Monday, March 3, 2014

County Conversation Summary

Last Thursday was the Town Hall with the County Commissioners. As I said, the turnout was decent, and they said about another 50 people participated through Google Hangout. The 3 commissioners sat at the long table in Municipal Hall--the setup looked as if they were testifying before Congress, but we were assured that it was only so the camera could get them all in.

They began by introducing themselves and the area of concern for each. Josh Shapiro, the chairman, talked about the county's role in human services, particularly for seniors, business and economic development.

Leslie Richards, the vice chair, talked about transportation--the Lafayette Street corridor, the Markley Street project, and improvement to the Main Street parking garage. Also, she said that the courthouse would undergo renovations to save energy and water. She cited Arborheights on Dekalb as a tremendous success, probably not realizing that much of Norristown doesn't even know about that project, and that a lot of people who DO know think it's too dense and hope something like that never ever comes to their neighborhoods.

Bruce Castor is the expert on the county's public safety issues. I've toured the Chester County 911 facility (which is state-of-the-art and pretty impressive) and I assumed Montgomery County had a similar setup. From what Castor was saying, we apparently aren't quite there yet, but are making improvements. When you call the police, the call goes to 911 automatically, which is supposed to coordinate and track emergencies around the county in real time, in case extra resources need to be diverted to one spot in a hurry, or for fire and rescue efforts, or when police departments need to be coordinated for cases like child luring. Castor said our County Radio is being upgraded, and we're close to crime mapping in real time (Chester County has this already).

Then people started to ask questions and present concerns, and I learned a few things I didn't know. For instance, even if a student has lived in the county nearly all of his/her life, and gone through our schools--even if the student has gotten outstanding grades--if that child was brought here an as infant by undocumented parents, the student isn't treated by our community college as a resident of Montgomery County, or even as a resident of the Pennsylvania or the United States. The college treats that student as someone newly coming in from a foreign country. It's actually cheaper for that student to go to Philadelphia Community College than to Montco. Now, I know some of you are thinking that this is the way it should work, but you'd be wrong. Most of these kids don't find out they aren't citizens until they apply to college--and it's through no fault of their own. We should want to keep our best and brightest students in our county, to bring business here after they graduate. The commissioners seem to understand this and said they'd make sure the current policies change.

There was a concern about power outtages--that they're getting longer, that most people can't call 911 during an outtage, and that poor or even middle class residents don't have fireplaces and can't afford generators. Castor said it was too cost prohibitive to bury all electrical lines so the key was to keep trees trimmed back from power lines. He said non-portable, corded phones would still work in outtages. That's where he's wrong. The new fiber optic systems run on electricity with a battery backup that only lasts about 8 hours (though, supposedly the newest systems use an ordinary 12-volt battery which you can replace, giving yourself an extra 8 hours each). I still had copper wires during Hurricane Sandy, so I was the only person among my friends and family who had a working phone, but the phone company let the wires deteriorate so much that the noise on the wire forced me to get FIOS (or maybe they're putting noise on the line on purpose, to get people to switch), so now I too lose my phone in an outtage. And the gentleman who posed the concern was right, the outtages ARE getting longer. I lived in this county 47 years before I experienced an outtage longer than 3 hours. Hurricane Isabel in 2003 put out my electricity for 23 hours. Now, outtages DAYS in length is the norm. There's obviously something very vulnerable about our grid, and the attitude we got the other night--that these events aren't as bad as they seem--didn't reassure us.

Our intrepid Shae Ashe of The Norristown Project, tuned in through Google, and sent in a question asking how the county can help Norristown promote business. Shapiro said 30-minute train service would be coming to our Transportation Center, so hopefully the idea of being able to get a train in and out every 30 minutes would help bring in offices.

Richards said they also want to help Norristown promote home ownership, and that she thought the town had "amazing buildings" that could be promoted, though when I asked her specifics about historical preservation, I got the idea that she liked the concept but didn't want to deal with the reality. If a building's empty, no matter how amazing, she implied that it was okay to demolish it. Though all 3 commissioners said they were committed to keeping the old Jail on Airy because it's a significant landmark building.

Another request was that the county support the development of Arts Hill and address safety concerns in the area, in order to bring foot traffic back to Main Street. Castor said the Sheriff's Department is expanding so there will be visible uniforms on the streets around the courthouse, leaving the police department freer to concentrate in other areas.

All in all, it was a good Town Hall, though I thought they steered the conversation away from specifics so much that I came away feeling that this was all for show. Still, I'm glad they took the time, and I hope they took away a better understanding of residents' concerns. I hope these Town Halls continue.

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