Commissioners approve 2019 budget, new voting system
Discussion over the proposed 2019 budget took up much of the Montgomery County Commissioners’ last scheduled meeting of the year.
Montgomery County Commissioners’ Chairwoman Valerie Arkoosh and Vice Chairman Ken Lawrence, both Democrats, voted yes to adopt the 2019 county budget on Thursday over the objection of Republican Commissioner Joe Gale.
The budget recommends no real estate tax millage increase, keeping the rate at 3.849 — 3.459 for general operating and .390 in dedicated Montgomery County Community College funding — for the second consecutive year, according to Montgomery County Chief Financial Officer Dean Dortone.
Additionally, the balanced budget projects $420.2 million in revenue and $420.1 million in expenses with an $86.5 million, or 20.6 percent fund balance.
A point of contention in the budget was specifically the multi-year-county campus plan.
“We are very pleased to propose a budget to the residents of Montgomery County that does not include a tax increase for the second year in a row. This budget invests in the core functions of county government by the dedicated funding source to the Montgomery County Community College,” said Arkoosh. “This budget also contains the implementation of our multiyear county campus plan, our plan to design and build the county campus that will serve this community for the next 100 years.”
Arkoosh also stated that county buildings are in “desperate need of repair” and needed such updates as security upgrades and facility modernization. Arkoosh also argued that these improvements would “serve as a catalyst for new development in Norristown.”
Arkoosh said that “the comparable construction-only costs for the entire county campus project today, including the new justice center, at nearly twice the originally estimated size, stands at $371 million compared to $281 million in 2015.”
“What Commissioner Gale fails to tell you in his comments about the county campus plan is that he approved the design to increase the size of the county justice center from the 150,00 square feet estimated needed in 2015 to today’s researched and data-driven estimate of 319,000 square feet. It is incomprehensible that he expects to double the size of a new justice center without increasing costs at all,” said Arkoosh. “To vote no on any of these budgets is to deny our taxpayers the services and infrastructure to make Montgomery County the best it can be today and for the next 100 years.”
Gale responded, noting that he had “laid out very clear, straightforward ultimatums for his colleagues.”
“One was I thought that the $406 million, 5-year capital plan related to the county campus plan was far too costly and two, because it was too costly, I wanted a guaranteed commitment from my colleagues that a project labor agreement would not be implemented going forward because it is proven that a project labor agreement will only increase costs by 20 percent, approximately,” said Gale. “None of those have been granted and I am very confident that the vast majority of residents and taxpayers in Montgomery County will agree with me that a $406 million campus renovation project is ridiculous.”
Gale added, “I am more than willing to work with you and if the engineering, architecture and design firm says, ‘we can’t build a justice center for less than $364 million,’ cancel the contract and find another one. That’s outrageous. I am very confident that the vast majority of residents and taxpayers of this county will appreciate my no vote. I will proudly cast a no vote.”
The meeting additionally covered the approval of 15 resolutions and 38 awards of contract. Among the awards of contract was a contract with Dominion Voting for $5,823,143 for a new voting system.
“I’m really excited about this vote today,” said Arkoosh. “Today’s action will allow the county to move forward with purchasing a new voter marked paper ballot system. This will accommodate our 425 polling locations and nearly 600,000 registered voters. Our goal is to have the new system in place by the May 21, 2019 primary.”
The current voting system was purchased in 1996 and is in need of updates. The current voting system did not include a voter paper trail, which is now mandated by the Commonwealth.
“The new system’s reliance on a simple paper ballot will deliver the highest degree of confidence in our election process. At a voter’s precinct, a voter will mark their vote selection on a paper ballot or on an ADA accessible touch screen, which will then print the voter’s ballot selections,” explained Arkoosh. They will then review their selections on a marked paper ballot then cast their ballot privately and anonymously by casting the ballot into a scanner that will be located at the voter’s precinct. This process ensures that when polls close at 8 p.m., we will be able to quickly tabulate the votes and provide accurate election results in a timely manner.”
Lawrence added that all current and future poll workers will have the opportunity to train with the new system. The public will have have the chance to try out the new system before the May 2019 primary.