Five Lehigh County commissioners could not get one more of their colleagues to join them in overriding the county executive’s proposed 2013 budget Wednesday night.
It all came down to a battle over $1.5 million.
The five, all Republicans, wanted to cut the budget by $5 million.
Four others, two Democrats and two Republicans, supported County Executive William Hansell’s revised budget that cuts spending by $3.5 million.
On Oct. 24, by a 5-4 vote, commissioners passed a $107.5 million budget that cut spending by $5 million. Hansell made good on his immediate threat to veto that budget.
On Wednesday, the five who voted for that budget needed one more vote for a 6-3 “super-majority” to override Hansell’s veto.
They didn’t get it.
“I’m delighted,” said Hansell immediately after his version of the budget was upheld. “It’s a win for bi-partisanship, a win for compromise, and very much in the best interests of the citizens of Lehigh County.”
No matter which side had won, one result is the same for county residents: they will pay an average of $44 less per household in county taxes in 2013.
“There is a tax cut,” said Hansell. He promised commissioners: “We will make significant cuts. We will make tax reductions that will be permanent. And the spending for 2013 will be less than what was budgeted for 2012.”
In fact, while now legally required to cut only $3.5 million from the 2013 budget, Hansell promised commissioners he intends to find a total of $7.8 million in cuts to address the county’s deficit.
Wednesday’s outcome was a foregone conclusion, because all nine commissioners had made their positions known in previous votes and discussions. But the unsuccessful votes attempting to override Hansell’s veto were not taken until the budget again was debated by commissioners, residents and a few county officials for nearly two hours.
Both sides were encouraged to change their positions, without success.
The five Republicans supporting a $5 million cut were Tom Creighton, Vic Mazziotti, Scott Ott, Lisa Scheller and Michael Schware.
“We need to vote tonight to override the executive’s veto,” said Schware. “Anything less is selling the taxpayers short and selling the taxpayers out.”
Commissioners supporting Hansell’s $3.5 million in cuts were Republicans Percy Dougherty and Brad Osborne and Democrats David Jones and Dan McCarthy.
Osborne said Hansell is stopping year after year of spending increases in county budgets by requiring that spending in 2013 is $3.5 million less than in 2012.
He also said the executive’s budget specifically spells out where those cuts will be made, without sacrificing the quality of critical services provided to county residents.
Osborne said Hansell’s budget was achieved in the manner residents want to see from their elected officials: “collaboration between two branches of government to benefit all the citizens.”
Hansell told commissioners his proposal is a bi-partisan budget “that reflects the values of all of you. I listened to every one of you.”
But Mazziotti shot holes in claims of bi-partisanship and working together. He said the five commissioners who want $5 million in cuts were excluded from the process that led to Hansell’s revised budget and were not even told a press conference was scheduled to announce that agreement. “If that’s bi-partisanship, I want nothing to do with that.”
Jim Martin, who introduced himself as the county’s elected Republican district attorney, challenged his five fellow Republicans to support Hansell’s budget, to make it a unanimous vote.
Martin said citizens, both in the county and across the nation, now want politicians “to work across the aisle, collaborate and reach consensus.”
He said the five commissioners who oppose Hansell’s budget “have accomplished 70 percent of what you set out to do -- $3.5 million in spending cuts. I think that is a significant victory.
“You ought to be satisfied with that compromise. That would be a statesmanlike thing to do. To do otherwise is just ‘I didn’t get my way so I’m going to vote against it.’ In my judgment, that’s not good politics and it’s not good Republican politics.”
Schware said just one meeting ago commissioners were told by the county administration that nothing could be cut. “Now suddenly there’s $3.5 million that can be cut.”
Commissioners who wanted to cut the budget by $5 million stressed it took only a week for Hansell to get 70 percent of the way there, by cutting $3.5 million with no lost jobs or reductions in county services. They were confident an additional $1.5 million could be cut without any lay-offs.
But Dougherty said even the commissioners’ office would lose one of its three employees if $5 million would be cut. “There is definitely the possibility of lay-offs.”
Dougherty said the threat to put personnel “on the cutting block has had a very poor effect on the morale of the workers here in the county.”
Scheller responded: “The tax increases over the last 10 years have had a very poor effect on the morale of the taxpayers of Lehigh County.”
Schware said some have chosen to mischaracterize the proposed $5 million cut as threatening jobs of county employees. “That’s not our intention. We can do it in a way that wouldn’t affect one job.”
Resident Joe Hilliard accused those who oppose $5 million in cuts of fear-mongering. He said some maintained those cuts “would wreak havoc and destruction on Lehigh County and its taxpayers.” He questioned why $3.5 million in cuts also won’t “wreak havoc.”
“A budget proposal which treats court employees with contempt and statements that suggest they are looking for a hand-out is just plain wrong,” declared President Judge Carol McGinley. “A budget which makes a hostage of public safety so the commissioners can shift the hard political choices onto the county executive, instead of making those choices themselves, is just plain wrong.”
McGinley said county officials never told commissioners that nothing could be cut. “We will continue to look for ways to control costs,” she said. “We do not need to be bludgeoned into doing the right thing.”
Commissioner David Jones said: “You can project onto county government all the ills of federal and state spending. But there’s no waste in county government, no bloated programs, no out-of-control spending.”
But Maryann Boone, who said she has been employed by the county for 24 years, told commissioners there is waste in county operations, specifically involving too many managers with secretaries. “You can find cuts,” she said. “Look above.”
Schware thanked Boone, saying: “Just like in the military, the people on the front lines know where the problems are, more so than the people above.”
Schware said even cutting $5 million would not be enough. “We’ve got a $7.6 million structural deficit.” He said the spending cuts proposed by Hansell are not sufficient to prevent taxpayers from paying more in 2014 or 2015.
Dougherty warned if the county cuts taxes every year without also bringing spending under control “in 2015 we’ll have the tax increase of all tax increases.”