Lehigh County Budget notebook

Election time craziness.
First, as always during election time folks try to color conversations with hyper partisan lenses. Problem is over the last year most county discussions really were not partisan in nature. At least between the 9 County commissioners. 7 of which are Republicans who are not always on the same end of the ideological spectrum and 2 Democrats. I know this because I attend meetings. Not religiously. But enough to get a flavor. Ones I don’t attend I frequently watch online.

With this years budget? There was only 1 dissenter with an 8-1 vote.

Cumulative impacts.
Last years tax cut was derisively called a “happy meal”. This year a “pizza”. No matter what silly labeling each year the fact remains – after Don Cunningham’s (D) 16% tax increase of 2011 Lehigh County has since given either a rebate or tax cut 3 of the last 4 years. Just like small tax increases add up over time, so do small tax decreases.

Lehigh County tax cuts and rebates since 2011 increase.
2011 – Don Cunningham’s (D) 16% tax increase.
Since then over last 4 years…
2013 – Tax Cut of 3.0M. Rebate of 3.5M or a 44 dollar reduction
2014 – 0
2015 – Tax cut of 1.25M or 8 dollars for average homeowner
2016 – Tax cut of 2M or 14.21 for average homeowner

So yes, another “small” tax cut. But when you find “small” tax cuts year after year it adds up. And that’s just the County in a silo. Last year every Lower Macungie homeowner got a 19 dollar homestead break. For those at or under the median home value you will get your second in 2 years in 2016.

For some? It’s now a couple happy meals. For others? Maybe 2 tanks of gas. But for some the impacts are more serious. For ex. $40 helps feeds two seniors on fixed income for a weeks time. $40 helps a single mom feed a newborn for 2 weeks. It all adds up.

All told today? Just over 6 million in cuts over 5 years with zero measurable decreases in services. Sounds like a job well done to me.

“Rainy day/reserve fund”.
Commissioners have been criticized for “dipping into the rainy day fund to balance the budget”. Ok let’s examine that.

First, unlike Lower Macungie Township the County doesn’t have a fund balance policy. (Maybe they should consider one?) The next best measure is the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA). They recommend 20%. This budget maintains that. 106M budget with a 20%+ reserve fund. Including and prior to this year Lehigh County has either met or exceeded recommended reserves. Prudent financial management.

Other Counties already borrowing money because of state budget impasse.
Lehigh County is not. They may very well eventually have to depending on how long Harrisburg gridlock lasts. But to date it’s not been considered. Others counties have had to. This again demonstrates the excellent fiscal shape Lehigh is in.

I think the makeup of the current board of Commissioners is excellent. A very high functioning board under the leadership of Brad Osborne. The passed budget reduced taxes for the 3rd time in 4 years. The reserve fund is still at or above 20%. The counties bottom line finances are healthy.

In a climate where for better or worse “throw the bums out” is a rally cry.. In Lehigh County? I think stability is a good thing. Is there friction between the Executive and Commissioners at times? Yes. But isn’t that the way American democracy is supposed to work? As for the 9 Commissioners? I think the makeup of the board is excellent as it stands.


Young Republican County Commissioners Debate – Farmland Preservation Topic

A question was posed to Republican County Commissioner candidates about funding Farmland Preservation initiatives at a recent Young Republicans debate. Attending were all 5 (R) candidates for Lehigh County Commissioner. When it comes time for the general election RenewLV will pose the same question to all candidates again including Democrats.

Backgrounder: The County in the past has allocated funds to the farmland preservation fund ranging from 2M annually from 2006-2010 to a low of 0 in 2011. In 2015 the county allocated 250,000. When the County allocates money it receives $2.50 cents in commonwealth funding for every dollar.

My thoughts: Downzoning farmland is an unfair taking of property value therefore compensating landowners market value for development rights is the only fair and free market way to preserve farmland forever. Second, it’s a fact that preservation reduces local and state municipal obligations to provide services and infrastructure related to sprawl. For every dollar we spend to preserve farmland that is zoned suburban it saves us .15 to .50 cents on each one of those dollars down the road. This figure is even higher if we leverage our dollars with state and county.

For me, this is one of the most important issues as a voter. Preserving farmland is a key component in Lower Macungie’s strategy to keep taxes sustainably low over the long term. Learn more: Want to keep taxes low? Preserve farmland.

The question was posed “Would you support restoring funding of the County Farmland preservation program to previous levels” here are the answers paraphrased:

Marty Nothstein:  “I’m a conservationist” “I own preserved farmland” “Development is important but so is preserving our countryside””We need to look at more ways to preserve farms””We need to do a better job of finding strategic ways to preserve including partnering with townships” “We need to do a better job of finding money…” “When you have farmers that want to see their land protected forever, I think that’s important to residents of Lehigh County”

My thoughts: Marty was most aggressively positive in his answer. It’s very clear he is very much in favor of preserving farmland and even has done so himself. Based on this answer and conversations I’ve had with him it’s clear he would be a champion of funding the program as a Commissioner.

Amanda Holt: “Our natural resources our important and it’s something that’s talked about in the Pennsylvania Constitution.” “Important issue but I’m concerned the average age of farmers is now 57 here in Lehigh County. Looking at the cost I wonder if this is going to be an effective means of really preserving the farmland looking at the average age of farmers. This is something we really need to take look at. We do need to consider moving forward how we can adhere to what the state constitution says and what works best for our situation here in Lehigh County.”

My thoughts: Very good answer. Very impressed Amanda Holt referred to the state constitution. She is absolutely correct to do so. The state constitution in Article 1 section 27 says: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all.”

Amanda also was the only one to refer this last years funding. She correctly stated that the County funded 250,000. This led to a state match of 750,000.

Brad Osborne:  “I do know that farmland preservation has been promoted as a good program. The Green Futures Fund generated $20 million.  It ended.  Can we revive it?  Farmland absorbs only .33 cents of every tax dollar generated whereas residential requires over a dollar” “Specific requests need to be in line with the bigger picture.  A larger plan is needed.” “Property tax reform could change the entire question.”  We need to evaluate this further.

My thoughts: As usual Brad was prepared to give a very thoughtful answer. I was impressed he was ready with the statistics demonstrating the long term tax value of preserving farmland. As I write often on this blog, farmland is the best way to keep our taxes sustainably low over the long term. I would have loved a more aggressively positive answer, but I respect that Brad doesn’t put his opinion out there before he completely understands an issue.

Vic Mazzioti: “There are 3 ways we’ve funded preservation in the past. First, through tax dollars. Another was the sale of assets and we received grants from the state.”  “I’m for continuing the program. But if we do it with general tax dollars that requires further discussion.” “Meantime I think we should continue funding the program through the other two sources I mentioned. 1. Any assets that we sell. 2. Grants that we receive that permit us to use those funds for farmland preservation.”

My thoughts: Vic, gave another well thought out answer.

Dean Browning: “The program from early 2000 generated $30 million and we did not need to borrow.  We funded it out of revenue.  I was Chairman of the Sterling Raeburn Farmland Preservation Committee.  I see the benefit of the program, however I am reluctant to continue it absent any specific vote by the taxpayers saying they want the program re-instituted and number 2 identifying a specific funding source for it”

My thoughts:  I was disappointed by this answer. This could have been a way to really differentiate himself to voters in Lower Mac who by and large support open space preservation and understand how an investment today will keep taxes sustainably lower over the long term.





Lehigh County at-large race shaping up.

3 Democrat challengers announced today for at large Commissioner seats in Lehigh County via what appears to be a flyer produced by a PAC called Citizens for a better Lehigh County. The website at this point simply says “coming soon”. With the exception of Hillary Smith I don’t know much about them at all but I am looking forward to learning. 

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Hillary is a Lower Mac resident and very active in Democratic politics. She currently serves as Vice Chair of the LCDC. But she has in the past supported bi-partisan slates in local races. Personally, I tend to support Republicans but I always keep an open mind. Bi-partisanship is something I appreciate. And a quality Hillary exhibits. Elections should be about the quality of the candidate, not just the letter behind someones name. I am interested to learn about her platform. I know Hillary to be a good person and wish her the best of luck. Running for an at-large position is a huge undertaking if done right. To do it seriously takes a major time commitment. The rest of the slate I look forward to learning more about.

The Incumbents: Lisa Sheller Fmr. Chair, Vic Mazziotti, Amanda Holt and Brad Osborne Current Chair. Of them I have heard Lisa Sheller will not be running for re-election. This is not confirmed. *Update confirmed via Express times Sheller is out. 

Amanda Holt was appointed last year to fill a vacancy left by Scott Ott when he moved to Texas. She was one of 15 who applied. As an activist before her appointment Holt legally challenged the way redistricting was occurring in PA. She felt as though there were too many municipal and county splits as a result of gerrymandering. According to the letter of the law this was unconstitutional. Her work on the issue is really interesting to read about. End of the day courts agreed with her assessment and forced the legislature to re-do the maps. When Holt was appointed she said she wouldn’t run when her term was up but didn’t totally rule it out. *updated Amanda Holt announced she is running.

Vic Mazziotti ran together with the very conservative block of Sheller and Ott. Ott has since moved to Texas. Schware very narrowly defeated challenger Wes Barrett last year. Have heard from couple people he may be 1 term. *Updated Vic Mazziotti has announced he is running. *Correction: I had indicated Schware ran with the so called reform team. That is incorrect. Schware was appointed to fill the vacancy left by Glenn Eckhart in 2012. Schware does however vote often with the block on major issues. 

Osborne was recently elected Chair. His second go around in the leadership position. He has not officially announced his intention for re-election but I imagine he will. If so I will support him. Brad is consistently one of the most informed members of the board and the voice of reason. For example, after much deliberation and reflection he correctly voted against the Hamilton Crossings TIF. This was the right decision then but even more clearly so in hind-site. Because of his vote Lehigh County will receive 100% of the incremental tax increases instead of giving 50% away. I know Brad struggled with the decision. But that struggle reflects how he thinks through an issue from all sides. Too often politicians locally come out the gate with an inflexible position and refuse to reconsider. Brad isn’t that kind of ideologue. Prior to serving as County Commissioner Brad served 6 years in South Whitehall Township. *update Osborne is officially in. 

Rest of the field: It’s likely former Commissioner Chair Dean Browning might take another stab. I like Browning. He’s another voice of reason. Very intelligent. Great guy. But is he still viable after two unsuccessful races? Does he have enough political capital left in the tank for another run? If he runs I’d consider supporting Dean, but if the field gets crowded on the Republican side he needs to be realistic about his chances. During his last two campaigns he was hammered pretty hard in primaries. Some of the criticism fair but most was not.

Marty Nothstein announced he’s running as a Repbulican. Yes, for those of us in western Lehigh Valley that’s EHS grad and Olympic Gold Medalist Nothstein. At this point he’s a neat and interesting name. But we know little about his politics. Looking forward to learning more.

Bernie has some thoughts over here.