Who would be better suited to fix Montgomery County’s budget mess?

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.

Oops …

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!

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Montgomery County Commissioner Jim Matthews arrested! (Updated)

UPDATE:  New information in extracted from the 69-page indictment of former MontCo Commission Chairman Jim Matthews.  Apparently the problems at County go much further than Matthews’ alleged perjury. 

County Solicitor – and former Matthews campaign chairman – Barry Miller was fired on the basis of the grand jury findings.  According to the report, Miller directed award for health insurance services be awarded to CBIZ, an Ohio firm that donated thousands of dollars to Matthews’ 2007 campaign.

In addition, human resources director, Eleanor Schneider and Tom Snyder, a department head for outside services were cited as being “not qualified” or willfully blind and incompetent.  Schneider was Matthews’ personal secretary with no human resources experience before being appointed HR director.  Snyder could not answer grand jury questions about conflicts of interests on contracts his department managed.

.  

UPDATE:  Most recent coverage from yesterday’s arrest: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/politics/suburban_pa/20111207_PERJURY_CHARGES_FOR_MONTCO_POL.html

Although perjury is the only charged leveled at Matthews, there was evidence of significant malfeasance, including the use of $100,000 for personal expenses.

UPDATE:  Charges involve perjury during a grand jury investigation into campaign contributions and contracts related in some way to a Matthews family business, Certified Abstract, which was reportedly directed for use by county employees for all farmland preservation open space sales.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

I don’t usually post “breaking news” events, but I’ll gladly make an exception in this case!

Jim Matthews, brother of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and outgoing Montgomery County (PA) Commissioner was arrested on charges emanating from a grand jury indictment.

No additional information available as of this minute.  MontCo DA Risa Ventri-Fermin to hold 10:30 am news conference.

Some controversy was raised earlier this year about allegations that Matthews and Commission member Joe Hoeffel were violating Sunshine Law restrictions by holding private breakfast meetings outside of public scrutiny.  It’s difficult to imagine that Sunshine Law violations are the extent here, but that’s just speculation based on the fact that there is no indication that Hoeffel is included.

Matthews was persona non grata to many MontCo Republicans for ignoring the wishes of voters who elected him and fellow Republican Bruce Matthews to the Commission in 2007.  Matthews cut a deal to align himself with Hoeffel, a Democrat, due to personal animosity he held against Bruce Castor.  

More details here when known.

RUMOR:  Charges are perjury

Important election day for Montgomery County (PA)

This Tuesday, November 8 Montgomery County (PA) voters will face crucial decisions on the future health and welfare of the County in an election that will address the makeup of County leadership and management of 11 row offices. 

In the headline contest Republican candidates Jenny Brown and Bruce Castor faceoff against Democrats Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards for control of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.  On election day, voters will cast ballots for TWO preferred commissioners.  The top three vote-getters will assume seats on the Commissioners Board, thus ensuring one minority representative will serve with two from the majority party.   

As background, the 2007 election for the County Commissioners Board was waylaid by the duplicitous Republican-elect Jim Matthews, when he worked a backroom, split-management deal with Democrat minority member, Joe Hoeffel.  Matthews’ low-handed dealings betrayed the wishes of the County’s electorate – a vote that demanded a Republican-controlled Commissioners Board – by essentially handing de facto control to Hoeffel.  Matthews’ behavior left him isolated from his own party and dependent on Hoeffel’s concurrence to get anything accomplished.  Democrat Hoeffel had unprecedented control – for a minority party board member – over patronage, contracts and budget decisions.

The issue of who was really in charge of the Montgomery County Board over the past term is an important distinction, because as of February 2011, the County possessed a $435 MILLION bonded debt obligation.  This is a RECORD HIGH for Montgomery County!  The County budget for Fiscal Year 2012 (FY12) is already $25 million short in projected revenues!  And in September the County’s Treasurer, Tom Ellis reported that the County’s Financial Health Index (the ratio between cash reserves and debt service) projects to 0.63-to-1 for FY12, where a ratio of 2-1 would be considered “unhealthy”. 

The solution posed by current Democrat County Controller Diane Morgan to improve the County financial picture by pursuing fraud, waste and duplication is not a strategy that instills much confidence when looking at a $435 million hole.  

As Whitemarsh Supervisor, Leslie Richards oversaw an amazing 8-fold increase in township debt – from $1.8 million to $15.0 million!  So one can assume that a Shapiro-Richards-controlled Commissioners Board could very well continue a budget philosophy of spend-spend-spend, despite their pronouncements in favor of a “zero-based budgeting” approach to County finances.  Josh Shapiro already has a record of raising taxes; and his solution for fixing the traffic problems on Rt 422 is to leverage funding from the State and Federal Government. 

My understanding of leveraging includes the promise of putting up substantial funds (more borrowing!) to demonstrate a financial commitment which is then used to elicit funding from other sources, in this case the State and federal government.  More fiscal insanity is not the response taxpayers want!

The solution favored by the Brown-Castor team is to slash expenditures while in the pursuit of gambling income from the new Valley Forge Convention Center casino development.  This has the potential for being a tax-neutral solution, assuming the County can successfully reverse a state law that prevents direct Montgomery County control over its share of casino proceeds, a flawed – and unfair – state law fully supported by Shapiro in his duties as a State Representative.  Instead the Pennsylvania Financing Authority controls MontCo’s funds from gambling revenue, the funds limited to use in treating sites with environmental contamination in preparation for future business redevelopment.  Bucks County – on the other hand – enjoys direct and complete control over its portion of revenue from the Parx casino because somehow that casino is licensed under a different classification than the proposed Valley Forge development.  (Confusing? Yes.)

It’s not difficult to recognize which debt solution makes the most sense in these troubling economic times or which team is best positioned to pursue it.    

Both Jenny Brown and Bruce Castor have well-respected records as government leaders.  Brown has served as Commissioner in Lower Merion Township since 2005.  Castor, after a successful term as Montgomery County District Attorney, was elected to the Montgomery County Commission in 2007. 

For these reasons, the right votes are for Jenny Brown and Bruce Castor for Montgomery County Commissioners!

 

On the subject of Row Office candidates, I have provided my impressions on several occasions.

I have been much impressed by several of the female row office and judicial candidates, particularly Eileen Behr for Sheriff, Maureen Coggins for Judge on the Court of Common Pleas,  and of course Risa Vetri Ferman, who is running for re-election after a superb term as Montgomery County’s District Attorney. 

Another strong Republican contender is William “Bill” Donnelly for Prothonotary (Clerk of the Court for Common Pleas), who led a modernization effort during a previous term, achieving recognition as one of the most efficient such offices in the country. 

Normally, I’m one to loath suggesting that anyone pull the straight party lever when they enter the voting booth.  But frankly, I cannot find a single candidate on the Montgomery County Republican ballot that I will not support with my own vote!

Whatever your voting inclinations, DO NOT forsake this opportunity to set the course for Montgomery County’s future!  Get out and vote!

Bravo, Horsham!!

The official verdict is in … NO AIRPORT in Horsham!!

There was a palpable sense of relief throughout the audience, finally obtaining assurance that the Horsham Land Reuse Authority (HLRA) Board was in – almost unanimous – agreement with the overwhelming local sentiment that a functioning private/commercial airport was not in the best interests of Horsham Township’s future.

The crowd in attendance was – from my perspective – 95% opposed to the acceptance of any plan (NOI) to maintain an airport operation at the JRB Willow Grove site or to the suggestion – by the incomprehensible Montgomery County Commissioners’ submittal – that the runway be stashed in a coat closet for a few decades, just in case the need for a runway arises in 2040!

But that wasn’t the only laugher provided by the events of last night’s HLRA session to approve/disapprove Notices of Interest (NOI) from parties interested in utilizing space and facilities to be made available by the Navy’s abandonment of the JRB Willow Grove site.

The biggest laugh was reserved for the Bucks County Aviation Authority (BCAA) proposal to operate an airport. Citing Horsham’s loss of $650,000 in property tax offset (impact fees) from the U.S. Government and the township’s desire to maximize tax revenues from the site, the BCAA’s offer of a $5000-per-year stipend was met with a roomful of hearty guffaws. 

That’s not a misprint!  $5000.00-a-year!

Yet another entertaining moment came when David Pitcairn, a descendant of the original owners of the JRB property in the 1940s, attempted to make a case for accepting an airport operation there.  Humor could be found on several levels.

  1. He lives in Delaware County.  So the biggest effect an airport in Horsham would have on him is the 20 – 30 minutes he might spend on the tarmac waiting for his turn to rotate off into the wild blue! 
  2. His family SOLD the land to the U.S. Navy 70 years ago!
  3. Someone actually harbored the thought that his opinion would somehow hold sway over the skeptical local crowd.  It did not have the desired “Gee, if a Pitcairn wants an airport, what are we waiting for?” effect.

It was a long, drawn-out, tiring night.  (I lasted only until 9:30 with only nine NOI decisions out of 17 having been finalized.) And the tortuous travails endured by the HLRA board in listening patiently; calming the more jumpy cattle in the herd; and enduring some the more inane commentary from a few citizens who displayed but a fleeting grasp of the meeting’s objectives was enough to discourage any civic-minded citizen from ever considering public service.  The members of the HLRA Board, including Bill Donnelly who is currently running for the office of Montgomery County Prothonotary, are to be commended!

Before I left, the Board had approved every other non-airport NOI, including decisions to consider further local plans for open space, new roads, a future school and an additional firehouse should they become necessary, and a potential retirement/nursing home development.  And although I hope the Board approved the NOI application for a homeless veterans rehabilitation center, I could not hold out long enough to witness that result.  

But back to the action …

One of my favorite activities last night was watching HLRA Board Chairman, Bill Whiteside turning eight shades of red at the nitpicky, bordering-on-petty attempts by Board Member Steve Nelson to pull off a Houdini of a maneuver and throw the No Airport Movement off the tracks.  Nelson should have attended the meeting wearing his Jim Matthews mask and barn-storming pilot garb with matching leather jacket and helmet and a jaunty pair of goggles.  Rumors circulated that he and Young Pitcairn car-pooled to the meeting.  At one point, Mr. Whiteside’s half-turn-with-an-eyeroll to yet another Nelson foray was classic Seinfeld (the episode where Jerry deals with noisy movie-goers).

Nelson’s unbelievable attempts to claim that the HLRA was “rushing” into an airport decision, after ONLY six years of contemplating what to do with an 8000-ft, meters thick ribbon of concrete, was perhaps the height of hubris.  This presented the only time that board members pointedly criticized the position of a fellow member.  

When the final vote was taken on the only viable airport NOI proposal and the 8-1 vote recorded in favor of turning down the BCAA proposal, there was much rejoicing throughout the land.  Personally, I was a bit surprised by the nearly unanimous board vote.       

I only wish that I could convince myself that this is truly the end of Airport Road.  I remain suspicious that further legal and political maneuvering will continue by Regional Authorities reluctant to Kevorkian their Horsham airport visions. 

With that unsettling thought now out there, Horsham residents should celebrate this development and the progress towards more difficult and equally challenging decisions on the Township’s future.  This daunting, critical task of planning Horsham’s future is only beginning.  There will be many more decisions to be made, worth millions in dollars of investment and millions of dollars in revenue.  That road stretches for years.  

And just in case, we should all be prepared to man the ramparts again … should my suspicions prove warranted!

MontCo plan for airbase runway punted by Horsham LRA

Good article today in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Montgomery County’s poorly developed “plan” for preserving the runway at JRB Willow Grove.  The “plan” consisted of Montgomery Count expressing their desire to take possession of the runway as a “valuable future asset”.

That was it!  That’s the whole “plan”!! 

No financing, no maintenance, no discussion of feasibility …  certainly no responsibility either.  The County even went so far as to pointedly stress their lack of interest in running an airport.

Gee, what’s not to like?!? 

So the Horsham LRA punted that low-hanging fruit basket back at the County, and seemed to have a little fun doing it at Wednesday’s HLRA meeting.  

This development really changes nothing to the prospects for an airport, either for or against.  But it’s good to know that the “leadership” tenures of County Commissioners Jim Matthews and Joe Hoeffel will expire shortly!

Take the rest of the year off, guys …

Please.

And by the way, Bruce L Castor, Jr., who is running for re-election to the County Commission with Jenny Brown, has taken an anti-airport stance; backing local opposition to a commercial airport. 

Remember THAT in November’s election, Horsham!

Montgomery County (PA) Republican politics

(Well, after trying to impress upon myself the need to build blog content in a regular, timely manner, I have already missed my schedule.  But frankly, I did not particularly like the appearance of what I had working, so maybe it’s best.)

Instead I’ll talk about one of my favorite topics … politics.  In this case, a look at our township Republican Committee meeting last night that allowed candidates for GOP endorsement to Montgomery County (PA) offices to address those local committee members who will decide the party’s November ticket.

If you’re from Montgomery County, you may or may not know the following:

  • MontCo is the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania
  • MontCo had been – in decades past – solidly Republican.  Essentially, if you could make it onto the county Republican ticket, you were a shoe-in.  Not so any longer.  Now Democrats outnumber Republicans in the County, and this years election looks to be a tough contest.
  • Tom Corbett, who won the Pennsylvania Governorship last November, took almost every county in PA.  But he did not carry MontCo! 

Now, if you’re not from MontCo, you may be interested to learn that one of the outgoing County Commissioners is James Matthews, brother of MSNBC Hardball host – Chris Matthews.  I used to like Chris until he started sounding so shrill, and especially after his on-air I-got-a-thrill-up-my-leg bit when candidate Barack Obama made a speech during the 2008 Democratic primary.  Of course he wasn’t the only media type to suffer ThrillUptheLeg-itis that campaign season, but I digress.

Long, long story short … His brother, Jim was elected to the Board of Commissioners in 2000, ran an unsuccessful campaign for Lt. Governor with former Pittsburgh Steeler, Lynn Swann.  He was re-elected to the Board in 2007, running with a reluctant ally in Bruce Castor.  But although BOTH Castor (#1 in balloting) and Matthews (#3) won seats on the Board (3 total), Matthews decided to strike a deal with the minority member of the Board, Democrat Joe Hoeffel!  This effectively froze Bruce Castor out of the County management process; and essentially handed the keys over to Hoeffel and the Democrats.  There is no greater betrayal – in my opinion – than an elected official pointedly, deliberately frustrating the intentions of the voters who put them in office! 

Fortunately, Matthews has been forced to see the writing on the wall.  And since he had no chance to capture a county GOP nod, he is not seeking re-election … not that he had much of a choice.

Anyways … to last night’s meeting …

The County will elect the following offices in November: Commissioners (3 … Dems and Reps run two-to-a-slate. Three top vote getter are in.  So you end up with two majority Commissioners and one minority Commissioner.), District Attorney*, Recorder of Deeds*, Prothonotary*, Coroner*, Controller*, Register of Wills, Sheriff, Treasurer, and Judges (2 this year).  The * offices have only one candidate running unopposed for the GOP nod.

Of those who appeared last night, I was most impressed with Bruce Castor, who really has his pulse on the County and seems itching to work on the Board with a willing and loyal fellow Republican so they can actually get things done RIGHT.  I also liked both Jill Govberg and Kate Harper.  But I’m told Kate does not play well with others in the Party.  Jill bothered me with lack of detail in a question I asked her on “misguided policies” she would change and her obfuscating answer on supporting the ticket if she does not get the nod.  Jenny Brown could not make the event for good local (Lower Merion) political reasons.  Disappointing … but I plan to call her as she was highly touted by several people.

As for the other contested nominations, I really enjoyed the appearances and off-the-cuff remarks of Valerie Harris and Denise Marshall for Register of Wills.  Eileen Behr – for Sheriff – is an interesting success story as the Chief of Police in Whitemarsh Township.  Chuck Wilson struck me as more qualified for Treasurer.  And I was truly impressed with Maureen Coggins for one of the Judge nominations, although all four candidates there seemed extremely qualified.

Even with all the people who spoke last night, it was not all that painful.  Last year, when the Horsham Republican Committee hosted candidates for the Pennsylvania 13th Congressional District opposing Allyson Schwartz, we only had 4-5 speakers.  But by the time night was FINALLY over, I felt like I ahd been waterboarded.  I knew then we had absolutely no chance beating Schwartz.  Last night was very, very different! 

The MontCo GOP caucus is February 9.  Being my first time as part of this process, I’m interested in seeing how this plays out.