Karen Heller: What's great for Montco also bit of a bummer

Democrat Josh Shapiro
Democrat Josh Shapiro (Montgomery County commissioners,)
Posted: March 21, 2012

The three Montgomery County commissioners, nearing their 100th day of governance, are getting along beautifully. At meetings, during dozens of votes, there hasn't been a single no vote among Josh Shapiro, Leslie Richards, and Bruce Castor. Also, no fights, no name-calling, no drama.

Such good will! Last week, when evidence of spring first bloomed, the trio served water ice outside to government employees that was paid for, along with contributions from other top officials, out of their own wallets.

Which is really great for Montgomery County, but is such a bummer for, well, me.

The last administration, the three-ego circus starring Jim Matthews, Joe Hoeffel, and Castor, was a gift. Castor once objected to a vote on the previous meeting's minutes.

The trio were arguably the best free entertainment in the region, except that the chaos cost the county dearly in constant bickering and, as it now turns out, poor financial governance.

The former commissioners spent $2.2 million for outside solicitors that was never budgeted or approved. Notes Shapiro, the chairman: "That's a crazy way to run a law department."

One Montgomery Plaza, where some of the county's 3,000 employees work, has 20,000 square feet of unused space, yet the previous administration leased 20,000 square feet next door. The District Attorney's Office, which Castor once led, was "chronically underfunded," Shapiro says, by about $3 million.

"We have grander plans," says Shapiro, who leads the first Democratic-controlled board since 1880, "but we're certainly constrained by the fiscal mess we inherited."

Montgomery, the Commonwealth's second-wealthiest and third-most-populous county, went - in one election cycle - from an almost $100 million surplus to debt of more than $400 million, equal to its annual operating budget.

"We have record-high debt and record-high infrastructure needs," says Shapiro, and state funding from Harrisburg has been reduced.

"We have a county that was left in financially disastrous shape, while the morale of our employees was at an all-time low," says Castor, the board's lone Republican. "We all realize that if we don't fix those two things, the county government won't be able to function in any way."

Their differing political parties have proved no problem. After all, Matthews is also a Republican, and his battles with Castor were epic. Neither could utter the other's name without invective. The new commissioners "have the same goals," Castor says, "to make Montgomery County a better place, and correct the excesses of the previous administration."

I may owe Castor an apology.

OK, I definitely do.

"I knew something was going on," he says. "I constantly complained, and people just thought that was sour grapes."

True, but everything in those days sounded like sour grapes.

Among the previous commissioners, Castor was like the unpopular boy who wasn't invited to the lunch table - or, specifically, the breakfast table at Jem Restaurant - that is, if the unpopular boy was network-news handsome in an impeccable pinstripe suit.

In four years, Castor says, he never stepped foot inside the chairman's corner office, though his quarters were yards away. He says, "I was never invited."

Now, he regularly meets with Richards and Shapiro. They have lunch together, talking about the Phillies and nongovernment issues, the very subjects Matthews and Hoeffel claimed to speak about at their private breakfasts. But possibly not, since a grand jury investigated them to see if they violated the Sunshine Act..

Of the inherited budget problems, Shapiro tells me, "We knew very little about the problems. They didn't share much."

Castor adds: "The goal of the three of us is to advance the mission of the county government, and not to advance our own politics or hurt someone else."

Wow. Also, strangely refreshing.


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @kheller. Read her blog at www.philly.com/blinq.

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