Five Lehigh County commissioners made good on their campaign pledge to cut government spending and reduce taxes when they approved the 2013 county budget Wednesday night.
The commissioners voted 5-4 for a $107.5-million budget, which cuts personnel spending by $5 million and reduces taxes by $5 million, plus gives taxpayers a one-time $1.5 million tax credit.
Immediately after the vote, County Executive William Hansell said he will veto the budget, adding it’s “unquestionable.”
Addressing commissioners before the vote, Hansell told them that, by ordering $5 million in personnel cuts, “you have threatened and demoralized every county employee.”
The commissioners who voted for the budget will have to get at least one more of their colleagues to join them to override the executive’s veto by a required vote of at least 6-3.
Commissioners’ chairman Brad Osborne said the adopted budget would be delivered to Hansell within three days. The county executive will have 10 days to act on it.
The budget was a done deal even before the commissioners’ meeting room filled to standing-room-only capacity, nearly four hours before the actual vote, and people spoke for or against it for nearly three hours.
The five Republican commissioners who approved the budget were the same five who voted for tax and spending cut amendments at the Oct. 10 commissioners meeting. They are Republicans Scott Ott, Thomas Creighton, Lisa Scheller, Michael Schware and Vic Mazziotti.
“Our goal is to govern the way we campaigned,” said Mazziotti. “We didn’t run for office because we’re looking for a political future. We ran for office because we thought it was the right thing to do. If this is the only term I serve and I get voted out of office because I fulfilled my promises, that’s just fine.”
Voting against the budget were Republicans Percy Dougherty and Osborne and Democrats David Jones and Daniel McCarthy.
Osborne said the budget “passes up the opportunity to begin the process of defining what limited government looks like, on a line-by-line, program-by-program basis. It artificially distances the commissioners from the consequences of our decisions.”
Osborne said commissioners who voted for the budget were passing the buck to the executive branch and county elected officials.
To cut the budget, predicted Dougherty: “We will have to lay off workers in a very hard economic time.”
The tax cut and tax credit combined mean the average county household will pay about $44 less in 2013.
When Dougherty shared that $44 estimate during the meeting, some in the audience responded with whistles and by sarcastically declaring “Wow!”
Acknowledged Dougherty: “We’re not talking about a lot of money.”
Hansell, who had proposed a county budget with a one-time tax credit of $44, said: “I’m sorry that’s trivial to some people. I grew up in a very poor family and $44 to my mom and dad would have been a lot of money and it would have made a big difference.”
If applause and comments by most residents who spoke were indicators, the majority in the audience supported the budget passed by the five commissioners.
Resident Gael Coffin told commissioners: “We want you to cut spending. We want you to cut taxes. And we want you to cut us a break.”
Resident Otto Slozer said: “I find it refreshing that elected officials are making a proposal to shrink the size of government. In these hard times, that is exactly what we need.”
But Derrick Sampson, a county employee in the corrections department, told commissioners he is a middle-class homeowner who pays taxes. “But it’s because I’m employed that I can do those things. As a result of these cuts, there’s a chance that myself and many other people may become unemployed and we will not be able to contribute to society. Many departments will have to lose good employees.”
While civility among the nine commissioners sometimes is strained but usually maintained, tempers flared a couple of times Wednesday.
Mazziotti objected to Osborne limiting members of the public to speaking for only 2-3 minutes but imposing no time limits on county administrators who spoke. He indicated it wasn’t fair for taxpayers to be limited, while “those who spend the money” were not.
Osborne refused to impose limits on elected officials. He told Mazziotti: “If you disagree with this decision of the chair, you can put up a motion to overrule me. Otherwise, we’re going to listen to them.”
Several in the audience challenged Mazziotti by shouting out: “Do it!”
Osborne pounded his gavel and warned that anyone in the audience who talked out of order would be removed from the room. “Please respect this process.”
Mazziotti said he would not initiate a motion but told Osborne: “I will remember this when it comes time to vote for the next chairman.” He was applauded.
Mazziotti also got into a brief argument with Dougherty, after interrupting him.
The county executive unsuccessfully asked commissioners for more time to determine priorities before cutting the budget. “You don’t snap your fingers and cut $5 million. It will take the entire year. I will reduce county spending over the course of the next 12 months.”
Hansell said commissioners supporting the budget are not looking at spending needs or a spending plan. “Under any definition of sound financial management, that’s not what you do.”
Said Schware: “For 2013, our budget is $5 million better than the executive’s budget because of the spending cuts." Schware said the county has failed to control spending for several years. He said if commissioners would go along with the version of the 2013 budget proposed by the county administration, which contained no spending cuts, there would be “guaranteed” tax hikes in 2014 and 2015.
Dougherty said the county currently faces a $7.6 million budget deficit. “I do not see how we can cut taxes and not end up with even a larger deficit.”
Scheller said: “If you already have a deficit, the last thing you really want to do is increase spending.”
Said Dougherty: “If you have a deficit, how are you going to give away more money?” He said reducing taxes when the county faces a $7.6 million deficit “is pandering to the public.”
But Mazziotti said the county ends up with multi-million dollar budget surpluses at the end of every year. Ott suggested those surpluses may mean no personnel cuts will be needed.
Schware said $6.5 million is the amount that was overtaxed from the taxpayers in previous years. He was loudly applauded when he said: “Returning that money is not pandering to the taxpayers. It’s giving back the money that was taken from them.”
Said Dougherty: “Tell them that in 2015 when there’s a 3-mill tax increase.”
The budget debate began at 8:30, about one hour into the commissioners meeting, and continued until about 11:14 p.m.
For more than an hour, 21 residents addressed the board. Then county officials got their turn to speak. They included President Judge Carol McGinley, Judge Kelly Banach, District Attorney James Martin, Chief Deputy Public Defender Earl Supplee and Hansell.
Most of those officials re-emphasized points made at the Oct. 10 commissioners meeting: that cutting taxes will weaken county law enforcement and the judicial system.
Ott interrupted as Banach read a lengthy statement detailing the personnel impacts of the proposed cuts. Ott said everything Banach was saying is based on speculation about what the county executive might choose to do with personnel. “The purpose of this whole process is that the county executive will make those choices,” he said.
Countered Osborne: “I would like to give the judiciary the courtesy to continue with the impact this legislation might have.”
“The proposed cuts will have serious consequences,” said Banach. “We who work within the criminal justice system recognize that public safety and public services will be negatively impacted.”
McGinley accused commissioners who supported the budget of “a callous indifference to the needs of the justice system and the public it serves.”
“Cuts have consequences,” said McGinley. “The consequences will be terminations, unfilled necessary positions and the system taking more time to do more things. It means more people committed to prison for longer for periods of time while we process their cases. It means every other case which is not a criminal case gets shoved to the back of the line. We will have to give our priority to criminal cases.”
Said Martin: “If you cut jobs, you’re going to cut services. If you cut services in the criminal justice system, it’s going to risk an adverse impact on public safety.”