to Lee Soltysiak, deputy chief operating officer. ELON applied for a 10-year LERTA, meaning the facility’s property taxes would gradually increase each year from the current base rate to the new reassessed rate in the final year.
Norristown Borough and Norristown Area School District had already signed off on the project before the board gave it the final OK.
Gale objected to the deal saying it wasn’t fair to property owners.
“It’s very hard to tell the property owners across Montgomery County that have been whacked with a 21 percent tax increase over the course of two years that we’re authorizing tax abatements to developers,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s fair to the average resident that’s faced with that burden.”
The Montgomery Park project was just the latest example of a pattern of “sweetheart deals” the county made dating back to 2013 that benefitted campaign donors, Gale charged. Arkoosh was taking a page from the playbook of her predecessor, Josh Shapiro, the former commissioners’ chairman, a Democrat and current Pennsylvania attorney general, he said.
In addition to the project in Norristown, Gale mentioned four other board decisions dating back to 2013 which he took exception to given they benefitted campaign contributors:
• At its Feb. 2, 2017 meeting, the board unanimously voted to award developer Kevin Silverang special tax exemption for a project in the Borough of Hatboro. Silverang’s wife, Claudia Silverang, has donated $2,500 to the joint Shapiro/arkoosh campaign account and a total of $14,500 to Shapiro’s campaign committee. The Hatboro project converted the abandoned complex into an 85 unit apartment complex, with approximately 1,500 feet of commercial, retail/restaurant space. Hatboro Township and Hatboro Horsham School District both approved the LERTA request before the commissioners signed off. The township gave the OK on July 25, 2016, and the school district did the same on Sept. 19, 2016. The county also received letters of support from the township, the school district and the Montgomery County Planning Commission.
Silverang is also the beneficiary of a sale/leaseback agreement in which the county sold its Human Services building to him for $17.5 million and then agreed to lease back the building for $34.5 million in rent over the course of 15 years, according to Gale. In that situation, the county no longer wanted to be the landlord of the building when it was only using a small portion of it. County officials said they felt the county could save money on maintenance costs to sell the building and lease back a portion of it. It made more sense in the long run to sell it, and Silverang just happened to be the highest bidder, officials said. County policy says to sell to the highest bidder, regardless of who it is, they said.
• At the Dec. 1, 2016 meeting, the board voted 2-1 (with Gale dissenting) to award Westrum Development Co. special tax exemptions as well as a tax forgiveness of $40,000 owed in county taxes, in addition to forgiveness of more than $750,000 in taxes owed to Norristown Area School District and Norristown municipality. At that meeting, Michael Clarke, the solicitor of the Norristown Area school board, urged the commissioners to vote for the project. Michael Clarke has donated $2,500 to Arkoosh’s campaign account, Gale said. However, the borough and the Norristown Area School District already signed off on forgiving the more than $750,000 in liens held against the property. The county’s vote to forgive the roughly $40,000 owed to it was the last step in a deal that was a condition of a new developer in purchasing the property. County deputy Solicitor Josh Stein said at the time the county generally abides by the desires of the elected municipalities and school boards.
• Gale also echoed complaints he made during the Sept. 15 commissioners’ meeting when he suspected political favoritism in the contract for North Hills Manor and Crest Manor projects undertaken by the Montgomery County Housing Authority. The winner of that contract, Pennrose Properties LLC, was a campaign donor to Shapiro and Arkoosh, as well as former commissioner Leslie Richards, also a Democrat. The county chipped in about $1 million of the project’s roughly $17 million budget. Yet former Solicitor Raymond Mcgarry and Joel Johnson, executive director of the Montgomery County Housing Authority, each previously verified that the authority’s board worked independently of the commissioners when awarding the contract to Pennrose.
• Gale lastly recycled a complaint about Shapiro’s relationship with Israel Roizman and Roizman Development. The developer donated heavily to Shapiro’s campaigns over the years. In the campaign finance reporting cycle ending April 2, 2013, Israel Roizman had donated $22,500 to Friends of Josh Shapiro. On April 4, 2013, Shapiro participated in a 3-0 vote to provide Roizman Development with a low-interest loan of $937,103 from the county’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund for an agerestricted development in Whitemarsh Township.
“The original loan amount was approved for $937,103,” Soltysiak said previously. “The project came in under the original budget and they ultimately only spent $750,000 of that amount which will be paid back according to the terms of the loan.”
Under the Pennsylvania’s Ethics Act, Shapiro’s vote on the loan did not constitute a conflict of interest.
“There is no prohibition from accepting a campaign donation from an individual and then participating in a motion or some type of action that would affect that donor unless it can be determined that there is an arrangement,” Robert P. Caruso, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said previously.
Caruso was not commenting specifically on the circumstances of the April 4, 2013 vote, but on whether the Ethics Act requires a public official to abstain from votes involving donors. Caruso went on to explain that if someone believes an arrangement has been made, they can file a complaint to the commission.
To Gale, each of these actions
“I feel as the minority commissioner I have a moral obligation to point out the shameful behavior.” — Joe Gale, Montgomery County Commissioner