Today is the one-year mark of this Administration.
Three hundred and sixty five days ago Leslie, Bruce and I took the oath of office. We have had three hundred and sixty five days of challenges; three hundred and sixty five days of opportunities; three hundred and sixty five days of change; three hundred and sixty five days of progress.
It has been a year of real reform and meaningful accomplishments.
On that cold, sunny day a year ago, I said in my remarks at our swearing-in that “acrimony would yield to accord.” It has. And, that accord, that sense of common purpose, that willingness to focus on the collective good has made our many accomplishments possible.
For those of us who grew accustomed to watching county government move at a glacial pace with little focus or direction, our pace, progress and persistence over the last year has been amazing.
The old mantra of “that’s the way we’ve always done it” has given way to “how can we do this better.”
While we have accomplished a great deal, there is much more to do. Nevertheless, on this anniversary, I think it is instructive to take a look at far we have come and how we have excelled by the three benchmarks I identified when we took office—improving morale, reforming county government, and fixing the fiscal mess we inherited. We also managed to make critical investments in our future.
I was proud to assume the chairmanship of this prestigious Board by unanimous vote. But I am more proud of the fact that every single vote of this Board over the past year has been unanimous. That is not because we agree on everything or share the same ideology, it is because we understand that government works best when we put aside petty differences and focus on doing the important work that our constituents depend on us for.
Our national and state politics seem to be defined today by who wins the momentary battles and who trumps whom in 140 character missives. We get the fact that people are tired of that nonsense and just want their leaders to lead and govern collectively. That is what we have done here in Montgomery County and it would not have been possible without the leadership and commitment of Leslie and Bruce. I am extraordinarily grateful to them and so should the people of Montgomery County.
A year ago, few would have given us much of a chance to change the negative culture that had become pervasive over the past several years. Stagnant salaries, increased health insurance costs and decades of never seeing a county commissioner in your office shaped that feeling.
A year later, our employees received a raise in 2012 for the first time in four years and we improved their health care plan without increasing its cost to them or the taxpayers. We grew connected to our nearly 3,000 employees through routine visits to their offices and regular emails.
Our Department of Assets and Infrastructure with the cooperation of Warden Algarin helped improve working conditions; we cleaned up and polished the courthouse, OMP and HSC, modernized and brighten restrooms; created nursing mothers rooms, beautified and opened a roof-top garden at HSC and finally fixed the air conditioning in our Willow Grove Annex.
We appreciate our county family and they are key to our success.
When you take over the reins of a government ruled by one party for nearly 150 years, change is inevitable.
But we did not make change simply for the sake of change. Each policy modification, personnel adjustment and budgetary shift had a purpose—to reform our county government in order to make it more efficient and effective.
Before we took office, our Transition Team dissected how county government works and recommended how it could be better. We adopted many of their recommendations and now, a year later, Montgomery County’s government looks and feels different and works a whole lot better.
First, we consolidated operations.
When we took office there were 58 Departments. Today there are 50 and we continue to look for ways to consolidate operations.
A key structural change was the merger of five county departments that managed county owned assets into a single Department of Assets and Infrastructure. This change has worked by every measure. No longer are departments stove piped. Under our model they now effectively coordinate, consolidate and communicate. This one change will result in a savings of $1 million a year.
In order to communicate effectively to our constituents and with one voice, we consolidated the county communications efforts within the Commissioner’s Office and through a multitude of means with an emphasis on social media. I am particularly looking forward to the launch of the new county website this quarter. This consolidation has improved our communications and resulted in savings of over $50,000 across the County government.
We dramatically upgraded the structure and skill of the Solicitor’s Office. Specifically, we changed its staffing model to one utilizing eight full-time, highly skilled attorneys rather than three full-time and fourteen part-time attorneys. This has resulted in better and more coordinated legal services across the county, a reduction in projected spending on outside legal services by $100,000, and the full-utilization of legal reference licensing in a shared arrangement with the Offices of the Recorder of Deeds and the Register of Wills which will save the County thousands while increasing the resources available to all three offices.
The County consolidated its five Economic and Workforce Development agencies under a new Department of Commerce. The newly formed Department provides a one-stop opportunity for businesses looking to relocate or expand in the County, as well as individuals looking to enhance their skills. The Commerce Department coordinates the multitude of economic development arms including the Redevelopment Authority, the Montgomery County Development Corporation, the Industrial Development Authority, and the Workforce Investment Board. Further reform will come to these boards and their functions in the coming weeks. The operating budget for the Department of Commerce as compared to the old structure was reduced by 84 percent. This was made possible through the use of grants.
Second, we reformed structure and operations to secure new sources of revenue for the county and realize savings.
We understood early on that the county’s fiscal situation required us to find new sources of revenue without asking the taxpayers to foot the bill. We hired a Grants Coordinator—a position that did not exist in county government when we took office. He has worked closely with county departments, independently elected officials, our municipalities throughout Montgomery County and non-profit organizations to secure new funding for vital services and projects.
A highlight of the early success for this new position is the successful coordination with the Child Care Information Services of Montgomery County to help secure a $23 million dollar grant through the Commonwealth’s Department of Public Welfare.
We know there is value to advertising on county property and strategically marketing our assets to get a better return on the investment by our taxpayers. That is why we commenced an effort this fall to explore revenue generation from these areas.
We also learned that we are leaving money on the table when it comes to collecting outstanding forfeited bail. Today, the county is owed $9.6 million. Commissioner Castor is leading our effort to recover what is owed to the county with the strong assistance of President Judge Furber and other members of the bench, our solicitor’s office, and the Clerk of Courts.
We undertook a substantial effort to identify a new broker for employee health benefits after our initial review showed the prospect of real savings. In a short period of time, the broker was able to renegotiate contracts and reduce broker costs and commissions so as to identify nearly $2 million in savings for the County. These savings are being shared with employees through enhanced benefits and increased options at no additional cost.
The County also selected a new broker for its commercial lines of insurance, and we now project a 13 percent savings for 2013 over 2012. The broker has also been leading an effort for reducing risk to employees that will improve our work environment and save money.
Each of these new brokers is working in concert with our new Director of Human Resources and her reconstructed office.
The Board of Assessments plans to invest $200,000 in technology that will allow its assessors to securely enter data into its system from remote sites, reducing duplication of effort and increasing data accuracy. Similar initiatives are being piloted in human service delivery areas to allow for better client interaction and reduce data entry errors. This is good government—making smart investments that will provide better services to our constituents at reduced costs.
Third, we dramatically increased the openness and transparency of our county government.
We took office together just weeks after a scathing grand jury report that highlighted faulty policies, a lack of transparency and integrity and questionable purchasing procedures. The report was instructive as we set out on our mission to reform county government.
We adopted an exemplary ethics policy that is so good it has been embraced by all of our independently elected row officers as well. Our policy clearly spells out what is appropriate and unacceptable in the workplace and places a premium on openness.
That openness is not confined to our workforce. We strive to connect the public with what we do here which is why we live stream all of our meetings, post meeting videos on the website and have greatly increased the use of social media to keep our employees and residents informed.
We threw out the old procurement policy that was often ignored and widely panned, in order to adopt one that levels the playing field for suppliers and contractors and ensures a better deal for taxpayers. We also publicly advertise all RFPs in order to ensure greater competition. This policy has been followed for each contract authorized by the commissioners.
When our review showed that open space monies were being promised then doled out without proper safeguards in place to protect the taxpayers and the land since 1993, we froze the program and now require contracts before any project is authorized.
Fourth, our county government better reflects who we are as a county. As we changed the many faces leading county government we did so with an eye toward talent and professionalism. We wanted to hire the best of the best and we did. In the process, our workforce and the appointments we have made to Boards and Commissions better reflect the growing diversity of our county. For example, for the first time in history, our county government is led by a woman Chief Operating Officer who has been a key part of every important decision made over the past 365 days. There is no one better suited to run a county, or for that matter a state government, than Lauren Lambrugo.
Our toughest task and possibly the singular biggest accomplishment of this administration has been resurrecting sound budgeting procedures, and putting the county on sound fiscal footing. When we took office we inherited a 2012 budget that was in a $10 million hole and was based on a number of faulty premises. The sum total of the broken fiscal foundation left us with a $49.3 million dollar structural deficit.
We knew we could not cut or tax our way out of the mess we inherited. We had to be bold. We had to reform the process. We couldn’t play by the same old stale rules of the game. The 2013 budget was assembled utilizing a zero-based budgeting approach. Our approach rejects the traditional notion of annual government budgeting which takes the previous year’s budget, assumes some amount of growth or arbitrary level of cuts, and sets a new budget figure unrelated to the actual activities of the government. Under our approach, each government function identified its mission, how to achieve that mission, how to measure its performance, how to structure the department to best meet its mission, and what resources are required to meet that mission.
Our zero-based budgeting process produced a 2013 budget that is balanced with no tax increase, grows the county’s reserve fund for the first time in four years after 80 percent of it was drained and caused the county to lose its AAA bond rating, and makes a payment to the pension fund for the first time in four years.
In addition, the process allowed us to right-size our county workforce with a two percent reduction as we focused on meeting the core mission of county government.
INVESTING IN OUR FUTURE
In our first several weeks in office we discovered a litany of capital projects that had been deferred, ignored or undiscovered. A crumbling courthouse garage. A falling façade of One Montgomery Plaza. Cracked steel beams in the Main Street garage.
We have spent a year assessing the need, exploring financing options and will make critical investments to fix these problems this year. Commissioner Richards is captaining this effort for us and will speak to the specifics of this undertaking.
In 2012, rather than continue to buy outdated technology, we made significant investments in new technology that will reduce our dependence on in-house hardware, make us a more mobile workforce with technology for the 21st century.
For five years, our predecessors debated the need to upgrade the emergency communication system that our first responders use and our constituents depend upon. Under the leadership of Commissioner Castor we authorized a contract last month to upgrade the emergency communications system that at a fraction of the cost that the previous administration had estimated. Initial estimates put the cost at $120 million. We negotiated a price of $29.9 million while strictly adhering to our new procurement policy with the utmost transparency and competition.
For possibly the first time in the history of the county, we have undertaken a comprehensive space analysis to determine the best and most efficient way to utilize our buildings and improve the working conditions of our employees. Our goal is to right size both our workforce and the amount of office space we utilize. We believe it is possible to reduce the amount of office space by at least 10 percent over five years as we build a modern-day workforce and make use of the new technologies we invested in.
In addition to making critical infrastructure investments in 2013, we will make our county government much more accessible for those who need it most.
Next month, we will introduce “Navicates” who will revolutionize the way social services are delivered in Montgomery County. Navicates will be navigators and advocates for those who need human services throughout the county. Currently, someone who may need help from several social service agencies or programs in the county has to go to Norristown and figure out how to navigate the system themselves and to find out what services are available. Our Navicates, who will be stationed throughout the county, will work with these individuals to identify services they can utilize to help their situation, and then advocate for them in receiving those services.
Finally, I want to thank the talented and dedicated staff in the commissioners’ office that have worked tirelessly to achieve all of the successes I have enumerated and laid the foundation for our future success. I do not think there is a more talented senior staff in any county or governmental body in Pennsylvania. I thank each of them for everything they have done for our constituents and for helping make this the most exhilarating and rewarding year in my career in public service.
We are not done reforming the function and structure of government and asking the fundamental questions of why we do things a certain way and what is our core mission all with an eye towards greater efficiency and effectiveness.
It’s been an extraordinary first year and I am energized for Year 2.