By Dr. Valerie Arkoosh
As 2016 ends and we look forward to 2017, I’d like to share with you my vision for the future of Montgomery County. I was honored to become chairwoman of the county commissioners earlier this month when my colleague, Josh Shapiro, was elected attorney general. We have an effective record of accomplishments to be proud of and a strong foundation on which to continue to build a robust, vibrant, and inclusive Montgomery County.
Over the last few years, we have made county government more efficient and have streamlined services in several areas. One example is the one-stop-shop for those who are looking to do business or find work in Montgomery County. Local businesses or prospective employees no longer need to navigate a maze of programs to find help. By partnering with the private sector, our Department of Commerce offers a unique model that enables the county to offer a range of coordinated business solutions, including: real estate location and relocation services, planning assistance, details about state and county financing programs, and workforce development tools.
This model is similar to our approach to reorganizing health and human services. Residents are now using our “Community Connections” program to get the services they need – without having to jump from office to office to get referrals, employment help, or housing questions answered. Other efforts to improve efficiency and service delivery include bringing all the departments that make up our health and human services under one umbrella with the launch of the new Department of Health and Human Services in 2017.
Addressing our decaying infrastructure is another important priority. Before the Shapiro administration took over in 2012, there were 62 structurally deficient county-owned bridges, all with some sort of weight limit. Since then, 16 of the 62 structurally deficient bridges have been repaired or are scheduled to be repaired by the end of 2016, and 34 bridge projects are in our capital budget for 2017, eight of which were added to the list as a result of the $5 motor vehicle registration fee passed this year. One hundred percent of this fee stays in Montgomery County and creates a dedicated funding stream to speed up bridge repair and maintenance. By the end of 2017 we expect 80 percent of the original 62 structurally deficient bridges to be repaired, in design, or under construction. Our vital infrastructure must remain in good shape so our businesses and neighborhoods thrive and we don’t pay more to fix problems later.
Our parks and 96 miles of trails are the envy of the commonwealth and bring millions of tourists to the county each year. I am committed to the strong partnership we have with the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board, and I am supportive of efforts that attract tourists – and the revenue they generate for local businesses – to our county each year.
We must redouble our efforts to reduce the devastation caused by opioid addiction throughout the county. Our all-hands-on-deck approach brings together public safety, law enforcement, treatment specialists, and public health officials, along with drug treatment courts, the DA, the coroner, and community leaders. An important tool available in this effort is the medication naloxone, which can reverse an overdose. Most local police and EMS now have naloxone available to help addicts who is overdosing. In addition, in 2015, I issued a countywide standing order allowing licensed pharmacies to dispense naloxone to individuals at risk of a heroin or opioid-related overdose. Our Office of Drug and Alcohol is also working closely with our eight county hospitals to implement a “warm-handoff” program that takes a survivor of an opioid overdose directly from the emergency department to a treatment program. We hope to see this program in all of our hospitals by the end of 2017.
I am also focused on efforts to build the workforce Montgomery County needs for a vibrant economic future. The Montgomery County Workforce Development Board, also known as MontcoWorks, provides locally directed, easily accessible, market-driven resources for employers and jobs seekers. But we also need a pipeline of trained workers. That is where the Montgomery County Community College comes in. We recently created a dedicated millage for the college and these funds help feed that pipeline with skilled workers.
The college is also an important economic driver for our community. It serves nearly 20,000 students – 81 percent of whom are Montgomery County residents. Most MCCC graduates remain in the county after graduating, becoming local homeowners and taxpayers. It is also important to note that many MCCC students are veterans; in fact, MCCC has been named a “Best for Vets” two-year college by Military Times. I am proud of our work to help county residents achieve their dream of an affordable higher education.
We must also continue to build the county’s strong financial position. When Commissioner Shapiro took office, a legacy of short-sighted, kick-the-can-down-the-road financial practices took years to recover from. Today we operate county government more efficiently and at lower cost to taxpayers than the previous administration did in 2011. We make contributions to our employee pension program, long neglected by previous administrations, and ensure that we have a fund balance that can help us weather tough times. Finally, I am committed to investing in a strong and professional county workforce. These fiscally responsible principles guide my thinking about how County finances are administered.
In 2017, I will be welcoming a new commissioner to join Commissioner Joe Gale and myself on the board. I look forward to the three of us working together to preserve this strong record of accomplishment and further the goals of a vibrant Montgomery County – a place where residents want to live and raise their families, where new businesses want to begin, and where tourists want to visit.
Wishing everyone a happy and a healthy New Year!
Dr. Valerie A. Arkoosh is the chairwoman of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.