Park projects in Lehigh County may be in jeopardy
County commissioners debate spending money with huge budget deficit
Park and trail projects planned in six Lehigh County communities may be in jeopardy.
Some county commissioners insist it is inappropriate to allocate over $1 million from the county’s Green Future Fund to help pay for the projects when the county is facing a multi-million-dollar budget deficit in 2013 and may have to increase taxes in two years.
Commissioners who support the projects say the money is in the budget and should be “put back into our community.” And they say such projects benefit all county residents.
The underlying issue is whether improving parks, recreation and open space should be a “core” function of county government, especially when money is tight.
Intended beneficiaries of the Green Future grants:
*Allentown would get $324,693 for phase one of a Martin Luther King Trail.
*Bethlehem would get $36,000 to restore Sand Island Lock No. 41.
*Emmaus would get $70,000 for improvements at its Community Park.
*Lower Macungie Township would get $238,000 to make renovations at its Camp Olympic Park.
*Salisbury Township would get $160,419 for a Lindberg Park Connection Trail.
*Upper Saucon Township would get $231,888 for phase two of the Saucon Rail Trail.
Commissioner Percy Dougherty said each municipality pays at least half the total cost of its project, by matching the county’s grants.
Commissioner Dan McCarthy noted Allentown is the county’s largest municipality and Lower Macungie is the second largest.
Commissioners planned to vote on a bill approving the grants Wednesday night, but it was tabled.
At the suggestion of Commissioner Michael Schware, they voted 5-4 to delay taking any action until they can hear from County Executive William Hansell about where the administration will cut $1.06 million in the budget to pay for the grants without adding to the debt and when the Green Future Fund program will end.
If commissioners get answers from Hansell, the bill might come up for a vote at their next meeting on Dec. 19.
Schware suggested the projects could be funded by the county in the future, “when times are good again.”
“We have made a commitment,” countered Dougherty. “Once we honor that commitment we can start to cut back on this.”
Local officials asking commissioners to fund the projects included Lower Macungie manager Bruce Fosselman, Lower Macungie commissioner Ron Eichenberg and Emmaus council members Nathan Brown and Wesley Barrett.
“Six communities have extremely well worthwhile projects before you,” said Eichenberg, who is president of Lower Macungie’s board of commissioners. “I respectfully encourage your approval.”
Brown encouraged the nine commissioners “to come together and approve the grants,” saying: “You are investing in your county, not just investing in local municipalities.”
Brown believes taxpayers support the Green Future Fund program. He said people appreciate money being spent correctly, “making livability a great thing.”
Brown and Barrett said the Emmaus Midget Football Association, Emmaus Youth Association and two contractors helped come up with the borough’s share for the Emmaus Community Park improvements.
Barrett noted Emmaus residents also are county taxpayers and said none of those 12,000 residents have objected to money being spent on the park.
Commissioner Vic Mazziotti said the county commissioners’ primary responsibility is to fund “direct” county services, such as the courts, human services and prison.
“We’re not raising sufficient revenue to do that,” said Mazziotti. “We are deficit spending.”
He said it doesn’t make sense to add to that deficit by assisting the six municipalities with their projects.
Mazziotti said those projects are worthwhile, but are not the county’s core responsibility. He suggested the municipalities should raise the money within their own communities to complete them.
Eichenberg said Lower Macungie’s match of the county grant for the Camp Olympic project is in the 2013 budget township commissioners will approve next week.
Eichenberg said many county residents enjoyed Camp Olympic when growing up. Before becoming a township park, it was a private sports camp. He said the township’s renovation includes maintaining historical features “so county residents can continue to enjoy this park.”
Commissioner Scott Ott called them “nice-to-have projects that I’m sure are meaningful to people in those communities.” But he said to spend $1 million on them when the county has a multi-million-dollar deficit is “a bad budget philosophy.”
“Our executive has told us he does not know how he is going to get out of that multi-million-dollar hole,” said Ott. “And he has told us we’re likely to face a 2015 tax hike.”
Commissioner David Jones said the possibility of a tax increase in two years should not stop commissioners from approving the grants.
Several commissioners said this probably will be the last year for the Green Future program, but Schware was skeptical about that.
Dougherty said the program was intended to put $10 million into parks, recreation and open space over about 10 years.
The fund was created with money from the sale of county properties, said commissioners, including land sold to Dorney Park.
Dougherty explained it was created because the county was concerned about spending too much money to purchase land for parks. By partnering with the county, local municipalities are extending county funds.
Dougherty said creation of the fund was approved “by roughly two-thirds of county voters in a non-binding referendum” in 2002. He said the county never had to float a bond to carry out the program, so it never added to the county’s debt.
Ott expressed skepticism about how much weight a non-binding referendum passed 10 years ago should have today. He said that referendum, held during a primary, was approved by no more than 10 percent of the county’s registered voters.
Jones indicated Ott was elected county commissioner by only 14 percent of the county’s registered voters.
Jones took issue with any effort to “de-legitimize the voice of the people made at the polls by referendum.”
Jones said when voters speak it is the responsibility of county commissioners as legislators is “not to execute our will, but the will of the voters.”
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