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Lehigh County executive candidates take off the gloves and come out swinging

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Oct 31 2013 09:16:31 AM CDT
Updated On: Oct 31 2013 12:33:10 PM CDT
Tom Muller and Scott Ott

Lehigh County Executive candidates Tom Muller and Scott Ott debate

Tom Muller calls Scott Ott a tea party activist whose proposals are “radical” and “dangerous.”

Scott Ott says Tom Muller repeatedly proclaimed himself a lifelong Republican, until Muller switched parties to become a Democrat months before announcing his candidacy.

Republican Ott and Democrat Muller are competing to become Lehigh County’s next executive in the November 5 election.

The animosity between the two candidates is more intense than you may have seen or read about.

Both men currently are part of county government.

Ott has been a county commissioner for nearly two years and currently is vice chairman of the commissioners. He was narrowly defeated by Democrat Don Cunningham when he ran for county executive in 2009.

Muller has been the county’s director of administration for more than seven years.

Earlier this year, he briefly served as acting county executive when William Hansell resigned for medical reasons shortly before his death. Muller also was acting executive after Cunningham resigned.

Muller labels Ott, and some of Ott’s colleagues on the nine-member board of county commissioners, as “extremists.”

“Ott is an extremist beyond tea party lines,” said Muller. “The focus has got to be on the citizens, not national ideology. As I've been campaigning, I try to remind my supporters that not all tea party thinking was/is wrong and I actually have some tea party supporters.”

Said Ott: “My supporters come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but they all agree that government must find a way to do its essential work with integrity, with demonstrable results, and without constantly jacking up taxes.”

Ott said this late in the campaign he doesn’t “have enough time to deal with each of the many inaccurate statements my opponent has floated. I stand on my record, trust the wisdom of the voters who have seen these sorts of tactics before, and continue to run a positive campaign about the future of Lehigh County.”

Muller said he did not become a Democrat to run against Ott:

“I switched parties last year after Ott wouldn't vote for the pass-through grant to Meals on Wheels ‘to feed an 85-year old woman in Allentown with money borrowed from Communist China’,” said Muller.

“At that time, I had no plans to run for office. As the local Republican Party leadership became more and more extremist in their views, as represented by my opponent, it was clear to me that they didn't represent my views and concerns for our citizens' needs.

“I decided to run in January when the bloc Ott leads tried to stop Green Future grants to six municipalities and I saw no Democrats stepping up to the plate.”

Taxes and program cuts

Ott has a one-word answer when asked if taxes will go up under his administration: “No.”

“My plan is to not raise taxes,” said Muller. “I am committed to finding ways to increase revenue and to cut unnecessary spending in order to avoid raising taxes.
“However, no one can predict the future, and it is irresponsible for any candidate to guarantee that they will never have to raise taxes.”

Each man accuses the other of already raising taxes.

Ott calls Muller “the architect of the government's habitual overspending” and of the 16-percent tax hike approved in 2011, “having served as the county's top bureaucrat for eight years.”

Muller said taxes for county residents will increase in 2014, not because county commissioners have approved a tax hike in the new budget, but because Ott and the other commissioners did not include a tax credit that was in the 2013 budget, which saved homeowners an average of $44 in their tax bills.

Muller said Ott has failed to keep a 2011 campaign promise to cut taxes for county residents. “Promise made; promise broken,” said Muller.

Ott dismisses that 2103 tax credit as a “one-time gimmicky give back.”

Says Ott: “I'm committed to rolling back the 2011 tax hike, which we've already started to do, and to making county government live within the same economy that has forced many local residents and businesses to cut their spending.”

Muller says Ott has stated he wants to cut as much as he legally can, including funding for the county nursing home, economic development programs to create jobs, The Regional Crime Center, support for local police departments and non-profits such as the Lehigh Valley Zoo “and much, much more.”

Muller promises to maintain those services for county residents, by finding ways to run them more efficiently.

Ott charged Muller has failed to adequately monitor changes in the nursing home business, leading to this year's "September surprise" – a $3.6 million emergency funding request from Cedarbrook when the nursing home went over budget.

Experience

Muller claims more than 40 years of business experience. Before becoming county administrator, he was chief operating officer at Crayola.

“My opponent has absolutely no business experience and lacks the background to be county executive,” said Muller. “Lehigh County cannot afford an executive who lacks experience, credibility and integrity, and fails to support services that are vital to the citizens of this county.”

Ott is employed as a writer/host at pjtv.com, a conservative news and television network that broadcasts over the Internet.

Fifty-two-year-old Ott, who grew up in neighboring Bucks County, lives in Lehigh County since 2004. Sixty-nine-year-old Muller, who grew up in New Jersey, lives in Lehigh County since 1990.

Hamilton Crossings

Both men reside in Lower Macungie Township, where development of the upscale Hamilton Crossings shopping center has been stalled by the county commissioners’ refusal to approve a tax increment financing (TIF) plan to cover some of the costs of that $140-million project.

Ott predicted that shopping center – which will include a Costco, Whole Foods and Target as its anchor stores -- eventually will be built, but without any subsidy from taxpayers.

“The question never was whether or not we’re going to have a Costco and the other stores that were going to be part of that development, but to what extent – if any – should taxpayers be forced to subsidize that development,” said Ott.

“If you look down the road five, 10 years from now, I’m betting there will be a Costco here and that they can do it without a taxpayer subsidy.”

Muller says job-creating economic development, which expands the county’s tax base, is a key to avoiding tax increases. He cites Hamilton Crossing as an example of that economic development, but said the TIF plan for that shopping center “was rejected by the extremist commissioners.” As executive, he said, getting the Hamilton Crossings TIF back before the commissioners for reconsideration will be a high priority early next year.

Here, in their own words, is more from the two candidates:

What makes you best qualified to be county executive?

Muller: My experience and history of proven results. Serving as Director of Administration for the last seven years, I have been an integral part of running Lehigh County in an efficient, fiscally responsible manner. My years in the corporate business world, both nationally and internationally, have given me the experience necessary to run Lehigh County, a large business with a $365 million budget and over 2,000 employees.

Ott: Common sense and a demonstrated ability to bring people together to find creative solutions. My track record in office shows I'm willing to challenge the status quo, find ways to reduce the tax rate, and to stand up to politicians, bureaucrats and special interests who team up against the taxpayer.

What are the biggest problems facing county government?

Ott: Escalating taxes due to habitual, planned overspending. But the budget is not the cause, it's the effect of a process that focuses on perpetuating the unsustainable status quo, and delivers good intentions rather than measurable results. Taxpayers deserve to know they're getting a good value for their dollar, but the current system relies, too often, on no-bid contracts rather than competitive bidding, on stories rather than data, and on good intentions rather than results.

Muller: Cuts in funding from the state and federal government. Sixty-eight percent of the county’s budget comes from the state or federal government. I will be a tireless advocate for bringing every dollar back from Washington and Harrisburg to help the residents of Lehigh County. We need to facilitate more economic development while enacting a smart growth plan so that we have funding to continue to keep the streets safe, which maintains a high quality of life.

What is your top priority if elected county executive?

Muller: Using my experience and proven results to maintain fiscal responsibility while providing quality services to the residents of Lehigh County.

Ott: To prevent a 2015 tax hike, which is the path we're on, due to years of overspending that drained reserves to dangerous levels. Government must live within our means. I'll implement the priority-based budget and performance measurement processes begun this year, thanks to one of my reform-minded colleagues. I'll do more competitive bidding, not just to reduce costs, but to increase innovation and demonstrate value for the dollar. I'll work to find a strategic approach to sustaining community arts, cultural, educational and human services organizations on a sustainable basis without involuntary taxpayer subsidies.

What, is anything, can the county executive do about the divisiveness, some of it personal and bitter, among the nine county commissioners in the last couple of years?

Ott: The worst kind of board is one with no dissent, which merely rubber-stamps the administration's requests. What some might see as "divisiveness" is actually a legislature functioning properly. Our job is to raise questions, to debate issues, to conduct due diligence reviews and to deliberate carefully. The board is a co-equal branch of government that serves in a "checks and balances" relationship with the executive. When I'm county executive, I'll work to make sure that the board performs its "constitutional" role of establishing policy and exercising broad oversight, and that I do my job of running the day-to-day operations within those policy boundaries. Open communications is the key to a constructive relationship.

Muller: Extremism, personal attacks, bitterness and divisiveness, while being good theater and good for partisan politics, is not good for what should be our primary goal: an efficiently run, fiscally responsible, service-oriented Lehigh County government. I plan to reach out to our citizens as has never been done before to get their interests heard and to soften the political rhetoric.

If you don’t raise taxes, how will you balance future budgets without wiping out the county's emergency reserves?

Muller: As county administrator I have experience and proven results of being fiscally responsible, leading to two tax rebates for the residents of Lehigh County. I will fight every day to get every dollar back from Harrisburg and Washington to make tax increases a last resort. We also need to continue to encourage economic development in order to expand the tax base.

Ott: The current budget, and years of habitual overspending, already have depleted reserves to dangerous, unsustainable levels. Under my opponent's stewardship, the massive reserves established by the 69-percent tax hike have been drained. The new influx of taxpayer cash from the 16-percent tax hike has been consumed, and we stand at the brink of a 2015 double-digit tax hike if we don't change direction. Pension reform, priority-based spending, and creating a sustainable future for the nursing homes are the keys to addressing long-term cost drivers.

How much county financial support do you intend to give Lehigh Valley Zoo?

Ott: I voted to continue the county's zoo subsidy in 2014, because I think the current leadership is headed in the right direction. The county provides less than 10 percent of the zoo society's budget, and, of course, leases the land to the zoo for free. Ultimately, the zoo society, which is not part of county government, must develop the capacity to fund its operations through sales and donations. This is the only reliable way to ensure the future of this resource. I'm hopeful that the zoo is headed toward sustainability without requiring involuntary contributions by taxpayers, and I'll work with zoo leaders to help it get there. I encourage those who love the zoo to visit, and to give.

Muller: I plan on helping the Lehigh Valley Zoo to the modest degree they have requested and maintaining the support we have been giving to other non-profits.

Any possibility Cedarbrook, the county nursing home, could be sold during your administration?

Muller: Cedarbrook would not be sold under my administration. We will find ways to run it more efficiently, but it will not be sold.

Ott: The big question is how can we make sure that the residents of homes continue to receive excellent care without being subject to the whims of politicians and bureaucrats? For years, the nursing homes have been used as a cash source for government operations. The business is changing rapidly -- more in-home care and more options for low-income seniors -- but county homes have failed to keep up. Under my administration, we'll do a top-to-bottom review with a focus on providing excellent care for those seniors who may have no other options but a county facility. Something as important as the care of seniors must be structured for sustainability, and must never be used as a political football.