Open Space Untouchable?

Open Space Untouchable?

Published: Feb 21, 2009 at 9:35 am

Recently it has been implied a prioritization of open space within the County’s overall priorities is beyond discussion. County Controller Val DiGiorgio disagrees, and said as much recently in response to an editorial in the press.

Open space is an important issue in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and we applaud DiGiorgio for bringing it up for discussion.  The Pennsylvania Conservative Council plans on having an ongoing debate about how best to incentivize smart development.  In the meantime, though, we hope our leaders do not become dogmatically attached to exactly how we handle it now.

Val’s guest column appears below:
Recently, the Daily Local News printed an editorial about the county’s long-standing, bipartisan open-space plan. As part of the column, some of my recent comments, on how to conserve taxpayer dollars in a recession, were taken out of context.

Both as a private citizen active in numerous community organizations and as the county controller, I have supported the county’s open space program. In addition, both as a private citizen and as county controller, I have looked for ways to save taxpayers’ money — especially in this recession.

The question for serious public officials and citizens concerned about continuing our county’s high quality of life is: how do we balance our plans and needs with shrinking tax dollars?

As controller, it is my daily mission to protect and fight for Chester County taxpayers. During the budget hearings last year, I presented a comprehensive plan, listing a menu of options to the commissioners to avoid raising taxes in this time of economic crisis. Included among several options was my request to consider deferring a portion of the open-space program in calendar year 2009 only. My hope in presenting a menu of options to the commissioners was to spark an honest and open debate over the budget and to find cost savings in county government to minimize tax increases in a time when taxpayers are losing their jobs and homes.

I also hoped to increase taxpayer awareness on how much our government programs are costing our taxpayers. Open space, while important and worthy, is no exception. As controller, I have attempted to determine how much our $20 million per year commitment to this program has cost us in terms of debt service. For example, at current interest rates, each year of this program costs taxpayers up to an additional $1 million per year in additional interest on our bonds, even with our county’s top-of-the-line AAA bond rating. Taxpayers need to know what this initiative, and other programs, cost them each year.

During my many years of government service, I have rarely, if ever, seen a program that someone did not think was beyond examination. Unfortunately, leaders who suggest that we should not spend more than we can afford — in other words, that government must live within the means of the taxpayer — are unfairly characterized as mean-spirited and short-sighted. Every program is seen as vital to someone; yet, all need to be not only accountable, but also seen in the balance of what taxpayers can afford.

In these troubling economic times, every program (even one as worthy as open space) must be evaluated, examined and reviewed — every program. This is why my testimony and the Daily Local News’ editorial could be very beneficial, if it leads to a thoughtful, reasonable discussion without personal attacks.

I remain committed to the value of a sound open-space program. In addition, I will not shirk from duty as controller to be the fiscal watchdog for the county and, in the process, make our government more open, efficient and accountable. And, yes, I and my staff will continue to fight for taxpayers every day.

Valentino DiGiorgio, III is Chester County’s Controller
(Originally appeared in the Daily Local News.)