Park and trail projects planned in six Lehigh County communities may be in jeopardy.
Some county commissioners insist it is inappropriate to allocate over $1 million from the county’s Green Future Fund to help pay for the projects when the county is facing a multi-million-dollar budget deficit in 2013 and may have to increase taxes in two years.
Commissioners who support the projects say the money is in the budget and should be “put back into our community.” And they say such projects benefit all county residents.
The underlying issue is whether improving parks, recreation and open space should be a “core” function of county government, especially when money is tight.
Intended beneficiaries of the Green Future grants:
*Allentown would get $324,693 for phase one of a Martin Luther King Trail.
*Bethlehem would get $36,000 to restore Sand Island Lock No. 41.
*Emmaus would get $70,000 for improvements at its Community Park.
*Lower Macungie Township would get $238,000 to make renovations at its Camp Olympic Park.
*Salisbury Township would get $160,419 for a Lindberg Park Connection Trail.
*Upper Saucon Township would get $231,888 for phase two of the Saucon Rail Trail.
Commissioner Percy Dougherty said each municipality pays at least half the total cost of its project, by matching the county’s grants.
Commissioner Dan McCarthy noted Allentown is the county’s largest municipality and Lower Macungie is the second largest.
Commissioners planned to vote on a bill approving the grants Wednesday night, but it was tabled.
At the suggestion of Commissioner Michael Schware, they voted 5-4 to delay taking any action until they can hear from County Executive William Hansell about where the administration will cut $1.06 million in the budget to pay for the grants without adding to the debt and when the Green Future Fund program will end.
If commissioners get answers from Hansell, the bill might come up for a vote at their next meeting on Dec. 19.
Schware suggested the projects could be funded by the county in the future, “when times are good again.”
“We have made a commitment,” countered Dougherty. “Once we honor that commitment we can start to cut back on this.”
Local officials asking commissioners to fund the projects included Lower Macungie manager Bruce Fosselman, Lower Macungie commissioner Ron Eichenberg and Emmaus council members Nathan Brown and Wesley Barrett.
“Six communities have extremely well worthwhile projects before you,” said Eichenberg, who is president of Lower Macungie’s board of commissioners. “I respectfully encourage your approval.”
Brown encouraged the nine commissioners “to come together and approve the grants,” saying: “You are investing in your county, not just investing in local municipalities.”
Brown believes taxpayers support the Green Future Fund program. He said people appreciate money being spent correctly, “making livability a great thing.”
Brown and Barrett said the Emmaus Midget Football Association, Emmaus Youth Association and two contractors helped come up with the borough’s share for the Emmaus Community Park improvements.
Barrett noted Emmaus residents also are county taxpayers and said none of those 12,000 residents have objected to money being spent on the park.
Commissioner Vic Mazziotti said the county commissioners’ primary responsibility is to fund “direct” county services, such as the courts, human services and prison.
“We’re not raising sufficient revenue to do that,” said Mazziotti. “We are deficit spending.”