Five Lehigh County commissioners made good on their campaign pledge to cut government spending and reduce taxes when they approved the 2013 county budget Wednesday night.
The commissioners voted 5-4 for a $107.5-million budget, which cuts personnel spending by $5 million and reduces taxes by $5 million, plus gives taxpayers a one-time $1.5 million tax credit.
Immediately after the vote, County Executive William Hansell said he will veto the budget, adding it’s “unquestionable.”
Addressing commissioners before the vote, Hansell told them that, by ordering $5 million in personnel cuts, “you have threatened and demoralized every county employee.”
The commissioners who voted for the budget will have to get at least one more of their colleagues to join them to override the executive’s veto by a required vote of at least 6-3.
Commissioners’ chairman Brad Osborne said the adopted budget would be delivered to Hansell within three days. The county executive will have 10 days to act on it.
The budget was a done deal even before the commissioners’ meeting room filled to standing-room-only capacity, nearly four hours before the actual vote, and people spoke for or against it for nearly three hours.
The five Republican commissioners who approved the budget were the same five who voted for tax and spending cut amendments at the Oct. 10 commissioners meeting. They are Republicans Scott Ott, Thomas Creighton, Lisa Scheller, Michael Schware and Vic Mazziotti.
“Our goal is to govern the way we campaigned,” said Mazziotti. “We didn’t run for office because we’re looking for a political future. We ran for office because we thought it was the right thing to do. If this is the only term I serve and I get voted out of office because I fulfilled my promises, that’s just fine.”
Voting against the budget were Republicans Percy Dougherty and Osborne and Democrats David Jones and Daniel McCarthy.
Osborne said the budget “passes up the opportunity to begin the process of defining what limited government looks like, on a line-by-line, program-by-program basis. It artificially distances the commissioners from the consequences of our decisions.”
Osborne said commissioners who voted for the budget were passing the buck to the executive branch and county elected officials.
To cut the budget, predicted Dougherty: “We will have to lay off workers in a very hard economic time.”
The tax cut and tax credit combined mean the average county household will pay about $44 less in 2013.
When Dougherty shared that $44 estimate during the meeting, some in the audience responded with whistles and by sarcastically declaring “Wow!”
Acknowledged Dougherty: “We’re not talking about a lot of money.”
Hansell, who had proposed a county budget with a one-time tax credit of $44, said: “I’m sorry that’s trivial to some people. I grew up in a very poor family and $44 to my mom and dad would have been a lot of money and it would have made a big difference.”
If applause and comments by most residents who spoke were indicators, the majority in the audience supported the budget passed by the five commissioners.
Resident Gael Coffin told commissioners: “We want you to cut spending. We want you to cut taxes. And we want you to cut us a break.”
Resident Otto Slozer said: “I find it refreshing that elected officials are making a proposal to shrink the size of government. In these hard times, that is exactly what we need.”
But Derrick Sampson, a county employee in the corrections department, told commissioners he is a middle-class homeowner who pays taxes. “But it’s because I’m employed that I can do those things. As a result of these cuts, there’s a chance that myself and many other people may become unemployed and we will not be able to contribute to society. Many departments will have to lose good employees.”
While civility among the nine commissioners sometimes is strained but usually maintained, tempers flared a couple of times Wednesday.
Mazziotti objected to Osborne limiting members of the public to speaking for only 2-3 minutes but imposing no time limits on county administrators who spoke. He indicated it wasn’t fair for taxpayers to be limited, while “those who spend the money” were not.
Osborne refused to impose limits on elected officials. He told Mazziotti: “If you disagree with this decision of the chair, you can put up a motion to overrule me. Otherwise, we’re going to listen to them.”
Several in the audience challenged Mazziotti by shouting out: “Do it!”
Osborne pounded his gavel and warned that anyone in the audience who talked out of order would be removed from the room. “Please respect this process.”