HB1285 would enable Lower Mac to completely eliminate residential property taxes

A currently proposed state constitutional amendment – in the form of HB1285 – would enable Lower Mac to completely eliminate residential property taxes for qualifying homestead properties.

Note: This is not the same issue as SB76 – School property tax elimination. That’s the Bill to completely eliminate school property taxes by shifting funding to increased sales and income taxes. That’s a separate conversation with unique and different pro’s and con’s. 

While SB76 addresses school taxes, it does not address any reform of local township taxes. To that end HB1285 would allow Lower Mac to expand our current reduction program and entirely eliminate municipal property taxes for residential homes in in the township. Therefore, in addition to SB76 I also support the constitutional amendment to expand the Homestead Exclusion.

If you recall, when I came into office one of the first major proposals I made was to institute the homestead exclusion. We did it to the max allowed over a two year phase in. The result was reducing and in some cases completely eliminating the township property tax for homeowners. 90% of residents over a two year timeframe got a reduction. HB1285 would allow the complete elimination. Something I would then immediately argue for should the amendment pass.

It is a long and tough process to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution. It takes a majority approval of two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly followed by an approval of the majority of voters. HB1285 has now been passed in two consecutive sessions, so I believe the next step is the voters. (I am confirming my understanding)

How would this work:
Currently, for some unknown reason the state Constitution only allows exclusion of 50% of the median assessed value of residential properties within the taxing district. Lower Mac has instituted that to the maximum currently allowed. While that has provided relief, it remains un-necessarily capped by the state. HB147 fixes that and amends the state Constitution to allow municipalities to entirely eliminate qualifying residential property taxes. Commercial and Industrial users including ultra impactful warehouses and also investment properties would still be subject to the townships very low property tax millage. (one of the lowest in the County)

This has been used successfully on the municipal end. With Lower Mac being a prime example. If this were to pass at the earliest possible point I would begin the budget conversations to eliminate residential property taxes entirely in Lower Macungie.

Here is a link to my original argument for initiating the homestead program originally. The program has been a success giving residents a needed break. While our taxes are already some of the lowest in the Lehigh Valley, we have to be aware of the cumulative impact including taxes from other governing bodies we can’t control. We must remember we don’t levy taxes in a vacuum.

Letter to state officials in support of stable farmland funding.

Lehigh County State Elected Officials,

I am writing to express my concern about the proposed budget in HB 218 and its impact on staffing levels at the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Farmland Preservation, which administers Pennsylvania’s farmland preservation program.

I trust you know how successful this program has been and how much the public supports it. Numerous surveys over the years have demonstrated broad support for farmland preservation, especially in regions like the Lehigh Valley where much farmland is being lost to development.

Under this program, Lehigh County has put together one of the top programs in the state, having preserved 281 farms over 22,000 acres. Statewide, more than 533,000 acres of farmland on 5,136 farms have been preserved, making Pennsylvania the nation’s leader in farmland preservation.. 

According to the Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation Association, an organization of all the county farmland preservation directors, HB 218 will likely cause layoffs to a Bureau staff that is already a barebones operation. The Association believes further staff reductions would render the Bureau unable to effectively administer the state’s preservation program.

Bureau staff provide essential services to the county. These include coordination of all the preservation deals and oversight of the stewardship of preserved farms, including guidance in legal defense and enforcement of preservation mechanisms. The bureau is invaluable to the county programs.

To be clear, I am not arguing for an increase in funding to the program, but rather for sustaining the current levels. I understand we’re in a time where relative to the state budget many programs are asked to do more with less. But further staff cuts will jeopardize the effectiveness of this highly popular and very successful program. Since the program intakes new farms each year the bureau already is doing more with less by default.  

State staff cuts today would come at a time when local municipalities in Lehigh County are getting ready to join the program with their own money. Under our newly created county-municipal match program, several townships, including Lower Macungie Township, are planning to contribute their own funds for preservation. In short, when we were asked to do more with less Lehigh County has enacted a program that does just that. As a region we’ve stepped to the plate. 

Lastly, I want to reiterate that Farmland preservation is not a special interest. It has been demonstrated time and again that it has broad community support across the entire spectrum of voters. Lehigh Valley residents understand that investments in farmland today pays dividends tomorrow. Accordingly, I appreciate your attention to this matter.

I’d be happy to discuss this issue with you. Specifically if you are unfamiliar with Lehigh County’s new municipal match program and how it has encouraged local municipalities to step up to the plate and contribute funds to preservation efforts and why consistent staffing at the farmland bureau is crucial to the programs continued success. 

Thank you.

Ron W. Beitler
Vice President – Lower Macungie Township Board of Commissioners
Treasurer – Lehigh County Agricultural Land Preservation Board

CC:
Rep. Gary Day
Rep. Ryan Mackenzie
Rep. Justin Simmons
Rep. Mike Schlossberg
Sen. Pat Browne
Sen. Lisa Bosola
Gov. Tom Wolf

 

Lower Mac to offer tax credits to volunteer firefighters

So much of what we can and can’t do at the township level is determined by rules set in place by Harrisburg. For that reason over the last 4 years we have taken an active role in advocating for helpful legislation in Harrisburg. We’ve done this on a number of occasions but I wanted to highlight one success story.

Last December Harrisburg enacted Act 172 which allows the township flexibility to give credits to volunteer firefighters. Lower Mac will be taking advantage of this starting next year by waiving 100% of municipal earned income taxes for volunteers. This also includes the ambulance core for those who qualify. Prior to last year this wasn’t an option.

Our advocacy for the enabling legislation began over a year ago when I asked our board to consider a resolution encouraging local state leaders to support the idea. So, we drafted approved and sent it away to our State Representative and Senator. Similar legislation was considered for years but never could get out the starting gate. So we felt it was important to let elected officials know just how important this was. After Lower Mac’s advocacy Ryan Mackenzie our State Rep. became a co-sponsor of a bill allowing the credit. And since then it has been signed by the Gov. and passed into law.

Starting next year LMFD firefighters who live in the township will benefit from this team effort.  It’s important we pursue these benefits as unfortunately volunteerism wains. in 1976, PA had a total of 300,000 volunteer firefighters.  Today, that number has dwindled to about 50,000. So, we must do everything we can to encourage the recruitment and retention of volunteers. For a volunteer making the median income the credit will put 300 dollars back into their pocket.

Bottom line:
Now this and other benefits alone of course aren’t the core reasons our volunteers do what they do. In the grand scheme I wish we could do even more. But little every bit helps. I’m convinced of that. And we’ll continue to do our part as much as we can. 
And in all areas where we see opportunities to advocate with the state for more flexible laws our Board will continue to do so. 

Things to remember when seeing for sale signs on cornfields….

I got a few concerned messages last week about a number of new very large “for sale” signs on major pieces of property in the township. Specifically a number of large cornfields.

There are couple things important to remember: 

1.) Official Map adopted.
First and most important, many of these properties including those on Lower Macungie Rd. and also at Brookside and Sauerkraut are designated on the now adopted township official map for preservation. Lower Macungie Official Map FAQ. Can’t stress enough how important this is. 

2.) We are communicating with landowners.
With every major property designated on the map, township staff has reached out to landowners in an effort to proactively begin conversations. In at least one case (Brookside and Sauerkraut) these conversations are productive and ongoing. A basic framework for preservation has been agreed upon. Below is a Morning Call article outlining the transferable development rights concept that could result in substantial preservation. Family of late developer Weiner helping Lower Macungie pursue farmland preservation, mixed-use village.

3.) Landowners have their property rights.
In all cases even with protections of the official map in place (the 1 year “pause button” on any development plans) landowners still have every right to market properties. In some cases this can actually “move the ball forward” since it helps determine market price. It’s not reason to think development is imminent.

4.) Township remains completely committed to preservation deals. 
What I have told everyone who reached out is that the township remains completely committed to preserving properties identified on the official map. I will say with confidence no stone will be left unturned as far as strategies to accomplish that. We’re taking the biggest swings we can take to get land preserved. All tools are in the toolbox. While some of these conversations are complicated and ongoing, in one case I am cautiously optimistic at this point.

5.) No more flexibility for greenfield developers. No waivers. No variances. 
When determining market value one thing landowners/developers must understand is that the township is no longer willing to grant regulatory flexibility to induce anymore growth. We’re well past the point where we see large tract subdivisions as desirable. A recent example would be the Farr Tract. In that case, we were asked to grant a development inducing text amendment that would have allowed 90+ units. The township denied that request. So now instead that property is moving forward with a plan for 17 estate lots. This was a huge win drastically reducing the impact of development.

In conclusion landowners have every right to develop properties, however large greenfield tracts must now be in strict compliance with the zoning ordinance. We will exercise our rights to deny plans that are not. This is a fundamental shift in philosophy over the last 4 years. With that being said, we are engaging landowners in preservation conversations. All tools to get the job done are in play. One thing is certain these things take time. I’m learned a lot of patience over the last 3 years.

The prior board did virtually nothing to prepare for warehouses they approved.

I wanted to share this since it demonstrates clearly the hole we were put in by prior boards. The chart below shows all the current truck restriction ordinances in Lower Macungie. As you can see all except one have been approved and instituted last 3 years since I came into office. Meaning, the prior board who was responsible for rezoning the Spring Creek Rd. area allowing for major proliferation of warehouses – did so virtually without laying any groundwork to prepare our road network. They literally left us high and totally dry forcing us to play a game of endless catch up once the new board was in place.

The current BOC adopted 18 truck ordinances over the last 3 years. The board who created the problems adopted one. Of course, as we know no matter how much signage we put up we’re learning that the enforcement burden is the next problem we were left with. 18 ordinances adopted and we are still treading water. The hole they dug us is very deep. I promise we will keep working at the problem.

Roadway restrictions.

Turning restrictions

Brake Retarder prohibitions
Parking restrictions

 

 

Lehigh County is not a “Sanctuary City”

Despite what you may have seen in a recent campaign mailer from the Glenn Eckart campaign. . . No, Lehigh County is not a “Sanctuary City”.

A sanctuary city is one that by virtue of different philosophical views of elected officials limits cooperation with federal efforts to enforce immigration laws. Or in the worse cases outright obstructs and stymies the work of immigrations and custom enforcement (ICE). Key being an unwillingness to cooperate based on philosophical differences. Sanctuary cities are a problem that needs to be addressed. Lehigh County however in no way, shape or form is a sanctuary city.

The County cooperates fully with ICE within the parameters of the law. (the US constitution) There is no activism taking place on the part of any county official to obstruct or otherwise hinder immigration enforcement. That includes the current Democratic Executive AND the Republican majority of the Board of Commissioners.

The problem arises when detaining individuals without a warrant, due process, or a judicial order. Here, the county has what they believe to be a legal (not philosophical) issue. Aside from (what should be) the obvious constitutional matter, a few years ago Lehigh County detained an (innocent) AMERICAN citizen at the request of ICE and subsequently was sued. That lawsuit cost county taxpayers $95,000 in a settlement agreement.

This problem is acknowledged by Sen. Pat Toomey. To that end he’s proposed a fix to put the feds, not localities, on the hook for detainees eliminating the potential for costly local lawsuits.  Toomey stated, “We need legislation to ensure local police are not subject to lawsuits for good-faith efforts to cooperate with federal law enforcement to remove dangerous criminals and terrorists from our streets,” That sort of lawsuit is exactly what happened in Lehigh County.

Again, in a sanctuary city elected officials object to US immigration policy and actively seek to undermine it. This is not the case in Lehigh County. What happened was the County detained an American citizen without due process and got sued for it. After that debacle they created a policy to avoid wasting more taxpayer dollars on lawsuits of the same type.

Lehigh County policy allows all 3 of these things to happen:
1.) Full good faith cooperation with federal immigration law.
2.) Constitutional due process observed
3.) Limiting the counties exposure to more lawsuits.

We don’t live in a society where an administration can make a phone call and have a suspect detained without due process. If the federal government wants to change the current practice then they need to change the law.

Certainly not helpful in this dialogue is a County Executive candidate muddling a complicated issue in an effort to score cheap political points. In Lehigh County, everyone supports the good faith effort cooperating to enforce immigration laws. Creating a wedge where none exists is opportunism.

I’m writing about this now because if your a registered Republican you may have gotten in the mail a campaign piece that attempts to paint Brad Osborne as “soft of illegal immigration”. This is very misleading and I hope above helps to clarify. There are real “sanctuaries cities” out there, but Lehigh County is not one.

In fact, almost every item on this mailer is purposely misleading or factually incorrect.

Garbage mailer.

Also no, Brad Osborne (or the entire board for that matter) did not undertake re-assessment for personal gain. That’s a silly thing to imply in the Eckhart hit job. What happened was in 2012 the County Board of Commissioners implemented the county’s first reassessment in more than two decades. It was at the time very long overdue.
Reassessments are done (and should be on a regular basis) to assign properties more accurate, updated values based on items like actual home sales. These values serve as the basis for real estate taxes. So it’s critical to get it right. If the process isn’t done on a regular basis values become unfair. Some people pay too much and some pay too little. When the County reassessed essentially taxes went down for 55% of homeowners. And unfortunately up for 45%. The fact of the matter is the entire effort is to find the real values. The system is not at all perfect. But it becomes much worse when reassessments aren’t performed for decades at a time.
Re-assessment should be a non-partisan no brainer. However, it’s important to point out the effort was led at the the time by ultra conservative Commissioner Scott Ott and supported by a conservative reform slate. There was bi-partisan support. The only wrangling that occurred was over when to do the exercise.
In conclusion the entire mailer is basically garbage and very disappointing. I wrote about why candidates feel the need to “go negative” yesterday here.

 

 

Don’t be Pavlovs Dog. Why negative campaigning works.

At the turn of the century Ivan Pavlov conducted his famous conditioning experiments. Pavlov would ring a bell prior to feeding dogs. Over time, the dogs were conditioned and came to associate the ringing of the bell with a stimulant. Soon, all Pavlov had to do was ring the bell and the dogs’ got hungry.

Today, sadly political party echo chambers and political strategists/consultants bank on conditioning voters the same way. Both political parties are guilty of attempting to condition voters to respond to meaningless and often negative campaign rhetoric. Most voters tell you they do not like negative ads. And for many, the result is they tune out. A reason why we have such awful voter turnout.

Even though many make the decision to tune out, human brains function in a way that we still process information non-consciously. It’s why negative barrages are designed in such a way to be mind numbingly simple and repetitive. We’ve all seen them. Candidate X BAD. (insert scary black and white photo!)  Candidate Y GOOD. (insert heart strings photo of candidate with the family dog!) The result is a totally dumbed down discourse.

Thinking about this recently because of an onslaught of negative campaign ads from both Republican County Executive candidates. Now, I consider both friends of mine who I like and respect. I’ll vote for the winner of the primary in the general election. But for now, I must say I’m totally disappointed. They tell me they “don’t want to go negative”, but feel like they “have to”. Again, it’s because it unfortunately works. And that’s what the consultants hammer in their heads.

Since executing this sort of strategy takes ad nauseam repetition it’s precisely why boatloads of money becomes so critical for campaigns. In other words, producing endless piles of slop is expensive. (We need campaign finance reform desperately, and may it could help address this.)

I KNOW we’re better than this. So please, do your part. Be an active and engaged participant in democracy. Don’t succumb to malaise and definitely don’t become Pavlov’s dog allowing yourself to simply respond to the conditioning.

I’m trying to do my part by writing at least 2 posts on (1) mailer from each of the (2) candidates. In them, I’ll outline where I think the candidates are being unfair, misleading or outright factually incorrect. I’ll start tomorrow with Glenn Eckharts mailer I got the other day. And then Tuesday with Brad Osborne’s. Both mailers were perfect examples of exactly what I’m talking about.

I do hope both of my friends pivot to the issues eventually. . . The voters deserve that. There aren’t two people more knowledgeable about County Gov’t then Glenn and Brad. Talking about ideas and issues in a positive way plays to both their strengths. Not the garbage they’ve been putting out so far. 

An actual campaign billboard in the United States. . . .

2017 Community day is tomorrow!

Over the last 7 years this event has grown! Each year more is added to do. My hope is this event eventually grows into a proper yearly township fair. It’s getting closer. For 2017 we introduce “Music on the lawn”. Entertainment under a tent with seats. I’ll be there. And I hop to see you!

Lower Mac adopts gerrymandering resolution

Last night we joined other Lehigh Valley communities including Lehigh County in adopting a resolution that supports a citizens commission for legislative redistricting. This is a potential solution to address severe gerrymandering issues in our state.

Gerrymandering is when partisan politicians manipulate voting maps to keep themselves in power. When they do this they shape election outcomes before any vote is even cast. Essentially, it’s when politicians choose voters instead of voters choosing their elected officials. The problem has been around for ages, but today with sophisticated data and mapping technologies it’s gotten much worse.

The resolution we passed encourages our state elected officials to enact a bill that would create an independent citizen redistricting commission. This is an essential step toward fair, transparent and accountable elections by removing partisanship from the process.

Learn more here at Fair Districts PA.

Cedar Crest and Lower Mac Rd. intersection – Best offense is a good defense.

Interesting discussion today at the Traffic Impact Fee Advisory Committee (TIFAC) meeting. The committee convened to update our traffic impact fee ordinance. Impact fees are a mechanism that Lower Mac utilizes to assess fees on new development in proportion to new impacts created.  Funds collected are used to improve roadways impacted by developments. Some conversation today centered around the Lower Mac and Cedar Crest Intersection pictured below. Cedar Crest is a PennDOT identified congested corridor. And for good reason. It’s one of the most problematic in the area. Unfortunate reality is that even with impact fees there is little the township can do to improve it. The intersection is constrained by space, topography and a bridge. To address the intersection with these issues would be massively expensive.

Cedar Crest and Lower Mac. A combination of factors make further improvements unlikely or in best case very expensive.

The way we address this and similar intersections around the township, or at least prevent them from becoming worse is to avoid additional development nearby. Here is where the old sports adage applies. The best offense is a good defense. In this case aggressive land preservation.

Lower Mac accomplished this on the Farr Tract (adjacent to this intersection) in part by working with a developer on an alternative plan with only 17 estate lot units as opposed to an initial concept of 90+ shoe horned homes. The township took a proactive role and did 3 things here:

  • First, we pushed back against the much more intensive and impactful plan by expressing our concerns. When the developer asked us to change the zoning to allow more units. We rejected the request.
  • Next, we tried to purchase the property in partnership with the Wildlands. Unfortunately, this didn’t come to fruition. But we put our skin in the game. We took a swing. 
  • And finally, when a much less impactful development scenario was presented as an alternative we supported it. And will continue to. 

Our proactive role helped result in a better project. The nearby “Dorney” tracts on Lower Mac Rd. (all the signs you see up recently) is another example. The properties have been placed on the townships official map. This telegraphs our interest in preservation and gives us the chance to make an offer if development scenarios are presented.

Related as we try to better manage development along Cedar Crest unfortunately, Emmaus Borough has recently made decisions contrary. Despite opposition in letter form from both Lower Mac and Upper Milford, last year Emmaus approved an overlay district on the Indian Creek golf course that resulted in it’s current development. The project being built (I voted against it) is severely access constrained. Shoe horned. And it makes the corridor issues more complicated. Over the last month things have gotten worse. We now have a question on the table of whether or not the property will only have one access on Indian Creek Rd. PennDOT has ( and correct to do so) concerns about how another proposed access point would impact Chestnut Street. Because of the Emmaus decision to enact this overlay, Upper Milford and Lower Macungie must now deal with additional problems. The Borough was entirely in the drivers seat to change the zoning. But they didn’t have to deal with any of the problems. We do, along with Upper Milford. What’s done is done. But I hope moving forward we avoid this sort of mistake.

In conclusion, the impact fee is a much needed tool. But we’re to the point we can no longer rely on building our way out of problems with new tuning lanes and signals. In many locations the best strategy is to avoid the need entirely. That means preservation and encouraging less intense development. The impact fee study as a warning not a roadmap. It outlines worse case scenarios. Through better land use planning we can avoid those scenarios. It’s better to spend our dollars on preservation than endless traffic upgrades which end of the day only represent band-aids. Upper Milford has been proactive as well recently instituting a funding mechanism solely for the preservation of open space. We are both doing our part. We all need to get on the same page.