Matt Schickling, the Wire
Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh visited Rydal Park Retirement Community in Jenkintown last Thursday to deliver an unsurprising message: the county is doing well.
Arkoosh was handpicked by Commissioners Chairman Josh Shapiro and voted in by the County Court of Common Pleas judges in January to fill the seat of former commissioner Leslie Richards after she took a job with the Wolf administration as secretary of PennDOT.
Arkoosh pointed to the 2011 election of Shapiro and Richards as commissioners as a major step to turning around Montgomery County finances.
“The county had a very significant operating deficit. There was so little cash in the bank for the county that they actually had to borrow money to make payroll in the first quarter of 2012,” she said. “In 2013 and 2014, we have actually run a surplus.”
In 2013, the surplus was $1.9 million, and $1.1 million in 2014. There was a deficit of $27 million in 2011 and $6.9 million in 2012.
Arkoosh claims that these gains were made through zero-based budgeting implemented in 2012, where commissioners approved each line item of a budget rather than approving a baseline created in previous years and moving forward.
“When Josh and Leslie came in, they asked each department head to start with not last year’s budget and build on it, but start with a blank piece of paper,” Arkoosh said. “Rather than just tweak around the edges, they took a fresh look.”
Apparently, they found that there was miscommunication among departments where many of them were doing the same things and other areas that could be consolidated and streamlined.
Cleaning up the redundancy allowed the operating budget to fall, and the county was able to place a recommended 10 percent, or $40.2 million, aside in 2014 for a “rainy day fund” to be used in the event of future deficits or county emergencies.
The county’s debt also dropped. In 2012, the debt was at $417 million, and now is $385 million.
“[In 2012], the pension fund for our county employees was only 65 to 70 percent funded, and now it’s up to 93 percent,” she added.
Also, the property tax rate of $3.152 million in 2012, remains the same today.
Another topic Arkoosh touched on is the human services available in the county and how they were improved over the last three years.
“A person could need housing, they could need job training, they could need assistance with an elderly parent, and back in 2011, an individual would have had to call multiple places to get those services,” Arkoosh said. “Now we have a new program called Community Connections.”
The offices are staffed by what Shapiro called specially trained “navocates”, who both navigate the system for the client and advocate on his or her behalf to get the needed government services.
“There’s no wrong door for human services in this county,” Arkoosh said.
The Community Connections office in Eastern Montgomery County is located in Willow Grove.
Another consolidation effort is the Commerce Department’s Montgomery County To Business (MC2B) service, where businesses can seek assistance with financing, loans, on-the-job training, real estate and recruitment services.
MC2B is connected to Montgomery County Community College to direct students to areas where businesses need employees.
Arkoosh said that the 911 call centers have also been consolidated to one in Eagleville that dispatches people within the appropriate municipality to respond to emergencies.
“It was getting rid of a lot of that redundancy that helped us get those budget numbers that you saw,” she said.
Along with this, Montgomery County is working to make sure that municipalities interested in providing first-responders with Narcan, a prescription medicine that blocks respiratory depression during an overdose, can get it as quickly and affordably as possible. Abington Township recently authorized its police force to have it.
Arkoosh also touched on the Office of Aging and Adult Services in the county, which helps with fraud, scams and exploitation of seniors and helps prevent these things from happening in the first place.
“These things tend to come in spurts,” Arkoosh said.
She also mentioned TransNet, a shared ride program in Montgomery County that seniors receive a significant discount on. It can be used for anything from a doctors appointment to running errands.
The county also provides Medicare counseling, volunteer opportunities and various other programs for seniors.
“This is what works in a democracy, when everybody gets together and talks about these issues and expresses their opinions,” Arkoosh said. “It just makes me so happy to see all of you here today.”
For more information, visit www.montcopa.org.