In a rare show of unity on a controversial issue, on Wednesday Lehigh County commissioners voted unanimously to put the new administration of county Executive Thomas Muller on notice that they want no county tax increase in 2015.
The resolution states the commissioners want the county’s budget to be balanced “in a sustainable manner,” with operating expenditures not exceeding operating revenues, and one that does not increase county taxes on residents and businesses.
The commissioners want to be involved in the process of developing a new budget seven months earlier than usual and see their resolution as the first step in that process.
The administration typically does not present a proposed budget for the next year to commissioners until around the end of August.
Commissioners anticipate county expenses will exceed revenue by at least $10 million in 2015.
Muller responded to their resolution, which he compared to a letter to Santa Claus, by saying: “Commissioners, please stop playing politics and let everyone know where you believe the $10 million in cuts should be inflicted.”
The executive said their resolution amounts to a spending reduction of at least $10 million. He called it “disingenuous political rhetoric” that ignores the fact that many county expenses are expected to rise in 2015, including wages, health care, energy and food costs.
Republican commissioner Michael Schware, who authored the resolution, indicated Democratic commissioner David Jones was his inspiration. He said Jones “makes a very good point every budget season, that if we wait until September to deal with the budget, there’s really not enough time and it’s too late to do anything about it.”
Commissioner Percy Dougherty said September is too late for commissioners to start worrying about the budget.
But Muller later said the commissioners already have been given everything they need “to get to specifics and identify cuts they would like to make.”
“It’s time to move off sound bites and spin and talk specifics,” said the executive.
Both Schware and Dougherty said the resolution was not intended to create an adversarial relationship between the commissioners and the county executive.
Schware called the resolution a statement to the administration regarding what commissioners are looking for in the 2105 budget. “I look at this resolution as a first step in what will likely be a year-long budget process.”
“It is good if we start early like this, work with the administration, and become partners in the process,” said Dougherty. “Then we only have ourselves to blame at the actual vote time.
“We have to start early because we all know we have an extreme financial problem in this county. We’re spending more than we have coming in.”
Commissioner Brad Osborne said “the meat in the resolution” is no tax increase – and to achieve that goal without draining the county’s stabilization fund.
“The challenge is going to be to reduce the deficit,” said Osborne. “That’s going to be the key to this.” He called the deficit “an insidious path to increased taxation. It has to be addressed. That’s what this board is communicating to the executive.”
Jones and Geoff Brace, the only other Democrat among the nine commissioners, won some word changes so they could join in making the resolution unanimous.
Without those changes, said Jones, the non-binding resolution sounded like an edict.
“I think it’s very important that this is a unanimous statement that’s made by the board,” said Jones.
He called it “a united front against the deficit we’re all facing.”
The resolution language agreed on by all the commissioners is that they seek a budget that does not increase taxes on the residents and businesses of Lehigh County.
The stated intent of the resolution is to give the county executive “ample time” to prepare a 2015 budget that is in line with the commissioners’ objectives.
Commissioner Lisa Scheller called the compromise language “a little soft.”
“It makes our interest clear,” said Commissioner Vic Mazziotti.