On Oct. 5, Bensalem residents received their 2019 Homeowners Assistance Grant checks, accompanied by a letter from Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo.
In the letter, he thanked Republican councilmen Joseph Knowles, Edward Kisselback and Joseph Pilieri for approving his 2019 budget, which he said allowed the grant program to continue this year in the amount of $300. Democratic councilmen Jesse Sloane and Edward Tokmajian, who voted against the budget, were not mentioned.
Following the distribution of the letter, Sloane and Tokmajian filed suit against DiGirolamo and the three councilmen in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas and an ethics complaint with the Pennsylvania Attorney General.
The pair said they fully support the Homeowners Assistance Grant Program, but voted against DiGirolamo’s proposed budget, which they said required a transfer of $12.8 million out of the township’s General Fund, which “threatened to leave essential and emergency services unfunded in order to pay for $15 million of capital improvements.”
“Any messaging from the office of Mayor DiGirolamo regarding our votes on the 2019 Bensalem Township budget is an outright lie. The omission of our names was an intentional political maneuver meant to mislead and deceive Bensalem residents a month before the 2019 Municipal Election, in which two of the three Republicans are seeking re-election,” said Sloane and Tokmajian. “It was obvious that it was the Mayor’s intention to use this letter to help them in this upcoming election. The Mayor knows that we support this program, and used our vote against a $16 million budget deficit as justification for illegally using taxpayers’ dollars to mislead the voters of Bensalem.”
Sloane and Tokmajian are demanding that DiGirolamo and the three councilmen repay taxpayers for the “blatant misuse of taxpayer funds” (the cost of the letters that were printed on official township letterhead).
“Mayor DiGirolamo violated the law with this deception through the illegal use of taxpayer money for political benefit,” they said. “We therefore call on the public to reach out to the Mayor’s office and demand an explanation for his decision to violate the law.”
In response, DiGirolamo said there was no “intentional political maneuver” behind his actions.
“They voted my budget down. They can’t have it both ways. I can’t thank you for not passing a budget and not getting all the things done that were in the budget,” he said. “It doesn’t mention anything political in the letter. It doesn’t say anything about either party. It just was thanking them for helping me get that budget through. In my opinion, it was the right thing to do. You can’t vote against the budget and take credit for what’s in it.”
According to Bensalem Township solicitor Joseph Pizzo, DiGirolamo’s budget did not inflict a $16 million deficit on the township, as stated by Sloane and Tokmajian. At the end of 2018, he said Bensalem had $27 million in the bank, some of which was used to fix flooding issues along State Road, among other initiatives.
“Knowing that was going to be the case, the township saw the opportunity to budget some of that fund balance to put toward capital projects that in years past, we didn’t have the money to do. We now had the money to do them. We had planned for years to get some of these stormwater projects moving. At the beginning of 2019, we found ourselves with a fund balance large enough that the mayor was able to move money into the Capital Improvement Fund so that we could start engineering, and in some cases actually building, some of these stormwater improvements,” Pizzo said.
Money in the 2019 budget was also used to complete $5 million worth of road repaving throughout the township, expand the Bensalem Township Police Department body camera program and build a new K9 building.
“Because the revenues that are shown on the books and the expenditures that are shown on the books don’t exactly equal, that overlooks the fact that the township started with $27 million in the bank and at the end of the day, the budget that we adopt is balanced. By law, it has to be. The township can’t adopt a budget with a $16 million deficit. Legally, we just can’t do that,” Pizzo said. “It’s just misleading the public to declare otherwise.”
At the time of this article’s publication, DiGirolamo, Knowles, Kisselback and Pilieri had yet to be officially served with the complaint.
“The township will defend the mayor, the township will defend the three councilmen, because at this point, they’re being sued for a letter that was written in the course of the mayor’s official duties,” Pizzo said. “So he’s entitled to defense by the township.” ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org