In heated session, Montco commissioners approve 11% tax hike

Commissioner Josh Shapiro said holding the line on spending would include cutting jobs, slashing funding to the community college, and reducing pension payments.

Montgomery County property taxes will increase by 11 percent next year after a contentious meeting Thursday at which the Democratic county commissioners voted to raise taxes for the second consecutive year.

The vote came over the protest of the Republican commissioner, Joseph C. Gale, who suggested that they eliminate jobs and cut spending he called wasteful and redundant.

Gale called two years of tax raises "a clear indication that we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem."

Chairwoman Valerie Arkoosh, in return, accused him of attempting "a stunt" to protest the budget.

The tax increase, which affects only the county's portion of taxpayers' bills - not levies by townships or school districts - will add $66 to the bill of the owner of a $300,000 home, the county average.

Montgomery County will still have the lowest tax rate of any county in the Philadelphia region, and the two Democrats on the Board of Commissioners emphasized that the budget calls for spending less than county government did when they took control five years ago.

Still, Thursday's meeting devolved into a debate on procedure as Gale demanded consideration of his recommendations.

"It's irresponsible," Arkoosh told Gale. "If you had taken the time to actually understand what's behind some of these numbers and the work and consideration that has gone into them, it would be a much more credible situation."

Commissioner Josh Shapiro said holding the line on spending would require the board to cut jobs, slash funding to the community college, and reduce pension payments - at a minimum.

"This is ridiculous, you're foaming at the mouth," Gale shouted at Shapiro as they shot jabs back and forth about budget numbers.

Gale outlined $7 million in cuts, which he said would eliminate a few jobs, hold department spending to this year's levels, and eliminate some contracts with consultants.

After he was told that he would have to propose a millage rate for consideration and that it was too late to toss new ideas around on the day a budget must be passed, Gale declined to make a motion. Instead, he told the other commissioners to "give the residents a Christmas gift this year of higher taxes."

The $409 million 2017 budget increases county spending from this year's $391 million. The budget adds a new tax category dedicated to fund Montgomery County Community College, increasing its funding from $18 million to $22 million.

"This is a tough budget, but it's a responsible budget," Shapiro said. "It's time that we make these tough choices, and it's time that we continue to move Montgomery County forward."

Additional expenses for 2017 include raising noncontract employee salaries 2.75 percent, adding $6 million to the surplus fund, absorbing an increase in health-care costs, and putting $1 million into the fund for the 911 system, said Dean Dortone, the county's chief financial officer. Commissioners said they also had revenue losses this year, including the state's ending an agreement to house state inmates in the county jail.

The commissioners also voted to increase the hotel room rental tax from 1 percent to 2 percent. The revenue will go to the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board, which promotes tourism in Montgomery County. Gale voted against that increase, which Shapiro and Arkoosh supported.

lmccrystal@phillynews.com 610-313-8116 @Lmccrystal