Times Chronicle & Public Spirit

Officials react divisively to county budget plan

Gale objects to 8 percent proposed tax increase

- By Rachel Ravina rravina @thereporte­ronline.com

NORRISTOWN >> Montgomery County’s top elected officials sat divided amid beginnings of the 2023 budget process.

A 2-1 vote to advertise the proposed budget during the county commission­ers meeting Thursday was followed by a display of disagreeme­nt.

Initial financial figures show the budget plan with $512.1 million in revenues and $530.7 million in expenditur­es, resulting in an $18.6 million deficit.

Montgomery County Commission­ers’ Chaiwoman Val Arkoosh and Vice Chairman Ken Lawrence Jr., both Democrats, endorsed moving the proposal forward. Commission­er Joe Gale, a Republican, was opposed.

“As we introduce this proposed budget for 2023, I want to emphasize like many families and businesses have experience­d over the past year, the county is facing significan­t pressure on our budget,” said Arkoosh.

Gale had a different take. “OK, the 2023 proposed budget before us reflects higher spending, higher borrowing, higher debt, and also higher taxes,” Gale said.

Arkoosh said the tough economic climate shows impacts from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, global events, and high inflation.

Additional­ly, the county has incurred $24 million in expenses related to hoteling, transporta­tion, food and other clean-up costs related to the remnants of Hurricane Ida.

“All that work was paid for by county funds,” Arkoosh said. “We hope to secure FEMA reimbursem­ent for most of that work, but that has yet to be confirmed, and no funds have yet to be received.”

Gale responded: “Now we can blame Hurricane Ida, we can blame the Ukrainian invasion and that impact on high gas prices and high inflation, but ultimately we have out-ofcontrol spending in Montgomery County, and that’s reflected in the budget deficit and it’s also reflected in the long history of property tax increases in Montgomery County.”

Ongoing projects encompass a number of department­s, including infrastruc­ture, parks and trails, roads and bridges, and grant programs funded through American Rescue Plan Act Funding, all with the goal of serving the 856,000 residents in the state’s third most populous county, Arkoosh and Lawrence stressed.

“There is still a level of service we must provide, and we will continue to provide those services as efficientl­y as possible while meeting our growing county needs,” Lawrence said.

Montgomery County Chief Financial Officer Dean Dortone proposed imposing an 8 percent real estate tax increase in 2023, which would bring the millage rate from 3.923 mills to 4.237 mills. The increase would “add approximat­ely $19.6 million of new net real estate tax revenue,” Dortone said, as 51 percent of county revenues come from real estate taxes.

Gale expressed his frustratio­n: “There’s a pattern of increasing property taxes because we’re simply spending too much money in Montgomery County. The glaring one is the capital budget.”

Of the 2023 capital fund budget, around $112.1 million, or 42 percent of funds are related to the county campus plan, the Justice Center project. Assets and infrastruc­ture make up 27 percent at more than $73 million and the planning commission uses $52.7 million, or 19 percent of the budget, rounding out the top three largest spending items.

Arkoosh praised the progress made on the Montgomery County Justice Center project. The $415 million Montgomery County Justice Center project broke ground in June 2021. The project is expected to construct a 508,150-square-foot facility.

“Constructi­on of the Montgomery County Justice Center, and a greatly expanded Hancock Square Park, is underway right across the street,” she said. “This project is on time, on budget and on target to contribute to the transforma­tion of Main Street in downtown Norristown, while at the same time allowing the county to consolidat­e much of our workforce in downtown Norristown.”

Gale retorted about the high-dollar figures associated with the project.

“We have to prioritize spending, and the cost of

the Justice Center project is entirely too expensive, and that’s why we see this pattern of tax increases,” he said.

On the expenditur­e side, personnel costs were listed as $228,714,101, which was $15 million higher than the 2022 budget, according to financial figures.

Experienci­ng “historical­ly high levels of staff vacancies,” Dortone said in his presentati­on there are currently 328 vacancies of the 2,756 full-time budgeted positions. Vacant positions include correction­al officers, deputy sheriff, public defenders, and youth counselors.

“These vacancies made many difficult jobs even harder over the last couple of years and with wages increasing in many sectors in our region, filling public sector roles has become even more difficult in this current economic climate,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence stressed the importance of turning attention to county employees by way of a 4 percent base wage increase and an employment compensati­on study and “working

to ensure pay equity in our ranks.”

“It’s important and critical that we have a trained, quality, diverse workforce to provide the vast array of services our county residents depend upon,” he said.

Gale pushed back. “You talk about employee retention and the need to have competitiv­e wage rates with surroundin­g counties so we retain county employees so we can deliver the services needed to conduct county government,” Gale said. “The county employees — if you’re a sheriff deputy, they look out the window and they see a-couple-thousand-foot-in-the air-crane with steel beams across the air, and they are wanting higher salary or they’re leaving, and you see that with the volume of employees that leave Montgomery County.”

“Despite this year’s challenges, this proposed budget maintains the county’s sound financial footing, while continuing to deliver the high-quality services and supports that our families, local businesses

and workforce expect from their county government,” Arkoosh said.

“I am the only commission­er on the board that says things like this and it’s important that has to stop,” Gale said. “Because we can’t keep borrowing money at historic levels and we can’t increase property taxes year after year and people are struggling.”

Public hearings on the budget will be held at 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 1. The meetings will take place in person and virtually. Budget documents are available on the county finance website and can be viewed in person. Visit montcopa.org/finance for more informatio­n.

Action to adopt the 2023 budget will take place during the next Montgomery County Commission­ers meeting, which is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Dec. 15. The meeting will take place on the eighth floor of One Montgomery Plaza, located at 425 Swede St., in Norristown. Those interested in attending the meeting can also do so online. Visit montcopa.org for more informatio­n.

 ?? ?? Montgomery County Commission­ers Kenneth Lawrence Jr., Valerie Arkoosh and Joseph Gale.
Montgomery County Commission­ers Kenneth Lawrence Jr., Valerie Arkoosh and Joseph Gale.

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