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.”