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No Tax Hike As County Adopts 2013 Budget

The $409.7M budget adds money to the county's general fund for the first time since 2007.

The Montgomery County Board of Commissioners on Thursday unanimously adopted a $409.7 million operating budget for 2013, completing a year-long process that county officials said involved an essentially complete teardown and rebuild of the county's financial operations.

Board chairman Josh Shapiro said the budget, which does not increase the county's property taxes, establishes "a positive, long-term path forward for our county."

In addition to funding "core" county functions, the budget sets aside $2.6 million for the county's general fund balance, which had shrunk from about $100 million at the beginning of 2008 to about $20 million when the current county administration took office. The county's shrinking cash reserves had led to credit downgrades from Moody's and other rating agencies.

All three commissioners had high praise for Uri Monson, the county's chief financial officer, who received a round of applause for leading the effort to measure each county department's financial requirements from a baseline of zero dollars, rather than using the 2012 budget as a guideline. Commissioner Bruce Castor also credited him with ferreting out numerous irregularities that Castor said had been introduced into the budget through the financial mismanagement of former Commissioners Jim Matthews and Joe Hoeffel, with whom Castor served during the previous administration.

"I'm enormously impressed with Mr. Monson and the things that he and the finance department have done ... the things that I knew were there [from the previous administration] were uncovered and documented," Castor said.

Legal Aid, others awarded contracts

"It is a tough budget. It is a responsible budget. It is a transparent budget. We will continue to help others find other avenues for funding that we are unable to provide because it is not in the core responsibilities of what the county has to do," Commissioner Leslie Richards said.

Richards's comments alluded to the county's elimination of earmark grants from its budgeting process, which led a number of affected service agencies to come before the commissioners on Nov. 29 to plead for the preservation of their funding. Shapiro said that though the grants had "supported many worthwhile organizations," the county's legal research indicated that the disbursement of taxpayer funds in that manner was both illegal and a violation of the Pennsylvania State Constitution.

One agency which did manage to get the bulk of its previously earmarked funding was Legal Aid of Southeast Pennsylvania, which was the recipient of $270,000 in county contracts that were awarded following the approval of the budget.

Harvey Strauss, co-executive director of Legal Aid, said he was "very happy, very pleased, very grateful" for the contracts, which he said would enable Legal Aid to keep its Pottstown office open and to "continue to provide services that we're proud of."

In a press briefing following the meeting, Shapiro explained that Legal Aid had received the new contracts because situations in which the court is required to appoint outside counsel for indigent defendants would have been more expensive with a provider other than Legal Aid.

"Legal Aid was uniquely positioned to provide those services," Shapiro said, adding that the commissioners had consulted on the matter with several judges on the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas following last week's budget hearings.

The final regularly scheduled meeting of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners will take place on Dec. 20.

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