By Ben Simmoneau
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Pa. (CBS) — Democrats took charge of Montgomery County’s government for the first time in over a century Tuesday morning, and they have a lot of work to do.
First, they must restore faith in the Board of Commissioners after four years of political wrangling and infighting that featured Commissioners from two different parties – Republican James Matthews and Democrat Joe Hoeffel – teaming up against Republican Bruce Castor. That divisive era came to an end last month as Matthews was arrested on perjury charges, which he says he will beat.
Second, the new board faces serious financial challenges. Montgomery County, Pennsylvania’s third most-populous behind only Philadelphia County and Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, pays $40 million – or 10 percent of its budget – in debt service each year on outstanding debt, which Castor says is $400 million. The previous commissioners approved a 17 percent property tax increase last month instead of making enormous budget cuts for the 2012 budget.
Tuesday morning at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Castor was sworn in for a second term alongside new Democrats Joshua Shapiro and Leslie Richards. All three talked about the need for cooperation.
“There have been absolutely zero statements in public undermining each other, and there have been zero in private undermining each other,” Castor said. “That certainly bodes well for the coming four years.”
“Let me be clear: Today, starting right now, rancor and acrimony will yield to respect and accord,” Shapiro said.
Richards says she and Shapiro want to work with Castor, and he has demonstrated he wants to work with them. But there are always kind words on the first day of any new term of office.
“It is the honeymoon that we’re in right now,” Richards said. But she also said the key to keeping it going is “communication.”
That spirit continued at the new commissioners’ first public meeting on Tuesday afternoon. Castor nominated Shapiro for chairman of the board and Richards for vice chair. The commissioners say they will begin the 2013 budget process almost immediately, and as part of that, they plan to ask each department chair to justify every expense. By law, the commissioners can make no change to the tax increase passed last month, and they still expect additional budget cuts this year.
“I think there are a lot of structural fiscal problems in our county government,” Shapiro said. “We have to drive down the cost of our debt, and we have to restructure our debt.”
The commissioners make between $87,000 and $91,000. Shapiro, who had served as a State Representative from the Abington area since 2005, resigned that post effective at 10 a.m. Tuesday morning.