For commissioners, Montco budget hearing taxes civility

Before the start of a packed public hearing Thursday on Montgomery County's proposed budget, which calls for an 11 percent tax increase, the lone Republican commissioner attacked what he called "money grab after money grab," a comment his Democratic colleagues said betrayed his "stunning" ignorance of the budgeting process.

Republican Commissioner Joseph C. Gale criticized Democratic Commissioner Josh Shapiro, who is also state attorney general-elect, saying the timing of the proposed increase was suspect.

"Josh Shapiro has a history of playing politics with your tax dollars," Gale said. "For political expedience, he waits until after Election Day to hit the public with higher taxes."

Shapiro said in a briefing after the meeting that Gale's accusations were false and suggested that the first-term commissioner has a "stunning lack of understanding of how a county budget works."

Shapiro said it is easy for Gale to say he wants smaller government and lower taxes, but challenged him to find cuts without layoffs or reduction of services.

The county has proposed an 11 percent property-tax increase for its share of bills, not including school or town takes. That would add about $66 to the annual bill for the owner of a $300,000 home, the county average.

More than 60 people attended the hearing in Norristown, including several Montgomery County Community College students, faculty, and administrators who applauded the proposal to create a separate tax category to go toward funding the college.

Valerie Arkoosh, chairwoman of the commissioners, said the proposed $409 million in county spending is $1 million less than it was in 2012, when Shapiro was elected to the board of commissioners, and reduced spending and debt.

Shapiro said Thursday that he would be willing to have the public view an alternative budget proposed by Gale, if he had one.

Gale said spending should be reduced across the board, but offered no specifics. He said department heads should do that work.

"Commissioner Gale isn't in the office that often, so he may not be aware of the hours and hours and hours of meetings," Arkoosh said, between senior staff and department heads, "going through . . . literally, line by line, the budgets of each department."

County officials have said they had unexpected expenses and loss of revenue this year, including rising health care costs and the loss of a contract to house state inmates at the county jail. The proposed budget also offers 2.75 percent salary raises to noncontract employees.

The separate tax category for the college, at a rate of 39 cents per $1,000 in property value, is estimated to increase the county's portion of funding for the college from $18 million to $22 million next year.

"The college has been working incredibly hard over the last five to six years, dealing with the intense cuts that have come from the state and the county," Harold Halbert, an English professor, told the commissioners during the hearing. "Please, please, please reserve the part [of the budget] for the community college."

Several students, many of them veterans, spoke about what the college has meant to them.

Peter Gebert of Blue Bell was one of several residents who criticized the commissioners for considering a tax increase.

"People are struggling," he said. "You have to stop looking at the taxpayers like we are your private piggy bank."

District Attorney Kevin R. Steele also made a plea to the commissioners at the budget hearing, for more money to pay his prosecutors. The starting salary for assistant district attorneys in Montgomery County is $41,176, which Steele said is less than in other counties in the region. He said he has lost talented prosecutors in the last year due to the low pay.

"I lost a captain of one of our units who was sleeping on a friend's sofa because he wasn't able to get by on the salary he was making," he said. "I don't want to lose people that want to work really hard for public safety."

A final vote on the budget is scheduled for Dec. 15.

lmccrystal@phillynews.com

610-313-8116 @Lmccrystal

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