ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Lehigh County taxpayers may get a real estate tax break in 2013, but top county officials warn residents may face new "costs" – including a reduction in public safety.
On Wednesday night, county commissioners voted 5-4 to cut $5 million in personnel from the proposed 2013 budget and to give taxpayers a $5 million tax break, plus a $1.5 million one-time tax credit.
Commissioners voting for two amendments to make that happen were Scott Ott, Thomas Creighton, Lisa Scheller, Michael Schware and Vic Mazziotti.
Opposed were commissioners Percy Dougherty, David Jones, Daniel McCarthy and Brad Osborne.
Ott, chief sponsor of both amendments, explained if the budget is passed as amended the average county homeowner will pay about $44 less in 2013. He said about $35 of that $44 is the tax cut and the other $9 will be the one-time tax credit.
Before the vote, several Lehigh County officials stood before the commissioners in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade them not to cut $5 million from the budget.
District Attorney James Martin declared the proposed budget cuts will "have a profound impact on my ability to prosecute cases and discharge my responsibilities as the chief law enforcement officer of the county."
Commissioners who voted for the cuts said the county, just like its residents, must live within its means.
"We're doing this for all the citizens of Lehigh County," said Scheller. She said taxpayers still are suffering because the economy has not significantly improved. "Call it a quality of life grant to the taxpayers. We can't just hope for reduced spending. We must demand it and control it."
If the amended budget gets final approval from a majority of commissioners later this month, Creighton said it will be the first time ever that the county will cut spending from one year to the next.
At 7 p.m. Oct. 24, commissioners will have a final public hearing for more input on the 2013 budget. They plan to pass a final budget at their regular 7:30 p.m. meeting immediately after that hearing.
Whatever budget is passed can be vetoed by County Executive William Hansell. Six of the nine commissioners would have to vote to override that veto.
Martin, who spoke most passionately against the proposed cuts in staffing, said he intends to ask the county executive to veto the budget if it passes as proposed.
Martin said it is "pure folly" to hinder his law enforcement work.
"Spending cuts have real-life ramifications," said Martin. "When you cut services in my department, you're impacting public safety adversely. I'm not going to be able to discharge my responsibilities and they are huge. To tie my hands jeopardizes the quality of life and public safety of all the citizens of Lehigh County."
Commissioners met for three-and-a-half hours Wednesday night and spent most of that time on the budget, beginning with a 30-minute public hearing at 7 p.m. Commissioners began their regular meeting with a dozen budget amendments, but some were withdrawn by their sponsors or failed to get a second to be considered.
The commissioners who pushed the two $5-million amendments did propose specific cuts, but Ott said it was only because they were required to do. He said commissioners will leave it up to the county executive to make the final decisions by determining priorities.
"We don't really know the best place to cut," said Ott. "We don't want to impose our outsider view on the best way to make day-to-day operational cuts. We are not trying to usurp the authority of the executive."
Martin accused the commissioners of "passing the buck to the county executive and creating a lot of uncertainty within the departments of the county, including my own."
Tom Muller, the county's director of administration who developed the draft budget, summarized what he sees commissioners doing: "Let's take our employees hostage, let's put a gun to the administration's head and now they will finally show up with the cash that we knew all along they had hidden in the floor and the cuts we knew were easy to make."
Muller said the commissioners had a responsibility to examine the proposed budget, "which you've had for six weeks," and the ability to make line item cuts.
He told commissioners: "You are unwilling to state what your priorities are. You're fooling people right now, because you have had plenty of time to look at this budget and plenty of expertise sitting there on the board, and you didn't get the job done. I think you didn't get the job done because it can't be done."
Mazziotti maintained the objective is "to give maximum flexibility to the administration to determine where that $5 million cut will occur. Our objective is to spread the $5 million across all departments."
Mazziotti said in any given year, the county budgets $3-5 million more than it actually spends, adding it was $7 million last year.
Sounding angry, Martin told commissioners: "I'm going to tell you how I'm required to do my job and why I won't be able to do it with these cuts as suggested."
In addition to not getting a new assistant district attorney as he requested, Martin said the budget cuts mean "at a minimum" he will have to eliminate another assistant district attorney, one county detective and two members of his administrative staff.
The district attorney said there have been 15 homicides in Lehigh County this year, adding five of them involved domestic violence, including one at 7 a.m. Wednesday. "You think maybe those cases ought to be prosecuted vigorously?" he asked commissioners. "You think I ought to have the funding to be able to do that?"
Martin said his office has investigated more than 800 domestic violence cases so far this year. "You think those cases should be properly investigated and vigorously prosecuted? I won't be able to do it."
He also said 15 gangs are operating in the county, many of them involved with drugs "and most of them are right here in center city."
"The judges strongly caution against the proposed cuts," President Judge Carol McGinley told commissioners. "The cuts will be very harmful to the proper functioning of the judiciary and to its goals of public safety and service."
McGinley said: "For the last three years, Lehigh County judges have cut personnel and only stopped doing it this year because there were no more positions to cut. The proposed cuts amount to almost 10 percent of our personnel budget. Facing this, after three years of cutting personnel, the court is stymied about how to meet this mandate. We are way past the point of doing more with less."
McGinley said the courts are operating at full capacity. "It is not the right time to reduce the capacity of the courts to address adult and juvenile crime." She warned Allentown may become more unsafe and assessment appeal cases will be delayed for several years.
Ronald Rossi, the county sheriff, said "cutting my office would be a disaster." He said some days his deputies escort 100 prisoners to appear before county judges. Rossi said he will do everything in his power to protect those judges. "A lot of people we deal with are not pocketbook snatchers. They are hard-core criminals. Gang members. Drug people. I want to make sure I have proper protection for county officials."
County Coroner Scott Grim said a $58,000 cut proposed for his office would pay for 30 autopsies. "Do I pick and choose to perform an autopsy? I will not lessen the integrity of a death investigation for $58,000. I will not tell a family I cannot perform an autopsy on their loved one to determine the cause of death because I do not have the funds for it."
Edward Sweeney, director of the county's corrections department, said a $1.6 million proposed cut for his department will have "dire consequences. I can't imagine how I would do this, other than to run the type of facility where all the offenders are locked in their cells for 22 hours every day and basically gut all rehabilitative programming."
Andrea Naugle, the county's clerk of judicial records, said she already reduced her staff by 20 people in the last five years. She said the proposed budget means she would have to cut four or five more. "I think we would be in trouble."
Naugle said if the budget is passed, the first thing she will do is stop issuing passports, which her office does as a service to county residents. She said her office issued more than 2,300 passports last year, generating $50,000 in revenue for the county.
Several people spoke in favor of preserving "quality of life" funding, although none of the amendments considered directly addressed that issue. They included representatives from Lehigh Valley Arts Council, Allentown Symphony Association, Lehigh Valley Musicians Association, Allentown Art Museum and Baum School of Art.
Dougherty said if the budget is cut by $5 million anything not essential or mandatory probably will be cut, including quality of life grants and farmland preservation.
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