search for a new superintendent until fall. The school district will begin advertising in October with a deadline for submissions at the end of February 2017.

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Too much testing

Last week the Pottstown School Board unanimously passed a resolution to substantially decrease high-stakes standardized testing in our schools.

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High assessments reflect falling values

Many houses in Pottstown are selling for below their assessed value. It's little wonder Pottstown has the highest rate of assessment appeals in Montgomery County-- and a sure sign Pottstown's tax base will continue to decline.

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LERTA to be adopted next month

A LERTA ordinance is expected to be adopted by Pottstown Council next month. The ordinance will give seven years of tax breaks to people who improve their properties. These tax breaks will be subsidized by existing property owners.

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Dead trees mar downtown

The 200 block of downtown Pottstown is undergoing a renaissance, with several renovation projects planned. With all the investment in flower baskets and planters for beautification, it might be a good idea to remove dead trees and stumps.

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Dead trees greet postal patrons

Dead trees not only mar downtown Pottstown, they afflict neighborhoods throughout the borough. For example, dead trees flank both sides of the front door to the Pottstown Post Office, where thousands of people see them every month.

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Mosaic's 'permaculture' garden (year later)

The Mosaic Community Land Trust is marking the first year of its "permaculture garden" at Charlotte and Walnut streets. Community gardens are a vital component of "green infrastructure."

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Walnut Street 'rain garden' (year later)

Pottstown's first sidewalk rain garden was planted in May 2015 on the Walnut Street side of the Pottstown School District administration building. A year later, it's thriving.

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Attracting families to Pottstown

Pottstown's best champions can be those who already live and work here. Pottstown Councilman Ryan Procsal and his wife, Athena, enticed Athena's brother and his family to buy a house on their block.

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Cooperation, preservation win

Bethel Community Church and Congregation Hesed Shel Emet have been sharing a landmark 50-year old synagogue building. Now Bethel has purchased the building, and Hesed Shel Emet will stay on as tenants.

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Growing -- and keeping -- leaders

The Pottstown School District has prepared many of its students over the years for leadership positions later in life. We must encourage at least some of them to stay here and contribute to the long-term welfare of our community.

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Taxes and spending

The combined budgets of the Pottstown School District and Pottstown Borough total more than $119 million -- an enormous sum for a town of just 22,000 residents. But not all that money comes from the Pottstown real estate tax. In this column, we try to hit the highlights of where all that money comes from.

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Useful dialogue continues

Pottstown Council and the Pottstown School Board have scheduled another joint meeting at the community college sustainability hub. These meetings help both entities to address problems and seek solutions -- something that rarely happened in the past.

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Taxpayers deserve fair compensation

Last week, The Hill School hosted a lacrosse tournament drawing thousands to its athletic fields. School district administrators offered three acres of free parking on its Edgewood School property. The Hill School's tax exempt status means local taxpayers are already subsidizing the school.

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Philadelphia goes green (fifth year)

Last month marked the fifth anniversary of an agreement between the city of Philadelphia and environmental regulators to use green infrastructure instead of pipes and holding tanks to prevent polluted stormwater from flooding into the city's streams and rivers. Here in Pottstown, we should pay close attention, because we face the same issues.

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Too much asphalt

Pottstown is about 5 square miles, and 38 percent of our land is covered with impervious surfaces -- buildings, streets, and parking lots. Too much asphalt is not good for the environment, especially when we need rain to soak into the ground instead of running off into streams and rivers.

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Residency incentive to be offered

The Pottstown School Board plans to offer professional staff a five-year, $10,000 forgivable loan to buy a home in Pottstown.

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Lovely houses in Pottstown

Pottstown is a great place to own a home. The borough has neighborhoods that equal or excel anything in the area.

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Record keeping needed for LERTA

If you want to measure progress, you need data on what already exists. It's time the borough and school district require information and accountability from PAID.

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Annex: best building to sell

The Pottstown School District's administrative annex building ought to be leased or sold for offices. It is a lovely office building and mostly vacant.

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Wage increases unsustainable

During a four-year period of very low inflation, the wages earned by Pottstown Borough's non-uniformed employees have increased about 33 percent. This is unsustainable.

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Police compensation a challenge

During a four-year period of very low inflation, wages earned by Pottstown Police officers have increased about 33 percent. This is unsustainable.

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Superintendent search continues

Because of time constraints, the Pottstown School Board will look to appoint Stephen Rodriguez as acting superintendent while the board continues its search for a permanent superintendent.

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Salary schedule facts

In recent months, Pottstown teachers have been showing up in force at school board meetings to emphasize their solidarity. They seek salary increases. Something the teachers might want to discuss among themselves is why the current salary schedule rewards those at the top at the expense of everyone else.

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Cluster: big revenues, no taxes

At long last, nine months after buying the Wainman mansion outright, the Pottstown Cluster of Religious Communities will seek a zoning variance to actually use it.

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Pottstown schools better off alone

The Daniel Boone School District's decision to close the Birdsboro Elementary School shows why Pottstown is better off going it alone.

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Budget breakthrough

Pottstown Borough recently revised its published 2016 budget with a new version that clearly and comprehensively explains how local government functions and where the money goes.

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Planting trees ... in Lancaster

Tomorrow is Arbor Day. Usually this means planting a token tree here and there. But in Lancaster, tree planting is part of a major effort to control stormwater and improve the environment through "green infrastructure."

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Is there a better way?

Newcomers to Pottstown are likely to judge us on the appearance of our streets -- especially our main travel routes, such as King Street.When a building is boarded up, it is a glaring source of blight.

Although it's more expensive, wouldn't it be better to paint the plywood black and board up the building from the inside, so it doesn't look vacant?

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Just do it!

There's a lot of talk about renovating Pottstown's huge inventory of vacant old homes. Hannah Wolfram, a senior at the Kimberton Waldorf School, is not just talking -- she's doing. Hannah bought an empty King Street home with an investor and is renovating the house as her senior project.

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Impediments to revitalization

There are three main impediments to the revitalization of Pottstown: taxes, perception of schools, and perception of crime.

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Curb appeal counts

People are most likely to form their opinion of Pottstown from the appearance of the downtown and our major thoroughfares like High Street.

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Paving over more virgin land

Another car-oriented, environmentally damaging development called Sanatoga Green is planned in Lower Pottsgrove.

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The one that got away

Pottstown has lost many of its industries and businesses over the last five decades, but none was as painful as STV, originally known as Sanders and Thomas Engineers. Although it was founded in Pottstown and stayed here for 50 years, the firm moved its headquarters to Douglassville because no one made the effort to keep them here.

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Kids can walk the distance

The surgeon general recommends that children need at least 60 minutes of daily exercise. In Pottstown, students -- even kindergartners -- can get that just walking to and from school.

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Crossing guards an asset to Pottstown

Crossing guards do far more than stop traffic at intersections. They are friendly faces and a calming influence on our student walkers.

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Holistic thinking needed

The Pottstown School District is not an island unto itself. Public schools are but one function of government, and the school board should be working together with Council as much as possible.

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Can't lead from behind

As Gen. James "Pete" Longstreet reminded Gen. Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, "You can't lead from behind." Members of Pottstown's "leadership class" all live outside Pottstown and are trying to "lead from behind."

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Creativity set free

The Wiz demonstrates the amazing things students and teachers can accomplish when freed from the mind-numbing bureaucracy that has enmeshed public education in recent decades.

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Persistence pays off

Despite years of roadblocks, the vacant Fecera's warehouse is being renovated as apartments and an arts center thanks to the persistence of the non-profit Genesis Housing Corp.

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Superintendent search won't be easy

As the Pottstown School Board seeks a new superintendent from outside the district, Google finds that interviews are often little better than guesswork.

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Front line leaders remain

America's best businesses offer some tips for the

Pottstown School District as it hires its first outside superintendent in more than 50 years: "the family feeling, small is beautiful, simplicity rather than complexity..."

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Superintendent search begins

For the first time in more than two generations, the Pottstown School Board is seeking a superintendent from outside the district.

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Where does the money go?

Pottstown Borough and the Pottstown School District together are spending $114 million in public dollars this year. Both entities need to publish clear budgets that explain where all the money goes.

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To set goals, you need facts

Each Pottstown council member has set one goal for 2016. The most important thing about setting goals: First, you need to gather all the information necessary before making decisions.

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Top employers: hospital, government, non-profits

Years ago, Pottstown's top employers used to make things. No more.

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Put it in writing!

Disgraced entertainer Bill Cosby now knows the importance of putting things in writing. A deal never to prosecute him made years ago recently was thrown out by a judge because it wasn't put in writing. In all facets of life, it's critically important to put things in writing.

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...still waiting...

Nearly six months have passed since the Cluster of Religious Communities purchased the Wainman mansion on North Franklin Street. They were quick to obtain a tax exemption for the property, but still have not applied to the zoning hearing board for a variance to use it.

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Tax base reality

When the non-profit Pottstown Memorial Medical Center was sold to for-profit Community Health Systems in 2003, the hospital became the biggest property tax payer in the borough -- contributing more than $1.3 million in taxes annually. Even so, total assessments and tax revenues in Pottstown continue to fall.

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Do your LERTA homework!

Top borough officials are pushing the Pottstown School Board and Pottstown Council to adopt a sweeping LERTA ordinance -- giving property tax breaks to businesses improving their properties. But they haven't done their homework to report on the experiences of other municipalities using LERTAs across the state.

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Pottstown's most valuable real estate "exempt"

Tax-exempt parcels account for about 20 percent of the total value of Pottstown's real estate. Their owners serve people from a wide area, but the costs are strictly local.

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Disparities in school spending

Of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, Pottstown ranks 378th in wealth, 144th in spending, and 12th in taxes. If Pottstown spent the same, per pupil, as nearby Berks County districts, it could cut millions of dollars from its budget.

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Property values keep falling

Property values are continuing to fall in Pottstown. The new assessments that took effect Jan. 1 are about $5 million lower than they were last year.

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Pottstown school spending soars

Reflecting national trends, spending in the Pottstown School District has risen dramatically during the last 40 years, at almost triple the rate of inflation.

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Spending level unsustainable

Statewide, of 500 school districts, Pottstown ranks 378th in wealth, 144th in spending, and 12th in taxation. The district's level of spending is simply unsustainable.

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Budgets should be reader-friendly

Pottstown Borough and the Pottstown School District should publish comprehensive, reader-friendly budgets as progressive cities like Lancaster do.

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No. 1 local issue: climate change

Using land more efficiently and limiting suburban sprawl are two of the most important ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Living in Pottstown does both. 

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Sustainable Pottstown

Last year, Pottstown began work on a sustainability plan under the guidance of the Montgomery County Planning Commission. The real work -- listing specific actions -- begins this year.

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