Lehigh Valley

Bill tabled that could stop Lehigh County tax hikes

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - For the second time this year, Lehigh County commissioners have shelved a proposal aimed at giving them more control over county tax increases.

But Lisa Scheller, chairwoman of the commissioners, promised: "It's not going to disappear."

Currently, if commissioners take no action on a new county budget that includes a tax increase, that budget and tax increase automatically are implemented.

An ordinance proposed by Commissioners Michael Schware and Scheller would change that so if commissioners take no action on a new budget, the current budget remains in effect with no new tax increase.

Also, if continuing that budget into a second year would leave the county without enough money to cover expenses, across-the-board cuts would be made in the budget.

Making that change would require voter approval in a referendum to amend the county's home rule charter.

Some commissioners have criticized the Schware/Scheller proposal as still allowing all commissioners to duck their fiscal responsibility to make tough decisions on annual county budgets.

Rather than a budget with a tax increase happening by default, they argue, a budget with automatic spending cuts would happen by default.

The two commissioners acknowledged their proposed solution is not perfect and both were willing to withdraw it Wednesday night.

Instead, the proposal unanimously was tabled by the commissioners, which means it can be reconsidered in some revised form later this year.

Schware said he's gotten a lot of input from other commissioners and from the public on the proposal, which commissioners debated at their June 25 meeting.

He said County Executive Thomas Muller doesn't support it, "but he expressed some interest in working to find a bi-partisan solution."

Muller is a Democrat. All but two of the county commissioners are Republicans.

Scheller said she's also gotten "a tremendous amount of feedback"
regarding potential ways to improve the proposed ordinance.

Said Scheller: "If it's going to go on the ballot for voters to decide, I want it to be in the best possible form that's most advantageous to the citizens of Lehigh County."

The proposed ordinance is more simplified version of a similar proposal made by Schware in February, which he also said was not perfect and eventually withdrew.

But what Schware considers the key problem remains. He explained a flaw in the home rule charter allows a new budget to go into effect by default, "without any commissioner voting affirmatively on it."

He said that flaw has allowed two tax hikes in the last 12 years without a majority of commissioners voting for them.

"Inaction results in a tax increase," said Commissioner Brad Osborne.
"That's something that definitely needs to be corrected."

"Most of us sitting up here feel the system that's in place is not working and it's stacked against us," said Commissioner Percy Dougherty.

Dougherty was the one who recommended tabling the proposal, rather then withdrawing it, until it can be improved. "It has to be tweaked, but I like the intent and we should keep it moving forward."

"I don't think there's a commissioner here who disagrees with the need to amend the charter on this issue," said Commissioner Geoff Brace.

Brace recommended eliminating Section 704-B of the home rule charter, which states if commissioners fail to adopt a budget, that budget developed by the county executive takes effect.

Brace argued commissioners should have to approve a budget – "not just tax increases but also expense cuts."

He said that can happen just by eliminating that section of the home rule charter, adding: "It's not very complicated."

But Scheller said Brace's proposal might require a completely different bill.

Brace said another option would be for commissioners to consider the county law department's recommendation to create a charter study commission.

The Schware/Scheller proposal was up for a vote at Wednesday night's meeting. Scheller previously said it had to be voted on by July 9 to get it on the November ballot as a referendum question.

But Deputy County Solicitor Catharine Roseberry had warned a study commission might be required before such a referendum can go on the ballot to change the home rule charter.

Schware made the motion to table the proposed ordinance. It was approved unanimously.

Scheller said the tabled bill must be brought back for reconsideration before the end of this year or it will be considered withdrawn.

Commissioner David Jones suggested creating a team to work on modifying the proposal. He added: "I think we're all in agreement with the outcome."

If a strengthened proposal can be acted on by commissioners later this year, Schware said a referendum question could go on the spring 2015 ballot. He noted fewer people vote in spring primary elections, but added that one will be a municipal primary with county-wide races.

Schware said even if the referendum had gone before voters on next November's ballot, it would not impact the 2015 county budget.

The tabled bill also would have eliminated the county executive's line item veto power.

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