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Montgomery County Commissioners Inch Toward Budget Compromise

Parks, library move off chopping block but cuts still likely; 14.5 percent tax hike proposed

A county budget compromise that includes both a tax hike and some funding cuts seemed increasingly likely Wednesday as the Montgomery County Commissioners continued to back away from a posted preliminary budget that would have gutted county government while eliminating funding for parks, the county library system, and other programs.

As drafted, the new approach would increase county property taxes by 3.085 mills, up 14.5 percent from the current rate of 2.695 mills. The average Montgomery County property tax bill would increase by about $66 per year.

The new tax revenue would be complemented by a 5.3 percent cut in general county expenditures and appropriations. Rather than being eliminated, the Parks and Heritage Services department would have its budget trimmed from $5.03 million to $4.77 million. The library system's funding would drop from $2.36 million to $2.24 million. Most other general fund expenditures that are not mandated by the infusion of state or federal monies would see similar cuts.

Commissioner Bruce Castor called the initial preliminary budget "too draconian" and said he regarded the compromise put forth by board chairman Joseph Hoeffel as "the best starting point."

"I may have to reconsider my opposition to a tax increase," Castor said.

The proposed budget would leave the county's reserve fund at $20 million, a level which county officials believe must be maintained to avoid further threatening the county's bond rating. Moody's Investor Service yesterday reissued a negative outlook on the county's Aaa bond rating.

"[Moody's] would be thrilled to see a tax increase. They don't care about our spending. They want to know where we are getting revenue," Hoeffel said.

"The bottom line is that we have to make government function," Castor said.

Hoeffel spoke highly of what he called the board's ability to obtain a compromise.

"We're doing here what they can't seem to do in Harrisburg or Washington," Hoeffel said.

Matthews: Budget will "gently put the patient to death"

Commissioner James Matthews strongly objected to the compromise budget proposal, saying it would "gently put the patient to death."

"This would destroy county government," Matthews said. "I will not vote for any budget that doesn't include at least a three percent raise [for county workers]."

County employees have had their wages frozen for the past three years.

Hoeffel seemed to signal that he would be willing to move forward without Matthews cooperation.

"Our goal should be a unanimous vote. We're not close to agreement at this time. My job is to get two votes," Hoeffel said.

Matthews's budget proposal, which Hoeffel has called the "wish list" budget, would increase taxes to 3.475 mills, a 28 percent hike that would increase the average county property tax bill by $120 per year.

"I find the wish list budget unreasonably high," Hoeffel said, noting that it would increase spending by 6.67 percent, a rate which outpaces inflation.

Board will not question employees regarding grand jury recommendations

Hoeffel said the board will meet Thursday to discuss actions it may take in response to last week's grand jury report, which criticized many aspects of county government.

At the advice of county solicitor James Maza, Hoeffel said the board was no longer planning to interview county employees as part of its review process. On Tuesday, Castor raised the concern that such an inquiry might inadvertantly cause county employees who had testified before the grand jury to contradict their testimony.

"I'm persuaded that we can't ask folks in public what happened," Hoeffel said. "I see now by asking them questions that we could be putting them in a tough spot." 

Castor agreed.

"The prudent move is to step back, address in conversation things that we might consider doing. I think asking questions of people puts them in a tough spot, puts us in a tough spot, and I hate to say it but I think we have higher priorities [e.g., the budget] right now," Castor said.

Instead, Hoeffel and Castor will publicly review the grand jury's recommendations with legal input from Maza.

"Obviously, Montgomery County procedures have been called into question. Our leadership has been called into question," Castor said.

Matthews will not be present Thursday while he undergoes cataract surgery. He has excused himself from board proceedings during all discussions of matters pertaining to the grand jury report.

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