Daniel McCarthy, the county's new director of administrator, told commissioners he was not at the meeting to represent the position of the administration on the issue because until commissioners determine "what the ordinance is going to be or not going to be, it would be premature to do that."

But McCarthy offered some historical perspective, saying: "While there have been two tax increases in the last 10 or 12 years, there also have been three tax cuts in the last 10 years or so. That sometimes is lost."

(There also was one tax rebate, noted a couple of commissioners after the meeting.) McCarthy said his main concern is that the commissioners' "fingerprints should be the last fingerprints on a budget."

He suggested commissioners consider asking voters to change the county charter so commissioners always keep a proposed budget in their possession; and that they should be the ones to make the determination about tax increases and spending cuts.

Said McCarthy: "When you abdicate responsibility, saying 'I'm not going to do it, I'm going to send it back to the executive,' that opportunity slips from your fingers.

"The executive will make those cuts, as the executive sees fit, but every cut he makes he may be saying 'I'm only doing this because the bard of commissioner requires it to be done.' To some extent, you'll get the blame but not the credit."

McCarthy said it's encouraging that commissioners are looking at the home rule charter, because no document is perfect. "You'll do what you think is right and we'll look forward to the process."

County Executive Thomas Muller was not at the meeting,

Other commissioners weigh in

Commissioner Percy Dougherty said he agrees with Schware that something has to be done.

"When we had the 69.5 percent tax increase, nobody on the board wanted that, but nobody could come up with a way to get around it," said Dougherty.

"So the county executive's gigantic increase went into effect. Eventually the county executive had to pay for it, with the loss of the election. But that's not helping the taxpayers."

Dougherty said his only concern is the possibility "of freezing the budget, basically forever. I'd like to see us try to figure out a way to avoid that."

Commissioner Scott Ott agreed Schware's proposal could result in county spending being frozen for years.

"While that sounds like a desirable outcome to a conservative Republican, I don't think it's a legitimate way of dealing with year-to-year budgets," said Ott.

Ott said now a super majority of commissioners - six of the nine - are required to stop a county tax increase.

"It would be preferable to require a super majority to implement a tax increase," he said "The taxpayers want it to be as difficult as reasonably possible for us to raise their taxes."

Ott also said a county tax increase now can go into effect "and nobody's fingerprints are on it. Nobody's responsible. Every commissioner who runs for office can claim 'I never voted for a tax increase.' And yet, somehow, there was a double-digit tax increase.
The taxpayers of Lehigh County have a right to know 'did you vote for it or against it?'"

"I do think we ought to make it harder to raise taxes," said Ott. "And we should always take responsibility for our votes."

Commissioner Vic Mazziotti agreed, saying one question will determine his support for recommending budget default changes to the county charter: "Will each of us be accountable for our vote?" He said commissioners should either vote for a tax increase or for significant cuts to eliminate a tax increase.

Commissioner Geoff Brace indicated Schware's proposal would eliminate another level of accountability, because commissioners no longer would have to do anything to amend a proposed county budget to reduce spending.

"We can say 'we didn't cut funding for the district attorneys' office or the courts or the prison or Cedarbrook'," said Brace. "It leads to spending cuts that we don't have to vote for."

Brace recommended a budgetary process without any defaults, one where a majority of commissioners have to vote for both the tax rate and the expenditures. "Anything else creates a situation where we can wash our hands and say it was somebody else's fault."

Ott expressed concern that automatic across-the-board cuts in a proposed county budget would meddle with the county executive's responsibility.

"I don't like telling the executive what to do when it comes to his spending priorities within the budget," said Ott. "One of the problems is the board is continually second-guessing and meddling with the executive's budget. The executive's job is to set those spending priorities."