Montgomery County Board of Commissioners Chair Josh Shapiro on Monday told residents of the Upper Perkiomen Valley that the county is on stronger fiscal ground since his election in 2011.
"When we took office 12 percent of the budget was missing and the reserve fund was depleted. Now, gone are the days of a budget deficit and our reserve fund is growing. There has been no tax increase for two budgets now. The overall debt is reduced. We had a pension plan that saw no payment in 5 years and now we have been able to make that payment," said Shapiro, who, along with the other commissioners, was at The Grand Theater in East Greenville for a townhall meeting.
Townhall meetings, which are being held throughout the county, are intended to provide the public with an outlet for in-depth community conversation.
According to the commissioners, changes within the county government allowed for cost savings, such as better utilization of existing resources within departments. For example, the Department of Commerce merged the economic and workforce developments groups together, which allows for a more organized asset to the community, commissioners said.
"Under our leadership, the Department of Commerce is a streamlined government and a one-stop-shop for businesses and people looking for jobs," said Shapiro, who was re-elected to the board last year.
Shapiro also spoke of the time the board has committed to county infrastructure, noting that monies are being used properly for things such as community parks and bridges. Commissioners said that "quality of life" issues such as parks and trails, open spaces and schools, will continue to be a focus of the board.
Board Vice Chair Leslie Richards spoke about county-funded projects within the Upper Perkiomen area, including improvements to Arlington and Second streets in East Greenville.
Richards also explained the importance of public input regarding revitalization and jobs within a community.
In addition, the commissioners said they are focusing their energy on a comprehensive county plan that will span a time frame up to 2040. A draft could be available by the end of 2014.
"The last planning commission comprehensive plan was done in 2005 and has seen lots of changes. This comprehensive plan will have the most significant amount of public input we have ever had," Richards said.
Public safety and security concerns are also being addressed by the board, Shapiro said. "Critical decisions are being made to focus and meet the needs of families across the county through programs such as Open Link and Community Connections. We want you to get the services that are needed in your own community," he said.
Commissioners Bruce Castor Jr., who has been on the board since 2008, also spoke at the meeting about the importance of public safety, saying that emergency responders within the county need to have the proper radios and technologically up-to-date equipment.
"The previous administration looked into borrowing what they felt was a necessary amount totaling $125 million; however, I suspect it was an exaggerated amount with some of the money being used for the equipment and the rest wasted on other things. The project, as you know, didn't move forward but remained a priority," Castor said.
According to Castor, the current board's negotiations with Motorola the price for the updated equipment would be $29 million dollars, with an additional $15 million over a period of time for maintenance.
Castor also spoke of focusing capital funds on county-owned properties that are in disrepair, saying that in past years "money borrowed was to fund things that weren't priorities."
Public comment was encouraged after the commissioners spoke, but there were only few responses from the crowd of approximately 50 residents.
Ed Buchinski, owner of The Grand Theater, asked whether parking could be expanded for businesses along Main Street in East Greenville.
Shapiro said the commissioners are "willing to partner with East Greenville on the additional parking behind the Owl's Club," adding, "We are working together to secure funds. The plan that East Greenville has is something we can bring to a common sense solution."
Another local resident commented on the need for a regional rail line, as the nearest train station is approximately 45 minutes away.
Richards explained that SEPTA is currently looking at two expansions in Montgomery County that could see a rail line from Lansdale to Pennridge, Sounderton and Telford, then going into Quakertown.
"SEPTA is looking into these expansions but they will take years to complete. A feasibility study would need to be completed first to determine whether a bus service would be appropriate or a rail service," Richards said.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Shapiro thanked everyone for their attendance and for allowing the board of commissioners to visit Upper Perk.
The next town hall meeting for the Montgomery County Commissioners is scheduled for Thurs., Feb. 27, at the Norristown Municipal Hall at 7 p.m. For more information, contact the commissioners' office at 610-278-3062.