By Kaitlyn Foti
NORRISTOWN >> “The state of the county is strong,” was how Josh Shapiro, Chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, summed up an address made by all three commissioners Thursday.
The annual State of the County report was presented at the meeting of the board, where Shapiro, Vice Chairwoman Val Arkoosh and Commissioner Joe Gale discussed the financial matters, transparency, infrastructure and social services of Montgomery County.
“Today, while there is still a ways to go, Montgomery County’s government is more welcoming, more nimble, more proactive, more responsive, more transparent and more accessible,” Shapiro said.
The report led by documenting four years of work commissioners had put in to repairing deficits created by prior administrations.
“It took four years, four commissioners, nearly 100 commissioners’ meetings, 24 town hall meetings and 16 quarterly reports to fix a $10 million budget deficit, a $47 million structural deficit, zero payments to the pension fund, zero raises for employees and $80 million drained from the county’s reserve fund among other challenges,” Shapiro said. “Those were the numbers we faced four years ago, and those are the numbers that threatened to drown any effort to turn Montgomery County around.”
He pointed out a 9 percent decrease in the county’s operating budget, a reduction in county debt, increases in pension payments, county reserve funds and the salaries of county employees, “despite borrowing critically-needed funds to invest in our infrastructure,” he said.
Much of that borrowed money went to repairs that have been made or are in the works for the structurally deficient bridges in the county. Gale pointed out that nearly half of the county-owned bridges were on that list.
“The total investment in the county for road and bridge repair projects has increased by 465 percent,” Gale said. “We look forward to the completion of the Lafayette Street extension here in Norristown, and the coming interchange with the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Gale also outlined additions to the county’s trail system, and efforts in workforce and economic development. Partnerships with the development agencies and the Department of Commerce have led to “numerous economic development projects that have both preserved and created jobs throughout the county,” he said.
Arkoosh took her time during the address to praise advancements in the realm of human services in the county. She pointed out the expansion of Community Connections, the achievement of eliminating street homeless of veterans in the county, and the work that has been done to combat heroin and opioid addiction and overdose.
“Montgomery County government has become proactive after decades of being reactive. With a wave of heroin and opioid use and overdoses washing over the county, we created an Overdose Task Force that has taken a series of actions to combat this scourge,” Arkoosh said.
After the meeting, commissioners acknowledged that the state budget impasse took its toll on the county since it began in July 2015.
“I think the lack of a state budget which created a stress on our departments and created a stress on our budget and literally almost up to December 31, I don’t remember the exact date, that was something that was really hard to navigate,” Shapiro said. “We had to make some tough calls about whether or not to fund human services.”
The county spent about $60,000, Arkoosh said to prepare loan documents that would have been necessary if state funds hadn’t been made available through the Governor’s release of emergency funds just before the new year.
“Under the normal course of business there would have been absolutely no need to borrow to make payroll,” Arkoosh said. “It was this extraordinary circumstance of not having a state budget that put us potentially in that situation.”