Generic taxes

NORRISTOWN, Pa. - Montgomery County homeowners will pay an average of $29 more next year in county property taxes if the 2021 general fund budget presented Thursday is approved.

Chief Financial Officer Dean Dortone presented a $461.6 million plan during a meeting at the government center in Norristown that was streamed online. Dortone said a homeowner with a property assessed at $362,000 would pay $617 in tax in 2021, up $29. The county assesses another 0.39 mill to support Montgomery County Community College. That will not increase. The new millage for the general fund would be 3.632.

The 5% increase, and drawing from the county's reserve, would compensate for an expected 2021 revenue shortfall of about $17 million.

Dortone also said the administration is looking into a $125 million bond issue in January, to support capital projects such as the $400 million-plus renovation of the county campus. That would add to debt-service costs.

The coronavirus pandemic looms over the general-fund spending plan, Dortone said.

"Our assumptions for the 2021 budget took into consideration that things would stay fairly stable," he said. "If there is a change in how we operate and it relates to COVID-19 surging, these numbers could be a little worse than what we're projecting."

The 2021 budget is about 7% higher than last year's, due in part to higher personnel costs, the county's biggest expense. The contribution to county pension plans would be $16.4 million under Dortone's plan.

Commissioners Dr. Valerie Arkoosh and Kenneth Lawrence, both Democrats, spoke in favor of the budget. Arkoosh said the plan protects the county during a time when federal and state funding is uncertain. Lawrence said the capital spending plan, also presented Thursday, will support parks and the need to repair 62 structurally deficient bridges across the county.

"It's not sustainable," Republican Joseph Gale said of the plan. He reiterated his opposition to spending hundreds of millions on the county campus. With many staff members working virtually, he said the county does not need as much office space.

He also objected to the tax increase.

"Families and businesses don't have the option to increase their revenue the way government does," he said. Gale said the capital costs affect the county's operating budget because the cost of paying debt will increase as more money is borrowed.

The commissioners voted 2-1, with Gale dissenting, to advertise the budget. Virtual public hearings will be held Dec. 3 at 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., with a final vote on the 2021 spending plan due Dec. 17. The budget will be posted at montcopa.org/finance.

Dortone said that even with the increase, Montgomery County's real estate tax will be lower than that assessed in Delaware, Bucks and Chester counties. The 2021 plan will also protect the county's investment-grade credit rating.

The three-member board did not get to the budget discussion for almost an hour, until they had made various remarks and listened to a presentation about Montgomery County Community College.

Chairwoman Arkoosh, a physician, asked Montgomery residents to maintain vigilance during the pandemic.

"Please follow all guidance particularly about wearing a mask and avoiding social gatherings," she said.

The county is trying to increase its coronavirus testing capacity, Arkoosh said.

As the commissioners worked through contract awards, Gale objected to the cost of several items.

He also objected to the Montgomery County Board of Health's recent shutdown of in-person school classes. He called the requirement for virtual education an over-reach by "a group of unelected bureaucrats."

The commissioners ended their meeting after two hours and 52 minutes. The board will next meet for the Dec. 3 virtual budget hearings.

 
 
 
 
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