Budget constraints and better county management provided the backdrop to a town hall meeting with the Montgomery County Commissioners at the Upper Perkiomen Education Center Monday night.
The meeting, part of a series held throughout the county titled “Conversations With Your Commissioners,” marked the first time all three of the county commissioners have visited the Upper Perkiomen Valley in several years.
Commissioners Chairman Josh Shapiro set the tone of the conversation by emphasizing the progress the commissioners have made toward resolving the county’s budget since he and Vice Chair Leslie Richards took office last year.
At the beginning of 2012, the new administration inherited a $27 million deficit. But Shapiro said that Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson has recently reported that the deficit is now down to $750,000. With the county on track to a balanced budget, the commission seems to be shifting its focus from diminishing the deficit to better appropriating county funds based on communities’ needs.
That new focus became an underlying theme to the meeting. Topics ranged from infrastructure to open space assessment, to plans for revamping the county’s human services, which have suffered major funding cuts recently.
And questions about the future of the Parkhouse nursing home in Royersford, among others, were raised when Red Hill District Justice Catherine Hummel-Fried asked the commissioners about their decision to approve a request for interest (RFI). The RFI will gauge interest in the property from private companies and garner advice on management options.
The response officials receive will help determine how to operate the nursing home, whether to maintain current operations, make management changes, partner with an outside company or sell the property altogether. Shapiro said the decision aligns with the commissioners’ goal of consolidating county governance and increasing institutions’ efficiency.
“So we’re beginning to look at what models are out there to manage a nursing facility like this in the 21st century given healthcare reform, where it stands and where it’s going,” Shapiro responded.
“We may determine that we’ve got the best-run model and stay put. I can tell you that overall, just a few years ago, there were 50 county-run nursing homes in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; there’s now under 30. I’m not suggesting that’s the direction that we’re going, but these other counties have looked at it and have made a determination. We think it’s important to look at it in a responsible manner, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Another issue at the center of the commissioners’ focus is revamping county infrastructure, particularly roads and bridges, to catch up on what Vice Chair Richards called “deferred maintenance.”
The county owns over 130 bridges, and Richards said more than half are structurally deficient, with the majority of those deemed obsolete.
She referred to the Fruitville Road bridge in Upper Hanover as an example of one the commission hopes to work on and reopen.
“We’re hoping to fix bridges that wouldn’t normally be fixed,” Richards said. “We’re spending a lot of money to fix these bridges, and then we’re hoping to get into an agreement with the host municipalities of those bridges, where they will then maintain the bridge afterwards.”
Pennsburg resident David Heise asked Richards what the county could do to help establish public transportation in the area, especially for seniors.
Richards said she would look into transportation needs in Upper Perk, but admitted that, “unfortunately we don’t have an extra pot of money right now that is sitting around; I just have to be realistic.”
Other residents were concerned about local parks and open space. Clare Reihman, of Marlborough, brought up Act 319, the “Clean and Green” Act. The law gives landowners of 10 or more acres of farm or forest land a tax break by assessing the land at a value based on that use rather than fair market value.
But the state and county recently reassessed open space in the area for the first time in 12 years, resulting in a 71 percent tax hike. Reihman asked for the rationalization behind the sudden reassessment.
Reihman added that the land productivity in the area is marginal, and many area landowners were not prepared to pay such a large difference in taxes in one year.
“It was just time to make the adjustment, and I know that’s probably not an answer you want to hear, but that’s the truth,” Richards said. “And so our assessment board had not touched it in over a dozen years, and it was time to bring it to the level it needed to be.”
Reihman said an incremental increase would have made things a lot easier, and suggested the land be reassessed more regularly if the county wants to keep the tax rate current.
Shapiro also gave some more details about the commission’s plan for restructuring human services in the county.
Several community members from various community organizations expressed concern about how counseling services will be provided since Youth and Family Services had to close its doors. They also expressed hope that the county would work with them to revitalize their organizations after the sweeping budget cuts instated this year.
Shapiro said he believes the county can do a better job of reaching out throughout the county to deliver services and help families navigate the system.
He said his new Community Connections program, announced at the end of last year, should launch next month. The program employs “navicates,” contacts stationed throughout the county to help families access the county’s services.
The navicates will be available at four locations initially, but Shapiro could not announce where those locations will be until plans are finalized. The county is currently in the process of hiring and training the Community Connections staff and is still settling on facilities.