By Bob Keeler
FRANCONIA >> About 65 percent of the people who graduate from Montgomery County Community College stay in the county; about 95 percent stay in the state, Montgomery County commissioners’ Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh told Indian Valley Chamber of Commerce members during a state of the county presentation Nov. 30 at Franconia Heritage Banquet & Conference Center.
The community college, which one out of every five Souderton Area High School graduates goes on to attend, is “very much a part of our regional economic engine,” Arkoosh said.
“A lot of people don’t realize how important the community college is to so many of our young people here in the county,” she said. “As college becomes more and more expensive, the community college provides a really great, much more affordable path for those first two years of college.”
In some cases, those two years may be enough to give the student the training for a good job, she said. In other cases, the two years will prepare the student for further education.
Montgomery County has the most manufacturing jobs of any county in the state, Arkoosh said.
“One of our goals is to try to ensure that we’ve got the right pipeline of workers to make sure that the companies have the right workforce,” she said. “These tend to be very high tech jobs.”
The county has worked closely with MCCC to create apprenticeships for those jobs, she said.
“We’re going to be rolling out, over the next year or two, apprenticeship programs that are being coordinated with our local manufacturers to make sure that these students have the skills that these folks need to hire,” Arkoosh said.
The community college is part of the county’s economic development programs she said.
The county’s proposed 2017 budget includes an 11 percent property tax hike and creates a dedicated funding stream for Montgomery County Community College.
About a quarter of the proposed tax hike is for increased funding for the college, with other portions going to raises for non-union county employees, a fund balance contribution, increased debt service payments and lost state revenue.
When Pennsylvania’s community colleges were started, the state, county and students were each supposed to pay one-third of the costs, Arkoosh said.
“The county actually has never been at one-third of the costs,” she said. “In the absence of us doing that, it’s the student whose tuition has been going up, up, up, up, so we have decided to step up and dedicate this piece of the millage to the community college.”
The proposed tax hike will add about $63 to homes assessed at the county average, she said.
“Even with this proposed increase, Montgomery County still has the lowest county real estate taxes of any of our surrounding counties,” Arkoosh said.
It’s important to show young people career options, Arkoosh said.
One of the ways the county has worked with Souderton Area High School to do that is in the Manufest program, which is an annual event that helps introduce high school students and their families to what it’s like to have a manufacturing job in today’s world, she said.
“This is not the dirty, smoke-billowing kind of thing,” Arkoosh said. “They’re high-tech, super-clean kind of places.”
Arkoosh also noted the mentorships that are part of Souderton Area High School’s Pathways program.
“It’s a tribute to the kids and the school, but it’s really a tribute to all the local businesses that invite these kids in to participate in a mentorship and give them ideas about what careers are available here in the Indian Valley,” Arkoosh said. “It really opens up kids’ eyes to lots of different possibilities that they might not have thought about routinely.”
Arkoosh, who practiced medicine for more than 20 years before being appointed a county commissioner in January of 2015 when former Montgomery County Commissioner Leslie Richards resigned to take her current position as Pennsylvania’s secretary of transportation, said she decided to move into the public health field after realizing that there are many things that affect health that a doctor cannot fix.
“If people don’t have access to good jobs or they can’t get to their job, if people don’t have access to healthy food, if there’s not great places to go out and get exercise or for their kids to go out and play, if our schools aren’t high quality and giving our kids the skills they need to have successful careers — all of those things dramatically affect the health of each and every one of us,” she said.
After being elected in November of 2015 to a four-year term on the commissioners board, Arkoosh was made chairwoman following Commissioner Josh Shapiro’s election this year to become Pennsylvania’s attorney general in January.
Shapiro was not able to attend the Nov. 30 presentation to the Indian Valley Chamber of Commerce because he was in Florida for attorney general training, Arkoosh said.
Shapiro currently remains a county commissioner and is taking part in board meetings, Arkoosh said. After he resigns to take his new position, someone will be appointed to fill his commissioner’s seat, she said. When he resigns, she, working with the county Democratic party chairman, will submit to the county court the name of their choice for the person to be appointed to fill the seat, Arkoosh said.
“Individuals can also self-nominate,” she said. “The judges choose.”
When she was appointed, three other candidates nominated themselves and each was interviewed for 15 minutes by the county’s 23 judges, who then made their decision, she said.
Breaking Down Silos
There are 12 Chambers of Commerce in Montgomery County, Arkoosh said. All 12 met together recently, which is the first time that happened, she said.
“I share that story with you because that’s really part of my philosophy. I am committed to breaking down silos across our region and within our county government and figuring out ways that we can all work collectively together for the betterment of our region,” Arkoosh said.
The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which she currently chairs, and which includes nine counties — five in southeast Pennsylvania and four in New Jersey — also demonstrates that, she said.
“I want you to know that it can work, people can work together, people can work across party lines, they can work across regional boundaries. As long as people come to the work with the right attitude, we can really get a lot of things done,” Arkoosh said. “And that’s the attitude that I bring now as chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.”
The county’s Commerce Department can help businesses looking to expand or move into the county, as well as with things such as job training programs and information on loans, she said.
“We have tried to create a one-stop shop for commerce in Montgomery County,” which can be reached with one phone call, she said.
Montgomery County Planning Commission contracts with many of the county’s municipalities to provide planning assistance, she said.
Earlier this year, medical marijuana was legalized in Pennsylvania.
“We’ve had a lot of really interesting conversations lately with possible grower/producers of marijuana,” Arkoosh said. “It’s gonna be interesting to see how that’s gonna play out and whether or not any of those companies will decide to locate here in Montgomery County.”
Infrastructure investment is a county focus, she said.
“We believe that one of our most critical roles as your county government is to make sure that your customers can get to you, that your suppliers can get to you, or if you are someone that produces something, you can get those things out to where they need to go relatively quickly and easily,” Arkoosh said. “It’s also particularly important that your workers can get to you.”
Surveys show the 96 miles of Montgomery County trails are residents’ favorite feature, she said.
“People absolutely love the trails. They’re wonderful for exercise, for our kids, for our health, but what we’re seeing more and more is that our business community wants to locate near a trail,” Arkoosh said.
That makes it possible for some people to bike to work or for workers to use the trails at lunch, she said.
Since 2012, seven of the county’s 62 structurally deficient bridges have been fixed, leaving 55 that still have to be done, she said.
“We have 13 bridges that are actually closed and all the rest have weight restrictions on them,” Arkoosh said.
The new $5 additional motor vehicle registration fee — raising it for Montgomery County residents from the previous $36 to $41 — will greatly accelerate the bridge work, she said.
“What’s exciting about this $5 is that 100 percent of that money will stay in Montgomery County,” she said. By law, the money can only be used for road or bridge work, she said.
The county plans to borrow against future income from the $3.2 million per year the additional fee will bring in, she said.
“With that additional revenue, by the end of 2017, we should have three-quarters of those 55 bridges either in planning, design or under construction,” Arkoosh said.
“It’ll be miserable when your bridge is under construction, so I’m just going to ask for your forbearance right now because we all know what it’s like. It’s terrible,” she said. “But on the other side of it, it will really be worth it.”