NORRISTOWN >> It was an all-out battle between commissioners in the discussion Thursday that led up to the passage of Montgomery County’s 2017 budget, which includes an 11 percent real estate tax increase.
Tempers flared at a nearly three-hour meeting over the $409.5 million budget, during which minority Republican Commissioner Joe Gale attempted to amend the budget but ultimately fell short of a formal motion.
After Gale announced $7 million in cuts that he identified, he faced numerous questions from his fellow commissioners and county Solicitor Raymond McGarry about whether the request was a formal amendment to the budget. After being unable to provide enough details for a formal amendment, Gale eventually withdrew the motion to consider the cuts.
His inability to formulate a motion drew criticism from Commissioner Josh Shapiro.
“He doesn’t want to make hard choices, but he likes to give speeches. Speeches are fine but at the end of the day if you’re going to offer a motion and you’re going to govern, the numbers need to balance. If you take away $23 million in revenue, you have to find $23 million in cuts,” Shapiro said.
Gale said that the budget cuts he identified were from departments that had been given increases in the 2017 budget. However, when questioned about those specific departments, Gale said that he did not have the numbers in front of him.
McGarry attempted to explain that any new budget total must be met by a tax millage rate that matches. Gale said he had not prepared it.
“My plan was to simply make comments and then I assume that commissioners Shapiro and Arkoosh wanted me to make a motion for me to offer amendment. But my intention was to provide comments on the budget,” Gale said.
Shapiro, who had publicly promised to second any budget proposals that Gale put forward, attempted to assist his colleague in forming a proper motion, though the assistance appeared to be tongue-in-cheek. He outlined budget changes that cut county jobs, or reduced programs, and he went over options for drastic cuts that would eliminate more than 200 jobs after Gale stated that he was against any tax increase.
“That’s how you prepare a motion, so do the homework, prepare a motion and ask the commissioners to consider it,” Shapiro said, slamming his hand on the table for emphasis. “Have a responsible plan. Don’t just sit there pontificating with talking points that others have written.”
As Shapiro’s comments got heated, Gale reacted with incredulity.
“You’re foaming at the mouth,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”
In the end, the budget passed with a 2-1 vote, after no formal alternative was proposed.
The $409.5 million budget that was passed dedicates a portion its millage to funding Montgomery County Community College at a rate of about $22.3 million for 2017, an increase of more than $4 million above prior funding levels for the institution.
For a Montgomery County home assessed at the average value of $169,000, the 2017 proposed budget would include a $66 per year increase tacked on as a separate category to the $584 tax bill that homeowner currently receives.
The additional funds for the school, combined with an approximately $3 million being used for raises for nonunion employees, a $6 million contribution to the fund balance, increased debt service payments and a several million dollar loss in state revenue accounts for the increase, according to Chief Financial Officer Dean Dortone.
The $18 million that went to funding the community college in the operating budget will cover those new expenditures, while the proposed additional 0.39 mills falls under a separate category on the tax bill, legally dedicated to community college funding.
The proposed increase comes just one year after a nearly 10 percent hike on taxes in the 2016 county budget.
When asked about the specifics of his aborted proposal to make cuts, Gale could only say that departments that received an increase should instead maintain current funding levels instead. Though the commissioner promised to further outline which departments were included, he had not provided the information by end of business day.
Gale accused his fellow commissioners and senior staff of a conspiracy to keep him out of the loop, saying he did not know about the tax increase until it was too late.
“I’ll admit I was fooled this year. I never thought coming off a 9.87 percent increase, after the conversations that were held publicly throughout the county over the course of the year that we would face again a massive tax increase,” Gale said. “I admit I was fooled.”
Commissioner Chairwoman Val Arkoosh commented that she believed Gale was given enough time to formulate an alternative to the budget increase.
“It’s been at least two months since that all started, surely if Commissioner Gale was concerned, a two-month time period would have been sufficient for him to sit down with the CFO and any department heads that he thought were appropriate to the conversation,” Arkoosh said. “But to bring in suggestions at the last moment is very disingenuous. I think it’s a stunt, frankly.”