If the program-slashing preliminary budget the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners posted last week was intended to elicit a reaction from the public, it seems to have worked.
Residents packed a courtroom at the in Norristown on Wednesday for a public hearing on the budget, some waiting in line for up to three hours to speak to commissioners Joe Hoeffel and Bruce Castor on the importance of the county parks department, library system, , and other institutions threatened by funding cuts in the proposed $384.4 million operating budget.
Having already moved the Board of Commissioners meeting to the courthouse from its usual venue in the eighth floor boardroom of One Montgomery Plaza in Norristown, county officials had to open an overflow room that was connected to the courtroom via a video link.
More than 2,000 public comments
The hearing came following a week of public comment submitted to the county government. Montgomery County Communications Director John Corcoran said that more than 2,000 county residents had submitted feedback on the proposed budget via an online submission form, which Hoeffel said would remain open until the final budget is passed.
Of the first 1,000 comments received, Corcoran said about 30 percent were submitted in support of the county library system, while another 30 percent supported the parks department. Around 20 percent supported Montgomery County Community College, and another 10 to 15 percent wrote in support of the planning commission, Corcoran said.
Only 60 of the first 1,000 public comments submitted online took an explicit position on the use of taxation to address the county’s $44 million budget shortfall. Corcoran said 50 respondents asked for taxes to be increased in order to save threatened programs, while 10 respondents asked for “absolutely no tax hike,” Corcoran said.
“Tea Party budget”
“We have seen how Montgomery County reacts to what is essentially a ‘Tea Party’ budget,” Hoeffel said at the conclusion of the hearing. Hoeffel has called for a more moderate budget that pairs an across-the-board 5 percent spending cut with a “modest” tax increase.
Fellow Commissioner Bruce Castor took issue with Hoeffel’s “Tea Party” characterization of the budget but said he agreed in principle with a compromise approach that would maintain county appropriations for popular amenities such as the Montgomery County-Norristown Public Library.
“I’m a library user myself,” Castor said, adding that nobody in county administration is “against” the parks department, the library system, or any of the other programs that would see money disappear under the preliminary budget.
Castor called the no-tax increase preliminary budget “one of the consequences” that happens when “those who are running for office pledge that they won’t raise taxes."
Public comments impassioned, often emotional
Kathleen Arnold-Yerger, executive director of the Montgomery County-Norristown Public Library, said that the library’s county appropriations amounted to only $3 per county resident. She was visibly emotional as she pleaded with the commissioners to maintain the library’s appropriation, without which she said the library would probably be forced to close.
Paula Mandracchia, a county resident and teacher with the Souderton Charter Schools Collaborative, led a contingent of her students to the hearing to oppose cuts in parks funding. Mandracchia said her students had voted to skip a field trip Wednesday in order to travel to Norristown and speak to the commissioners.
Among Mandracchia’s students was a boy who moved some members of the crowd to tears as he emotionally told the commissioners how the parks system offered him the best chance to spend time with his ailing father, who suffers from a worsening case of multiple sclerosis.
Alana Mauger, the communications director for Montgomery County Community College, was one of many former and current students of the college who attended the hearing. Several carried signs and placards touting the college’s various benefits to the county.
“I’m proud to be an alum of Montgomery County Community College and to work there today,” Mauger said, explaining that she had always dreamed of having a writing-related career and crediting the college with helping her to realize that dream.
Time to “bite the bullet”
Hugh Donnelly, a resident of Franconia Township who identified himself as a “Tea Party” supporter, said he came to the meeting to speak against a tax hike but had been moved by the testimony of other citizens.
“I said, ‘Uh oh, my taxes are going to go up again,’” Donnelly said.
After listening to the stories and pleadings of the citizens who preceded him to the microphone, Donnelly said he had experienced a change of heart and that funding for parks and library services had to be preserved.
“It has to be done,” Donnelly said. “If it means my real estate taxes are going to go up, I guess I’m going to have to bite the bullet.”
After about two hours of public comment, Hoeffel asked for a show of hands to see who would be willing to support a "modest" tax increase. A visible majority of hands in the courtroom went up.
The commissioners will meet again on Dec. 21. A final budget must be approved by Dec. 31.
Matthews absent in wake of arrest
Commissioner James Matthews, who was arrested Tuesday on charges of perjury and false swearing, did not attend the meeting. Hoeffel was named chairman of the Board at the start of the meeting after Matthews announced Tuesday afternoon that he would yield the chairman’s seat.
Hoeffel said Matthews informed him Tuesday night that he would not attend. Hoeffel also said he did not believe Matthews should resign and that he wanted Matthews’s participation in the budget process.
James Maza, who until Tuesday was the county’s deputy chief operating officer, was named the new board solicitor to replace Barry Miller, who was fired by the Board of Commissioners. Though not charged by the grand jury, Miller was depicted as Matthews’s legal strongman in the grand jury’s final report.