Montgomery County has passed a $417 million budget for 2012 that will raise taxes by nearly 17 percent - the first hike in a decade - while saving the parks and public planning departments from proposed elimination and most others from evisceration.
The plan, approved Wednesday, increases county spending by about 3 percent, or $13.4 million. It also includes a 2 percent pay raise for all county workers.
In a first for the current administration, the three commissioners voted unanimously to support the budget, ending a four-year term - best known for backbiting and bickering - on an unusually harmonious note.
"Unlike Washington, unlike Harrisburg, we're bipartisan, we're unanimous, and we're making government work," said Commissioners Chairman Joseph M. Hoeffel III. "We looked into the abyss with draconian cuts, and none of us felt that was an effective solution."
The increase will bring in an extra $26.2 million. The average homeowner with property assessed at $168,000 will pay $530 next year - up from $453.
Still, Montgomery County remains a bargain in the Pennsylvania suburbs. Average tax payments sit at $790 in Bucks County, $683 in Delaware County, and $650 in Chester County.
(Those figures are expected to rise next year with the tax hikes approved in budgets by Bucks County (5.7 percent) and Delaware County (2.3 percent). Chester County voted earlier this month not to raise taxes in 2012.)
Despite the unusual bonhomie Wednesday among Montgomery County's commissioners, nothing about the budget vote came easy.
Last month, the county posted a first proposed budget that would have cut spending by $14.6 million, including the elimination of several departments and significant reduction of funding for the county library and the community college.
That draft drew outrage from 9,000 residents in public meetings, e-mail exchanges, and a comment system set up on the county's website.
On Wednesday, Commissioner James R. Matthews - recently indicted on perjury charges - conceded that he and his colleagues had feinted with that first proposal, hoping to convince voters of the necessity of a tax hike.
"We thought it was important to let the public know what we were looking at," he said.
When it came to alternatives, though, all three commissioners dug in their heels.
Matthews, who oversaw years of budgets that dipped into county reserves instead of raising taxes, refused to support any spending plan that again cut overall spending without a tax hike. He fought to maintain appropriations for the county's community college, library, and the Elmwood Park Zoo.
Castor, guided by a traditional Republican reluctance to raise taxes, at first urged his colleagues to fund only those departments mandated by state law and let the county's new Democratic administration - set to take control Jan. 3 - figure out the rest.
Ever the Democrat, Hoeffel sought to split the difference, urging a combination of budget cuts and a moderate tax increase. In the end, his approach won out, but with a larger tax hike than Hoeffel originally proposed.
The budget approved Wednesday slashes most departmental funding by 2.5 percent. But some - such as the sheriff's office, courts, and prison - avoided cuts.
Julio M. Algarin, warden of the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, said he still worries that his allotment won't be enough.
This year, the jail opened a new 27,000-square-foot wing. Algarin had requested several million more dollars to hire staff and deploy necessary resources to make the expansion functional next year. Commissioners granted about half of his request.
"It's going to be difficult," he said when asked whether he had enough money to operate. "But I guess I have to try like everybody else."