Northampton County Council adopted a streamlined set of hotel room rental tax rules Thursday night in part to move in on the competition, namely Lehigh County.

Council voted 9-0 in approving the new rules.

Before the vote, Lori G. Sywensky, the county's community development administrator, told council that exemptions in the new rules were broadened to include businesses who pay for their employees to stay in one of the county's 43 overnight establishments for more than 30 days.

"This helps us to be consistent with Lehigh County," Sywensky explained, adding that businesses would be just as likely now to put up their employees in Northampton County.

The list of exemptions was simplified, and includes people displaced by natural disasters and federal and state employees, Sywensky said.

The amount of the tax -- 4 percent -- and the penalties for hotels who fail to collect it remain unchanged from the ordinance adopted in September 2005, she pointed out.

In other business, county executive John Stoffa told council he still intends to hire a number of additional deputies for the sheriff's department, but is unsure about the number.

Stoffa has said he would like to use some of the new hires to check character references on the record number of license-to-carry applications the county has received, but he said doing so could become "a legal nightmare."

After the meeting Stoffa said a lawyer from Berks County, Joshua Prince, sent him a letter threatening legal action if the character references are checked, because, Prince says, the applications are confidential.

Stoffa also told council that the county retirement fund hit a new high last Friday, when it was valued at $301.9 million.

About two years ago, in February 2009, the fund was valued at just $161 million, Stoffa said, noting that the previous high -- $258 million -- was reached in May 2007.

Because of the fund's health, county retirees were paid a total of $4,355,919 as a cost of living increase in January, Stoffa said.

Ross Marcus, county director of human services, told council president John Cusick that a new emergency generator system at the Gracedale nursing home would top his list of suggested capital improvements, should council decide to refund and refinance a bond issue.

"What we thought was the worst case scenario is no longer the worst case scenario," said Marcus, referring to the havoc caused at Gracedale last year by Hurricane Sandy.

The nursing home was forced to operate on emergency power for almost three days. "Gracedale was never without [full] power for so long," said Marcus.