LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. -

Lower Macungie Township commissioners have begun a multi-step process to make the long-debated Hamilton Crossings shopping center a reality.

A public hearing on whether the township should participate in a tax increment financing - TIF - plan will be held May 1.

Just over one month later, on June 5, commissioners will decide if the township will opt into the TIF, which would allow 50 percent of increased tax revenue from the shopping center to be diverted to pay for public infrastructure improvements for 20 years.

At the same June 5 meeting, they also will vote on whether they will create a TIF district for Hamilton Crossings.

The five commissioners took the first step in the process Thursday night, when they unanimously approved advertising the May 1 public hearing.

It will be advertised before April 1, because state law requires such TIF hearings be advertised more than 30 days before they are held.

A time line for commissioner approval of the long-delayed TIF was laid out by township solicitor Richard Somach.

He told commissioners if Lower Macungie authorizes the Hamilton Crossings TIF, "this whole process will proceed to a final project."

He noted East Penn School District's school board already opted into the TIF plan last year.

Somach gave the commissioners a memo stating no provisions in the state's TIF Act require all taxing authorities -the township, East Penn and Lehigh County ---to participate in creating a TIF District.

His memo notes that position was upheld in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision.

Somach 's memo confirms an assertion made last week by Lehigh County commissioner Percy Dougherty, that the Hamilton Crossings developers do not need Lehigh County's participation in a tax increment financing plan.

Lehigh County Executive Thomas Muller was in the audience at the township commissioners meeting, as part of his plan to attend a meeting of every municipality in the county.

Muller, who lives in Lower Macungie and supports the shopping center project, did not address the commissioners about Hamilton Crossings, but later said: "I was the one who challenged the belief many seemed to have that all three taxing bodies had to participate in the TIF. Now lawyers for the Lehigh County Industrial Development Authority, East Penn School District, the county and Lower Macungie have all confirmed my belief. "

Muller said he challenged the misconception after it became clear he would not get five votes to support the TIF from the county commissioners. They already had rejected the TIF by a 6-3 vote in June 2013.

The Hamilton Crossings developers repeatedly have stated they needed a TIF plan to make their project work, and that they needed all three municipal bodies to participate to make that TIF plan work.

"There was a misconception," said Somach. "The developers said 'we won't go ahead unless we have all three.' But that has nothing to do with what the TIF Act requires."

"It does not require all three taxing bodies to approve this," explained Somach to the commissioners. "They merely vote on it."

If one of those taxing bodies votes not to be part of the TIF, he said, the developers can decide whether or not to proceed without the financial support that participation would have given the project.

"There have been some comments over the last several months that seemed to indicate the developers would be unable to proceed without the involvement of all three of the municipalities and that may have been true during the time those comments were made," said Somach.

"I've been advised that part of the reason they may now be able to proceed with this is there may be some other, more creative stop-gap measures they've come up with that may not have been available or apparent to them at the time."

The developers could not be reached after the meeting to explain why they no longer need the participation of all three municipalities to make their TIF work.

With the participation of all three, the TIF would have generated $7 million to help pay for the $140 million project. The entire $7 million had to go to road and other infrastructure improvements.

No tacit endorsement

Before the unanimous vote to advertise the May 1 public hearing, Lower Macungie commissioner Ron Beitler stressed: "This isn't any tacit endorsement of the TIF by the township. We are simply authorizing staff to advertise the hearing."