EMMAUS, Pa. - It wasn't exactly the Ron & Scott Show.
Lehigh County Commissioner Scott Ott and Lower Macungie Township Commissioner Ron Beitler both addressed Tuesday night's meeting of the Concerned East Penn Taxpayers Association in Emmaus.
But the two Republican politicians were there for different reasons.
Beitler spoke about the proposed Hamilton Crossings shopping center project in his township, including why he intends to vote against a tax increment funding plan for it in June.
But he's certain the shopping center will be built whether or not he and his fellow commissioners vote to have Lower Macungie opt into the TIF. "It's a no-brainer that this project is happening."
Beitler also predicted it is inevitable that his township eventually will need its own police department, because of commercial developments such as Hamilton Crossings and more warehouses in the township.
Ott explained the process of approving annual budgets in Lehigh County, including why that process needs to be changed. He said county commissioners should be required to vote to approve or reject proposed county budgets.
Ott repeatedly said he was seeking ideas from the audience regarding how to make that change happen.
Only 25 people-- most of them men -- were at the meeting of the conservative taxpayers organization in Fire Company No. 1. The cold rainy weather may have kept more people home.
Frank Kane, the county's community and economic development director, was in the audience.
Beitler got a laugh when he said Hamilton Crossings will have walking trails, "although I'm not sure how many people do recreational walking through parking lots."
Ott got the best laugh when he said county commissioner Michael Schware also had been invited to the meeting, "but for some reason a guy who's a CPA had something to do on April 15. I don't know what he's doing. But he was not available today."
Beitler began his four-year term as township commissioner in January; Ott has been a county commissioner since 2012.
Beitler said he's a fan of the Hamilton Crossings shopping center, calling it "a neat project."
He described it as a very large and very nice strip shopping center that will be better than the one facing Route 22 along Airport Road, but not a lifestyle center like the Promenade shops in Upper Saucon Township.
Beitler said the 63-acre Hamilton Crossings site between Route 222 and Hamilton Boulevard is vacant land, but not farmland. "You can't even grow crops in the soil," he explained, because it contains deep pockets of a material called mine wash, which has the consistency of pancake batter. That material will be removed from the ground and remediated before the shopping center is built.
Any local government body that opts into a TIF agrees to forfeit one half of increasing property tax revenues from the development of a property for 20 years.
At its current tax rate, said Beitler, Lower Macungie would forfeit $24,000 of the estimated $48,000 it would get from the shopping center every year for 20 years.
He explained East Penn School Board voted to participate in the Hamilton Crossings TIF plan, Lehigh County commissioners voted not to participate and "now Lower Macungie Township is up to bat."
That TIF vote by the five township commissioners is scheduled for June 5, following a public hearing on May 1.
Beitler explained township commissioners must make three different decisions: creating a TIF district, deciding if they want to participate in a TIF and, later, approving or rejecting a land development plan for the shopping center.
"The tough decision we have to make is whether or not we want to participate in tax increment financing," said Beitler. "It's been my take that we should not participate in tax increment financing."
During the meeting, no one asked Beitler to predict the fate of the Hamilton Crossings TIF in Lower Macungie. After the meeting, he predicted it will be a split 3-2 vote, but declined to predict if the majority of the five township commissioners will vote for or against the TIF.
He said land development is the easiest part of the process, because approval is determined by whether or not a developer's plan meets the township's land development regulations. "It's not a judgment call," he explained. "Either it meets your criteria or it doesn't."
He predicted the project will get land development approval from the township.
Beitler said it makes sense to use TIFs in some places, but not in Lower Macungie.
"The criteria I apply is ‘but for the TIF, do you have economic development?' In Lower Macungie, we're booming right now. We're humming. We're an incredibly attractive place for retail."
Yet he maintained: "Lower Macungie right now is deficient in retailers."
Hamilton Crossings will include Costco, Target and Whole Foods stores as its anchors. Beitler said others will be Dick's Sporting Goods, a PetSmart, a couple of restaurants and a bank.
"A lot of residents are in love with the idea of a Costco coming," said the township commissioner. But he repeatedly stressed he eventually will be reviewing and voting on a land development plan, not specific stores.
Beitler said other vacant land that can be commercially developed exists along the Hamilton Boulevard corridor "from the velodrome to Dorneyville."
"One of the fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves is ‘are we artificially skewing the playing field?' A TIF in this situation is skewing the market."
While Beitler opposes Lower Macungie participating in the TIF, he supports voting to create a TIF district, which also is scheduled for a vote June 5. A TIF district establishes the geographic boundaries of a TIF project.
"I'm not sure it would be fair for us to pull the rug out from underneath the whole thing," he said. "We have an obligation to create the district, given that this has been three years in the making."
The township commissioner said Hamilton Crossings' developers are asking Lower Macungie to waive its $2.6-million traffic impact fee, which would be used to help pay for road improvements not immediately adjacent to the shopping center.
He indicated that fee will be needed because Hamilton Crossings will impact East Texas and Brookside roads, Krocks and Lower Macungie roads and the "major mess" confluence of Kressler Road, Interstate 78, Route 222 and Hamilton Boulevard.
Program moderator Giovanni Landi raised the possibility that East Penn School District will need to keep raising property taxes on all property owners in the district if it only gets half as much tax revenue from Hamilton Crossings, compared to what it would get if there would be no TIF.
Township police department?
Beitler said the township's property tax rate is .33 mills. He said the school district's is 16 mills and the county's is 8 mills.
"We don't have our own police force right now," said Beitler. "That is going to change someday. Whether it's next year or 20 years down the line, I don't know."
He said he does not want a township police department, but warned developments such as warehouses and Hamilton Crossings will force Lower Macungie to establish one, rather than continuing to rely on state police to provide coverage.
He indicated police will be needed to deal with increases in crime and traffic, including tractor-trailer traffic. He said the township has no police force to enforce its truck restriction ordinances.
Beitler estimated creating a police department would cost the township about $6 million and running it would cost up to $3 million very year.
He predicted "the day we have our own police force" township property taxes will increase anywhere from four to seven mills.
In February, Lower Macungie commissioners rejected creating a township police department, after a 2013 study showed doing so would cost $5 million. That study also showed the township has a low crime rate.
Ott was one of six county commissioners who voted against Lehigh County opting into the Hamilton Crossings TIF in June 2013. Ott and Beitler said the Hamilton Crossings developers are using the TIF to make their project more profitable.
Ott asks for help
But Ott came to the meeting for help with a very different matter.
"I'm into an issue that I really don't know what the best answer is," he said. "I'm just one of nine people who are trying to muddle through right now -- and that's just in the legislative branch."
He explained the current process that Lehigh County uses to develop its annual budgets is not working very well.
The core of the problem, according to Ott, is that if the county executive presents a new budget that proposes a tax hike, county commissioners need six votes – a super-majority of their nine members – "to kill it or to change it."
"If they want, commissioners can get away with not actually voting on it at all," Ott explained. "A tax hike can go into effect and everybody on the board can say ‘I never voted for a tax hike.'"
When the next election season comes around, said Ott, county commissioners seeking re-election can even campaign by saying they never voted for a tax hike.
He said commissioners should be required to vote on those annual budgets. "If the tax rate is going to go up, we should be on the record. It can't go into effect by default.
"If taxes need to go up to do something responsible, I should have to say yes or no – and not be able to stand up in front of people and pretend I had nothing to do with it so I can get your vote for re-election, when in fact I really just abdicated my responsibility."
Ott explained Schware, a fellow Republican commissioner, has developed a draft bill as a way initiate a discussion among commissioners about the need to reform the budget process.
He said Schware proposes that if commissioners can't agree on a new budget, the previous year's budget would simply remain in effect, with no tax increase.
"Believe it or not, I looked at that and said ‘that's not right',"
said Ott. "It lets the board still waffle. And theoretically, it could go on for four years, for eight years."
Someone in the audience clapped.
"How long can we drag that out?" asked Ott. "How long is it fair to drag that out?"
Said a man in the audience: "A long time."
"Political conservatives have a problem sometimes," said Ott. "We always say we want limited government and lower taxes, but we don't ever define what that means. Would we ever get to the point where we would go ‘Yeah, that's the right tax rate'? I think zero would be the right tax rate for most people."
While Ott has problems with Schware's proposal, he admitted: "I don't know what the ultimate correct solution would be. But I do want to see something where the commissioners adopt the budget or at least are responsible for adopting a tax millage rate."
He said the commissioners have just begun discussing the matter. "I'm open to all kinds of potential possibilities here. But I do think we are out of balance."
By that, he meant that he believes more balance is needed between the executive branch of county government and the legislative branch – meaning the county commissioners – in the budget approval process.
He said now the county executive "drives the bus" and is likely to get what he wants in budgets because the nine commissioners "get all tied up" and either can't make a decision or avoid making a decision.
Ott noted Schware's proposal would require amending the county home rule charter, which means county voters would decide the change in a referendum. Although Schware has said such a referendum could be developed in time for next November's election, Ott said it's more likely to happen in 2015.
Saying "help me out here, we've got to fix this thing," Ott asked for ideas about how the issue might be resolved.
Emmaus resident Otto Slozer suggested finding out how other Pennsylvania counties handle their annual budgets. Ott said not many other counties have home rule charters. But he agreed it's a good idea to find out how those home rule counties handle the budget approval process. He added: "What I fear is their system is even worse than ours. But we'll see."
During his talk, Ott reminded the audience: "The county government is filled with your neighbors. It's local people who are your friends and neighbors, who you see at the soccer field or at church or wherever.
"They're not a bunch of nefarious people sitting around rubbing their hands together like: ‘Hmmm, how can we spend money wastefully today?'
"For the most part, they legitimately think they are doing the right thing, probably really think they don't have enough money to do the right thing, and they're trying to do their best."
Allentown, PA 18102