Next November, Lehigh County voters may decide if they want to give the county commissioners more power to stop future county taxes from increasing.

Commissioner Michael Schware is crafting an ordinance that could result in a voter referendum changing the way the county's annual budgets are approved.

Making such a change requires amending the county's home rule charter, which requires a public referendum.

"My goals are simple," said Schware.

He wants to eliminate the possibility of a large tax hike going into effect without the approval of the county commissioners.

He wants to maintain an adequate reserve in the county's stabilization fund.

And he wants to increase the commissioners' accountability to the taxpayers

Schware said the proposed changes will be "fairer to the taxpayers" and make county commissioners "more accountable to the people that we serve."

He said Lehigh County has 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."

At issue is the "default budget procedure."

What currently happens, Schware explained, is that if commissioners can't agree to amend a new county budget they don't like, the budget proposed by the county executive automatically goes into effect.

He said that results in county residents having their taxes increased, even though the commissioners did not support that increase.

Schware proposes that if a new county budget with a tax increase is presented to the commissioners by the county executive, and commissioners can't come to agreement on it, "automatic, across-the-board spending cuts would occur" that would reduce the size of that new budget and not raise taxes.

He also proposes that if a new county budget is proposed that decreases taxes, that budget also would have to be approved by the commissioners. If they did not agree to decrease taxes, the current tax rate would remain unchanged and surplus cash those taxes generate would go into the county's reserve fund.

"I know some people have mischaracterized this, but my purpose isn't to tilt the field in favor of any one branch of government or toward any one political party," said Schware.

"The field's already tilted and it's against the taxpayers. My goal is to bring some balance back to the default budget process where no one side is at a disadvantage -especially not the taxpayers of Lehigh County."

Schware's proposal was discussed during the commissioners' administrative committee meeting, held just before their regular board meeting Wednesday night.

He said his proposal is just "a way to start the discussion," not being presented as "the only way we can get to the end goal. I'm interested to hear ideas and ways to make it better.

"I hope we can all work together and come to an agreement that improves default budget procedure. I hope we can all agree it's a goal worth pursuing."

Schware said others already have suggested ways to make his proposal better or offered alternatives to achieve the same goal.

After getting feedback from his fellow commissioners Wednesday night, he said his proposal might be too complex and needs to be simplified a bit. But he wants to keep the discussion going

After the meeting, Schware said he hopes whatever ordinance evolves from the discussions will result in a charter amendment for county voters to decide next November.

He said by their second meeting in June, commissioners tentatively would have their first reading on a proposed ordinance to allow that November voter referendum. He added there will be time to get it on the November budget.

He said if a proposed charter change amendment addressing default budgets does go on the November budget, it will have no impact on the 2015 budget that commissioners will consider in the coming months.

County administrator weighs in