Dumping on municipalities seems like a bad idea

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Chester County’s decision to impose $5.20 per person charge is weak policy and terrible politics

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
There are a lot of angry elected officials right now in Chester County, a lot of soon-to-be angry residents, and, as seems to be the usual case these days, a lot of passing the buck.

At the time of year when one normally smells fresh barbecue, suntan lotion and  swimming pool chlorine, there’s a clear whiff of outrage, some of which was on display in West Chester this week. I suspect there might also be a scent of something else, usually found coming from the wrong end of a cow.

It seems that the Chester County Commissioners hatched a plan to re-initiate a “cost-recovery fee” from local municipalities to pay some of the costs for emergency services no longer being funded by the state.

The average Chester County voter might not yet be as peeved as dozens of local elected officials are — who are rightly annoyed that the county is seeking to collect a $5.20 per-person charge from every municipality — but give it some time, as word is just getting out.

You see, the state is cutting funding, those blue — uh, I mean red — meanies in Harrisburg are cutting funding. That means since the state is dumping on the county, the county has to dump on the municipalities, and we all know where the final dump is, anyhow. On us, the taxpayers.

Commissioner Ryan Costello, seen by political insiders as the prime mover behind this scheme as well as the ongoing look at privatizing the Pocopson Home, is arguing that many of the townships and boroughs have surpluses — and yes, some like Tredyffrin and Kennett, among others, have sizable nest eggs — and thus can afford it. Otherwise, he argues, residents will pay for these services through a higher county tax when local taxes they have already paid are sitting unused. At the same time, many Chester County townships, boroughs and one very fiscally challenged city are already looking under sofa cushions for quarters to try to figure out how to pay the bills.

Of course, Chester County has $60 million in reserve as well, but we’re told that can’t be touched or the county’s AAA bond rating could be jeopardized. One can only imagine the cries of outrage that would emanate from Costello and his colleagues were the state to demand $3 million, citing that the state is broke and the county has a nice surplus.

Truth be told, after being forced to bond $4 billion in unemployment debt and facing billions more in unfunded pension debt, the state is in much worse shape than Chester County and might well be completely justified by the commissioners’ logic to dip right into that surplus.

Still, we’re being told with something like a straight face that the charge is not to prevent a tax hike, which all three county commissioners said is inevitable, anyway. It begs the question of why not just raise the tax rate a smidge higher and be done with this exercise in political self-immolation? You’ll excuse us for being a tad cynical about that — too many times in the past the county tax rate has been a political football.

Maybe the pleas of poverty would have been a bit more convincing had the county not spent just a tad under a bazillion dollars on not one, but two, fairly luxurious and expensive buildings — especially to some of the township supervisors in towns so cash-poor that they meet in a rented space, out of town. Arguably, too, they left money on the table in selling the old county courts building last year.

We’re told that opposition to this is “just politics,” with some finger-pointing going on at a handful of local elected officials who as luck would have it, or something, happen to be Democrats. As we all know, the board of County Commissioners — as it has been since the Civil War — is controlled by Republicans. Funny thing, though, the angriest responses have come from fellow Republicans, with some vitriol directed specifically at Costello.

“Brash” was the nicest description of Costello I heard this week from other elected officials. “Arrogant,” “condescending” and “snotty” were also used.

Now, I’ve known Costello personally for a while and I don’t think those are entirely fair descriptions — he’s bright, certainly, and has strong opinions. I think at the end of the day, he means well. And maybe you have to give him credit for taking on the kind of issues that often end political careers.

But the presentation was lousy — and it doesn’t seem like the smart move from either a governance or political point of view. Not to mention that the county has zero authority to collect such a fee.

To be honest, I’m a little confused at the strategy play here. Granted, I’ve proven myself to be among the worst political operators in Chester County history, the Mario Mendoza of local politics, but I’m missing the long-term or short-term strategic play that involves getting virtually everyone to despise you.

The Tea Party types see it as just another “Big Government reaching into the people’s pockets” move. Old-line Republican types see it as “kicking the can down the road” and even liberals see it as taking money away from parks and open space preservation to artificially keep tax rates low. Trust me, I know. I’ve heard all those things and more in the last few days, taking the local temperature.

I allow that it’s possible I’m missing some elusive genius reasoning behind both the move and what seems worse, the messaging, but from here it looks pretty ill-considered. Maybe the county can save money by firing whoever came up with the message plan on this doozy.

With the exception of a few municipalities who probably should slash local tax rates and give back much of their surplus, whatever money most towns are sitting on is already — and often statutorily required to be — slated for specific projects: roads, open space, capital purchases. So making it seem like the challenges faced by local governments are somehow less than those of county government comes off a bit like the misquoted line from Marie Antoinette, “let them eat cake.”

There’s no question the financial situation stinks. It stinks in D.C. It stinks in Harrisburg. It stinks in West Chester — and in some places on a local basis, the situation is little short of dire.

Everybody has their bucket of fiscal sewage to deal with — you hold your nose and try to cope the best you can. It just seems a little unneighborly to be dumping it over the next door neighbor’s fence.

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