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Northampton County exec undeterred by low attendance, budget deficit

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Aug 06 2014 10:44:12 AM CDT
Updated On: Jul 29 2014 12:24:42 PM CDT
Northampton Co. Exec John Brown at a town meeting

Northampton Co. Exec John Brown

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

Northampton County Executive John Brown presented himself as an upbeat guy Monday night, whether faced with a multi-million-dollar deficit or only a small number of people showing up for his town meeting in the heart of Bethlehem.

Only 14 people were in the audience inside Studio A of PBS39, where seats had been set up for 50.

That audience included two county department heads, a couple of county employees, five journalists and several representatives from Sahl Communications, the county’s public relations firm.

Most of the questions were asked by one reporter, making it seem more like a news conference than a town meeting. But no one else had their hand up to speak.

Brown wrapped up the meeting in less than 45 minutes, after asking if there were any other questions or comments and being met with silence.

The TV station is at the SteelStacks entertainment venue along First Street, which was closed to traffic.

While SteelStacks was practically deserted, the location may have deterred county residents who might have wanted to attend but were unfamiliar with that part of Bethlehem.

The TV station was not visible from the nearest public parking lot and no signs directed the way to it.

Despite being held in a TV studio, the meeting was not televised.

It was Brown’s second town meeting since becoming county executive in January.

He plans to hold four of them this year. His first was in April in Bangor, where he was mayor before being elected county executive.

The third town meeting will be 6:30-830 p.m. Sept 29 in Easton City Hall and the fourth will be 6:30-8:30 p.m. Nov. 24 in Palmer Township Library.

At the end of Monday’s meeting, Brown said he’s grateful any time somebody shows up to listen to what he has to say.

“Whether it’s one person or 40 people, I don’t think we could do this enough,” he said. “It’s important to get the information out.”

He noted it is July, so many people are on vacation, and it was raining shortly before his 6:30 p.m. meeting began, which might have kept people home.

Brown said the meetings are being held “to get me out of my office and get me in front of the people that matter.” He’s said he’s there to serve taxpayers first, the county’s 2,200 employees second.

He sees the town meetings as his educational effort to help people understand what county government is all about, saying when campaigning last year he learned many people really don’t understand it.

“We exist for one reason – to be a service provider,” said the executive.

He indicated that includes the court system, the jail, services for children and youth as well as those with drug and alcohol problems “and a whole gamut in between.”

He said the objectives of his administration include operating the county as cost-effectively as possible, while providing services as effectively as possible, and keeping taxes as low as possible.

Brown said the ultimate measure of success for him is how well taxpayers are served when they go to the county for help. “Were you taken care of in a way you expect? Because, ultimately, you’re paying the bills.”

Brown already anticipates a budget deficit in 2015 – meaning the county will spend much more than it takes in.

“2015 is going to be a tough year, but I knew that coming in the door, when I ran for the position,” predicted the executive. “The future is bright; the immediate term is going to be difficult and tough.”

After the meeting, he said raising taxes would be a last resort to tackle the anticipated budget deficit.

With Brown were Diane Donaher, the county’s economic development director, and Luis Campos, its administration director.

The only laugh of the meeting came after Atty. Tom Carroll of Bethlehem asked about court-ordered alternatives to county prison, as a way to reduce both recidivism and prisoner costs.

Joked Brown: “I’ll answer your question only if you can say ‘recidivism’ three times fast.”

He went on to explain doing what Carroll proposed is not a simple process, but the county is looking into ways to reduce prison costs.

He said it makes sense to get help and care for people with mental challenges rather than putting them into a prison environment.

Creating change

Brown, a Republican, told the audience his goal as county executive is to create change.

“It’s not what I say and do that ultimately make the difference, but it’s really being able to get the employees to come along with me; because they’re the ones that do the work."

He said “department by department, business process by business process,” his administration systematically is evaluating “what are we doing, why are we doing it and are there other ways of doing it?”

But Brown said county administrators aren’t just sitting in an office and saying “let’s think of something we should look at” to save money.

He said county’s employees “are the ones pointing us in the directions we need to be looking.”

His administrators are talking to those employees directly to learn what they need to do their jobs better.

He noted: “Some of the business processes we’re operating with probably haven’t been looked at in 30 years.”

He said changing such things can be hard conversations to have because “we’re ingrained with how we go about doing things. When you go to try to create that kind of change, you normally meet resistance right away.”

Brown said he has an open door policy in his office: “Any employee can come in at any time.”

2015 budget

Brown said in 2012, the county had $60 million in a fund available for spending. He said the County Council chose to spend much of that money in the last few years --$18 million in 2012, $14 million in 2013 and a projected $18 million this year.

By the end of 2014, he said no more than $11 million will be left in that fund.

“You do the math,” he told the audience. “We’re already on that wrong side of that equation. Habitually, we’ve been spending beyond what we collect in revenue.”

If the administration changes nothing, the county would be facing a 2105 budget deficit of $11 million to $12 million before 2015 even begins, predicted Brown after the meeting.

“We’re looking to reduce spending as best we can,” he said, adding the process of developing the 2015 budget is just beginning.

The executive said county officials will take a look at “the first pass” of the budget in August. He said it will be presented to Northampton County Council in early October.

He said it’s too early to make any predictions about a 2015 tax increase, but added he’s going to work very hard to avoid raising taxes. He called a tax increase “the last possible resort. No one wants to have their taxes go up."

Brown said he knocked on a lot of doors when he was campaigning and learned many senior citizens financially are “teetering” because of taxes.

“How can we do this going forward?” asked Brown. "The easy answer would be one of two things. Raise taxes. We’ll just keep raising taxes and keep spending. That’s not my particular style.”

He said the other option is to just slash everything across the board.

“That’s not really a solution. All you’re doing is taking processes that are probably inefficient and not working too well and jamming them up even further.”

He shared many statistics at the meeting explaining, for example, that the cost of salaries and benefits for county employees increases by about $4 million every year. He noted a one percent increase in employee salaries costs the county about $1 million.

Brown said in 2008, the county contributed about $600,000 to pensions of county employees. “In 2013, that number was about $4.8 million. This year it will be about $11.8 million that the county is contributing.”

(He said 11 different unions represent Northampton County employees.)

While revenues are flat, Brown indicated economic development is on the horizon that will bring more revenue --and jobs -- to the county.

That development will be coming in “within the next five to seven years. I do see our tax base eventually beginning to grow again.”

Gracedale

Brown said in 2013, Northampton County had to contribute $6.5 million to Gracedale, the county’s nursing home, to keep it operationally afloat.

He said the county contributed $5.5 million to Gracedale in 2012.

He explained that the problem is patient reimbursements received from Medicare and Medicaid are not enough to cover increasing expenses at the nursing home.

He said the county spent the last several months digging into Gracedale’s finances and operations, adding: “We’ve made significance progress.” He explained the county is developing a two-year projection of revenues and expenses for Gracedale that will be used to help decide the nursing home’s future.

He said Gracedale may never be profitable, but the county would like to get it to a break-even point.

Occupancy is growing in the nursing home, reported the executive. Nearly 670 beds are occupied, compared to a year ago when less than 630 were occupied.

Brown said Gracedale is “pretty well balanced” when about 650 beds are full.

He said the county home could house up to 688 residents, but indicated the county might have to add more staff, costing more money, if more beds are filled.

He noted “the building itself is a challenge” and said the county is working on ways to improve it.

Despite that, he said the nursing home staff provides great care to its residents. “It’s a phenomenal facility. We have all the incentive in the world to keep it operational.”