Lehigh County Commissioners had their first reading of the 2017 Lehigh County budget that featured no less than 33 amendments on Thursday night.
Executive Tom Mueller's budget holds the line on taxes at 3.68 mills and includes a stabilization fund with a proposed beginning fund balance of $24,890,000 and a proposed ending fund balance of $22,551,187.
A significant portion of Thursday night's meeting was allocated to reviewing the nearly three dozen amendments, which were read into the record individually, and then discussed by commissioners and then opened for public comment before a vote was taken.
Some of the more tightly contested votes included an amendment that would do away with a line item designation for the Northern Lehigh Community Center.
In it's place, the amendment would require an ordinance by the administration with commissioner approval to release the nearly $100,000 in funds. The amendment passed by a 6-3 vote.
Commissioner Geoff Brace, who introduced the amendment, said it would allow the county "to be brought into the mix" and consulted about the project. He added that Mueller expressed a "willingness to work with commissioners" on the project.
Commissioner Michael Schware added that "we need a broader policy discussion" on the Northern Lehigh Community Center. To make his point, Schware asked why there wasn't a line item for a community center in Macungie or Emmaus.
Commissioner Percy Dougherty supported the amendment, which would "force us to address the situation."
Commissioner David Jones said "these monies were committed to this project 10 years ago" and only through what he termed "a calamity of confusion" had not been spent. He added that he hoped the county could "find a way how we can honor that original intent over 10 years ago."
Another amendment involved altering four separate line item budget for the Lehigh Valley Zoological Society by a 8-1 with Commissioner Marty Nothstein dissenting.
An amendment involving the Old Courthouse project moved a line item budget designation to the capital projects fund and then lowered the amount by $1.8 million to a total of $7,065,308. The $1.8 million had already been allocated to the project.
Chairman Brad Osborne, speaking of the project, said it was an example of "good government" as it involved the cooperation of commissioners, Muller and the court itself.
An amendment to pull line item funding for determining who is the owner of River Side Drive in the amount of $250,000 was pulled. The case is a unique and perhaps enigmatic situation. The 1 1/2 mile private roadway that is an access road to a Lehigh County correctional facility.
The road was originally owned by Conrail when the county began using it as an access road in 1989. However when Norfolk Southern purchased land in the area, they abandoned the road and said they did not own it.
Osborne said that the road is now in "bad condition" is "unsafe" and is in "disrepair." Given the fact that the county has to do something to get to the bottom of who actually is the owner of the road, which is being pressed by the quickly deteriorating road, the amendment was pulled.
An amendment surrounding a Saylor Park Renovations line item reduced funding for the project from $115,000 to $1, and changing the funding source for the project from the operating fund to the green futures fund.
In other amendments discussed, an economic and community development fund line item designating $10,000 or 10 percent of the funding to celebrate the 75th anniversary of MacArthur Road in Whitehall Township produced a lengthy debate of the wisdom of delegating funds for a municipality's individual celebration. The amendment was defeated by a 6-3 margin, with the majority of commissioners supporting the funding for the celebration.
Other amendments included scaling back general wage increased for non-bargaining unit employees, excluding Cedarbrook employees, from 2.25 to 2 percent. The savings from this decrease would total $104,147 and $53,063 of those savings are funded by Lehigh County real estate tax dollars.
Yet another amendment would reduce a proposed 3.5 percent pay raise for non-bargaining Cedarbrook employees to 2 percent. The savings from the decrease would amount to $81,913, of which $41,735 are funded by Lehigh County real estate tax dollars.
Several other amendments were pulled because they closely mirrored other amendments.