Montgomery County residents may yet avoid a tax increase for 2012, but only at the cost of of iconic county services and amenities.
A $384.8 million preliminary operating budget for 2012 would eliminate the county’s parks department and planning commission while slashing or ending appropriations to the county library system, the Elmwood Park Zoo, Montgomery County Community College, and other institutions.
The budget, which was approved for advertisement Wednesday by the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, “would change county government as we know it,” according to James Maza, the county’s deputy chief operating officer.
Average tax increase of $130 per homeowner would cover budget shortfall
If taxes are not increased, the county needs to cut expenditures to cover a $44.4 million budget shortfall. Eliminating the parks department would save more than $5 million per year, and axing the planning commission would save an additional $2.6 million. Cuts in the appropriations to the county college, the library system, the zoo, and other bodies would trim more than $6 million from the budget.
“I don’t want to eliminate the parks department or the planning commission. I don’t want the library to close,” said Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, who depicted himself as the proponent of a “middle ground” between the 28.6 percent tax increase favored by Commissioner James Matthews and a cost-cutting approach that he attributed to Commissioner Bruce Castor.
A 28.6 percent tax increase would translate to about $130 in additional annual taxes for the average county homeowner, according to figures provided by Randy Schaible, the county’s chief financial officer.
Castor, the only commissioner who will still be on the board when it is reconstituted in January, said he was open to the possibility of increasing taxes but noted that commissioners-elect Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards had “boldly” campaigned on a promise to keep taxes at current levels.
“[Shapiro and Richards] may not have been fully cognizant of the financial situation. They may still not be fully cognizant of it,” Castor said. Neither Shapiro nor Richards were in attendance at the meeting.
“It may be that after the press reports about [the budget] that the people will call the commissioners-elect and call the three of us and say, ‘we want our library, we want our legal aid, we want all of these things,’” Castor said.
Cuts would “devastate” county library system
Kathleen Arnold-Yerger, executive director of the Montgomery County-Norristown Public Library, said by telephone Wednesday that losing the $2.36 million appropriation from the county “would be devastating” to the operation of the library’s five locations and its four Bookmobiles.
“We’re open six days a week right now. I don’t see how we could keep those hours. We wouldn’t be able to buy any new materials,” Arnold-Yerger said.
According to Arnold-Yerger, the library’s annual budget is about $4 million, about $570,000 of which goes towards the purchase of books, media, and other resources for patrons.
Wage freezes, courthouse security cuts possible
While the library is among the services that would bear the brunt of the budget-cutting axe, no county department would emerge unscathed. Many departments would see their budgets cut 15 percent from 2011 levels, resulting in $16.6 million in savings. County employees’ wages would be frozen at current levels, providing another $4.2 million. Staffing in the sheriff’s department and in courthouse security would be reduced to save another $1 million.
Cutting the services as outlined in the preliminary budget “would be irresponsible and blind,” Matthews said.
Matthews cited the example of children who rely upon the library as their only information resource and means of accessing the Internet.
“Are we going to shut that down? ‘Yeah, they’re not my kids.’ We can’t take that attitude,” Matthews said.
Maza emphasized that the preliminary budget is “a platform on which to build a final budget."
As a group, the commissioners signaled an eagerness for public feedback on the question of raising taxes. Matthews repeatedly pointed out that the county’s taxes had been among the lowest in the region for years and would remain so even if his proposed increase was adopted.
“This no-tax-increase budget shows the extreme pain to the county if we don’t raise taxes,” Hoeffel said.
The commissioners will meet again next Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. on the 8th floor of One Montgomery Plaza in Norristown.
County residents are invited to submit comment on the proposed budget directly to the Board of Commissioners.