In a rare show of unity on a controversial issue, on Wednesday Lehigh County commissioners voted unanimously to put the new administration of county Executive Thomas Muller on notice that they want no county tax increase in 2015.
The resolution states the commissioners want the county’s budget to be balanced “in a sustainable manner,” with operating expenditures not exceeding operating revenues, and one that does not increase county taxes on residents and businesses.
The commissioners want to be involved in the process of developing a new budget seven months earlier than usual and see their resolution as the first step in that process.
The administration typically does not present a proposed budget for the next year to commissioners until around the end of August.
Commissioners anticipate county expenses will exceed revenue by at least $10 million in 2015.
Muller responded to their resolution, which he compared to a letter to Santa Claus, by saying: “Commissioners, please stop playing politics and let everyone know where you believe the $10 million in cuts should be inflicted.”
The executive said their resolution amounts to a spending reduction of at least $10 million. He called it “disingenuous political rhetoric” that ignores the fact that many county expenses are expected to rise in 2015, including wages, health care, energy and food costs.
Republican commissioner Michael Schware, who authored the resolution, indicated Democratic commissioner David Jones was his inspiration. He said Jones “makes a very good point every budget season, that if we wait until September to deal with the budget, there’s really not enough time and it’s too late to do anything about it.”
Commissioner Percy Dougherty said September is too late for commissioners to start worrying about the budget.
But Muller later said the commissioners already have been given everything they need “to get to specifics and identify cuts they would like to make.”
“It’s time to move off sound bites and spin and talk specifics,” said the executive.
Both Schware and Dougherty said the resolution was not intended to create an adversarial relationship between the commissioners and the county executive.
Schware called the resolution a statement to the administration regarding what commissioners are looking for in the 2105 budget. “I look at this resolution as a first step in what will likely be a year-long budget process.”
“It is good if we start early like this, work with the administration, and become partners in the process,” said Dougherty. “Then we only have ourselves to blame at the actual vote time.
“We have to start early because we all know we have an extreme financial problem in this county. We’re spending more than we have coming in.”
Commissioner Brad Osborne said “the meat in the resolution” is no tax increase – and to achieve that goal without draining the county’s stabilization fund.
“The challenge is going to be to reduce the deficit,” said Osborne. “That’s going to be the key to this.” He called the deficit “an insidious path to increased taxation. It has to be addressed. That’s what this board is communicating to the executive.”
Jones and Geoff Brace, the only other Democrat among the nine commissioners, won some word changes so they could join in making the resolution unanimous.
Without those changes, said Jones, the non-binding resolution sounded like an edict.
“I think it’s very important that this is a unanimous statement that’s made by the board,” said Jones.
He called it “a united front against the deficit we’re all facing.”
The resolution language agreed on by all the commissioners is that they seek a budget that does not increase taxes on the residents and businesses of Lehigh County.
The stated intent of the resolution is to give the county executive “ample time” to prepare a 2015 budget that is in line with the commissioners’ objectives.
Commissioner Lisa Scheller called the compromise language “a little soft.”
“It makes our interest clear,” said Commissioner Vic Mazziotti.
The vote to approve the resolution was 8-0. Commissioner Thomas Creighton was absent but a co-sponsor – as were all the other six Republican commissioners. After winning some minor changes in language, the two Democrats also asked to be co-sponsors.
“We can’t lock the administration into anything by resolution,” said Mazziotti. “We know we can’t dictate to the executive what the budget looks like. This is an expression of our wish, what we want to present to the executive as a desirable outcome.
“We don’t know what kind of cuts will be required to balance the budget. And none of us may support cuts that would be required to balance it. But a desirable outcome would be no tax increase.”
Muller, who has not ruled out the need for a possible future tax increase, did not address the commissioners on their resolution at the meeting.
After the meeting, the executive said: “It’s important to keep in perspective that the average home in Lehigh County has a household income of over $54,000 and will pay $676 in county taxes in 2014.”
Muller, a Democrat, said the resolution was initiated by the “self-proclaimed reform team” of conservative Republican county commissioners.
He said those same commissioners claimed they had specific plans to roll back taxes by $14 million and eliminate a $5 million budget deficit when they ran for election in 2011.
He said they have yet to identify what they want to cut “and failed to deliver on their campaign promises. In fact, their actions have increased the deficit.”
McCarthy appointment delayed.
Also during the meeting, commissioners decided to delay acting on Muller’s appointment of Daniel McCarthy, a Democrat, as the county’s new director of administration.
They scheduled a special meeting for 6 p.m. Jan. 31 specifically to vote on that appointment, so they have more time to consider information about McCarthy.
At least one commissioner cannot attend that meeting. Commissioners questioned whether that commissioner can vote by phone. The county’s law department is going to look into that. After the meeting, Muller said commissioners are not allowed to vote by phone.
Osborne said one question about McCarthy’s nomination had just been answered.
Commissioner Scott Ott said he just received information from McCarthy about his political contributions on Wednesday afternoon.
Ott, who lost to Muller in last fall’s county executive race, said McCarthy told him that he gave $2,500 to Muller’s campaign and that his campaign committee made a $4,000 contribution to Muller’s campaign committee.
Osborne said that was just one of the pieces of information not made available to all the commissioners, but all should have a chance to consider it.
Osborne recommended deferring action “out of respect for both the candidate and this board.”
Ott said once a person is nominated, the commissioners have 30 days to act. If they don’t, the nominee automatically is appointed. Ott said Muller nominated McCarthy to the commissioners on Jan. 8. Scheller said Feb. 6 would be 30 days.
Regarding that delay, Muller said: “Their inaction is shameful and no way to treat an appointment that has been broadly hailed as a great choice.”
Jones encouraged his fellow commissioners to support the executive’s ability to choose a cabinet that he deems fit. “As the elected executive, I think he has that right.”
Brace said other commissioners often tell him they have had difficulty communicating with the county’s administration. He said one of McCarthy’s great assets is that he is a former commissioner who understands the challenges they face.
Wednesday night’s commissioners meeting began with public comments on the issue of homeless people, which continued for well over an hour.
Some who spoke reacted to the news that the Allentown YMCA-YWCA at 425 S. 15th St. will be opened to provide temporary shelter to homeless people in the city during extremely cold weather.
Homeless advocate Diane Teti called it “an amazing start.”
But advocates said the Y needs to be open every night, not just Monday through Thursday evenings. And they said it’s not right to force people out of the Y at 5 a.m., which often is when night-time temperatures are at their lowest.
“It’s 16 degrees right now,” Teti told commissioners. “Tomorrow morning at 5 a.m., it’s going to be 5 degrees.” She said people will have to leave the YMCA at 5 a.m. but have no other place to go.
Those addressing the commissioners included former homeless people, representatives from Allentown Rescue Mission and advocates.
Rather than providing commissioners with an initial education about the need for more emergency shelters to protect the homeless in cold weather, some who spoke seemed to be continuing comments made last week to an entirely different municipal body: Allentown City Council.
Some of their comments were angry, and in response to a two-page memo on the homeless issue that was released Tuesday by Allentown managing director Francis Dougherty.
Muller said the county’s role is emergency services and somewhat limited. “We come in when an emergency is declared by, in this case, the city.” He said Lehigh County is going to begin issuing Code Blue cold weather declarations “but it is up to the city to take it from there.”
Mazziotti said he thought it was pretty much a city responsibility.
“Largely this is a city issue, not a county issue,” confirmed Muller. “But we’re looking at what other counties have done.”
“I will leave here tonight with more questions than answers,” Scheller, chairwoman of the commissioners, told the audience after many had spoken. “I don’t think you’re going to hear any extended dialogue here on the dais about what has been said. But I’m sure there are going to be conversations, as we explore the issue and come to conclusions and recommendations.”
Homeless advocate Rich Fegley told commissioners: “City Council left us hanging last Wednesday, just as I feel you are going to leave us hanging tonight. The county is wiping their hands of this.” He charged that the county and city are passing the homeless issue back and forth. .
Scheller told Fegley: “Granted, it’s a very cold night. But you didn’t come to us in the middle of the summer and say ‘we need places to stay.’ This is the first time it’s been brought before our board in the two-plus-years I have been on this board.”
As Scheller spoke, Fegley walked out of the meeting, and told commissioners: “You are all failures to the homeless this evening.”