Ernie McNeely, longtime West Chester manager, leaving for Lower Merion

Ernie McNeely on to new job.
Ernie McNeely on to new job.
Posted: March 23, 2014

At West Chester's darkest hour, morale was low, streets were deserted by nightfall, and all four corners of the borough's main intersection were vacant.

Today, the county seat is a bustling example of redevelopment achieved, with filled storefronts, ample dining and a walkable downtown.

Borough Manager Ernie McNeely, who said Wednesday that he would leave the post after 27 years to be the manager in Lower Merion Township, was not only there for the transformation, but also, many say, was a pillar of the process, bringing his unmatched institutional knowledge and always-expanding insight on municipal government to every project.

"My first reaction was Lower Merion is very lucky to have Ernie's capabilities," West Chester Mayor Carolyn Comitta said. "My second thought was how are we going to capture everything he knows before he leaves?"

That would be impossible, Comitta and others say, because his knowledge grows by the day. McNeely - who said he has attended every Borough Council meeting for 27 years - has always kept his finger on the pulse of legislative and judicial issues that could affect West Chester, said Jim Jones, a former council member and local historian.

In just one of many examples, Jones said, McNeely had heard about a ruling that allowed a municipality to charge tax-exempt entities a sewer fee if it was used only to maintain the sewer system. For a municipality such as West Chester - where nearly 40 percent of property is tax exempt - the little-known ruling could mean much-needed revenue. The council is considering whether a similar move could be made here, Jones said.

When he lands in Lower Merion, McNeely will be managing a municipality with three times as many residents as West Chester and an annual budget twice as large. But the decision to leave, he said, wasn't an easy one.

"West Chester is a town I've put a large amount of my career into making what it is today, and it's hard to leave all that," he said. "But sometimes it's just time."

McNeely, who lives in West Chester, said he would move to Lower Merion because he can better understand the problems facing a municipality when he is part of the community. He expects his last day to be in late April or early May.

As for finding a replacement, the Borough Council hasn't discussed that yet.

"I'm not really sure how it will work," said Malcolm Johnstone, executive director of the West Chester Business Improvement District. "No one's had to do it in 27 years."

Jones said a friend recently told him it would be impossible to find someone like McNeely.

"Sure they will," he replied. "They'll hire somebody, and 25 years from now, they'll be as good as Ernie is today."



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