Monday, April 3, 2017

April 2017 Behind the Bubble

At The Bubble’s Edge: Interview with Green Tree Mayor Edward Schenck
 by Jason Margolis

In my December 2016 introduction of the Behind the Bubble column, I promised that the series would examine “what lies behind the surface just below, and beyond, the bubble’s rim.”  This month, we take a look at MTL by talking to the leader of its immediate neighbor, Green Tree Mayor Edward Schenck (D).  In this article, we talk with Mayor Schenck about what it is like to be MTL’s neighbor, what a mayoral system looks like, and learn more about how local controversial issues (like taxes and deer management) are viewed in very different ways – just across the yard.

Green Tree Mayor Edward Schenck, who is about to complete his first 4-year term, is getting ready to run again in the May primary.

A trial attorney for over 35 years, Schenck has lived in Green Tree since 1982 and participated on numerous commissions before being elected twice for the Council beginning in 2006, again in 2010, and then as Mayor in 2013.

Governmental Structure

Schenck commented that although Green Tree has a mayor, and Mt. Lebanon does not, the governmental structures are more alike than dissimilar.  He said that the mayor is more of a “figure head,” and is only really “in charge” of the Police Chief (although even with the Chief, the Mayor does not have the power to hire, fire, or even determine raises).   There are 7 Council members elected at large – which is different from Mt. Lebanon’s 5 “Ward” system. 

Similarly, however, elected officials receive small stipends.  Whereas MTL Commissioners earn approximately $3,500/year, Green Tree Council members earn about $1,500/year with Mayor Schenck receiving approximately $4,200/yr.

While Green Tree’s population is about 5,000 people vs. MTL’s 33,000, Schenck explained how both entities are in the “mid-range” of size for a municipality, which generally means that the elected officials receive smalls stipends and people in key full-time positions (like the Borough Manager and Director of Public Works) make close to 6-figures and run the day-to-day operations.  In contrast, Schenck explained how it is either very small municipalities in rural areas or big ones in urban areas that are more likely to have full-time elected officials running the operations.

Similar to MTL, Schenck said it is the Council’s job to keep close watch over the work of the non-elected Green Tree employees.  With about 1/6th of MTL’s population, Green Tree has 7 Council members and a mayor for this oversight, whereas MTL has only 5 Commissioners.


Green Tree has a budget of about $8M and Schenck says they “haven’t raised taxes in 10 years.”  When Allegheny County conducted its reassessment program several years ago, Green Tree lowered the millage and “still made more money.”  When asked whether Green Tree engaged in a spot reassessment program, like MTL’s Newcomers Tax, Schenck said they did this “only with a couple of businesses – not individual residents.”

Schenck further explained that Green Tree has a number of revenue sources that make raising taxes on individual residents unnecessary, including a Business Privilege Tax and Real Estate Transfer taxes.  Additionally, Green Tree focuses its budgetary priorities on “excellent road and recreational programs,” while placing extra money from windfall years in a “fund for a rainy day … when we are tight on the budget.”

Mayor Schenck says this fiscal strategy has not only allowed Green Tree to maintain taxes at their current level, but also to recently be raised two notches in S&P’s bond rating to AA+ (the 2nd highest possible).  In 2014, Moody’s lowered MTL’s rating to Aa2 (the 5th highest rating), citing concerns over a “declining fund balance.”

Schenck was particularly proud of how Green Tree’s strong rating recently allowed the borough to refinance their debt at a lower rate, saving the taxpayer’s significant amounts of money over time.

Deer “Management”

As we began to discuss the issue of deer management, Schenck couldn’t help but to smile and quip that he “thanked Mt. Lebanon for putting up ‘vacancy signs’ for the Green Tree deer” by seeking to get rid of their own.

Schenck also recalled when Green Tree was at a crossroads with this issue: “In 2005, they were going to hire archers to kill deer.  The council meeting was packed with deer lovers … the council backed off, and decided it’s not worth fighting all these people.”

While acknowledging that deer pose a minor risk, Schenck says that there has never been a major deer-vehicle-collision (DVC) accident in Green Tree (there has never been one in MTL either) and that with no cull last year there were actually fewer DVCs than the previous year (with a cull, MTL’s DVCs increased by about 50%).  Schenck also expressed concerns about the use of rifles to kill deer as “that poses some danger … if you don’t have a clean kill, what does the deer do?  It can run and cause an accident.”

Schenck added, “In my opinion, [the MTL cull] is not about car accidents.  It’s more that people don’t want their shrubbery damaged.”

What Is It Like Being MTL’s Neighbor?

Mayor Schenck spoke to the positive things about being next to MTL.  These included Green Tree’s proximity to the shops, the restaurants, and the overall MTL business community.  He compared it to being an individual homeowner where “If you own a house, you want the house next door to be in good shape … it increases your value.”

Schenck had nothing negative to say about being next to MTL, adding that there is “no real competition” between Green Tree and MTL.  “It’s just accepted as a higher economic area.  That’s just the way it is.  They [MTL] might compete more with Upper St. Clair.”

Looking Ahead

Thinking about some of his goals during a second term as mayor, Schenck said that he was not planning any “drastic changes.”  He added, “We want to keep recreation continuing, keep up our parks, continuing our road program … We are also proud of our library.  We want to keep the businesses happy too.”

To end the interview, I asked, “Green Tree – one or two words?”  Chuckling to himself for a minute, Mayor Schenck replied, “The borough is two words, but the street is one word.  I once had someone insist to me that it was otherwise.  He did not know I was the mayor.  I just let it go.”


Anonymous said...

what about their pool, a majority of their residents were against it. A fluff piece!

Anonymous said...

Great interview Jason. I worked in Green Tree for about 20 years prior to 2002 and can honestly say that the public works crew, the police and fire department were all top notch. I knew many of the public works folks and they were all very professional and friendly.

Nick M.

Jason Margolis said...

8:25pm, could you provide some evidence of this? Are there any news stories of this being a controversial issue in Green Tree? Some documentation of 'a majority of residents' speaking out at a meeting against it? Or even an individual resident writing a letter to the editor about how wrong the pool project was? Since reading your comment, I have done some preliminary research, and have found nothing. Please feel free to link those here - if they exist.

Thanks, Nick. It is interesting how you only have to move 2 miles to be in a completely different world, a vastly different mindset. If the KO schools had a better reputation, MTL would have some serious competition with Green Tree in terms of attracting new residents.

For those who have been around here a while, would you say that the KO schools are on their way up or down? As explained to me by the mayor, KO is a combo of Green Tree, Dormont, and Castle Shannon.

Anonymous said...

The KO school district is not comparable to MtL. No reputation, either.

Anonymous said...

I find it enlightening and refreshing to hear Mayor Schenck's take on the deer issue. He has more common sense and grasp of the issue than all 5 Lebo Commissioners combined. Of course, Green Tree has some deer, but has learned to co-exist with them. They didn't go off the deep end, and turn their community into a divisive debacle and public relations nightmare, or waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayers dollars to protect a handful of entitled residents tulips. They didn't turn their community into a private hunting preserve or shooting gallery, that threatens the safety and quality of life of all residents.

Green Tree seems to be fiscally well managed and affordable (“haven’t raised taxes in 10 years.”), and seems like a happy and cohesive community - NO DRAMA - while Lebo residents are at each others throats and being taxed into bankruptcy.

Thanks Jason, excellent interview! I enjoyed the insight into adjacent community thinking, and how these communities are being managed.