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Philadelphia’s Attempt to Annex Montgomery County
Written by Larry Roeder, Editor
2020-09-16

           "Whereas a great number of the inhabitants of the county of Philadelphia by their petition have humbly represented to the Assembly of this State the great inconvenience they labor under by reason of their distance from the seat of judicature In the said county."

Passing the Voorhees Act would have annexed Montgomery and Delaware Counties into

the city of Philadelphia.  State legislators could have approved the move to bail the city

out of financial distress putting the financial burden on those counties alone instead of

the state.  Approval by the residents of the affected counties was not required at the time.      

 

            With those words, Montgomery County was created from Philadelphia County in 1784.  The Act gave the inhabitants of the newly created county the opportunity to "have and enjoy all and singular the jurisdictions, powers, rights, liberties, and privileges whatsoever which the inhabitants of any other county in this State do, may, or ought to enjoy by any charter of privileges, or the laws of this State, or by any other ways and means whatsoever."

            But, back in 1941, there was an attempt by a state representative from Philadelphia to take the county back.

            The financial pressures of the Great Depression were somewhat eased by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program and the increase in industrial production as our nation prepared for war. 

            In 1941 Pennsylvania State Representative Charles E. Voorhees, of Philadelphia, came up with a scary idea to render financial aid to the cash strapped City of Brotherly Love.  He introduced the "Voorhees Act" to the state assembly.  The proposed legislation would annex Montgomery County and Delaware County to Philadelphia.

            This was at a time when Montgomery County was experiencing a period of financial stability under the leadership of county commissioners Fred Peters, Foster Hillegass and Raymond Mensch.  They were outraged at the suggestion that the county become part of Philadelphia. 

Montgomery County Commissioner and Pennsburg native

Foster C. Hillegass (left) was among the many elected offic- 

ials from the county who fervently opposed the "Voorhees

Act" proposed by State Representative Charles E. Voorhees

 of Philadelphia (right).

            Hillegass, an Upper Perkiomen Valley native, and his fellow commissioners were responsible for instituting the "pay as you go" policy that proved tremendously successful in balancing the county's budget. 

            That policy also allowed the commissioners to cut the county tax from three mills in 1937, to one-and-a-half mills in 1943.  Montgomery County leaders had a reputation for applying simple rules of good housekeeping and sound business practices in the conduct of the county government.

            The Montgomery County Aid program was in full swing at the time.  Montgomery was the only county to operate such a unique program, and it too was run quite successfully.  From 1936 through 1940, more than $3,000,000 was spent on highway projects through this program.  The county was able to secure more than two-thirds of the money from the federal government by providing road projects for local workers.   

            At the time the Voorhees' bill was introduced, Montgomery County had no debt – one of only five counties in the state that was debt-free. They boasted the lowest tax rate of any of the debt-free counties in the Commonwealth.  One newspaper reported that "despite the loss of about $300,000 in liquid fuel tax revenue from the State, diverted for relief purposes by the legislature, the county finished the year with a cash balance of $224,000."

            In addition to serving as county commissioner, Hillegass was also the publisher of the Town and Country newspaper.  News of the "Voorhees Act" spread quickly in the area, and local residents wanted no part of it.  Montgomery County had a reputation of fiscal soundness and they couldn't understand why they were being called upon to bail Philadelphia out of their fiscal abyss.

            Area legislators were none too happy either.  Senator Franklin Edwards stated that the bill was "opposed to the Law of Pennsylvania."  He argued that for any changes in county lines, the voters of the annexed and annexing counties should approve the action. 

            At the time, voter approval of such annexation was not the law, only an accepted practice.  Voorhees' attempt at the end run would have allowed legislators from all over the Commonwealth to vote to place the burden of a Philadelphia financial bailout on Montgomery and Delaware counties only, instead of the whole state. 

            At a time when the largest city in the Commonwealth was suffering a level of financial duress that its neighbors never experienced, it would be pretty hard to get a yes vote in either Delaware or Montgomery counties.  However, would Pennsylvania's other counties vote to share the load?

            First District Representative Lambert Cadwalader vowed to "do anything in his power to defeat and prevent its passage."  Representative Howard Boorse of Lansdale was quite blunt when he stated: "This legislation, if enacted, would be nothing less than robbery – the theft of two prosperous and well governed counties by a debt ridden municipality unable to run its own affairs." 

            The proposed action also riled Representative Lloyd Wood of Evansburg.  Wood, who was also chairman of the Montgomery County's Republican Committee, went on record saying, "The bill to annex Montgomery and Delaware Counties is the most vicious, undemocratic, and unjustifiable piece of legislation ever to see the light of day in the Pennsylvania Legislature.  It is clearly against the interests of the citizens of Montgomery County and I shall exert every effort to help insure its defeat."  

            Second District Representative Charles Brunner took it a step further when he said, "This proposed annexation is, of course, ridiculous."  To eliminate the chance for similar measures, conceived to harm Montgomery County, from reoccurring in future years, he prepared and introduced an amendment to prohibit the annexation of any county without first having the approval of the majority of the affected electors.

            The general feeling was that Montgomery County had everything to lose and nothing to gain.  County general assembly members acknowledged that they had received a flood of correspondence from residents opposing the annexation attempt.  They remarked that it would be physically impossible to reply to every letter individually. 

            Collectively all of the officials representing Montgomery County issued this public statement: "The elected representatives of Montgomery County are thoroughly aware of the dangers to the County's interests and welfare which are contained in this bill and they have been working and will continue to work for its defeat."

            Knowing the reality of politics, I think it's safe to say that if the right players were in the right place, and if a certain amount of handshaking were going on at that time, we'd be part of a bigger picture.  If the Voorhees Act became law our municipal services today would be in the hands of the Philadelphia City Council.

            The Voorhees Act never got past the committee table in Harrisburg.


 

 

 

 

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