Todd Shepherd: Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining us on this special video of Broad + Liberty today. We’re happy to be joined by Dr. Monica Taylor. She is the new chairperson of the Delaware County Council and Dr. Taylor, first of all, thanks so much for taking some time out of your busy day to talk to us.
Dr. Monica Taylor: Thanks for having me.
TS: Yeah, you bet. So, one of the reasons we’re able to do this interview right now, [it’s a] new year. The county had said if you’d like to do an interview and see what the new year holds for the council, set it up. So, we took you up on that offer, but of course, with the new year, the county just did its swearing-in ceremonies for all of the new officers. And you all swore in a new county council member. His name is Richard Womack, Jr. First of all, tell us a little bit about him; what are some of the strengths or what are some of the abilities you think he brings to the council that he’ll be able to specialize in?
MT: I think Mr. Womack brings a lot to the county. He is a great organizer. He is really talented at working with individuals, working with people throughout the county. He comes with a wealth and knowledge of the county itself and of coming from the municipal level, too, a wealth of knowledge of working at the municipal level.
TS: So, as the Democrats started to take control of the county council four years ago, [then] two years ago, obviously the two marquee issues that everyone campaigned on and the council’s been really successful at working on, have been the deprivatization of the George H.W. — the George Hill prison facility — or the George W. Hill facility, excuse me. I tried to make it into a presidential thing when it’s not! And then also the creation of the [county-led] health department.
Those items aren’t complete yet, but I think it’s fair to say they’ve pretty much rounded third and they’re headed for home. I mean, they’re very close to being fully complete, and those are issues that are very media-friendly because the public can grasp them so easily. But with those couple of things in the rear view for you, what are the top two or three priorities you see for the council in the next two to three years? And are they all as media relatable, as easy for the public to keep an active interest in?
MT: Yes. I think those are two really big projects we’ve been working on the last two years. And I think moving forward, we have had several other initiatives that have been going on including working on our workforce development department — putting more initiatives out there to make sure individuals in Delaware County understand what’s available to them, and what resources are there in terms of training, in terms of whether it’s — you’re looking for a new career, you just want the next level of training in order to move up in a career that you have — what we have available to you as resources in Delaware County.
So, I think making sure we push that, looking at economic development. Right now, we are undergoing a strategic plan and looking at all of the economic development in the county and how we can continue to move Delaware County forward, attract more businesses to Delaware County, and work closely with our municipalities to help them with their economic development initiatives, so we can continue to bridge that relationship.
TS: When you talk about some of these workforce development projects, I know in the past, the federal government has had a number of these [programs] and it’s — for example, there are a lot of veterans’ workforce programs. And then again, the federal government sometimes funds its own. The ones you’re talking about, are they county only, are they led exclusively by the county? Or are they joint county-state-federal programs?
MT: So, the way our workforce development board works is that most of the funding for those programs come either through federal pass-throughs or state pass-throughs. So, making sure we are utilizing those programs and getting the information out so residents actually know that they’re there.
There has been a little bit more access to more funding through the federal government, whether that was through Covid or other federal resources that have expanded some of the programming and allowed for more money to be able to go to someone, to use it, to take classes at the local university or community college, or get a certificate. So, making sure individuals know about those programs and pushing that out there [is important].
TS: Can you give us an overview of the budget for the upcoming year? I know, going through the press releases of the county, that the budget was close to being finalized — forgive me that I’m not aware if it’s been finalized yet, but what are the big budget priorities? Maybe they don’t exactly align with a couple of things you just mentioned, like workforce development and so forth. So, where are we right now in the budget process and what are the big priorities on the budget?
MT: So the budget has been approved and the big priorities on the budget are still, as you said, just rounding third on some of those big projects. Some of the major priorities in the budget are the health department making sure that it is fully functioning, on its way and going and looking at, as we moved toward transitioning in April from the privately owned prison to county run, that’s a big priority in the budget. Also looking at our capital improvement projects.
So, one of the things we also had taken on over the last two years was really a thorough assessment of all of the county-owned properties and looking at what we need to do to make sure we have a full ten-year plan. I guess when we came into the government, it seemed like we were really putting out fires a lot versus looking at that ten-year capital plan. Okay. So we know there’s a roof that’s gonna go or needs repair or needs replacement in five years. How do we plan for that budget-wise? And so I think we’ve really taken big strides to change around that capital improvements plan.
TS: As I was looking through some of these budget materials the county had put out, it said that, essentially, property mills would not be increased. And that’s essentially where the county gets the majority of its taxes. We’ve done some reporting at Broad + Liberty. I think we reported twice last year that the controller had expressed some concerns about pay raises that were being given out and some personnel costs for the county. We also reported at Broad + Liberty that the spending on outside attorneys was up, without having to get more granular than that. Do you feel like the county is in a position where it’s going to be able to do the things it wants in the next couple years and keep taxes the same? And would that be a goal for the county to try to keep taxes flat?
MT: Yes, our goal is to continue to make sure that we’re providing the services to the county residents that we should be providing and expanding on those where we can. One of the things that we were able to do over the last two years is find where there has been excess in the budget that didn’t need to be there and make adjustments in cuts to departments that maybe we weren’t utilizing or didn’t need anymore, just because of the evolution of where the county government is going and being able to repurpose and reallocate those dollars to provide more programming, more resources to residents. And so that’s really been the goal; that’s what we’ve been working towards over the last two years, and really trying to make the budget process much more transparent. So, trying to get as much of that information up and available to the public so that they can look at it to see what types of programs we’re adding on, what areas we have reduced and being able to follow that. Yeah, we’re still working on it. It’s a work in progress.
TS: Hey, it’s a county budget, of course. I mean, it’s an all-hands — of course it’s a work in progress. It’s a daily job. It’s a daily job for not one person, but for probably, you know, a dozen. So of course it is. But I think, again, staying on the topic of the budget though, as I was just sort of trying to glance at some CARES and other items related to the budget and, I don’t think this is exactly unique to Delaware County, but obviously the county has received a lot of federal funds because of Covid in the last couple of years. Do you feel as though once those funds have essentially been exhausted that the county is still in a good enough financial position that the budget remains flat and the taxes don’t need to be increased? So even if the CARES Act money, let’s say, was able to pay for some of these salary increases or personnel increases, and I’m sure there’s been a lot of personnel shifting positive and negative, where people have been hired because of Covid and people have been released because of Covid. So, you know, it’s just been a big shuffle, but once that CARES Act money runs out, the county’s still in a place where the budget is essentially balanced, so to speak. So that taxes aren’t raised.
MT: Uh, yes. What we’ve been trying to do with the CARES Act and the APA funds is really, with the CARES Act money, we were trying to be strategic in how we spent that and spending it for a one time cost. For a health department, we would’ve had a lot of upfront costs to build out a facility, get all the equipment, the computers, all those types of things you need for a startup. We were able to utilize those funds from CARES for a one-time cost. That’s not necessarily going to be a recurring cost for the most part, a lot of the salaries and the personnel have — as you said, there’s been pluses and minuses and personnel. And so those shifts have come out of the operational fund. Most of the CARES Act funding hasn’t been used for something that’s gonna be recurred. We’ve tried to be very strategic about that.
TS: I know there’s been some controversy from some of the municipalities about the creation of the health department in terms of, for example, restaurant inspection, health and safety inspections, and some of these municipalities, or concern that, essentially, there’s going to be duplication of services, or something like that. Can you give a quick update on where that stands right now? And is the county — I’m sure that the county’s sort of engaged in some negotiations with some of these municipalities about how to handle this going forward.
MT: Yes. We’ve been trying to work with municipalities and, for the most part, they’ve been excellent. It’s a change for everyone and it’s going to be a transition. The majority of our municipalities have been doing food inspections for forever. It is something that the state requires the health department to take up under Act 315. There are parts of the county who the state actually provides inspections for already. So we’ll just be taking that over from the state.
And so the transition — I’ve been going to their [council of government] meetings since last January on a regular basis, just to update them on where we are. Our goal is to make sure there is not a duplication of services. And we’ve been telling everyone that, oh, if you’ve done an inspection, we will honor that inspection and we’ll just pick it up the next time. It’s up for an inspection and they will be set and all situated until their next year is up. So to make sure we’re not double-charging anyone or anything of that nature, we’ve been just trying to work through the process with municipalities and continue to do so.
TS: Right. This may sound like an odd question, but I think it was just yesterday or the day before the headline was, Inflation hits an all-time high of seven percent. And I think it’s always easy to think of inflation, first of all, in just a consumer perspective, right? That we’re talking about the cost of maybe gas, or the cost of the things you buy at the grocery or the personal care items you may buy at a pharmacy. But right now, do you get the sense that inflation is a problem for the county at all, or for the budget at all, or, any of these other expenses like gas being back up above $3.50?
MT: I think that’s something that we’ll probably have to assess, like, after the first quarter. We found that last year — you know, there’s inflation, if you think about gas costs, but then there’s also been the impact of Covid, where we’re not using as much gas, cause maybe we’re not all going out as much as we had been going out before. And so seeing how that balances out after the first quarter, I think, will be important to assess.
TS: OK. Last question here, and I know this is probably a little bit out of the counties. I mean. it’s obviously in your bailiwick, but it’s still probably one of those things you have a little bit less control over because of other elected officials. But I think crime is just on everyone’s mind because of the crime spike that the entire nation saw after the pandemic began.
So again, I’m not referencing anything specific to Delaware County, but then again too, already this week, and we’re having this conversational on January fourteenth, but already this week, we’ve seen the police commissioner in Philadelphia, — you know, she had to have a special press conference to address the issue of carjackings because carjackings are up so bad in that city. Again, there’s a district attorney who’s elected for this, and you have the municipalities who run their own police departments, but can you talk about what elements the county council can contribute to and what things you all are doing to cooperate with those officials and to address the crime issues right now?
MT: From the county council perspective, we’ve really been trying to provide as much support as we can to our municipal police departments, along with our district attorney. A good example is looking at the program, the Chester partnership for safe neighborhoods that the district attorney just put into play in Chester, and the statistics that they have from — it’s only been in play for a year. We’ve seen a decline in homicides, and all sorts of areas. That’s a good example of how the district attorney is kind of going about working with the local municipalities to address the increase in crime.
And there’s another project that we’re also working with the district attorney’s office on — the healthy schools, healthy kids program. And that is looking at his safe schools grant and using it in a little bit of a different way, looking at how we can address mental and behavior health issues in the K-12 age group, and really making sure that schools and parents have the resources that they need to get students and individuals help that they need before they end up becoming part of the criminal justice system.
TS: Excellent. Dr. Taylor, those are all the questions I have, but is there some other element of what the county is focused on that you’d like to bring up that I didn’t ask you a specific question about?
MT: No, I think this was pretty good. I feel like we hit a lot of areas, the budget, crime, health. There’s a lot going on in the county and I’m just excited to be a part of it.
TS: Yeah. Well, and I, again, I would emphasize to anyone watching that a crime is a difficult topic to bring up in this scenario, because, again — I don’t wanna say it’s out of your control. Obviously, you are the county council and you have a lot of input in a lot of ways, but at the same time, police departments are run in a different way than a Sheriff’s office is. And so, the ability for coordination — not coordination, but the levers of power, I guess you would just say, are a little bit different in those scenarios. And so it’s a little bit of a different Q and A when you and I are having that conversation than it would be if I were talking with a mayor or something like that. Well, Dr. Taylor, first of all, thanks to everyone at the county level, your communications director, Adrienne Morofski, who helped set up this interview. It’s a real pleasure to have this chance to talk. Thanks so much. And we hope to be able to do it again sometime.
MT: Yes. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. Happy New Year.
TS: Happy New Year.
(Editor’s note: This conversation happened on Jan. 14, 2022)
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com.