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Northampton County budget adopted with no tax increase

By Kevin Lechiski, WFMZ.com Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 06 2012 10:30:17 PM CST
EASTON, Pa. -

Northampton County Council on Thursday night approved a 2013 budget plan that will hold the line on taxes, but not without first holding substantial debates on staffing levels in various departments and how much surplus funding the county government should maintain.

Council voted 8-1 to adopt the $327 million  2013 county budget, which maintains the current tax millage rate of $1.08 on each $100 of assessed  property value. Councilman Thomas Dietrich cast the dissenting vote.

Council President John Cusick said that while he is pleased the county budget is balanced while not increasing taxes, he did note “concerns for things moving forward” such as anticipated continued reductions in state and federal funding and rising pension costs.

Prior to voting to adopt the budget, council held separate votes on a group of resolutions that changed staffing levels in various departments, including eliminating 26 positions from the Human Services Department that had previously been funded through the state government.

Council voted 7-2 to eliminate the Human Services positions. Dietrich, one of the council members to dissent, said that despite the state cutting funding to Human Services, the county could have transferred money from other parts of the budget. He argued the county could have used a $1 million increase to the county parks system to fund these Human Services positions.

Dietrich said he is especially concerned over the impacts the Human Services cuts will have on home-based services provided to elderly residents who choose to stay home rather than move into assisted living or nursing home facilities.

Council was divided on several other personnel decisions, including a 6-3 vote in favor of creating a new full-time assistant county solicitor position that will carry an annual salary range of $61,901 to $92,080. Council also was not in complete harmony in a 7-2 vote to create the full time position of open space coordinator at an annual salary range of $39,628 to $58,920. Council also voted 5-4 to create a new part-time position of deputy sheriff lieutenant at an annual salary range of $44,869 to $66,175.

While voting to support the overall budget, Cusick noted his dissatisfaction with “courts and corrections adding jobs and taking away from Human Services. It’s not a good thing, but the reality of the world we live in.”

Council members also debated the amount of surplus -- typically referred to as fund balance -- that the county should retain in the budget.

The county has held a surplus of $60 million, which is being cut down to about $40 million in the 2013 budget.

Dietrich said the county is heading down a slippery slope by reducing the surplus. He described the decision to direct more than $15 million in surplus funds to balance the budget as “deficit spending.”

“You can’t keep pulling out of your savings,” he said. “You’re eventually going to run out.”

Councilman Lamont McClure Jr. said the county should maintain a much smaller surplus than $40 million. He argued that the county is “over-taxing” residents by maintaining such a large amount of funding that is not being used.

McClure believes the county government can operate with a surplus below $20 million.

“We’re collecting more taxes than we need,” he said.