County Departments Plead for Funding
Moody's backtracks and reissues 'negative' outlook on county's bond rating; incoming board may be legally unable to revisit 2012 budget.
The heads of Montgomery County's various departments queued up Tuesday before the county's Board of Commissioners to plead their respective budget cases as the county works to close a $44 million budget shortfall.
The discussions took place as the county learned that Moody's Investor Service erred last week in calling the outlook on the county's Aaa bond rating "stable." Moody's retains a "negative" outlook for the county's ability to maintain its top-shelf creditworthiness.
The pressure on the current board was ratcheted up further by county solicitor James Maza, who said state law may prevent the incoming Board of Commissioners from revisiting the budget in January, even if it wants to. Maza presented the commissioners with a written preliminary opinion containing that finding.
Maza: Failure to pass budget may constitute "malfeasance"
Montgomery County is a Class 2A county under state law. As such, it is governed by the Second Class County Code, which Maza said has no provisions for a county's governing body to either pass or amend a budget after January 1.
It is also possible, Maza said, that the current commissioners could be held criminally liable if they fail to pass a budget.
"It may be that failure to pass a budget may be malfeasance, with the consequences that the law provides," Maza said.
"That increases the pressure on us," said board chairman Joseph Hoeffel.
Commissioner Bruce Castor said he thought that such consequences would only apply if "individual members [of the Board of Commissioners] don't show up to meetings or don't do their duty."
They would not apply if the commissioners had made good faith efforts to pass a budget but were "deadlocked," Castor said.
Maza said that assistant solicitor Larry Folmar was continuing work to determine precisely how the next board would be bound by this board's budget decisions.
Commissoners-elect Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards, who will serve alongside current commissioner Castor starting on Jan. 3, have said that they do not intend to reopen any budget passed by the current board.
"A domino effect of gargantuan proportions"
In the meantime, the county's department heads each warned the commissioners of dire consequences for their areas if they were forced to further curtail their operations.
Judge Richard Hodgson told the commissioners that the proposed cuts would cause "a domino effect of gargantuan proportions that would bring the court system to its knees," noting that the Courts department had been cutting its spending for three consecutive years.
"We have submitted budgets that are bare bones. There are simply no further cuts that can be made. Any further cuts would require staff reductions and program reductions. There are also some important public safety issues that would be raised … our staff is already at a bare minimum," Hodgson said.
County Coroner Walter Hofman presented a similarly stark assessment of how a 5 percent budget cut would affect his department's operations.
"We'd have to go with Mr. Castor's recommendation that we outlaw dying on the weekends," Hofman quipped.
Dr. Joseph DiMino, director of the county health department, said that department's per capita costs were already 40 percent lower than in neighboring Chester County. DiMino said he's not able to retain employees at the salaries he can currently offer.
"I have lost nine employees to surrounding health departments because they have higher pay," DiMino said.
Process for reviewing grand jury findings is questioned
Castor questioned Hoeffel's stated intention to have the Board of Commissioners review the findings of last week's grand jury report, which criticized the county's processes for awarding work to contractors and singled out the open space program for particular scrutiny.
Castor said he was concerned about potential legal peril for county employees who might "innocently" contradict their grand jury testimony while being questioned by the commissioners.
"I'm wearing three hats. As a commissioner, I understand and applaud what we're trying to do. As a private attorney, I understand the pitfalls for the people who are testifying. As a former district attorney, I understand how they do things," Castor said.
"I don't intend to compel anybody. Nobody is being subpoenaed. All I want to do is find out how things are being run," Hoeffel said.
Hoeffel said the board would take Castor's concerns under consideration as it publicly reviewed the grand jury's findings.
Matthews in attendance; scheduling issues
Commissioner James Matthews was present for the meeting, marking his first public appearance since he was arraigned on grand jury charges of perjury and false swearing on Dec. 5.
He reiterated his earlier position that the county's budget shortfall should be made up with a 28 percent county tax hike.
"That's one dollar per household per month for each of the 120 months of the tax holiday we've enjoyed," Matthews said.
Matthews, who stepped down as the board's chairman following his arrest, excused himself from the board table when the district attorney's office made its presentation.
Though Hoeffel announced Monday that the Board of Commissioners would meet Wednesday, Castor said Tuesday morning that he had a court proceeding to attend from 11 a.m. to noon on Wednesday and could not attend the entire meeting.
Additionally, Hoeffel said the county had been notified by Governor Tom Corbett that he would visit Upper Schuylkill Valley Park in Upper Providence Township on Wednesday afternoon to present the county with a $240,000 state grant for park improvements.
"He gave us very short notice," Hoeffel said.
Matthews said he would be unable to attend any Board of Commissioners meeting on Thursday because of previously scheduled cataract surgery.