This is the first installment of our five-part series exploring the plans for Lower Bucks County this year. //
The main priority for Bensalem Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo in 2016, as it has been in years past, is safety. Bordering a major metropolitan area has its advantages, but with those come an added responsibility to keep residents out of harm’s way.
“We want to continue the safety and welfare of the community,” DiGirolamo said. “We’re going to continue to be vigilant with the police force. That’s always number one.”
That’s why, he said, earlier this year he proposed and council passed a 1-percent earned income tax. Given the option of either cutting costs in the police force or levying a new tax on people who work in the township, he chose the latter to balance the near $6 million gap in the annual budget.
Not everyone agreed with the decision, including many residents who voiced their dissatisfaction during a lengthy council meeting last month. Councilman Bryan Allen, the lone dissenting vote, pointed to some bloated costs in the police force to support his opinion. Still, the tax went through, and DiGirolamo sees it as a positive for the new year.
The longtime mayor even plans to host town hall meetings to improve communication with residents, something that the township has not done regularly in recent years. Initial topics for discussion, he said, are the earned income tax, public safety initiatives and upcoming events throughout the township.
“We want to bring people up to date with what’s happening in a live meeting,” DiGirolamo said. “I think it’s a good opportunity to keep talking about [the earned income tax].”
There is no scheduled date for the first meeting, but DiGirolamo seems intent on following through.
In addition to continued public safety, DiGirolamo emphasized the importance of community events like the concerts held at the TD Bank Amphitheater. The township sold more season passes leading up to the holidays in 2015 than any year before, and DiGirolamo expects another successful year on that front.
New development creates opportunities for any municipality. The township school district is expected to reach a sale on the long-vacant Armstrong Middle School property on Street Road in the upcoming year. Its central location along the most potent commercial corridor in the township and its large size makes its eventual use important for the future of Bensalem. Also, getting the right return on the sale could greatly benefit the school district and its taxpayers.
The biggest initiative for the township in 2016, though, is getting the “Riverfront Renaissance” underway. On Dec. 14, council unanimously approved eight ordinances aimed to restore relevance to the 675-acre study area along the Delaware River.
The new ordinances permit development uses like high-tech, office space and manufacturing as well as existing residential and industrial uses.
The area of focus is generally outlined to be between I-95 and the Delaware River, from Station Avenue to Street Road. The township is keying in particularly on development in proximity to the Cornwells Heights SEPTA station. There, based on studies by township professionals, up to 300 high-end one- and two-bedroom apartments could be built. Township officials hope to make this area appealing to people looking for access to mass transit to Philadelphia, particularly millennials and empty-nesters.
The ordinances also ensure that property owners who want to preserve open space to be able to do so. Officials want to make sure that parks and hiking, biking and walking paths are part of the plan.
The plans also include a 45-acre community on the waterfront. There, various types of housing including single homes, townhomes, twin homes and condominiums would be built. Anchoring the area would be retail stores, restaurants, a marina and other development options. The area envisioned contrasts with current township infrastructure, and embraces walkability and urban-style living.
The path laid out by the township places the revitalization over 15 to 20 years, and the mayor could not give specifics on what concrete changes residents might see this year.
“That’s a very important part of this year, our riverfront revitalization,” DiGirolamo said. “I can tell you that there’s a lot of interest.”