January 4, 2012
Bucks County Government 2011 Year in Review: Fiscal Challenges and Capital Progress
A year that featured one of the most difficult budget cycles in recent Bucks County annals also included a large slate of capital project progress and the December, 2011 reaffirmation of the county’s Aaa bond rating from Moody’s Investors Service. The Board of Commissioners navigated the challenging economic climate with a new member, as Robert G. Loughery replaced Pennsylvania Lt. Governor James F. Cawley, Esq. during February, joining Chairman Charles H. Martin and Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia, LCSW on the three-member board.
After Commissioner Loughery took the oath of office in Courthouse Courtroom #1, Chairman Martin told a packed audience: “Robert G. Loughery joins our board at a pivotal time in Bucks County’s 329-year history. Commissioner Loughery comes to this post with a keen understanding of the challenges and opportunities that confront us today. Indeed, with change comes great opportunity.”
Pledging to “serve and lead from this position with dignity and integrity, as well as with vigor,” Commissioner Loughery joined forces with Chairman Martin to form the Commissioners’ Economic Development Council (CEDC), which will unite business leaders throughout the county to act on the recommendations of the recent Commissioners’ Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB).
At the final commissioners’ business meeting of the year, December 21 at the Bucks County Visitors Center in Bensalem, the board voted to approve a $461.67 million county operating budget for 2012. For the first time since 2006, the residents of Bucks County will pay a higher property tax millage rate, an increase of 5.7 percent (21.942 mills to 23.200 mills) or an average of $45 for the owner of a home valued at the county average assessment of $35,800.
During July, Commissioners Martin and Loughery joined President Judge Susan D. Scott and Doylestown Borough officials to break ground on the 285,000 square foot Justice Center. Back in January, 2011, Commissioners Martin and Cawley awarded the General Construction contract of $58.167 million to low-bidder Ernest Bock and Sons, a Philadelphia-based contractor with Bucks County roots. The commissioners also awarded five other contracts to Guy M. Cooper, Inc. of Willow Grove, PA (fire protection, $1.018 million), Schindler Elevator Corp. of Downingtown, PA (elevator, $2.15 million), the Farfield Company of Lititz, PA (electrical, $13.2 million), and Worth and Company of Pipersville (plumbing, $2.175 million; mechanical, $7.234 million).
The commissioners’ bi-monthly meetings again featured a wide array of locations, including the Mercer Museum, the Bristol Riverside Theater, Philadelphia Biblical University, Silver Lake Nature Center, the Buckingham Township Municipal Building, the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, Pennridge Senior Center, the Special Equestrians in Warrington Township, the traditional Middletown Grange Fair stage to kick off the 63rd annual event, and Lower Bucks Hospital.
With 2011 in the rear-view mirror, it is again time to reflect on the many diverse accomplishments of the Bucks County workforce. Following is a snapshot look at 10 themes that shaped the past 12 months of county government:
1. JUSTICE CENTER GROUNDBREAKING
A long-anticipated milestone in the evolution of the Bucks County Justice Center complex was reached on the morning of July 19, as Commissioners Martin and Loughery joined state, county and local dignitaries to put ceremonial shovels to dirt. The kickoff to the $84 million Justice Center took place at the building site, with construction equipment hovering nearby. According to county Director of Operations Jerry Anderson, the tentative timetable for construction calls for substantial completion by August, 2013.
“This is an important day because we are launching the largest – and probably most expensive – project that the county has ever undertaken,” stated Chairman Martin. He traced the timeline of the last decade, which involved collaboration with three president judges, including Judge Scott. Chairman Martin also thanked Borough officials, including Borough Manager John Davis and Assistant Borough Manager/Zoning Officer Phil Ehlinger. “We recognize as a county government we are really guests here in Doylestown Borough,” the chairman added.
The groundbreaking took place adjacent to the 1909-era Doylestown Armory, a portion of which will be preserved as part of the new Justice Center. In the background, construction workers moved some of the 40,000 cubic yards of dirt that will be excavated from the site over the next several months.
2. HURRICANE IRENE AND TROPICAL STORM LEE
During late August, Hurricane Irene blew through Bucks County, leaving widespread property damage and power outages. From the county Emergency Operations Center (E.O.C.) in Ivyland, the commissioners monitored the situation with Emergency Services Director John Dougherty.
The commissioners declared a state of emergency on August 27 due to serious flooding along the Neshaminy Creek and Delaware River caused by Hurricane Irene. By declaring an emergency, the county joined a Pennsylvania state declaration to seek federal aid.
The commissioners and the Bucks County Emergency Management Agency activated the Bucks County E.O.C. on Saturday, August 27 at 8 p.m. Representatives from multiple response agencies, including the American Red Cross, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), the Bucks County Fire Marshal and Hazardous Incident Response Team (H.I.R.T.), the National Guard, county Emergency Medical Health and PECO were on hand to coordinate response to the hurricane. According to PECO, 12,428 households in Bucks County were without power as of 9:45 p.m. on August 27 – not all of which were directly storm related. By 1:30 a.m. on August 28, that number had risen to almost 57,000.
In the storm’s aftermath, all three commissioners toured damaged areas along the Neshaminy Creek and Delaware River with federal, state and local officials. In the following weeks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) opened a Disaster Recovery Center for county residents to file claims. It was located at the Neshaminy Mall.
Another powerful front, Tropical Storm Lee, tore through Bucks County during the second week of September, producing another round of damage. Again, property loss claims were coordinated by the county EMA in conjunction with municipal emergency management coordinators.
3. FORMATION OF THE COMMISSIONERS’ ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT COUNCIL (CEDC)
During the July 20 Commissioners’ Meeting, the annual evening picnic, Commissioners Martin and Loughery voted to create the Commissioners’ Economic Development Council (CEDC), to “advise the commissioners on economic development issues and to further the collaboration and cooperation among agencies and organizations committed to the economic conditions in the County (of Bucks).” Noting that the creation of the CEDC is an idea he proposed after meeting with members of the former Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB), Commissioner Loughery said he views the new council as a roadmap to move forward.
Later in the year, Commissioner Loughery finalized the composition of the board and sought business leaders to apply. The board is composed of 13 official voting members and 15 non-voting members from a regional list of economic development and related agencies. It will continue its work in earnest during 2012 following the appointments that took place during the second half of 2011.
4. LOWER BUCKS PUBLIC SAFETY TRAINING CENTER OPEN FOR BUSINESS
On the morning of Saturday, October 22, the commissioners helped cut the ceremonial ribbon at the burn building of the Lower Bucks Public Safety Training Center. The burn building, which is a part of an $8.5 million training complex on nearly 11 acres in Bristol Township, is the “finest in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” according to Lower Bucks Fire School Committee Chairman Robert Hedden.
Touting the benefits of inter-agency collaboration, Bucks County Community College President Dr. James Linksz emceed the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the $8.5 million facility. He welcomed the first responders who will receive state-of-the-art, hands on training in the new burn building, which includes areas for residential, mercantile, hotel/motel and office complex incidents. The building also features a tight-quarters rescue area, a shingled roof prop and technology to simulate fires of more than 1,500 degrees Farenheit. The adjacent administration building will provide comprehensive classroom training and office space for large and small instructional groups. A large concrete pad will allow firefighters to drill incidents such as tanker fires and gas-station calls.
5. BUCKS COUNTY’S FIRST-EVER DIVERSITY CONFERENCE
On May 25, the commissioners partnered with Delaware Valley College, Bucks County Behavioral Health System, the Bucks County Human Relations Council and Magellan Health Services to sponsor the county’s first-ever Diversity Conference. The conference was the brainchild of Commissioner Marseglia, who formed a committee to lay all of the groundwork for the event.
The conference, which drew almost 400 attendees to Delaware Valley College, featured welcoming remarks, Keynote Speaker Melissa Harris-Perry, morning and afternoon breakout sessions dedicated to diversity topics, a resource fair, and a closing presentation by Temple University Professor Mogauwane Mahloele. Melissa Harris-Perry is a professor, an MSNBC contributor and columnist for The Nation. Her speech is titled, “Teachable Moments in the Politics of America’s New Racial Landscape.”
The goal of the conference was to “elevate the awareness of diversity and increase individual and community knowledge of local and national diversity resources for Bucks County.”
6. PRESCRIPTION DRUG TAKE-BACK INITIATIVES
On October 19, during the Commissioners’ Meeting at Silver Lake Nature Center, the board proclaimed Saturday, October 29 as “National Drug Take Back Day,” in the process recognizing multiple agencies that have collaborated to take prescription drugs out of home medicine cabinets and out of the waste stream. The Bucks County Prescription Drug Take-Back Initiative brings together the commissioners, the District Attorney’s office, the Bucks County Area Agency on Aging (AAA), the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission, the Bucks County Print Shop, the Bucks County Children and Youth Social Services Agency, the Bucks County Detectives, the Bucks County Department of Health, the county Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), Bucks Promise for Youth & Communities, and local law enforcement agencies. The October 29 event wound up collecting 3,800 pounds of medication at more than 40 sites around the county. That total was more than neighboring counties Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia collected overall that day.
“We saw there was a problem (in the community),” Melanie Swanson of The Council of Southeast PA, Inc. told the commissioners after accepting the proclamation. She also noted that the average pharmacy fills about 2,000 prescriptions in a week. Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler elaborated on the effort, explaining that teenage oxycontin abuse can lead to heroin addiction. DA Heckler also presented a certificate of “outstanding performance” to county Chief of Detectives Chris McAteer for his dedication to the program. Bucks County has placed a Prescription Drug Drop-Off box in the Court St. entrance of the Bucks County Courthouse. Participants will not have to pass through Security screening to make an anonymous deposit at that collection place.
7. COUNTY’S Aaa STABLE BOND RATING REAFFIRMED
On Wednesday, December 7, Moody’s Investors Service announced that it had completed its assessments of the rating outlooks of five Aaa-rated states and 161 Aaa local governments, among them Bucks County. As a result of that assessment process, Bucks County had its outlook revised to “stable” from “negative.”
According to Moody’s: “These actions reflect our view that the vast majority of Aaa-rated state and local governments demonstrate an adequate degree of independence from the U.S. government and therefore could be rated higher than the sovereign. The Aaa-rated state and local government issuers with outlooks that have been restored to stable are considered to have lesser financial and economic linkage to the U.S. government.”
Moody’s assigned negative outlooks to bond issuers on August 4, 2011, two days after the confirmation of the U.S. government’s Aaa rating and assignment of a negative outlook. Bucks County earned its first-ever Aaa rating from Moody’s during April, 2010. Only four (4) percent of all Moody’s-rated state and local governments presently are rated Aaa with a stable outlook. “Although in the current economic environment we should never assume anything, it was hoped and anticipated that Moody’s would reinstate Bucks County’s stable outlook,” noted County Chief Operating Officer Brian Hessenthaler.
8. OPEN SPACE PRESERVATION CONTINUES APACE
The year 2011 included the preservation of several prime county properties. During the 63rd annual Middletown Grange Fair, the commissioners celebrated the addition of the 93.36-acre Gerenser Farm and the 62.85-acre Keating Farm, both in Durham Township. Agricultural Preservation Director Rich Harvey provided the commissioners with his office’s 2010 annual report, noting that last year the program preserved nine farms totaling 764 acres. The county’s stated goal is to preserve “17,000 acres of productive farmland by the year 2017.” Chairman Martin lauded the efforts as an example of a “successful program.” On November 2, at the Pearl S. Buck International site in Perkasie, the Commissioners’ Meeting agenda offered two significant land preservation items: the county portion of a 58.42-acre agricultural conservation easement on the Britt Farm in Bedminster Township; and the county portion of a 48.5-acre Municipal Open Space easement on the Guenst property in Haycock Township. According to Mr. Harvey, it is the 30th farm preserved in Bedminster (for a total of more than 5,000 acres farm acres preserved in that township). Since 1989, the county has preserved 148 farms totaling 12,553 acres.
County Open Space Coordinator Kris Kern had a busy year, as well. On April 6, the commissioners unanimously approved a $579,450 easement on the 112-acre Heuscher Farm in Northampton Township. The property, which is situated in proximity to several previously preserved farms totaling 228.5 acres, is a significant acquisition for the county, according to Ms. Kern. Farmed since the early 1900’s, the farm features prime agricultural soils and an unnamed tributary of Little Neshaminy Creek that crosses the northeast corner of the parcel. The July 6 Commissioners’ Meeting featured approval of two Open Space grants, a 45 - acre Municipal Open Space easement in Durham Township, and a 52.12 - acre Natural Areas Program easement in Springfield Township. According to Kern, “This is a growing area…This area will continue to grow as a connected corridor.” On November 16, at the Mercer Museum, Commissioners Loughery and Marseglia approved three Open Space preservation projects totaling 145 acres, including the 27-acre Wernett property in Richland Township, the 39.1-acre Jones property in Springfield Township, and the 89.85-acre Bates property in West Rockhill Township.
9. VETERANS ID CARD DISCOUNT PROGRAM DEBUTS
On November 2 in Warminster, Chairman Martin and Commissioner Loughery joined county Veterans Affairs Director Dan Fraley and Recorder of Deeds Joseph Szafran to introduce a new program. All Bucks County veterans and active duty personnel are invited to visit the Bucks County Recorder of Deeds office on the second floor of the Bucks County Courthouse. By showing their DD-214 discharge form (or having staff look it up if already filled in the Recorder of Deeds office), they will be able to receive a color photo identification card that will entitle them to special discounts at local businesses.
The program kicked off with almost 100 veterans posing for ID pictures in the large hall of the Warminster VFW Post. Many of them expressed appreciation for the opportunity to carry a simpler form of veterans ID than the traditional paperwork that denotes their service to the United States. “We are very excited to launch this program for our veterans’ community, which numbers more than 50,000 in Bucks County,” Chairman Martin stated. “Through this program, we will support them and the ‘veteran friendly’ businesses who offer discounts for their goods and services.” During 2012, the program will be taken to remote locations such as the Lower Bucks Government Services Center in Levittown, Senior Centers and Expos, and the Middletown Grange Fair. In the first two months of the program, more than 1,000 Veterans ID Cards were issued by the Recorder of Deeds office.
10. COUNTY COMPREHENSIVE PLAN UPDATE
On Wednesday, December 21, the Bucks County Comprehensive Plan 2011 – a three-year project encompassing 381 pages – gained unanimous approval from the Board of Commissioners. It is the fourth comprehensive plan in county annals. “I think this is the best comprehensive plan, not only in Pennsylvania, but also on the east coast,” Planning Commission Board Chairman Edward Kisselback, Jr. told the commissioners before the plan’s adoption at the Bucks County Visitors Center in Bensalem.
Lauding her staff and the Planning Commission board for its commitment to the project, Planning Commission Executive Director/Chief Clerk Lynn T. Bush offered three comments: “First, we wanted to find out what residents want,” she stated, noting that feedback for the plan included a public survey (which produced 1,746 responses), multiple public meetings and widespread community collaboration. “Second, we know that all planning is local. Third, the heart of the plan is to use our assets and our resources effectively and efficiently.”
Commissioner Loughery stressed the importance of using the Bucks County Comprehensive Plan 2011 as “a mirror,” not allowing it to sit on a shelf without being put into practical usage. The plan is “founded on the long history of innovative planning carried out by the Bucks County Planning Commission and the valued and principles embodied in the concepts of sustainable development and stewardship.”