Commentary: Politics trumps common sense in open space cuts

County commissioners finesse budget when bolder moves are needed; choices will lead to higher school, local taxes, more sprawl later on

By Mike McGann, Editor,

Slashing open space spending was a gift only the Grinch and the Chester County Commissioners would see as a good move.

The good news, I suppose is that Chester County seems to have pulled a rabbit from a hat and now suddenly won’t have a 3.9% tax increase. Perish the thought that the tax increase got the axe because it’s an election year.

That goes without saying — it’s an oldie but a goodie in Chester County, although the three-part harmony in this year’s one-hit wonder is a bit disconcerting, to be honest. One almost expects to find Joe Hoeffel in the Chester County court house, instead of consulting with his attorneys for allegedly violating Sunshine Laws in Montgomery County.

The bad news: they did it in a short-sighted and financially irresponsible way: slashing open-space money. If they — and by they I mean the commissioners — had any guts, they would have cut the money from the county courts and told Harrisburg to “man up” and pay its share as has been mandated by the courts and completely ignored by the legislature. That would have been both fun and productive — not weaselly and shortsighted.

What the merry band of commissioners did was the governance equivalent of one of those pay-day loans. It may get you out of a short-term fix, but rest assured, you are hosed at the end of the week, month and year.

Look, I get the argument: the real estate market is lousy and prices are lower and so on.  But…developers aren’t morons, either. They’re swooping in, picking up properties at depressed or worse pricing and if not rushing to build new homes, are paving the way, as it were, for an explosion of development later in this decade. Cutting open space preservation now means one thing: higher school and local taxes and more sprawl later. For that reason alone, this might be the single worst time to cut open space funding — blowing an opportunity to keep sprawl and taxes down for years.

Maybe the commissioners don’t see the various development plans I keep seeing coming before local boards of supervisors. The odd trip south of U.S. 1 might prove educational at times as a reminder that not all of the county looks like Exton. Yet.

Sometime in 2017 when sprawl is a lot worse, I’ll be happy to stop by the courthouse and do the old “I told you so” speech, provided I have the 90 minutes it will take to drive from Pocopson to West Chester by then, that’s assuming I have the spare time, since I’ll have to work that much harder to pay my school taxes, after Unionville is forced to build another school.

I can’t repeat this mantra enough: every dollar spent to prevent development, saves many, many dollars of future taxes.

I’d honestly rather have seen the county lay off 50 or 100 people — these cuts need to start hurting so people start realizing that some taxes, especially on the state and federal level, need to be paid or you go without. Right now, local and county officials keep making deals with the devil to keep the lights on — and frankly, all they’re doing is enabling the “I want my taxes cut and more services now” thinking that continues to pervade our current “me first” mentality.

Maybe it’s mean to suggest this, but we need to cut until it hurts. A lot. Since everyone hates government so much, maybe the time has come to take it away from them. Maybe people miss it and rethink the tax thing. Maybe people don’t and we end up cutting spending. Either way, we move forward.

This stunt — and let’s be honest, that’s what it is — serves no good. It’s bad long-term policy, will lead to higher taxes and enables short-term stupidity and selfishness.

Somewhere along the line, the less government argument has been substituted with “less intelligent government” arguments, where it’s okay to trade a short-term fix for a long-term mess. We’ve seen that play out on the state and federal level and now we’re seeing it on the county level.

How many McMansions, Walgreens and bank branches can you build in Chester County?

I think we’re going to find out, courtesy of the Chester County Commissioners.

Merry Christmas.

Editor’s note: As always, we welcome opposing viewpoints.

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