Lehigh County commissioners are debating whether they want to stop future county tax increases from happening without their approval.

Commissioners Michael Schware and Lisa Scheller are proposing an ordinance that might end such automatic tax increases, by asking county voters to change the home rule charter next November.

They want to prevent tax increases in a county executive’s proposed annual county budget from going into affect without the approval of commissioners, which is what can happen now.

If the commissioners fail to agree on a new county budget, it automatically goes into effect – along with any tax increase that may be required to meet that budget, explained Schware.

If Schware and Scheller succeed, and commissioners fail to adopt a future budget that includes a tax increase, that increase would not happen. Instead, the tax rate for the next year automatically will remain the same as it is in the current year.

In other words, they propose replacing one budget default mechanism with another.

The proposed change also would eliminate the county executive’s line item veto power. And, if there’s not enough money to cover expenditures in a new budget without raising taxes, across-the-board cuts would be made.

“What we’re doing is giving the people a chance to determine whether they want to keep the system as it is or whether they want to see it changed so it’s fair to them,” said Schware.

While several commissioners seem in agreement that they should be determining whether or not budgets with tax hikes are approved, some disagree with the proposed solution.

“Any default procedure as it relates to budgeting is irresponsible,” said  Commissioner Geoff Brace, one of two Democrats on the board. “This is not an amendment I’m interested in supporting.”

Commissioner David Jones, the other Democrat, said if the home rule charter would be amended, the commissioners would be reducing the county executive to a county employee, rather than a “co-equal” elected official.

“This is throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” said Jones. “There is a way to do it without altering the function of the executive branch.”

Scheller wants a vote on the ordinance at the commissioners’ July. 9 meeting, saying “it has to be passed at our next meeting” to get it on the November ballot for a voter referendum.

Deputy County Solicitor Catharine Roseberry warned a government study commission might be required before such a referendum can go on the ballot to change the home rule charter.

“We haven’t done the full analysis,” said Roseberry, but she added that can be done.

The solicitor told the commissioners they can vote on the proposed ordinance and then the county election board will evaluate whether it is suitable to be placed on the November ballot.

If the county executive proposes a new budget with a tax increase, but cannot get five of the nine commissioners to vote for that budget, the proposed home rule charter change would stop that tax increase from automatically taking effect – as it can under the current charter.

Schware previously has said Lehigh County had two major tax hikes since 2002 - "both in the double digits and both without a majority of the board of commissioners voting affirmatively for them. I don't think that's right and the taxpayers deserve better."

On Wednesday night, he said those commissioners failed the taxpayers.

He wants that changed so if commissioners can’t agree on a budget, the previous budget remains in effect and taxes don’t increase. He doesn’t want county taxpayers to get stuck with another tax hike commissioners did not approve.

Schware said acting on the annual county budget is the most important thing commissioners do during the year, yet that budget now can go into effect with a tax hike “without a single commissioner voting in favor of it.”

“If you have nine people up here who don’t agree with that budget, I find it an incredible oddity that that’s what goes into effect,” he said. “It needs to be corrected.”

Debating defaults

“It changes the default procedure in the budget,” explained Schware. “Taking the burden off the taxpayers when we can’t agree that a tax hike is the way to go certainly is better than what we have now.”

“It turns around the process from a default tax increase to a default spending cut,” said Commissioner Vic Mazziotti.