Montco's draft budget includes heavy cuts

The Montgomery County commissioners posted a 2012 budget that eliminates from 500 to 600 jobs, closes entire departments, and ends funding to several beloved institutions.

The Parks Department? Gone.

The Norristown public library? Find somewhere else to read.

The Elmwood Park Zoo? Deader than an antelope unloosed in the lion den.

The good news? No tax increase.

But no one really believes those draconian cuts will end up in the final budget, which the three-person board is scheduled to approve Dec. 21. The $389 million spending plan was just a start, one that none of the commissioners seemed to like.

As usual, the trio staked out different positions, with Chairman James R. Matthews solidly in favor of raising taxes 26 percent to cover a $44.5 million shortfall, Bruce L. Castor Jr. opposed to any tax increase, and Joseph M. Hoeffel 3d calling for a compromise of some spending cuts and a smaller tax hike.

"You guys are on two extremes," Hoeffel said. "I think there's a middle ground."

He suggested reducing the budget gap by cutting spending for most departments and appropriations by 5 percent, raising salaries 1 percent to 2 percent instead of 3, and taking $4.5 million out of the reserve fund. That would save from $20 million to $22 million.

He also said it was hard to justify giving employees 13 paid holidays, including Flag Day, Columbus Day, and Election Day, when most taxpayers get only nine or 10 paid days off.

Even with those measures, taxes would still go up by 12 percent to 13 percent. However, it would be the first county tax increase since 2005, as Matthews repeatedly pointed out.

He noted that Montgomery County's taxes were far lower than surrounding municipalities' and that funding everything in the budget would cost the average homeowner $125 more annually "after years of essentially reductions," since the cost of living has gone up while taxes have stayed the same.

He argued against closing entire departments and said it was "irresponsible" and "would change government as we know it."

In addition to the Parks Department, the Planning Commission would be closed. Funding for Montgomery County Community College, Legal Aid, Norristown and its library, the Child Care Dependent program, courthouse security and sheriffs, and the Recycling Fund would be reduced. The library would be hard-pressed to stay open since its state funding is dependent on local contributions.

The zoo couldn't survive with even 5 percent less, Matthews said. "Once it's closed, the animals are gone," and it would be very expensive to reestablish a zoo, he warned.

In the end, Castor, the only commissioner who will still be in office in January, suggested that the board post an amended budget with a smaller cash reserve and some pay raises. He vowed to go along with the two incoming board members - Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards - who promised during their election campaigns to not raise taxes.

His colleagues reluctantly agreed, even though it didn't solve any problems. Chief Financial Officer Randall Schaible said the amended budget would still eliminate from 500 to 600 jobs.

 


Contact staff Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.