Here is the full text of the "State of the County" presentation given Thursday, July 8, 1999 by Bucks County Commissioners Michael Fitzpatrick, Sandra Miller and Charles Martin at Bucks County Community College.
The opportunity to speak to the LBCCC is something that we really appreciate and look forward to each year. We like giving the State of the County address, because frankly, it's a good story. There are a lot of good things happening in Bucks County. I brought a headline from the Friday, July 2 newspaper, The Morning Call: "Bucks County Closes Books With $17.9 Million Surplus."
Eighteen million dollars in the fund balance for the County of Bucks. Each year, for the last four years, that fund balance has continued to grow. We thought you would appreciate hearing that as business persons, because you understand that that doesn't happen by mistake. You have to put together a budget. You have to agree early on and throughout the year to adhere to your budget, making sure that your expenditures come in under budget, and your revenues come in over budget, and as a result each year your fund balance grows. And that's a gift that we've been able to give back to the taxpayers of Bucks County.
From time to time when the County has to borrow money, we go to the public markets and ask the municipal bond rating agencies to take a look at our finances and rate us. Recently, we borrowed some money in the public markets and we had both Moody's and Standard & Poor, two municipal bond rating agencies, take a look at the county operations. As a result of having a very healthy fund balance, and an excellent financial picture here in the County, they had some flattering words to say. The county was assigned the highly respected Double-A credit rating, reserved for very few counties in Pennsylvania. And the report that they filed said, "Assignment of this high-quality rating reflects continued growth in the county's taxable values, a history of stable finances, and an easily manageable debt position. The county's debt burden is well below the median for similar-sized counties."
And so, what all that adds up to is an excellent financial picture for the County of Bucks, and that is important as we prepare to head into the new Millenium.
I was also told to speak briefly on some Economic Development matters. I can report to you that the Enterprise Zone of Bucks County is healthy and functioning very well. It is a leader in the Commonwealth in terms of new job creation. With an Enterprise Zone grant Novolog, the new business that operates the Port of Bucks County, went from 12 to 200 jobs in just two years. And there are small business successess just like that all over the Enterprise Zone in Bucks County. And that was an initiative that this Board of Commissioners was very proud to begin back in 1995 and early 1996.
In addition, the County held the first-ever Small Business Summit in the Commonwealth, perhaps in the country. It was held here at the College, with a lot of assistance from the Lower Bucks County Chamber of Commerce. We decided early on as a Board of Commisioners that we wanted to pay specific and special attention to small businesses in Bucks County. That Conference was held May 21, and was a huge success. It yielded several recommendations that will come back to the Board of County Commissioners, that we intend to implement to make Bucks County more small-business friendly.
Commissioner Sandra Miller's going to talk about some open space initiatives that the county has undertaken. Before I hand over the microphone, I want to recognize, in an appropriate manner, the passing recently of T. Walter "Pop" Styer, who was a long-time member of this Chamber of Commerce, and very active in the Transportation Committee.
I had the honor of meeting Pop Styer for the first time when he was 99 years old, although he lived in Middletown where I grew up. He had an incredible vision for the future. You would think, for a person as successful in small business a Walter Styer was, and as successful in his live, that at the age of 99 or 100 he would be entitled to look back over the course of his life and think about how successful he had been. But the only time he ever looked back was when he was trying to help somebody else understand what it used to be like in Bucks County. He was always looking forward!
His vision was for the saving of his particular piece of Bucks County, his 107 acres, Styer's Orchards in Middletown Township. He worked very hard with this Board of Commissioners, and we were very proud, in January of this year, when we were able to work out an agreement with him and his family to save those 107 acres. And as a result, those orchards and that business along Woodbourne Road will continue, and the land will remain as open space for future generations, and those jobs will continue to thrive. And that is quite a legacy for Mr. Styer to have left us; not just open space, but continued small business and jobs and success for the future here in Bucks County. I think when he died two weeks ago, he died a very happy man. I speak for all the Commissioners when I say that we were very proud to work with him toward that little bit of success.
Now I'd like to introduce Commissioner Sandra Miller who will talk on Open Space Preservation.
It's a pleasure to see all of you this morning. I want to talk to you a little bit about Open Space Initiatives, and it's such an expansive program that it's very hard to condense it into just a couple of minutes, but I'm going to give it a try. A little bit of a recap for you: you probably recall that we had an Open Space Task Force. Some of your members served on that Task Force. They gave us recommendations, which we put to the voters in the form of a referendum on the ballot. It was overwhelmingly approved by the voters. Then we got down to the business of implementing it. We have been given permission, by the voters, to borrow $59 million over the next ten years, which will help us access something like $120 million for the preservation of farmland, for open space acquisition, and for the preservation of some of our natural areas.
We all know about the historical aspects of this beautiful County that we live in, but what we sometimes don't appreciate is the natural communities that exist here in Bucks County. In fact, we have plants that no other county in this state has. We have natural communities in this county that no other county in this state has. And that's what I want to talk about right now. The segment of the Open Space Initiative that has to do with natural resources. To that end, we have been in the process of having an inventory conducted of our natural resources, by Dr. Ann Rhodes, a Bucks County resident, of the Botany Department at the University of Pennsylvania, Morris Arboretum. Dr. Rhodes and her staff have been working very diligently over the past eighteen months to inventory our natural resources and to prioritieze them. They started out with something like 240 natural areas that they surveyed. Those were then grouped, or put into "megasites," and now we have 115 sites that they have prioritized into four groupings.
The Priority Level I sites consists of 19 sites that have statewide or county-wide significance given the exceptionally high quality of the natural features that they include. In Priority II there are 33 sites that have a county-wide or state-wide significance due to the diversity and importance of the resources they contain. Priority III has 39 sites that have county-wide or local significance and Priority IV includes 24 sites with biological or ecological resources that are important on the local level.
All 115 sites have important natural resources. I know that sometimes those of us who live here in Lower Bucks tend to think that we don't have anything in terms of natural resources. You'd be surprised! Some of the high priority sites of statewide significance include the fresh tidal marshes along the Delaware estuary, the remnant stands of coastal plain forest at Delhaas Woods, Pen Ryn and Blackditch Park, the Five Mile Woods in Lower Makefield, the Bristol Marsh in Bristol Borough, Mud Island Tidal Marsh in Bensalem, Queen Anne Park, Silver Lake County Park, Van Sciver Lakes, Warner Lakes . . . lots going on here in Lower Bucks that we sometimes overlook.
We have maps available that detail how the 115 sites have been prioritized, and you will see the sites that have been assigned a high priority level in the lower part of the county.
Regarding the Open Space Municipal piece of the program . . . to date we have 10 municipalities that have preserved 446 acres, about $3.7 million has been allocated for that, and it's still moving forward. There are several communities in the lower end of the County that already have submitted their Open Space Plans and have been aproved by the Open Space Review Board, including Bensalem, Bristol Borough, Falls Twp, Langhorne Borough, Langhorne Manor Borough, Lower Makefield and Middletown Township; Bristol Township is in process right now.
The total program was $20 million that could be allocated for the municipal piece, whereby the County puts up 75% of the money and the local municipality puts up 25% all for the preservation of open space. Regarding farmland, or agricultural preservation, this is a continuation of a program that has been in progress for some time here in Bucks County. We've been losing so much of our farmland, and at such a rapid pace, this piece of the Open Space Initiative is of tremendous value. Over the ten year program, beginning in 1998, $13.5 million will be put into the fund. That is an arrangement between the County and the State whereby the County puts up $1 and the state puts up $3, all for the preservation of farmland, agricultural farmland. That preserves, puts easements on, those farms so it will remain as farmland in perpetuity. To date we have 3,600 acres, 39 farms have been preserved through the program. And I think as we speak our Director of the Preservation Program, Rich Hardy, is up in Harrisburg meeting with state officials to have them approve additional farmland preservation programs. We have three, right now, that are just about ready to be approved, and may be approved this month or next month.
So you can see, there's an awful lot going on here. Summaries of the report pertaining to natural resources and the open space initiative as well as the farmland preservation are available.
I'm going to turn the microphone over to Commissioner Charles Martin, who will talk to you about Transportation.
Thank you very much. Back in 1995, we made a commitment that we thought it was a good idea to bring government to the people, get out of the courthouse, and we said, "Wouldn't it be fun if we could have a Commissioners' Meeting in every one of the 54 municipalities in Bucks County?" Last evening, we were in Durham Township. If you've never been to Durham Township it's a wonderful place, one mile south of Northampton County, and above Kintnersville, off Route 212 and 611.
We had a wonderful meeting, and at that time we did adopt the necessary agreements to have the Upper Bucks Campus of the Community College. We have now been in 50 different municipalities, and between now and November we hope to meet in the other four municipalities. So by the end of our term in office, we will have had a Commissioners' Meeting in all 54 of the municipalities in Bucks County, which I think is a first for the state of Pennsylvania for the Commissioners to get out and meet the people and have meetings outside the courthouse!
There's two other things, and then I have a brief comment on transportation. There are some issues that are important to the taxpayers and important to the Commissioners. To my left is a drawing. Many times you see an artist's rendering and then you see the final product and the two don't look anything alike. At the top is the artist's rendering of the new Neshaminy Manor Nursing Home. One of those things the Commissioners are required to do, in the County Code, is to provide a place for the indigent people in the County to live, many of whom have severe medical problems.
For many years, the County has had a 360-bed nursing facility in Doylestown Township near Route 611 and Almshouse Road. It's a wonderful facility, and actually has won three awards in the last five years for being the best public nursing home in the state of Pennsylvania. However, the building was old and regulations change, and many of the facilities weren't adequate. Following a study, it was decided that it would be more economical to build a new nursing home, and last year ground was broken on the new Neshaminy Manor Center, 360 beds, across Almshouse Road, still in Doylestown Township. The bottom photo was just taken recently, and you will see that, absent the shrubbery, it looks very close to what the artist's rendering looks like, and as they put the landscaping in, I think it'll look very much like the artist's rendering.
That facility is scheduled to be completed by November, and hopefully, 360 people will move into that new home the first weekend in December, all in one weekend. They are looking forward to it. It's a wonderful facility; it's under budget, and it's coming in on time. The general contractor is from Lower Bucks County. It uses a unique geothermal heating system, the first public nursing home in Pennsylvania to use that concept, involving some 70 or 80 deep wells that produce the heating and air conditioning for the building. So I think it'll be a wonderful facility, and one that all the residents of Bucks County can be proud of.
Another major project that we're undertaking is a new communications system. All the phone calls made to police, fire and emergency services funnel through our Communications Department at the Court House in Doylestown. They had an old system, using analog methods, probably twenty-some years old. A new digital system is in progress.The hardware has been installed, and just this week the first orders were placed for the new radios.
Part of the bond issue that Mike referred to earlier is to assist the municipalities, the fire companies and the ambulance squads, to purchase the radios, which cost approximately $3,000 each. This is probably, total, a $15 million project. Again on schedule, and next year, hopefully we'll be able to report to you that the system is up, fully functioning, giving better communications throughout the county and better intercommunication between the police, firemen and rescue squads, certainly something of importance.
Finally, I just want to talk briefly about transportation. One of the other things I get to do is serve on the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. They just released their studies projecting out to the year 2025 what the population numbers are going to be. And they cover a nine-county area, and although percentage-wise Bucks County is not the fastest growing county, in true raw numbers of people, we are.
Several things are being done about that, including legislation. But there are a lot of things happening, including a Land Use forum last week that we all testified at about what we think ought to happen with some growth issues in Bucks County. But one of the problems that leads to is transportation. In a public-private partnership, we decided to form a Transportation Management Agency. Mr. Bill Rickett is here; he was chosen to head up the TMA. He is now a member of the Chamber of Commerce. He is among other things recruiting members. It's a public-private agency many government agencies and businesses have already signed up. It's up and running with offices in Bristol. And already it's paying dividends. I've gotten, within the past couple of weeks, from Bill's office, a handy brochure with information about lane closings, bottlenecks and upcoming events this summer regarding I-95 from Maine to Virginia. And if you haven't given any thought to joining the TMA, I'm going to read one paragraph, and then I'm going to close and we'll take your questions.
Bill is also sending out a weekly bulletin and if you watch as you travel throughout Bucks County, there's a lot of roadwork being done, and that's good, and we can thank Gene DiGirolomo for that, and his cohorts in Harrisburg as well. However, this latest bulletin was an eye-opener to me, and I'll just read you one paragraph, in case you haven't been aware of it, and I really haven't seen much of this in the press. But Bill has the bulletin, and it's highlighted: "Starting in mid-July, PennDOT will begin a complete reconstruction of I-95 southbound lanes. The work will last until November and will close two of four travel lanes at all times, with as many as three closed when necessary. Crews will rebuild all the concrete roadway, remove all wall tiles, and replace expansion bands. In addition, the Columbus Boulevard ramp to I-95 north and Market Street ramp to I-95 south will be closed during the construction period." I don't know what this means, "Please plan accordingly."
That mean's "Call Bill Ricket and find out what to do." So TMA is up and running, and we hope you will all join and work with us on the transportation issues throughout all of Bucks County.
We are here to try to help with some of the issues that all three of us have discussed, and hopefully work with you, to make Bucks County a better place.
So with that, there's seven or eight minutes left. We'll be glad to take any questions that anybody may have that we haven't covered.
Question: When you acquire a farm, how does the Farm Preservation Program work, in terms of ownership and running the farm?
COMMISSIONER MILLER: We don't actually acquire the farm for the county. What we do is preserve it. An easement is placed on the property so that it remains in farmland in perpetuity. The present owner retains ownership, and even if the property is sold, it is sold with the proviso that it remains as an active, working farm.
Question: Something you haven't touched on. I'd like to know the status of the new Visitor Center.
COMMISSIONER FITZPATRICK: The status of the new Visitor Center is that it is actually proposed in Representative DiGirolomo's district on Street Road, in a site that was donated by private business concerns to the Bucks County Conference and Visitors Bureau. The Conference and Visitors Bureau will construct the building at that site, with the financial guarantee of the County of Bucks. Charley and I saw the architect, George Donovan, recently, and we asked George what the status of the project was, because this is entirely within the control of the Conference and Visitor Bureau. We, the Board of Commissioners, support the building of the Center, and we're prepared to financially guarantee the debt that the CVB will incur in order to build the building. We were told that the ground will be broken sometime this year and the building will be up and operating before the Presidential convention comes to Philadelphia in the year 2000.