It’s quite astounding, this plunge at sub-sonic speed that Montgomery County (PA) governance has taken since the November election.
In a matter of weeks we faced a Commissioner’s arrest on perjury charges and a budget crises that finally bobbed to the surface like a bloated dead body. But this happened only AFTER the election, despite MONTHS of reassurances from Commissioners Joe Hoeffel and Jim Matthews that all was well; that there was nothing to the rumors ”floating around” concerning a sizable budget shortfall; and that all the hand-wringing was the work of political malcontents and other nefarious sources looking to make political hay at the expense of an unusual, personality-fueled ”bipartisan” managing majority.
That’s a $44 million “oops” for the FY2012 budget year. An “oops” that would have resulted in a 29% property tax increase if alleged perjurer, Jim Matthews has his “no cuts, just raise taxes” way.
Most maddening – to me anyway – is that it was a deliberate ”oops” that callously may have affected an election, where voters – unaware of how bad the budget picture really looked – were denied the opportunity to evaluate the bona fides of the four candidates in the light of the true budget situation. (e.g. Would one vote for candidates who promise “no tax increase” with such a bleak budget picture where significant service cuts were the only other solution?)
Instead we witnessed an election campaign where one set of candidates (Democrats Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards) were able to take the “see no evil, raise no taxes” Tea Party approach to courting voters, while the other team (Republicans Jenny Brown and Bruce Castor) had to renounce their party’s proclivity to abhor any mention of raising taxes simply because they had insider suspicions – due to Castor’s presence on the County Commissioners Board - as to the real nature of the County’s budget morass.
As taxpayers you should be enraged that such an opportunity was denied you by two politicians simply looking to throw an election away from Bruce Castor. At least give Brown and Castor credit for refusing to make a promise they felt they probably could not keep.
My intended point to this blog post was to call for the current Commissioners Board to punt the 2012 budget issue to the new Shapiro-Richards-Castor Board to be seated in January. I felt – especially given the alleged behavior of Jim Matthews in his personal use of campaign contributions, the violations of County guidelines for awarding millions in contracts, and the level of incompetence and cronyism in hiring County managers – that the only way to address the issue cleanly was to wait for the new Board to be seated by perhaps passing a continuing resolution of some sort to keep the County running until the new team could evaluate the budget.
Unfortunately, that desire has been OBE (overtaken by events) today.
In a decision passed down by the County’s solicitor’s office, the Commissioners were advised that the incoming Board cannot re-open the budget after Jamuary 1. In fact, they will be limited to either spending any surplus or transferring funding from one department to another to meet any shortfalls.
This is not a particularly promising outlook for 2012, especially if an unforeseen crises or unanticipated costs arise during the fiscal year. One important function that a budget reserve serves is to maintain a debt-to-cash ratio that keeps the County’s Moody’s bond rating at its current Aaa rating. The loss of that rating could potentially prevent the County from borrowing funds at the best possible rate of interest.
So hang on for a possibly bumpy ride in FY2012!
Hoeffel and Castor are working together (Hard to believe, I know.) to develop a budget that looks to include both reductions in spending and at least a 14% tax increase. (In an aside, Jim Matthews likened the possibility of raised taxes as the end of a “tax holiday” for Montgomery County homeowners. Real nice for a guy who used –
allegedly - campaign donations for personal autos, personal expenses and country club memberships! Now THAT’S a holiday!)
This also means that we have to wait another year to see whether the Shapiro-Richards team can stick to their Tea Party-like “No new taxes” promise in FY2013 and beyond, and make their zero-based budgeting strategy work.
Frankly, that does not look promising!