Once again, Lehigh County commissioners failed to release more than $1 million in Green Future Fund grants to six municipalities in the county.
The bill approving the grants has been deferred several times since being introduced in November.
On Wednesday night, commissioners voted 7-2 to delay action on the issue for another two weeks, until their Jan. 23 meeting.
Money is in the county’s budget to fund the park and trail projects in Allentown, Bethlehem, Emmaus, Lower Macungie, Salisbury and Upper Saucon.
But on Wednesday, Commissioner Michael Schware, with the support of several colleagues, proposed an amendment to release less than 28 percent of the money allocated for the six projects, as a down payment, then seek other funds to eventually pay the rest.
Schware proposed releasing a total of $296,514 to fund all six projects, rather than the $1,061,000 the municipalities expected to receive from the county. Schware’s amendment states the rest of the money they need “will be allocated at a future date, pending the cooperation of Lehigh County’s administration.”
He added: “Hopefully that date will be sooner rather than later.”
Tom Muller, the county’s director of administration, charged that what commissioners really mean by “cooperation” is they want to “reopen the budget discussion that was closed back in November – maybe not to everybody’s satisfaction – and it was a done deal.”
Responding to questions from the audience about why the grants still have not been approved, Muller said: “What’s happened in seven weeks is a budget got adopted that not all the commissioners are happy with.”
Muller recommended commissioners should “take action on the bill that’s been in front of you for a couple of months.”
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski told commissioners he doesn’t understand why they won’t release the Green Future grants when the money is in the budget and several said they are optimistic they can find more money to make up that expense.
“Vote on this tonight, award us the dollars and then find the additional dollars to make up the difference,” recommended the mayor.
Only Commissioners Brad Osborne and Daniel McCarthy voted against deferring action for another two weeks.
“I am calling on this board to confirm to the public this evening that we can remain true to our word and vote for the legislation we supported just seven weeks ago – three meetings ago – without amendment,” said Osborne.
Osborne warned his colleagues “if this board loses the trust and confidence of the public we may never gain it back. The integrity of this board is at stake tonight.”
“We should honor our commitments, not cut our commitments down to
27 percent,” agreed McCarthy. “We fool ourselves if we put a lower number in here and then assume it is all going to get worked out later.”
Commissioner Percy Dougherty predicted the proposed ordinance authorizing the full Green Future grants would fail by a 5-4 vote if commissioners voted on it Wednesday.
But some local municipal leaders at the meeting were tired of waiting.
“Either vote for it or don’t vote for it,” said Bruce Fosselman, manager of Lower Macungie Township. “Why are you stringing us along here? This is now our fourth meeting. We played by the rules. I am losing a little confidence in my county commissioners. I just don’t think it’s fair, what you guys are doing.”
“I would just ask that you vote an up or down vote,” echoed Nathan Brown, a member of Emmaus borough council. “This has become a political football. The money is there.”
“Make a decision, one way or the other,” said Pawlowski. “If you’re not going to do it, don’t prolong this process.”
Allentown, which has one third of the county’s residents, is slated to get the largest of the six county grants: more than $324,000 for its Martin Luther King Trail. The mayor said that will be matched by $350,000 from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
But Pawlowski warned commissioners the city will lose those state funds if it does not get the Green Future grant money within the next 30 days.
Commissioners unwilling to approve the full grants stressed they realize the importance of the projects to the communities and intend to honor their commitment to eventually fully fund them. But they indicated they have a larger responsibility to control and reduce county spending.
Both Schware and Commissioner Vic Mazziotti said the county administration anticipates having to raise taxes in 2014 and 2015, which they want to avoid doing.
“We are not in deficit spending,” said McCarthy. “We have a balanced budget. These funds are in the budget. We should go forward with this. I don’t think it’s going to bust the budget. As Commissioner Osborne says, it’s the honorable thing to do.”
Schware agreed the 2013 budget is balanced, but said the county is using $4.5 million of its reserve savings to do that, because the budget projects spending $4.5 million more than it will take in. “We can’t afford to eat into our reserves,” said Schware. “That ends up in a tax hike.”
But McCarthy doesn’t think the county’s financial future “is as dire as some people would have us believe.”
Osborne said the county’s financial situation has not changed in the last seven weeks, when Mazziotti chaired the committee that made a unanimous recommendation to the full board of commissioners to approve funding the projects. Osborne repeatedly quoted Commissioner Scott Ott, who in November said the commissioners were “honor bound” to approve full funding to the municipalities.
Schware said the $296,514 figure he’s recommending to fund the six projects is the amount Lehigh County has received in Marcellus shale impact fees. Commissioners said the county should be getting more from those fees in 2013.
Schware also proposed canceling the Reading Road Bridge project in Allentown, which has not met with commissioners’ approval for more than a year, and instead doing less costly repair work, freeing up another $521,000.
And Mazziotti said a number of Green Future projects were approved as far back as 2001, but the money never was spent. He said that money also can help fund the six projects.
Other officials who appealed for release of the Green Future funds were Ron Eichenberg, president of the Lower Macungie commissioners, who was accompanied by most of his fellow commissioners; Emmaus council member Wesley Barrett; Randy Soriano, manager of Salisbury Township, and Salisbury commissioner Debra Brinton, who described herself as a conservative Republican.
But not everyone who addressed commissioners thought the municipalities should get any money.
Allentown resident Joe Hilliard suggested that, rather than “whining for free money,” the municipalities should get money for the projects from their own taxpayers. “The government is not a bottomless well of money. Get it out of your own community.”
Emmaus resident Lynn Donches suggested the county does not need more parks and trails. Because the communities must match funds provided by the county, she said they should wait, budget the same amount next year and do the full projects themselves.