Once again, Lehigh County commissioners failed to release more than $1 million in Green Future Fund grants to six municipalities in the county.
The bill approving the grants has been deferred several times since being introduced in November.
On Wednesday night, commissioners voted 7-2 to delay action on the issue for another two weeks, until their Jan. 23 meeting.
Money is in the county’s budget to fund the park and trail projects in Allentown, Bethlehem, Emmaus, Lower Macungie, Salisbury and Upper Saucon.
But on Wednesday, Commissioner Michael Schware, with the support of several colleagues, proposed an amendment to release less than 28 percent of the money allocated for the six projects, as a down payment, then seek other funds to eventually pay the rest.
Schware proposed releasing a total of $296,514 to fund all six projects, rather than the $1,061,000 the municipalities expected to receive from the county. Schware’s amendment states the rest of the money they need “will be allocated at a future date, pending the cooperation of Lehigh County’s administration.”
He added: “Hopefully that date will be sooner rather than later.”
Tom Muller, the county’s director of administration, charged that what commissioners really mean by “cooperation” is they want to “reopen the budget discussion that was closed back in November – maybe not to everybody’s satisfaction – and it was a done deal.”
Responding to questions from the audience about why the grants still have not been approved, Muller said: “What’s happened in seven weeks is a budget got adopted that not all the commissioners are happy with.”
Muller recommended commissioners should “take action on the bill that’s been in front of you for a couple of months.”
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski told commissioners he doesn’t understand why they won’t release the Green Future grants when the money is in the budget and several said they are optimistic they can find more money to make up that expense.
“Vote on this tonight, award us the dollars and then find the additional dollars to make up the difference,” recommended the mayor.
Only Commissioners Brad Osborne and Daniel McCarthy voted against deferring action for another two weeks.
“I am calling on this board to confirm to the public this evening that we can remain true to our word and vote for the legislation we supported just seven weeks ago – three meetings ago – without amendment,” said Osborne.
Osborne warned his colleagues “if this board loses the trust and confidence of the public we may never gain it back. The integrity of this board is at stake tonight.”
“We should honor our commitments, not cut our commitments down to
27 percent,” agreed McCarthy. “We fool ourselves if we put a lower number in here and then assume it is all going to get worked out later.”
Commissioner Percy Dougherty predicted the proposed ordinance authorizing the full Green Future grants would fail by a 5-4 vote if commissioners voted on it Wednesday.
But some local municipal leaders at the meeting were tired of waiting.
“Either vote for it or don’t vote for it,” said Bruce Fosselman, manager of Lower Macungie Township. “Why are you stringing us along here? This is now our fourth meeting. We played by the rules. I am losing a little confidence in my county commissioners. I just don’t think it’s fair, what you guys are doing.”
“I would just ask that you vote an up or down vote,” echoed Nathan Brown, a member of Emmaus borough council. “This has become a political football. The money is there.”
“Make a decision, one way or the other,” said Pawlowski. “If you’re not going to do it, don’t prolong this process.”
Allentown, which has one third of the county’s residents, is slated to get the largest of the six county grants: more than $324,000 for its Martin Luther King Trail. The mayor said that will be matched by $350,000 from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
But Pawlowski warned commissioners the city will lose those state funds if it does not get the Green Future grant money within the next 30 days.
Commissioners unwilling to approve the full grants stressed they realize the importance of the projects to the communities and intend to honor their commitment to eventually fully fund them. But they indicated they have a larger responsibility to control and reduce county spending.
Both Schware and Commissioner Vic Mazziotti said the county administration anticipates having to raise taxes in 2014 and 2015, which they want to avoid doing.