Montgomery County Commissioners Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards — minus Commissioner Bruce Castor Jr., who had prior appointments — visited Lansdale Borough Hall Saturday to discuss the status quo of county government today.
Among the points talked about included morale, reform and the "fiscal mess" that Chairman Shapiro said the commissioners inherited from the previous administration.
It was all part of a new series aimed at keeping county citizens updated on the projects and legislation coming out of Norristown.
"We believe engaging with the public all through the county is critical to our job," Shapiro said. "We do better when you tell us what's on your mind."
Shapiro said the commissioners there are three things that are benchmarks by which the commissioners should be judged in the county: improving morale, making necessary reform and dealing with the financial mess they inherited.
"We are making great progress," Shapiro said. "Governing is not about looking backward; it's about moving forward."
Shapiro said Montgomery County Commissioners have a history of bickering and fighting. He said that behavior has an affect on the public perception of government and it lessened morale in the workforce.
"Something that we're really proud of, friends, is, after one year in office, every single vote the board cast has been unanimous," Shapiro said. "We share a commitment to compromise."
He said it is the commissioners' job to work for the people.
"We get that in Montgomery County," he said.
As far as reform measures in the county, Shapiro said the commissioners recently completed a new ethics code. He said the public must understand that everyone at the county level will be held to the highest ethical standards; there are clear lines about what is right and what is wrong. Even the District Attorney has adopted the new ethic policies, he said.
"Montgomery County leads the way on ethics reform," he said.
Commissioners are also working to make sure all businesses — including those operated by women and minorities — have equal opportunities to compete for work in the county, through its new procurement policy known as Montco First.
Commissioners also reformed the structure of government in a year, eliminating 19 percent of county departments and streamlining operations so departments can engage with one another better. Departments like Economic Development were reduced, as well as the number of full-time solicitors serving the county.
"We save the taxpayers money to allow us to run a more efficient government," Shapiro said.
For instance, the $450 million pension fund was formerly managed by numerous money managers, he said. Now, the county pension board reformed the process and put the monies in a mutual fund account that reduces costs by $1 million.
"It's these types of smart, innovative thinking that reduced costs to taxpayers," Shapiro said. "We inherited a fiscal mess."
The day commissioners were sworn in, they were facing a $20 million shortfall in the budget and a structural deficit of $49.3 million. So, Shapiro said the commissioners decided to govern in a different way and present a zero-based budget.
"We asked every department head to come in with a blank sheet and asked them, 'What is their core mission?' 'What should we be doing for the taxpayers of Montgomery County?' We figured out what it would cost to fund our mission statement. We found some departments were extraneous and we found some departments need more resources," he said. "We were able to begin to close the deficit. We were able to pass a balanced budget."
Today, the county reserve fund sits at $20 million. Four years prior, it was $100 million.
"We lost our AAA bond rating in Montgomery County," Shapiro said. "We grew the reserve fund for the first time in four years. Each year, we are required to make a payment to the pension fund. For four years, the county didn't make a payment. We did. It's called common sense reform."
Shapiro said the commissioners could not go to taxpayers this year and ask for more money until they cleaned up the mess.
What's ahead for Montgomery County is a revolution in the way human services are delivered to the people. This new initiative is called "Navicate." Shapiro described it as the county being navigators and advocates of families who are trying to access human services.
The idea is to set up five Navicate offices across the county — one is planned for the Lansdale area — where residents can sit and be with a human services person who makes sure those residents are accessing the services he or she needs and that services are delivered effectively.
"We are utilizing investments made in technology. We are utilizing great work of our internal staff. At the end of the day, it will be a great service we can provide to Montgomery County," Shapiro said.
In the future, the county is also dedicating time to improve the emergency radio communication systems for law enforcement. A new $29.9 million Motorola contract for better radios will be rolled out over 2013, Shapiro said.
Infrastructure improvements are another initiative the commissioners have planned for the future. Commissioner Leslie Richards said Montgomery County is receiving $8 million — half of the $16 million given throughout Pennsylvania — in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement funds.
Richards localized the importance of infrastructure improvements in Lansdale, with the Madison Lot Redevelopment and the West Fourth Street CDBG Project being the most pertinent.
"These are such great examples of public-private partnerships," Richards said. "Already, this borough has done a lot of the hard work. It's nice working with you on that."
The commissioners are also ready to tackle the Voter ID Law this year. Richards, who is also chair of the county board of elections, said there are weekly meetings on the issue, so that they can stay on top of it and be advocates for voters in the county.
Last year, Montgomery County and Allegheny County were the only two counties in the state that could issue its own IDs for residents.
"The law was then put ot rest, and it's coming back now," Richards said. "It has not been addressed how it will uphold in the election. We assure you, we are on top of it. It is an issue very near and dear to my heart. We will make sure nobody is disenfranchised and turned away at the polls."
Residents were able to ask questions to the commissioners at the forum.
Lansdale's Jean Fritz inquired of the status of the $417 million debt in the county. Shapiro said the debt remains within that range today.
"The number that really matters is the debt service. How much money comes out of that service? If we spend 10 percent (of the budget), 90 percent is for other things," he said. "We will work hard to restructure the debt and reduce the overall debt cost."
North Penn Community Health Foundation President and CEO Russell Johnson thanked the commissioners for the transparency in the county. He then asked what the long-term strategy was in applying for block grants for Medicaid dollars.
Shapiro said, in the wake of Gov. Tom Corbett cutting funding for human services, the commissioners did not believe that going with a block grant this year would necessarily help constituents.
Ray Chen, of Upper Gwynedd, asked about county plans for international commerce with China.
Richards said the county Department of Commerce is looking into partnerships with sister counties internationally.
"By developing a new Department of Commerce, we want to be attractive to businesses in Montgomery County and enhance them and encourage them and help them grow," she said.
One resident was concerned about Corbett changing the Electoral College. Shapiro said he was in the Electoral College in the last two elections. The way it works, he said, is whichever candidate wins the state, all Electoral College votes go with that person. So, when Barack Obama wins by five points in Pennsylvania, he gets all 20 Electoral College votes: 18 representing each Congressperson and two for each Senator.
Corbett's proposal, he said, would make the Electoral College votes proportioned by 18 Congressional districts and two Senate votes go to the popular vote in the state.
"Every legislative district drawn in Pennsylvania has been gerrymandered (by Republicans)," Shapiro said. "These gerrymander districts don't reflect the reality of the Commonwealth. It was done in Harrisburg by the governor to make it harder for Democrats to win the race in Pennsylvania."
Ed Bonsell, of Hatfield, asked how many gas pipelines would come across the county for fracking. Shapiro said he was not aware of any such pipelines.
"We pushed for a severance tax for drilling because we are concerned of the effect on drinking water in Montgomery County," he said.
Lansdale Councilman Jack Hansen thanked the commissioners for taking the time to make Lansdale their first stop.
"This is a really special place here," Richards said, adding that she's seen places like Conshohocken, Ambler, and now Lansdale, improve in its economic developments over a 10-year period. "If I could pick one borough in the county that is the most exciting to watch, I pick Lansdale. It's on the cusp of change. It's going to move forward in a very exciting way."
She said SEPTA ridership is the highest at Lansdale, and SEPTA wants that success for its other stops.
"Businesses want to be here because they see growth potential here," she said. "It's something you cannot create. It gets its own momentum going. Lansdale is in that magical moment."