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Dear Neighbor,

This is my blog for news and information on my hometown Lower Macungie Township! In January 2014 I was sworn in for a 4 year term as township Commissioner. I am humbled and grateful for the support of Lower Macungie Residents. Brian Higgins and I prevailed in the 2013 election running a grassroots campaign that focused on quality of life and fiscal sustainability through smart growth. The election was another referendum on the unpopular development decisions and “dumb growth” policies of 2009-2013.

As a lifelong resident of Lower Macungie and a local business owner I am proud to serve as Lower Macungie Township Commissioner. This is my blog. It serves as a record of 2 years of advocating for A Better Way to Grow. Here you can find information on local concerns, letters and op-eds I’ve written outlining my thoughts on various issues that affect our community.

Please browse the site. Use the search bar to find my thoughts on the issues facing Lower Macungie and the surrounding community. I welcome questions and comments always. Dialogue is so important and what I hope to bring to the table as a Commissioner.

Ron Beitler
Lower Macungie Commissioner serving a 4 year term

Want to keep taxes low? Preserve Open Space.

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Large contiguous tract of farmland in Lower Macungie Township

(Submitted as LTE to LMT Patch and an abbreviated version to EPP)

By preserving open space via a well thought out smart growth plan we reduce costs for infrastructure and services, thereby reducing the need for tax increases. Farmland and open space generate no traffic, create no crime, needs little fire protection and places no new students into our school system.

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The Homestead program is about the long term

Last night after a year of consideration we passed the homestead exclusion ordinance. Here is an overview. I proposed this program in January. After having to do some leg work to get it considered (initially told we couldn’t do it) the board finally adopted the ordinance last night.

One item I wanted to clarify is the program is not a reduction of the millage rate. Some statements made last night could lead people to believe that. It does reduce the tax bills for homeowners it doesn’t for renters, commercial or industrial properties. This is important to understand.

The millage rate in Lower Macungie remains at .33. There was no reduction. What we did was enact a program to lower tax bills of primary residences for those enrolled in the program.

SHORT TERM: With Homestead the reduced bill is based on a reduced assessment. The average Lower Macungie tax bill goes down 19 dollars. This is a good thing. We do our part, the county does it’s part and the school district holds the line. It all does add up. Just like small tax increases over multiple taxing bodies adds up, small overall reductions do also.

I get why some focused on the short term. Framing it as a “tax break“. Politically makes sense for those trying to justify spending 13% of our entire township budget on synthetic fields. But it doesn’t help outline long term benefits. Because focus last night was on short term political narratives the programs long term benefits weren’t explained well. The long term potential is the true value of the homestead exclusion program. To cash in we need to stay focused on that.

LONG TERM: Long term fiscal sustainability means the township must balance the books. Revenue on the positive side. Liabilities on the negative side. Lower Mac continues to build out strip shopping centers and Industrial warehouse properties. These types of land uses create massive liabilities while generating pound for pound very little in revenue/acre. (see example below) The rezoning of 700 acres of farmland (farmland generates net positive revenue – High ROI) to allow warehouses and strip commercial (Very low ROI) will cost the township more in the long run. The beauty of homestead is that if maxed out it allows us to give a 50% reduction on homeowners tax bill.

As the township balances the books as a result of proliferating low ROI land uses homeowners should not have to pay increased taxes because of dumb growth decisionsTo do this we need to:

1. SHORT TERM – Part 1: Adopt homestead exclusion. (We did this last night)

2. LONG TERM – Part 2: Adjust the millage rate and max out the homestead reduction (2015)

With homestead exclusion after we max it out a resident who owns a home in Lower Macungie should always pay a 50% discounted tax bill (via 50% reduced assessment). While we still collect 100% of revenue from industrial and commercial uses.

Residents are intelligent in Lower Macungie. I don’t believe in feeding them talking points. Yes, 19 dollars in your pocket is nice but homestead is a long term play. That’s why I proposed it. Again, I get why some hi-jacked the message and crowed about it last night. Made for a tidy narrative as they tried to justify 3.3 Million in synthetic fields. Great political play. But unfortunately since the program wasn’t really explained in detail the bigger picture benefits were glazed over. This is what’s important. The 19 dollar bill reduction was a bonus. A good thing. But my goal is much bigger. Long term resiliency.

Bottom line: After the one time windfalls of growth is gone the township will eventually need to “balance the books”. Homestead makes sure residential properties aren’t shouldering the burden created by Industrial warehouses and Commercial strip malls. 

Distribution warehouses are one of the lowest ROI land uses for a local community.

Warehouses do not generate enough revenue to cover the liabilities they create. This includes increased need for police protection, specialized fire equipment, massive road improvements and general wear and tear, and low ROI per acre of land lost.

Warehouses do not generate enough revenue to cover the liabilities they create. This includes increased need for police protection, specialized fire equipment, massive road improvements and general wear and tear, and low ROI per acre of land lost.

To address the long term in 2016 I will propose a full 50% homestead reduction with .50 to .66 mil property tax rate: (the Millage should be increased in conjunction with maxing out the homestead % but more work needs to be done to determine how much)

  • Under proposed .66 mil property tax if you own a home at the township average of around 250,000 dollars your tax liability is 165. (Remember, that is local LMT tax not school or County)
  • Under a homestead exclusion program that grants a 50% assessment reduction on a primary residence the assessed value (for purposes of tax calculation only) is cut in half to 125,000. Therefore the tax bill is also reduced by half to 82.50. (Current level)
  • Meantime Commercial properties such as a distribution warehouses valued at 24,000,000 pays the full assessed value at .66 mil which would be 15,800. This is double the 2014 bill of 7,900.00.

All this is part of a long term plan to address underlying fiscal sustainability. But we have to stay focused. Another part is farmland preservation. Want to lower taxes? Preserve farmland. #saveitorpaveit. Preserving farmland is the number one quality of life issue in the township. By committing to it among many benefits we avoid having to build more infrastructure, provide more services, and we do our part to keep enrollment in EPSD stable.

Mitt Romney – Show the Interview free globally.

I rarely write about non-local issues. But wanted to today. Very disappointed five major theater chains decided to pull “The Interview”. While I respect their right to make a business decision in my opinion it was the wrong decision. And by doing so they told the world that you can bully the United States.

Freedom of speech and expression are some of the core principles our country is based on. This is a direct foreign attack on that freedom. Terrorism is based on fear. Without fear it doesn’t work. When we succumb to it our enemies win.

I understand America is under attack almost daily from cyber-terrorists. But to my knowledge a direct threat of violence from a foreign nation is unchartered waters. A foreign dictator directly threatened American citizens and in doing so was able to bully a private company into censorship. Scary.

So businesses made a business decision. Fine. Their right to do so. And Sony gets creamed because of it. Remember, it wasn’t their decision to pull the movie. It was the distributors who might not ever agree to screen the film. In light of that Mitt Romney offered a great alternative.

Right on Mitt!

Right on Mitt! Right on.

 

 

 

Rt. 222 bypass: Road, Street or Stroad?

I subscribe to a notion that to get the highest return on investment from roadways we should clearly define what they are supposed to accomplish. We should then design them to serve that purpose.

bypass

Pictured is the Rt. 222 Kutztown bypass. A well designed ROAD with on/off ramps and low accessibility paired with highway geometry allows for 55 mph speed limit. This ROAD safely moves automobiles quickly and efficiently through this corridor.

 

ROAD  

  • High speed by design 
  • Highway geometry
  • Low accessibility
  • A place for automobiles only. This facilitates safely moving them at high speeds.

 

 

East-Blvd-After-Dual-Left-Hard-Turn-Lane-e1357934233263

This picture is a similar representation of the Hamilton Boulevard vision outlined in the 2013 corridor study. This boulevard has Bike lanes, landscaped medians, street-trees and sidewalks to create a friendly pedestrian environment. Traffic travels at safe speed through calming measures. This means high land value for adjoining commercial properties. This STREET will generate a high return on investment for the community.

 

 

STREET 

    • Slow by design
    • Complex environment
    • High accessibility
    • A place to capture value and encourage commercial development
    • Designed for all modes of transportation. A generally pleasant environment.
    • Facilitates high value development





So which type is the the bypass and which is the boulevard? The argument I would make today is that they are both closer to side by side Stroads. A Stroad is a street/road hybrid. Where a futon is a piece of furniture that serves both as an uncomfortable couch and an uncomfortable bed, a STROAD moves cars at speeds far too slow to get around efficiently but way too fast to support productive private sector investment. The result is an expensive mess that really does nothing well. As taxpayers why do we spend public money on very expensive things that don’t accomplish any goal particularly well?



 

STROAD

Here is the Macarther Rd. STROAD. An obviously dangerous place for pedestrians. But despite highway geometry this does not move automobiles quickly or efficiently either. Lots of accidents. Dangerous for automobiles. Dangerous for pedestrians. Very expensive to build and maintain. Jarring environment. Not very pleasant place.

STROAD 

    • Does not move automobiles quickly or safely
    • Dangerous for pedestrians
    • Very expensive to build and maintain
    • Encourages low value development.



 

 

Side by side stroads is the direction we’re headed today.

On the Rt 222 bypass today we clearly have a stroad. It was built with highway geometry but because of traffic signals instead of on/off ramps we’re limited to a 45 mph. Therefore the bypass doesn’t move cars very efficiently or quickly. Because it doesn’t our increasing volume of local freight traffic reacts logically by using shortcuts and local roads. The bypass is also very dangerous. The Millcreek intersection particularly. The whole thing is quite frankly a speed trap since the posted speed doesn’t correspond to the design speed. Therefore: STROAD

On the the boulevard we have a developing stroad. As of late township staff worked hard to require higher quality development. (I acknowledge that but we still have work to do. And the bar was very low..and that we are constrained by our dated zoning code) Still, most road improvements have been of a stroad flavor. This directly conflicts with stated goals of safety, value and walkability. It also fundamentally encourages low value strip development. For ex. planned driveways off of Hamilton Crossings will be super sized and therefore super fast. That will not make it a very safe place for people. Therefore businesses will respond rationally and over build parking lots, seek oversized signage, supersized driveways ect. All this eventually compounds and you wake up one day with Macarther Rd.

To fix this we need to STOP and all get on the same page and decide once and for all what purpose we want these two roads to serve.

Keys:
Bypass – Purpose to move cars efficiently and quickly between clusters of destinations

  • Grade separation on the bypass. Get rid of the signals and build ramps.
  • Raise the speed limit to 55
  • Limit access

Boulevard – A vibrant community center. A multi-modal corridor.

  • Calm traffic using techniques/strategies outlined in Penndots smart transportation manual.
  • Transit corridor
  • Make safe for everyone. Sidewalks, landscaped medians and bike lanes
  • People oriented
  • Fix our zoning code to allow high value development (as opposed to only strip malls)
    • Neighborhood Commercial

 

Why do we overlook a golden opportunity?

According to the One Lehigh Valley Local Food Economy Report – The biggest barrier to fostering a more robust local food economy is continued loss of farmland.

images

130+ acre working farm in Lower Macungie. If the township doesn’t get proactive in preservation this will be 300 units someday.

Important to note since often overlooked: Agriculture IS a form of industrial infrastructure. Yet communities continue to pave over this invaluable asset only to replace it with uses that require additional infrastructure and strain local resources to sustain. Farmland is fiscally one of the highest value land uses in terms of liabilities vs. revenue.

  • Since 1930 the LV has lost 80% of it’s farms. Based on average diets Lehigh Valley farmers can only produce about 20% of the Valley’s food demands. With a market shift towards locally grown foods there is clearly money to be made in both local and regional economies.

All it takes are strategic investments in “food infrastructure” needed to support a local food economy. For ex: Aggregators, distributors, food business incubators, grain mills, and more food hubs. Even underserved and undervalued we already today have a local food economy that contributes 17 million annually to the LV economy.

900,000 residents with 145,000 more on the way. We have restaurants today who seek local sourced food. We have a network of municipal farmers markets. Eight Lehigh Valley areas today have limited access to fresh foods. *Super-majorities of residents value preserving farmland. Yet as a matter of mis-guided policy localities encourage the loss of the agriculture infrastructure. We have the will, there is demand, our economies will benefit. The economics make sense. What exactly is the holdup? Let’s acknowledge this as a regional opportunity!

What I can’t help but think is which forward thinking local municipality is going to recognize this and jump on it? A tenet of smart growth is utilizing existing infrastructure. Remaining farmland in our outer ring suburbs is just that. Who will make these connections and reconcile it with a communities desire to protect farmland and the corollary quality of life benefits. Which community will take the ball and run with it? Yes, it’ll take some time and a little more work vs. turning over a greenfield to a developer. And the benefits won’t be as immediate as one time cash infusions of a major real estate transfer. But over time it’s a move to set a community up for the long term. It’s the long play. The smart play.

For a community like Lower Macungie despite the continued loss of much of our land including 700 acres in 2010 the opportunity is still not lost. A local food economy thrives on small farms > 40 acres. These are the operations that grow the food we eat and we still have many parcels that fit that criteria. It’s incorrect to assume that only large contiguous acreage is worth preserving. The alternative is to pave them. If we choose that route we should be prepared to pay the long term price.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 1.20.25 PM* Lower Macungie Parks and Recreation Comprehensive plan: 60% of respondents to public survey component rank acquiring and protection of open space as “extremely important” in a ranking of priorities. (the highest ranking)

 

Lehigh County gets proactive by moving new hires to new tier in 2015

A couple weeks ago I wrote a quick primer post on the role of the County Controller.

I wanted to do a followup. Even though the controllers primary role (when it’s done correctly imo) is that of a non-partisan fiscal watchdog, occasionally the Controller has a hand in policy decisions. As I mentioned in my previous post in Lehigh County oftentimes this occurs in matters relating to county employee retirement policy. This because the Controller serves as voting member and secretary of the retirement board.

images (1)

Recently the board made a decision to change the 1/60th tier retirement plan for current employees.  The tiers are described in Act 96 relating to the County Pension Law of 1971.

Early last year County Retirement Board chose to change the tier for new employees starting next year for those hired after December 31st 2015. The Retirement Board voted unanimously to adopt a second retirement tier of 1/70. The board includes current Controller Glenn Eckhart.

What this change does is reduce the county portion of the a retiree benefit by 14% which in turn will save millions of dollars for county tax payers moving forward. Note: The change will only effect new employees hired after December 31st 2014 and current employees by law will continue to have the benefits of the 1/60 plan.

The difference between 1/60 and 1/70 is basically at 1/60 a person one would have to work 30 years to get half of their final three year average salary a year. 1/70 means they would have to work 35 years. 

Two reasons for the change:

First it takes into account that since the lifetime medical benefit was stopped in 1988 Lehigh County employees now work longer for the County. This is mainly because of medical benefits. Additionally based on the latest mortality table change county employees are living much longer (common problem in many retirement systems) This of course means they work longer. So basically a county employee will end up with somewhere near the current level of benefits but at a significantly reduced cost to the County moving forward.

Again and very important this does not affect current employees. Tiering benefits is an important reform that institutions can enact to make sure we play fair with current employees but to address fundamental fiscal issues moving forward. In the end this change is important since it reduce the County obligations while still  continuing to provide a very fair benefit to our invaluable County retirees who are our backbone. This represented great leadership from Controller Eckhart.

Synthetic fields facts & research – Answers to common questions

Over the next week on this page I will be compiling to the best of my abilities answers to many common questions we have received from the public regarding the Quarry Park turf field proposal. Recently, I voted against earmarking 1.5 Million Dollars in surplus money (total cost of line item 3.3M) to fund a proposal for turf fields as part of the 2015 budget proposal. At this time I am not convinced that the synthetic field aspect of the concept plan is the best way to address township field use issues. As an alternative I have proposed informally that we should instead concentrate on less expensive alternatives to address current field use issues. For example, more lights on existing grass fields and a natural grass field expansion plan.

Volumes of information are available on the internet regarding this topic. However, I am limiting links and information on this page to:
1. Academic research or pieces that directly cite academic research. (Focus on Penn State Materials since this was the program who presented in front of the township)
2. Research through the Township Manager
3. Opinion of our hired consultant
4. Current information. The so called 3rd generation of turf fields have made major advances in safety. It’s important to consider only the latest information available.
5. The costs for Synthetic fields include make and model proposed vs. Township natural Grass fields with native soils. The costs for fields are taken out of overall budget proposal. I support both lights and upgrades to facilities including additional parking.

Much of the information you find during cursory web searches is often produced by companies trying to sell the products. Therefore it takes a little effort to find un-biased information.

Backgrounders
*Concept plan overview by Lower Macungie’s paid consultant. D’huy engineering. (*Township website’s post of the concept plan is currently down)

Specs:
Brand: Fieldturf
Model:
Rendering: See Below

Lifecycle Costs & Benefits
Q- Initial costs Synthetic Field vs. Natural Grass

  • Synthetic Infill 6.50-11.00 per sq ft. according to Penn State.  (need proposal specific information)
  • Natural Grass with native soil 2.25-5.25 per square ft. (Will get actual cost for LMT to install a new grass field cost/square ft.)

Q – Annual Maintenance Costs (according to sports turf managers association)

  • Synthetic Infill 6,000 per year in materials and 375 labor hours per year.  (need proposal specific information)
  • Natural Grass – (Need information on Lower Macungie materials and labor hours per year)

Q- Replacement costs in 10-15 years for Synthetic Field - coming soon. (10-15 years is the stated timeframe in the concept plan presentation – Link above)

  • Generally accepted synthetic field replacement costs are 800,000 to 1.5 Million. This needs to be confirmed.

Q- Revenue projections over 10 year lifespan - coming soon
Q-Will final draft of field use agreement apply to Quarry same as any other township field? Currently LMYA gets usage of Community center gym rent free. Will this same policy apply to Quarry field?

Health/Injury issues Grass vs. Turf
Q- Long Term Health Risks
coming soon

Q- Does synthetic field increase injury risks vs. grass? Answer – Concern risk is Low with correct footware but Medium to High with incorrect footware.

Bullet Points:

  • Most critical is right shoe for the surface. The correct shoe on synthetic turf dramatically reduces risk. Without the right foot ware injuries on turf fields increase dramatically.
  • Compared to grass fields not maintained to optimal conditions or very dry, synthetic fields can actually reduce risk of serious injuries although incidents of minor injuries (mainly abrasions) increase.

Q- Does synthetic field increase risk of staph infections? Answer – Concern risk is Low.

Bullet Points:

  • The sun acts as disinfectant.

Surface and Air Temperature issues related to Synthetic Turf.

Q – What are the health issues related to surface heat? Answer – Concern risk is High.

Bullet Points: (source Pennstate center for sports surface research)

  • Children are less able to adapt to changes in Temperature – Higher potential for heat related injury.
  • In central Pennsylvania surface temperatures have been measured up to 175 degrees on synthetic fields measured on days when the surrounding air temperature is 79 degrees.
  • Generally synthetic turf registers 35 to 55 degrees hotter than natural grass.
  • Techniques to reduce surface temperature on hot days add labor and cost considerations.

9-19-14-lower-mac-jpg

Hayden Phillips ridiculous comment

I had to find a minute to write about this quick today. Northampton County Commissioners are considering an amendment that would use gaming money the county gets from the Sands to put another $750,000 into the county’s farmland preservation program and $400,000 into preserving open space and environmentally sensitive lands. 

farmland development

It looks like the board has the votes to pass this. Great news. UPDATE: 10:00pm Thur – The Amendment successfully passed.

But another part of this story is the Commissioner who dissented and a statement he made that is one of the most ridiculous I have ever heard a public official mutter.

“As we buy up farmland and take it out as a development option, we’re denying people a dream in suburbia.” – Hayden Phillips Northampton County Council

As if by preserving some farmland we are somehow going to take single family homes off the market en masse. Or somehow force people to move into densely packed cities. Anyone who drives around any suburban neighborhood in the Valley can plainly see that this isn’t the case by the number of units available in Surburbia. For those who prefer a suburban lifestyle it is by far and away the most abundant choice in the Valley. I also instinctively dislike anyone trying to force a narrowly defined worldview on me. I live in suburbia and like it but not everyone does. I have no right to define the American Dream.

Everybody has the fundamental right to live wherever they choose. What they don’t have is the right to have that choice be subsidized by others. Single family home subdivisions cost more in services than revenue generated. Always. Commercial development is how we fix that problem. Farmland however, is the most effective way. It’s about balancing revenue & liabilities. That is the most fundamental accounting task local governments are charged with. Balanced budgets. 

Farmland generates no crime. No traffic. Increases quality of life. (matter of opinion) Increases property values. (matter of fact) Doesn’t add new kids into school districts. Definite and clear long term ROI. ect. Even with Act 4 programs Farmland generates far more in property tax revenue than liabilities in services/infrastructure.

Letting opportunities pass to aggressively invest in preservation now will certainly lead to higher taxes down the road. Smart growth is not just about consumer demand for more livable communities, and not just about supporting congestion-mitigating transportation options such as complete streets it’s also about seeking growth that pays for itself and isn’t dependent on ether *constant growth (where you eventually run out of land) or direct/indirect subsidies.

*The Growth Ponzi Scheme

Bottom line is farmland preservation doesn’t somehow magically force people to live in cities. In fact it achieves the opposite. By creating a balanced mix of residential, commercial (preferably together as traditional neighborhoods) and most importantly farmland we keep the suburbs affordable. This enables those who choose that lifestyle (as I do) to be able to afford it.

 

 

2014 Lower Macungie Santa Run Dates

The 2014 Lower Macungie Fire Department Santa Run routes can now be found on the website: www.firestation30.org. 

SANTA-RUN-SNOW-1The run is scheduled for Saturday 12/13/14 with a 3:30 p.m. departure time. The raindate Sunday 12/14/14.

The routes will tell you how Santa will enter developments and then give you his route street by street and turn by turn so that you can be ready to go with the kids if we don’t go directly by your house.

Alburtis FD plans to do their Santa Run on Sunday 12/7/14 (they will do some of the LMT developments west of Route 100). Trexlertown FD will do a run on 12/20/14 and will cover the Heritage Heights development.

 

Changing the conversation locally

I am not against spending money to improve our community on items identified through community planning projects. I am against spending money in a rushed an inefficient fashion. This is especially true when a place is faced with a one time windfall of money.

At the local level we need to change the conversation. That is where it all begins. 

Far too often we skip the step on the left leaping to the step on the right.

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.24.06 PM

 

Local Gov’t 101 – What does the County Controller do?

Every four years those of us in Lehigh county vote for the row offices. By and large, folks have no idea what these offices are or what the people in them do. I’m including myself here. At least up until a couple years ago. Link to Controllers 2013 report.

In Lehigh County one of those elected “row offices” is the County Controller. Next year it’s one of the positions that will be up for election. Currently the office is held by Glenn Eckhart. In Lehigh County the position is paid. In the past there has been discussion on whether the row offices in general should be elected or appointed. The job description is defined by the County Charter. Today the controllers office has 6 employees ranging from clerks to accountants.

According to the LC government website the Controllers duties include:

  • Examine the propriety of internal control
  • Assess compliance with statutory requirements
  • Evaluate operating procedures
  • Audit the accuracy and completeness of records and files pertaining to the receipt and disbursement of County funds by all officers, agents, and employees of the County

To sum this up the controller is basically an elected working manager for the county’s accounting dept. He/she is the elected fiscal watchdog of the County. The office conducts assessments of management performance and program results of county departments and agencies to evaluate efficiency and use of taxpayer funds. To sum this up the controller is responsible for delivering a yearly report to the Board of Commissioners. 

Although controller candidates usually run based on party affiliation they do their job best when they operate from a political neutral standpoint. Beyond the watchdog role in Lehigh County the controller only has one responsibility that directly has to do with policy. That is the controllers seat as secretary (and voting member) of the retirement board. It’s basically the controllers one direct influence on policy decisions but it’s a pretty important one in relation to the County’s long term finances.

WFMZ - Lehigh County Controller Annual Report

Here is a link to the Controllers complete 2013 report.