He explained the current process that Lehigh County uses to develop its annual budgets is not working very well.
The core of the problem, according to Ott, is that if the county executive presents a new budget that proposes a tax hike, county commissioners need six votes – a super-majority of their nine members – “to kill it or to change it.”
“If they want, commissioners can get away with not actually voting on it at all,” Ott explained. “A tax hike can go into effect and everybody on the board can say ‘I never voted for a tax hike.’”
When the next election season comes around, said Ott, county commissioners seeking re-election can even campaign by saying they never voted for a tax hike.
He said commissioners should be required to vote on those annual budgets. “If the tax rate is going to go up, we should be on the record. It can’t go into effect by default.
“If taxes need to go up to do something responsible, I should have to say yes or no – and not be able to stand up in front of people and pretend I had nothing to do with it so I can get your vote for re-election, when in fact I really just abdicated my responsibility.”
Ott explained Schware, a fellow Republican commissioner, has developed a draft bill as a way initiate a discussion among commissioners about the need to reform the budget process.
He said Schware proposes that if commissioners can’t agree on a new budget, the previous year’s budget would simply remain in effect, with no tax increase.
“Believe it or not, I looked at that and said ‘that’s not right’,”
said Ott. “It lets the board still waffle. And theoretically, it could go on for four years, for eight years.”
Someone in the audience clapped.
“How long can we drag that out?” asked Ott. “How long is it fair to drag that out?”
Said a man in the audience: “A long time.”
“Political conservatives have a problem sometimes,” said Ott. “We always say we want limited government and lower taxes, but we don’t ever define what that means. Would we ever get to the point where we would go ‘Yeah, that’s the right tax rate’? I think zero would be the right tax rate for most people.”
While Ott has problems with Schware’s proposal, he admitted: “I don’t know what the ultimate correct solution would be. But I do want to see something where the commissioners adopt the budget or at least are responsible for adopting a tax millage rate.”
He said the commissioners have just begun discussing the matter. “I’m open to all kinds of potential possibilities here. But I do think we are out of balance.”
By that, he meant that he believes more balance is needed between the executive branch of county government and the legislative branch – meaning the county commissioners – in the budget approval process.
He said now the county executive “drives the bus” and is likely to get what he wants in budgets because the nine commissioners “get all tied up” and either can’t make a decision or avoid making a decision.
Ott noted Schware’s proposal would require amending the county home rule charter, which means county voters would decide the change in a referendum. Although Schware has said such a referendum could be developed in time for next November’s election, Ott said it’s more likely to happen in 2015.
Saying “help me out here, we’ve got to fix this thing,” Ott asked for ideas about how the issue might be resolved.
Emmaus resident Otto Slozer suggested finding out how other Pennsylvania counties handle their annual budgets. Ott said not many other counties have home rule charters. But he agreed it’s a good idea to find out how those home rule counties handle the budget approval process. He added: “What I fear is their system is even worse than ours. But we’ll see.”
During his talk, Ott reminded the audience: “The county government is filled with your neighbors. It’s local people who are your friends and neighbors, who you see at the soccer field or at church or wherever.
“They’re not a bunch of nefarious people sitting around rubbing their hands together like: ‘Hmmm, how can we spend money wastefully today?’
“For the most part, they legitimately think they are doing the right thing, probably really think they don’t have enough money to do the right thing, and they’re trying to do their best.”