Montgomery County commissioners’ vote to raise taxes and give themselves a pay hike was a “gut punch” for taxpayers, a fiscal watchdog group said. But local Democrats dismiss the complaints as political theater.
During a special meeting last week, commissioners approved hefty pay raises for themselves and most row officers, even as taxpayers face an eight percent property tax hike. It is expected to result in $32 million more in property taxes paid by residents. It was the third consecutive year of property tax rate increases.
The board’s two Democrats, Dr. Valerie A. Arkoosh and vice chairman Kenneth Lawrence Jr., voted for the pay increase while the lone Republican, Joe Gale, opposed it.
Gale chastised colleagues for recklessly spending public money, saying they should be trying to provide relief for property owners.
Likening it to the “infamous midnight pay raise” state legislators gave themselves in 2005, Gale claimed the county was jamming the salary increases through “under the cloak of darkness.” But the county solicitor pushed back, saying the measure was required by law to be considered at a separate evening meeting between 6 and 9 p.m. when more residents would have a chance to share their opinions on it.
“I think it’s a bunch of bulls**t, and I think it’s absolutely wrong. And it is insulting to the general public,” Gale said. “The optics of this are terrible.”
Boards of Commissioners are empowered to set salaries for all elected officials except the district attorney.
Montgomery County’s chief financial officer Dean Dortone defended the salary increases, saying they were the first pay hikes for commissioners in 14 years and bring the county in line with what elected officials are paid in nearby counties.
On January 1, 2024, when the pay raises take effect, commissioners’ salaries will jump up from $87,600 to $98,200. The board chair’s salary will go from $90,900 to $101,800.
In each subsequent year, those salaries will increase by a percent less than the raises provided to “non-represented” employees, Dortone said.
Bucks and Chester Counties anticipate paying commissioners $103,900 and $97,500 in 2024 while their chairs also make slightly more.
Montgomery County row officers will make nearly $10,000 more in 2024, up to $88,700, while the register of wills gets $91,400, officials said at the meeting.
The Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank, condemned the commissioners’ actions.
“Montgomery County families need a break,” Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of the group told DVJournal. “Saddling families and small businesses already struggling with higher gas prices, higher electric bills, higher grocery costs, higher interest rates, and higher costs for services with higher property taxes is just another punch in the gut. Commissioners should instead focus on ways to reduce out-of-control government spending to protect working families from the burden of a massive tax hike.”
Gale, who ran an unsuccessful bid for governor earlier this year, vowed he would not accept any raise if he is still in office when it goes into effect, promising to donate any excess salary to a pro-life group. He also proposed tabling the measure, but his motion failed.
Gale’s fellow commissioner Lawrence mocked those complaints, claiming the Republican commissioner knew well in advance the board was voting on the salary increases and told him to “stop with the dramatics.”
“The Oscar goes to Commissioner Gale for self-righteous indignation,” Lawrence said.
Gale thundered back he was “shocked” by his colleagues’ actions and told them they should be ashamed of themselves.
“Use your indoor voice,” Lawrence taunted Gale.
The county will vote at the Dec. 15 meeting on the proposed 8 percent property tax increase for the fiscal year 2023 budget.
Projected general-fund revenues for the year are $512.1 million – with more than half of that amount being raised through property taxes – compared with more than $530 in anticipated expenditures, according to budget documents.
Those living in single-family homes with a market value of $430,000 can expect to pay $722 in property taxes when factoring in a $53 increase to account for the tax bump.
Dortone said at a previous meeting the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ida teamed up to produce the “perfect storm” of financial woes for the county, which faces its most challenging fiscal situation over the last half-decade.
Ida resulted in $24 million in “unanticipated” costs for cleanup and recovery, according to budget documents.
However, the county received more than $161 million in American Recovery Plan Act funds alone, in addition to millions in additional federal and state COVID-19 aid.
Some residents who spoke during public comment rallied to Gale’s defense, saying he seemed to be the lone public official “fighting for us” amid proposed tax increases.
“How are we supposed to put food on the table? How are we supposed to pay our bills?” one woman said. “You’re supposed to be working for us, not the other way around. I’m at a loss for words.”