When an envelope from a local government lands in a mailbox, chances are it contains a bill or some other not particularly welcome message.
But last month one of the region's more populous towns sent envelopes to residents that didn't contain ominous notices or bills. They held checks.
Middletown Township, Bucks County, sent 14,361 checks for $68 each to all owners of properties with structures on them. According to township officials, due to increases in delinquent property-tax collections and efforts during the last few years to keep expenses down, the township had more money than anticipated in the general fund.
The Board of Supervisors decided to divide about $1 million — a portion of that surplus — evenly among property owners. It's a first for the township of 45,000, and national municipal officials say such a gesture is a rarity.
"The responsible thing to do, when possible, is to put money back in the pockets of those who have already invested so much in our community," Amy Strouse, chair of the Board of Supervisors, wrote in the letter mailed with the checks.
In addition to the checks, in April the board decided to use some of the surplus to hire an additional police officer to the force of about 60 and a public works employee.
Elizabeth Stelle, director of policy analysis at the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, said other towns should follow Middletown's lead.
For a decade, the foundation has been lobbying to impose spending limits on state government via a constitutional amendment and to get the state to give money back to taxpayers, she said. The legislation the group backed passed the Pennsylvania House in December but stalled.
"It's really impressive to see a local government that's practicing spending restraint. It's something we don't see at the state level," Stelle said. "It's really important that government leaves as many resources as it can in the hands of Pennsylvanians instead of sitting on surpluses."
William Oettinger, a Republican, was the only one of the five township supervisors — including a fellow Republican — to vote against writing the checks.
"I don't think a one-time $68 check to the residents was an appropriate way to handle that money," he said. "We have other things that the township needs."
Oettinger cited infrastructure and park improvements and the police chief's request for five or six more officers. Other supervisors said the township is working to add a middle-school resource officer and to get a state grant to rebuild a closed skate park and add trails.
Roughly $800,000 in delinquent property taxes collected last year was a "windfall" that made officials look more closely at the general fund revenues, said Strouse, supervisors chair. She said the township aims for $3 million to $7 million in general funds, but the fund had grown to almost $9 million.
Some residents echoed Oettinger's concerns that the township should have used the money in other ways. But most of the feedback officials have received from residents has been positive, supervisors said. Dozens have mailed letters and called the township expressing their shock and delight in getting a check in the mail from their government.
"I was anticipating a more mixed reaction," Strouse said. "I know people have a lot of thoughts about what a township should be doing with their finances."
Strouse, a Democrat who took office in 2016, said that when she was campaigning, residents told her how expensive it was to live in Middletown specifically, and in Bucks County generally.
"It was very much on our mind how to help residents with the expense of living in our town," she said.
In her letter, Strouse suggested property owners spend the money on improving the aesthetics of their properties, shopping at a local business, or eating a family meal at a local restaurant. Property owners have cashed more than two-thirds of the checks.
Rick Schuettler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, said of Middletown's decision, "If they think that's what's right for their municipality, good for them."
Township Supervisor Tom Tosti, a Democrat, said he had been hoping residents could receive at least $100. The township collects $514 annually from the average homeowner. But he supported the township's giving back to residents what it could afford.