County commissioners hold 'conversation' in Lansdale

By Dan Sokil
Original Article

LANSDALE >> Montgomery County’s commissioners have their eye on Lansdale, and borough officials are hoping to draw on their knowledge on how to get things done.

The three county commissioners held a “Conversations with the Commissioners” public townhall Monday night, describing their efforts to provide at the county level services that benefit residents in the borough — and what local leaders could learn.

“We’ve always appreciated Lansdale’s willingness to have us in, and we also appreciate the great work Lansdale is doing,” said commissioners Chairman Josh Shapiro.

“It’s vibrant, it’s exciting, and there’s a lot of good stuff happening,” he said, citing the new borough municipal building and Ninth Street SEPTA station opened last year as examples.

Shapiro outlined the county’s financial picture when he arrived on the board in 2011 and steps he and his fellow commissioners have taken to streamline spending, build up reserves, and provide more services with fewer tax dollars — all initiatives Lansdale officials have discussed in recent years.

“By nearly every measure, we’ve increased the output: more social services, more trails, more commercial opportunities we’re providing than ever before, and I think that’s something the government needs to take pride in,” Shapiro said.

“We didn’t come in saying ‘Let’s slash spending’ for ideological reasons, we came in saying ‘Let’s run the most effective, efficient government we can,’” he said.

During last year’s state budget standoff, county officials tapped into the roughly $40 million in general fund reserves to provide county services that would have been, and were later, reimbursed by the state.

“We were able to do that longer than nearly any other county in Pennsylvania, because we had such a healthy reserve fund,” he said.

Lansdale officials have said they hope to use zero-based budgeting to establish a local budget with no automatic increases for any expenses, similar to the approach Shapiro described as producing tens of millions of dollars in savings for the county. Council president Denton Burnell asked for advice on doing so, and Shapiro said local officials need two things.

“Your political will — and I don’t mean Democrat or Republican, I just mean your political will to make tough choices. And second, a willingness to think outside the box,” Shapiro said.

Local officials should not be afraid to upset certain constituencies and question every aspect of a budget, starting from a blank slate and examining every expenditure, asking if it’s truly necessary. Shapiro used as an example trash pickup by local government, which drew groans from council members who have held lengthy public talks on that topic in recent months, and used that as an example of looking at every expense.

“As government creeps along, doing really good things, as you all here in Lansdale do, you tend to take on some excess that’s really hard to shed, and sometimes it’s hard to admit what the excess is,” he said.

“But if you drill down, ask questions, start at zero, and build up from nothing, you’ll be pretty amazed at what you end up with,” Shapiro said, and said county officials could advise the borough on that process.

Commissioners vice-chair Val Arkoosh described county Health Department efforts to provide social services through outreach offices, including one in Lansdale, where social workers act as “Navicates” who help users navigate the county bureaucracy and advocate on their behalf.

“Our Lansdale regional office last year served nearly 900 individuals, and we get very, very good feedback on those programs,” Arkoosh said.

Montgomery County contributed $1.8 million to the North Penn Commons project adjacent to the Lansdale branch of the North Penn YMCA, and Arkoosh said that was in recognition of the collaborative effort between the Y, Manna on Main Street, the PEAK Center and Advanced Living Communities, who will all be combined in one complex.

“We’re really excited about this concept. It’s a unique concept, and we’re one of the first to embrace this forward-looking program that puts people with the things they need, together,” she said.

Other county efforts she described include a push for widespread availability of Naloxone, an antidote to opioid overdoses paid for by forfeited proceeds from those convicted of drug offenses, and prescription drug takeback efforts where old or unused medications are disposed of properly.

“In one day we collected over 5,600 pounds of drugs — in one day. To put that into context, in all of 2015 we collected about 7,800 pounds, so what that tells me is that people are finally engaged,” she said.

Commissioner Joe Gale said he realized the potential of Lansdale when he lived in the borough for two years prior to his election as commissioner last fall, and said he originally intended to buy a home in the Andale Green development on Hancock Street currently under construction.

“Lansdale is close to my heart, and I really would like to work with the local council here, because I think it has a lot of potential,” he said.

Gale described the Montgomery County Planning Commission’s Montco 2040 planning program describing long-term projects to be tackled over the next several decades, and said grant opportunities could be available for towns like Lansdale. Borough Manager Jake Ziegler said the borough has applied for funding for a project, and more information could be available soon.

Gale also described a trip he and Arkoosh took last week to Generations, a senior community in Souderton, where they helped provide meals to seniors in need, and described how as a new commissioner he’s been touring the various departments and services offered. Gale also asked about the new Stove and Tap restaurant on Main Street, and said he’ll be sure to visit after hearing from local residents that the resident is frequently busy.

“It’s great to have an anchor, where people can leave work and come here to dine and stay. I’m glad it’s doing well,” Gale said.

Shapiro recalled his first “Conversation with your Commissioners” was held in early 2013 at Lansdale’s old borough hall before an extensive renovation and reconstruction project, and Arkoosh joked she had “building envy” of the new energy efficient building within the old walls of the former.

Resident Bob Willi asked about county efforts to reduce homelessness, and Arkoosh and Shapiro said last year the county was able to find homes for 20 homeless veterans, and link them with county services and private organizations that can help.

“We have a ‘housing first’ policy, because if you don’t have an address it’s really hard to get a job,” Arkoosh said, and county officials can help with job training, securing documents, and locating jobs.

Council member Carrie Hawkins-Charlton asked how the borough can build engagement with residents, and Shapiro said the county does so by offering residents the chance to watch meetings televised or online, engage on Facebook or Twitter, or contact officials via email.

“I think less about how many people are sitting in chairs for a meeting, and more about how many people engage in the process,” Shapiro said.

“We work for you. We never forget that, every single day. Any feedback’s always welcome,” Arkoosh said.

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