The Montgomery County Commissioners are holding a series of public meetings, called “Conversations with Your County Commissioners,” throughout the county. The first was this past Saturday and held in the Lansdale Borough Hall.
These are my notes from the meeting. As always, this is not intended as an exact transcript and I apologize in advance for any errors or misconceptions. Below the event notes are some personal notes and a list of articles on the event.
Commissioner Bruce Castor could not attend but both JoshShapiro and Leslie Richards were there. The event was slated to start at 10:00. I got there about 10:05 and it was just getting started. Shapiro spoke, then Richards spoke, and then it was opened up for questions. The commissioners stayed until all the audience’s questions were answered.
Benchmarks for assessing the commissioner’s performance:
1 Improving moral
3 Fiscal mess
The three previous commissioners engaged in a lot of bickering and fighting. That had an effect on government and morale. All of the votes of the current board have been unanimous.
Reforming county government
I tried to pass reforms in the state house. In the county we hold everyone to the highest standard and have passed a county employee ethics standard. There will be no politics on county time and you can’t enrich yourself by what you learn on the job. The County District Attorney has also adopted an ethics policy. Other counties have asked for copies of our policy. We also have a new procurement policy. There is a Montco First initiative. In some cases local businesses receive additional points in the decision. We eliminated 19% of county departments and streamlined costs. In the solicitor’s office there used to be two full-time employees and for other work the county hired outside counsel. There are now nine full-time employees and that has cut down on outside legal costs. The $450M pension fund used to have several money managers; it is now in a Vanguard mutual fund.
The 2012 budget was $10M short when we took office and also had a $49.3M structural deficit. We can’t tax or cut our way out. We instituted zero based budgeting; each department has to tell us what they need to do and how much that will cost. We have passed a balanced budget. We made investments. When we took office the reserve fund was $20M; it had been $80M four years earlier. We had lost our triple A bond rating. We grew the reserve fund and made the first payment to the pension fund in four years.
We will revolutionize delivery of human services. We plan to deliver human services through navicates, who serve as a navigator and an advocate. We will start with four locations and grow to more.
Emergency radio communications – Commissioner Bruce Castor led a task force on this. It was estimated that it would cost $120M to get the system we want but we made a deal with Motorola for $29M.
We want to invest in infrastructure.
Leslie Richards (10:30)
The new 202 parkway took 50 years to complete. We will work with DVRPC (Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission) and have received $8M in CMAQ funds. Only $16M came to the region and we received half of it. We are embarking on a new planning process.
I chair the Montgomery County Board of Elections. Because of Voter ID concerns we issued our own id cards to make sure people could vote. Only one other county in the commonwealth did that. We issued 100 ids and then the law was put to rest but it is not coming back up again.
Q: In July the county was $417M in debt, what is the debt now?
JS: We inherited about $420M in debt. What matters is debt service. We pay 10% of our budget on debt service. We are trying to reduce that. One way we are doing that is looking at assets we can sell to reduce the debt. We recently put the human services building on the market. Ratings agencies say our debt could be increased. But in raw numbers it is still about the same.
Q: Thanks for the transparency. Presents report on hunger in Montgomery County. Why didn’t the commissioners apply for a Medicare block grant from the state? This was the only county in SEPA to decline.
JS: A lot of human services is from the state. Block grants are a little more flexible. It’s less money but more flexible. We think the navicate system is better than a block grant. Not ruling out block grants forever.
Q: [long speech on CADCOM program; want to be part of navicate program]
JS: We rely on outside organizations to help with the navicate program.
Q: International trade with China
LR: Some restructuring in the Department of Commerce. Looking at our sister counties internationally.
Open to it. Excited about it.
Q: Gov. Corbett’s proposal to change the way PA’s electoral votes are awarded.
JS: I am opposed to this. You should contact your state representative and state senator to let them know what you think. You can also write a letter to Gov. Corbett.
Q: Will the cost of the new radio system be paid by local municipalities?
JS: The radios will cost around $6M; the number for all the municipal departments will be around $3M and will work with them on a plan for paying for it.
Q: Sandy Hook, county mental health program
LR: We need common sense gun laws. We’re on top of it, meeting with departments.
JS: We are working to decrease the possibility of something like that happening here. Montco installed a button in all public and some private schools that when pushed alerts the 911 system and local police respond.
Q: There was a plan for a road from 309 to the Turnpike and a portion of it in Hatfield, along Allentown Road, isn’t completed. Large trucks drive on residential roads.
LR: I advocate for large transportation projects. There are five projects on our plate and this is one of them. It is programmed but at present the funds aren’t available.
Q: privatization of the lottery
JS: It doesn’t make sense.
LR: [lengthy praise of Lansdale]
Q: 300 properties up for sheriff sale
JS: The county can’t solve the problem but it can help, often by connecting people.
LR: The planning commission is looking at that.
Q: welfare reform / fraud
JS: That is primarily a concern at the state and federal level. We work closely with them.
Q: fracking. North Penn water supply is 75% from the Delaware River, Liquified natural gas sales overseas
JS: Zero wells scheduled to be built in Montco. Not aware of any pipelines in Montco. When in the state house I pushed for a several tax. We should have clean drinking water.
LR: I worked closely with EPA and Conservation District.
Q: Will the navicate program use existing employees or hire new employees?
JS: We advertised for four navicates and one supervisor. There are some internal applications and some external. The hiring process is underway. The office locations have not yet been formalized.
Q: People on disability with mental illness
JS: We need to get them into the system as soon as possible. The Montco Community College Power program helps with this.
Q: [comment about stun guns in school]
LR: The county website will have a new look, but same address www.montcopa.org
Personal observations: I counted around 35-40 people, though some were staff; given the number of news articles on the event a handful were journalists.
When Shapiro was in the state house he sometimes wore an orange tie. It showed up often enough when he was pushing for legislative reform that I dubbed it the orange reform tie. At this event he was again sporting an orange tie. My memory is not good enough to say whether or not it was the same orange tie but I tend to think it was a new one. Perhaps it is version 2.0 of the orange reform tie or the county level orange reform tie.
At the requisite information table outside the meeeting room there were several flyers on Lansdale. All were nicely done. I was especially impressed by a packet on starting and running a business in Lansdale. That's a great idea!
List of published media articles on the event
For those who prefer their news via mainstream outlets, here is a list of articles on the event.
"Montco commissioners answer questions in Lansdale" by Jennifer Connor, The Reporter 1/19
"County Reform, Debt Service at Heart of Conversations with Commissioners," by Tony Di Dimizio 1/19
"Standing room only for commissioner's chat," by Christina Kristofic Phillyburbs 1/20