A balanced 2015 Lehigh County budget with no tax increase was proposed Thursday afternoon by county Executive Thomas Muller.
Muller made his presentation in the community room of Cedar View Apartments in South Whitehall Township, which was filled with residents and county officials – including two of the nine county commissioners who soon will begin reviewing that budget.
Muller said the commissioners have to approve a final 2015 budget by Halloween.
Almost from the time Muller took office last January, some commissioners have predicted a county tax increase would be inevitable in 2015 and/or that the county would face ever-increasing deficits.
Muller said some commissioners warned the county has an extreme financial problem and could be bankrupt in a few years.
“I didn’t think he could do it,” admitted Commissioner David Jones, adding he was pleasantly surprised that Muller and his administration were able to present a budget with no tax increase. “It speaks to Tom’s executive management and experience.”
The proposed budget reflects “good management practices on the part of the administration,” agreed Commissioner Geoff Brace. “A lot of good things came together to create an interesting budget. It’s encouraging.”
Jones and Brace are the only two Democrats among the nine commissioners. Muller also is a Democrat. None of the seven Republican commissioners attended.
While Muller billed his presentation as a press conference, the few journalists in the room were vastly outnumbered by Cedar View residents and county administrators.
For the first half of the presentation, the county executive focused on his preference for the future of Cedarbrook, the two county-owned nursing homes, which have been costing the county millions of dollars for the last several years.
He was applauded when he said: “The administration is committed to maintaining county ownership of Cedarbrook, enhancing the facilities, particularly Allentown, and positioning it as what it is -- a strong option for anyone in need of high quality nursing home care.”
He joked that it was a better audience than if he had made his presentation before the county commissioners, saying: “I don’t think I would have gotten any applause.”
The executive repeatedly criticized county Commissioner Vic Mazziotti, who chairs the commissioners’ Cedarbrook committee. He contended Mazziotti has never set foot in either of the nursing homes.
The presentation was not the first time Muller has made known his position on Cedarbrook. While he maintained Mazziotti already knows the administration’s position, he called the presentation his formal public response.
On Wednesday night, Mazziotti requested that Muller sit down with his committee to review all the options for Cedarbrook.
Muller said the proposed county budget totals $369.2 million, 2.5 percent more than this year.
“We’ve got no tax increase, we’ve got adequate reserve,” he said.
The county’s stabilization fund – “political speak for the rainy day reserve fund” --- will total $19.5 million at the end of 2015, predicted Muller.
He said that is more than the amount recommended by the Government Finance Officers Association, which would be about $18.8 million.
He said that reserve fund currently contains $25 million.
He plans to tap that fund to eliminate a $5.5 million deficit.
Jones predicted Muller’s political opponents among the commissioners will complain about money being taken out of the stabilization fund.
Muller said when campaigning to be elected county executive last year, he never promised that he would hold taxes or reduce taxes.
“Promises to reduce or freeze taxes are tunes best sung and enjoyed by those who don’t know what the county does,” he said.