NORRISTOWN — The state of Montgomery County is "strong."
That was the message conveyed by all three commissioners Thursday at their bimonthly meeting that was moved to the county courthouse across the street from its usual venue at One Montgomery Plaza due to ongoing renovations.
Commissioners' Chairwoman Val Arkoosh kicked off “State of the County” remarks by touting the county’s financial health as “stronger than ever” as evidenced by ending fiscal 2018 with a surplus, a general fund reserve of $88.5 million — more than 20 percent of the overall budget — an upgrade to a triple A bond rating from Moody’s — the highest attainable, and the adoption of a 2019 budget with no tax increase for the second consecutive year.
She also noted that Montgomery County now has the lowest county property tax rate among the four counties surrounding Philadelphia.
“We’ve come a long way from seven years ago when our county faced a budget deficit and a depleted reserve fund,” Arkoosh said.
“We’ve done this by making hard choices and sticking to fiscal priorities, investing in long-term capital planning and fixing our aging infrastructure.”
Arkoosh went on to highlight the establishment of dedicated funding for Montgomery County Community College, continued progress on the county’s 2040 comprehensive plan, and increased investments in infrastructure.
The Montco 2040 implementation grant program — an initiative that helps communities meet the goals of the comprehensive plan through matching funds — has disbursed $3.9 million through 41 grants since 2016, Arkoosh noted, adding that municipalities have until March 1 to apply for a share of the $1.5 million in grant funding available in the program’s 2019 cycle.
The Lafayette Street Extension Project, currently underway in Norristown is expected to significantly ease congestion along Main Street, Ridge Pike, and Conshohocken Road and draw visitors and development to the county seat, Arkoosh said.
And the King of Prussia Rail Project, which will extend Septa’s Norristown High Speed Line to King of Prussia is expected to generate millions of square feet of new development and tens of thousands of jobs over the next 20 years while reducing vehicle miles traveled by 18 million mile per year.
Arkoosh said the county has utilized revenue from its $5 annual motor vehicle registration fee adopted in 2016 to fund 17 projects in 13 municipalities and make much-needed repairs to county bridges. And under the Montco Transportation Program, the county contributed $1 million in matching funds in 2018 to assist municipalities with traffic signal upgrades in conjunction with PennDOT's Green Montco initiative.
Arkoosh also pointed out that the county’s Agricultural and Land Preservation program has preserved approximately 9,500 acres — nearly one-third of the county’s farmland — with plans to preserve six additional farms this year.
In an effort to attract “the highest level of talent in the region,” Montgomery County has become the first county in southeastern Pennsylvania to offer paid parental leave.
Arkoosh credited a significant drop in the number of opioid deaths in the county to the concerted work of a countywide overdose task force assembled to holistically confront the epidemic and the expanded availability of the opioid overdose reversal drug Naloxone, which was previously only dispensed by paramedics, but has now been made available to all 50 of the county’s police departments and some fire companies through grant procurements.
Free Naloxone is also provided to eligible nonprofits and is available at all Montgomery County health clinics.
Commissioner Ken Lawrence Jr. used his portion of the State of the County address to first talk about the issue of homelessness, a problem that persists despite the county’s sound financial footing and overall prosperity.
Lawrence said he and Arkoosh recently participated in the Point-In-Time count, an annual countywide canvassing operation that tallies the number of homeless residents.
He hailed the work of the county’s coordinated housing crisis response team, Your Way Home, for their work combating homelessness, which has dropped by nearly 40 percent since the public/private partnership was established in 2014 and also noted the importance of the county’s Eviction Prevention Intervention Coalition which provides legal representation and social services to those at risk of becoming homeless.
Lawrence, who also serves as chairman of the county’s board of elections, spoke about the county’s new voter-verified paper ballot system that will make its debut at the county’s 425 polling locations on primary election day, May 21.
He said the public will also be able to preview the new system which will provide the “highest degree of confidence in our election process.”
Additionally, Lawrence provided an overview of the $400 million county campus redevelopment plan and highlighted the county’s recreational offerings, which include seven parks that attract 2 million visitors each year and 90 miles of trails.
He concluded by thanking the county’s 2,000 employees for their hard work and dedication.
Commissioner Joe Gale, the board's lone Republican, ended the State of County remarks by highlighting public safety and job creation.
Gale reported that the county’s 911 call center fielded nearly 800,000 calls in 2018, and the department of public safety has been proactive in spearheading a number of initiatives designed to ensure and enhance the safety of residents.
Last year, Gale said, the department participated in a security symposium to provide faith leaders with tools and information to use in the event of an emergency.
The department also conducted a fire services study to aid municipal fire companies with planning and solutions to counteract reductions in volunteerism and spent $1.6 in Homeland Security Department grant funding for training, planning and equipment for hazmat response, mass care, and injury management.
Gale said the public safety department also implemented its first integrated records management system which allows “33 law enforcement agencies to share information and intelligence in real time, all at no cost to the municipalities they serve.”
On the jobs front, Gale noted that Montgomery County continues to be a net importer, with more jobs than resident workers and the most manufacturing jobs of any county in the state and an unemployment rate below state and national averages.
He touted the county’s Commerce Department for its loan program for businesses looking to relocate or expand in the county, its workforce development and apprenticeship programs and the department-sponsored 6th Annual ManuFest Manufacturing and Trade Expo coming to the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks March 12.
Gale also hailed MCCC for its continued commitment to preparing county residents for gainful employment through certificate programs, career training and professional development classes.
“An abundance of employment, job training and educational opportunities are key to why so many people want to live and work in Montgomery County, and why many businesses want to locate here,” said Gale.