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In Montco, the new board’s target is the old board

When Montgomery County's commissioners were sworn in 11 months ago, incoming Chairman Josh Shapiro promised an end to the bitter words and political infighting that poisoned the previous administration.

When Montgomery County's commissioners were sworn in 11 months ago, incoming Chairman Josh Shapiro promised an end to the bitter words and political infighting that poisoned the previous administration.

"We're hoping our county meetings are a lot more boring," Shapiro said, "but a lot more efficient and better-run for the taxpayers."

The meetings have indeed been more boring, with monotonous readings of requests for competitive bids and frequent refrains for the commissioners to pat their colleagues on the back. The commissioners occasionally throw jabs at one another, but the jabs are lighthearted and received with laughter. Every vote of 2012 has been unanimous.

But bitter and divisive words are still uttered in council chambers - directed not at fellow commissioners but at their predecessors.

The commissioners rarely miss an opportunity to remind the public that they inherited "a mess," "fiasco," "boondoggle," "an intentionally and deliberately misleading" budget passed by an administration wracked by "political gamesmanship" and "ineptitude."

On their first day in office, Democrats Shapiro and Leslie S. Richards and Republican Bruce L. Castor Jr. - the lone holdover from the previous administration - were handed a $417 million budget calling for $25 million in new tax revenue and $10 million in unspecified cuts. To make payroll the first month, the commissioners had to borrow money and initiate layoffs, furloughs, and cuts.

But former Commissioner Joseph M. Hoeffel 3d last week fired back, saying it was Castor who asked for those cuts to be deferred to the new administration. Hoeffel also noted that he, Castor, and former Chairman James H. Matthews voted unanimously in favor of the 2012 budget.

"It just seems duplicitous for them to turn around, particularly Bruce, and act like they didn't know it was happening and we did something under the table and irresponsible budget-making when in fact it was done at his request," Hoeffel said Friday.

Hoeffel said the previous administration should get credit for passing a 17 percent tax increase, without which the new commissioners would have been in a much deeper hole.

Shapiro and Richards campaigned on a pledge not to raise taxes, and it's unlikely they could have kept that promise for the 2013 budget if the increase had not been in place.

The commissioners have also struggled to untangle what they describe as sloppy budgeting. For example, under the previous administration, some agencies were charged rent and others weren't. The county's chief financial officer, Uri Monson, said the inconsistency made for "a distorted view of what the county was paying for services."

The previous budgets also hid hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside legal fees. For four years, the county budgeted $100,000 for outside counsel. But the actual cost averaged around $500,000, often charged to other departments so as not to inflate the executive budget.

Castor, Matthews, and Hoeffel have said they did not know that was happening and merely accepted the number presented by Solicitor Barry Miller.

"If the history was we were spending $500,000 every year in outside fees, we should have been budgeting $500,000 in outside fees. And I was not aware that we were not," Hoeffel said.

Monson and the current commissioners like to point out that their budget numbers don't end in zero. Each expenditure, they say, was evaluated down to the dollar.

They also tout the first pension and reserve-fund contributions in four years. Under the previous administration, the fund dropped from nearly $100 million to $20 million by 2011, prompting the county's debt rating to drop from AAA to AA1.

The bond-rating downgrade came seven months after a grand jury released a scathing critique of the Matthews administration, describing a corrupt county government in which officials and civil servants ignored their own procurement policies, recklessly spent taxpayer money, and rewarded cronies with plum positions for which they were unqualified.

Matthews denied the charges against him and Hoeffel said things were not as bad as the report made it seem.

"Any policy, if politicians abuse it, can be violated. But the point is, there's a policy in place that people can turn to and review," Hoeffel said, saying the county lacked ethics or procurement policies until his tenure.

Shapiro's administration just a few days ago went around its own competitive-bidding policy to award Motorola a $40 million contract to upgrade the first-responder radio system. Castor said that was a rare departure, done to save taxpayers millions of dollars.

Hoeffel disagreed. "A no-bid contract is a bad contract for government," he said. "I would stake my name on that."

One thing everyone can agree on is that the bickering, the depleted reserve fund, and the grand jury report put a dark stain on Montgomery County politics. Shapiro and his allies hope their actions over the last year will help erase it.

Hoeffel said he could not comment on the details of the new policies, but he said the commissioners "ought to do more governing and less whining."