Old promises and decisions mark the animosity between the two Republican candidates for Lehigh County Executive.
County Commissioner Scott Ott and former Commissioner Dean Browning are in a heated primary contest that will be decided at the polls Tuesday.
The winner will run in the general election against Democrat Thomas Muller, the county’s acting executive, to determine who will be the next County Executive in 2014.
This is Ott’s second attempt to become county executive. In November 2009, he was defeated by Democrat Don Cunningham by only 862 votes.
Every vote matters even more in a primary election, because turn-out traditionally is low. Less than 20 percent of the county’s registered voters cast ballots in the last four primaries.
Browning says Ott is "disingenuous" for recently accepting a $20,000 campaign contribution from Lisa Scheller, chairwoman of the County Commissioners. He said Ott and Scheller ran together to become commissioners in 2010 on a platform that promised to maintain checks and balances on the power of the county executive.
“How much of a check and balance is there if the chairman of the board of commissioners is donating a third of the money to the campaign of the county executive candidate?” asked Browning.
Ott repeatedly ties Browning to a 16 percent county tax increase in 2010, an increase Browning said he never voted for when he was commissioner. Ott even calls it “Dean Browning’s 16 percent tax hike” and says Browning “voted with Democrats to jack up your taxes.”
Scott Ott (top) and Dean Browning
“When he ran for commissioner in 2011, Scott said he had a specific plan to roll back taxes by 16 percent,” said Browning. “Two years have gone by with Scott in office, but he has not done that. He's not fulfilled a single issue of his campaign. It's all about politics, not about being fiscally responsible.”
Responded Ott: “It's almost laughable to hear Dean Browning complaining about how I have yet to succeed in rolling back all of Dean Browning's 16 percent tax hike, although we'd be a lot closer if two Republicans -- Percy Dougherty and Brad Osborne -- didn't vote with the Democrats last year.
“That said, we're making progress. We actually cut the tax rate and put $3 million back into the pockets of local taxpayers, plus we stopped creation of a new bureaucracy that would have cost millions and we restored fairness to property assessments, freezing one of the biggest causes of higher taxes.”
The two candidates spent much of their time debating that 16 percent county tax increase recently on Tony Iannelli’s “Business Matters” show on WFMZ.
Browning considers himself a conservative Republican, but charges: “Scott has some views that are outside the mainstream of conservative thought. He believes Social Security and Medicare should be eliminated because they are not in the Constitution.”
Ott calls himself a common sense, reform-minded Republican. He said he has never identified himself as a member of the Tea Party and doesn’t attend meetings of the local organization except when invited to speak as a candidate, but indicated folks in the group have raised important issues about the role of government.
Browning was a county commissioner from 2008-2011, including two years as chairman. He said he lost re-election in 2011 because Ott put together a slate of candidates to specifically target him. Ott, who was part of that slate, is in his second year as commissioner. He said he has been vice-chairman of the board since taking office.
“In many of his actions, Scott is disingenuous,” said Browning. “Two years ago, when Scott and Lisa Scheller put together a slate of candidates to run for commissioner, one of their mantras was to serve as a check and balance on the county executive. As of May 6, Ott reported that he received more than $60,000 in campaign contributions. Of that, $20,000 came from Lisa Scheller, who is now chair of the county commissioners.”
Ott said he is honored to have the friendship and support of Scheller, whom he described as “a solid conservative reformer, and the best chairman of the board we have had in recent memory.”
Ott added: “Mr. Browning's inference is odd, especially since he tried to coordinate an effort in 2009 to run a slate of commissioner candidates with me as the executive candidate. I declined because I didn't like the direction the board was going and didn't want to be linked to it.”
Ott charged that Browning “presided over $10.19 million in spending increases and a complete draining of millions in county reserves” when Browning was county commissioner.
If elected County Executive, Browning promises to reduce the county’s deficit with no tax hike.
The 51-year-old Ott, who has lived in Lehigh County for nine years, is a professional writer and TV host doing current events commentary for Los Angeles-based PJTV.com.
The 57-year-old Browning, who has lived in the county more than 33 years, is Executive Vice President of Finance & Administration and Chief Financial Officer at Allentown-based New World Aviation.
Here, in their own words, is more from the two candidates:
Why do you want to be county executive?
Browning: Lehigh County is home to over 350,000 citizens who are looking for a better, more prosperous life. Lehigh County government has a small, but important role to play in that. I am running to use my more than thirty years of business experience to make sure that Lehigh County government fulfills its responsibilities in an excellent and cost effective manner while living within its means. That requires ending the county’s practice of spending more than it takes in.
Ott: I want to continue the work of reforming county government that we have begun on the commissioner board. Through common-sense process reforms, we can create a government that's sustainable without an ever-increasing share of your wallet; accountable for results, not just good intentions; focused on what government must do, not everything politicians dream it could do, and effective in delivering the services it must with quality, courtesy and speed, at a good value.
What makes you the best candidate for the position?
Browning: Lehigh County has a $360 million budget and over 2,000 employees. We cannot afford on-the-job-training for our next county executive. I have over 30 years of experience balancing budgets, creating jobs and growing the economy while working as part of several successful Lehigh Valley companies. As commissioner, I stood up to union bosses, initiated a pay freeze, reformed the county’s compensation and pension system and saved taxpayers $6.7 million. My spending reforms reduced the deficit by 65 percent and I worked with a leading conservative lawmaker in Harrisburg to change state law and give voters the right to reject future debt for capital projects. I will bring real world business experience and a proven track record of putting fiscally conservative principles into practice to improve the quality of life for the people of Lehigh County.
Ott: I have a demonstrated leadership record in office that produced a lower tax rate and less spending, and a willingness to take a fresh approach (and to take the heat) when the old ways are failing. For much of my career in work and as a community volunteer leader, I have helped organizations transition to new ways, bringing new approaches to solve old problems. As a commissioner, I have worked with a team to change the way we approach the budget, avoiding the trap that ensnared and defeated previous Republican-controlled boards. As a result, we achieved an actual spending cut and a real tax rate reduction.
What do you consider the biggest problem or problems facing county government?
Browning: The key issue the next county executive will have to successfully address is the county’s fiscal situation. Under the budget just approved by the current commissioners, the county’s deficit has gotten bigger, not smaller. We need to truly balance the budget and eliminate the deficit and we need to do that without raising taxes. Lehigh County government has to live within its means just like those residents who live here. That will require a county executive with the knowledge to identify real spending reforms and the courage and ability to implement them. As commissioner, I stood up to the unions and implemented a pay freeze and I worked to reform the compensation and pension system. My efforts helped to reduce spending by $6.7 million and produced two straight budgets with year-over-year spending reductions.
Ott: There are two major problems, and many others. Number one is patterns of behavior that always lead to higher taxes. Number two is a lack of accountability for results, which leads to spending based on good intentions rather than return on investment. The culture of government demonizes those who challenge the status quo, rather than welcoming new ideas and tough questions that are the only hope for innovation and improvement. Because critical voices are marginalized, the government lacks pressure to change. This attitude leads to habitual spending increases and periodic tax rate hikes.
What is your top priority if elected county executive?
Browning: To truly balance the county’s budget and eliminate the deficit without raising taxes.
Ott: To drive down costs by bringing managed competition to every function of government, allowing government employees to compete with private-sector providers on a level playing field. This is the only way to establish whether taxpayers are paying the best price for these services. If government employees provide the best service at the best price, they'll win the bid. Winning these contracts in a legitimate competitive process will also help remove the stigma of government work. Our county employees should have a chance to excel, and to prove their excellence. We'll also expand the use of competitive bidding. Too often the commissioners are asked to play the part of the market in determining whether we're getting a good price. Commissioners are not qualified to do this; only a free market can accurately price goods and services.
What do you consider greatest accomplishment in office?
Browning: When I joined the board of commissioners in 2008, county employees received two increases every year, a step increase and a merit increase. I worked to end that practice for non-union employees and changed the county’s compensation system so they would no longer be eligible for both but would receive one or the other. By initiating a pay freeze for union employees in meet-and-discuss units, I was able to have the two-increase practice eliminated in the contracts for the four major groups of union employees at the county.
Ott: My greatest accomplishment has been working together with fellow commissioners to cut spending, reduce the tax rate and to stop one of the biggest drivers of higher tax rates by restoring constitutional fairness to property assessments, thus ending spot appeals that benefited only big property owners.
What would you most like voters to know about you that they may not know?
Browning: In my four years on the board of commissioners, I never missed a single commissioner meeting or a single committee meeting. This effort and attention to detail was one of the reasons the county was able to control expenses and spend significantly less than what was budgeted during each of the years I was a commissioner.
Ott: When I ran for commissioner in 2011, with a team of reformers, we promised a phased rollback of Dean Browning's 16 percent tax hike, and in our first year it began. One of the major drivers of higher tax rates was the county's failure to assess property for more than 20 years. Eighty percent of values were wrong. Big property owners were successfully challenging their assessments and seeing their tax bills slashed. The loss of some $51 million in revenue to local schools, municipalities and the county over five years drove elected officials to jack up tax rates. So, reassessment was already happening, but it was only benefiting large property owners and hurting everyone else. When we took that 8-0 bipartisan vote to proceed with the reassessment, we not only obeyed the Pennsylvania Constitution by restoring fairness, but we did the most effective thing the board has done in years to restrain the growth of the tax rate.
And what would you most like voters to know about your opponent that they may not know?
Browning: In 2010, Scott Ott personally told me that the “send the budget” back option was never about eliminating Don Cunningham’s 16 percent tax increase but that it was all about making Cunningham “own the budget.”
Ott: While Dean Browning was single-handedly responsible for the 16 percent tax hike, and oversaw the spending increases and depletion of reserves that led to it, the 16 percent tax hike was a symptom of a deeper problem. His difficulty seems to lie in two areas: unwillingness to change when the current approach is failing and inability to lead or to build a coalition to implement what he believes. After several years of attempting to make line-item budget cuts, and failing every time, in 2010 Mr. Browning's Republican colleagues suggested an alternative approach--sending the budget back to the county executive. Voters had recently amended the home rule charter to allow this, because they were tired of big tax hikes that happened despite the fact that commissioners “never voted for a tax hike.” Sending the budget back would have initiated a negotiation that led to a lower tax hike, and in any case, there was nothing to lose by trying. Mr. Browning abandoned all four of his Republican colleagues and voted with Democrats to reject the move. As a result, the 16 percent hike took effect by default, and he's still saying: “I never voted for a tax increase.” Those are the kind of shenanigans voters were trying to stop when they amended the charter. Mr. Browning's failure of leadership is reflected in the fact that even as chairman of the board, he could not persuade a single Republican to vote with him, but instead was led by the Democrat county executive to do what the Democrats wanted.
Do you have any response to what your opponent said above?
Browning: Since the county executive (Don Cunningham at that time) is the chief budget officer of the county under our home rule charter, and is the one who developed and proposed the budget, it is interesting to read that somehow I am "single-handedly" responsible for the budget that Cunningham proposed. As far as the option of sending the budget back being a "no lose" option, then the question becomes why didn't Scott send this year's budget back? He had the opportunity to do that under the home rule charter provision he cites once County Executive William Hansell resubmitted a budget with a different level of taxation. Scott also talks about my "failure of leadership" without mentioning the fact that I worked to reform the compensation system and initiated a pay freeze for meet-and-discuss union employees. This led to two straight budgets of actual year-over-year spending reductions. Scott also fails to mention that under his leadership, and with a 7-2 Republican majority, the spending reduction he achieved was the smallest in the past three years.
Ott: Mr. Browning's memory is not accurate. It was Dean Browning's Republican colleagues on the board who proposed sending the budget back to the executive. They did it in an effort to stop the 16 percent tax hike and said they believed sending it back would initiate a negotiation that would at least reduce the amount of the tax hike. The county executive, indeed, should "own the budget." Under the home rule charter, he's the chief budget officer. However, Mr. Browning told me then that he feared that if they sent the budget back, Cunningham might make draconian, irresponsible cuts to try to make the commissioners look bad. I said that if Cunningham does that, the commissioners would not need to take action, and the executive's irresponsible budget would go into effect. My point was that the executive knew this, and therefore he would not make irresponsible cuts. It's not clear whether Mr. Browning doesn't know how to negotiate, or was simply not willing to do so. In any case, Mr. Browning also voted down the amended budget which featured a lower tax hike (13 percent), apparently so he could maintain his boast that he never voted "for" a tax hike.