Lehigh County passes budget; Saves Cedarbrook nursing home
Lehigh County commissioners passed a 2014 budget Wednesday night that still has a $7 million hole in it but leaves the property tax rate of 3.79 mills unchanged.
The vote was 7-2, with the board's two Democratic commissioners, David S. Jones Sr, and Daniel McCarthy, voting no.
The commissioners also transferred $3.6 million from the general fund so that Cedarbrook, the county nursing home, can continue operating until the end of the year.
The unexpected shortfall is spurring the commissioners to look for new ways to cut costs.
The commissioners formalized about $3 million in cuts to the $361.7 million budget proposed in September by county executive Matthew Croslis by attaching a series of amendments they approved earlier this month.
Two of the budget-cutting amendments drew fire from District Atty. Jim Martin, and another disappointed gay rights activists.
Croslis now has 10 days to either veto the budget and send it back to the commissioners or modify certain line items.
After the commissioners meeting, Croslis was non-committal about his intentions.
He told WFMZ.com he will talk with his administrators and the commissioners during the next 10 days before he decides what to do.
"I wanted to wait and see what the commissioners did with the budget," said Croslis. "I have some ideas, and I have discussed most of them with the commissioners, even if we don't agree. I want them to know my thinking."
Before the commissioners voted, Martin asked them -- as he did two weeks ago -- to reconsider cutting $250,000 for the Regional Intelligence and Investigation Center.
The center "has assisted mightily in solving three homicides" since it opened in downtown Allentown in September 2012, Martin said.
The center has provided law enforcement with a brand-new tool, a gang intelligence database, which would be compromised by the budget cut, Martin noted, with anger and disdain creeping into his voice
The database is important because there is documented gang activity in Allentown, and the downtown is "a high-intensity drug-trafficking area," Martin said.
The budget cut will jeopardize millions of dollars of development in the downtown, Martin claimed, telling the commissioners, "You're compromising public safety."
The D.A. also spoke against an amendment cutting three or four positions in the county’s I-T department, which he called "shortsighted." The cut reduced the budget by $308,657.
At a committee meeting before the commissioners meeting, several people asked that an amendment cutting medical benefits for same-sex spouses of county employees be rescinded.
Croslis proposed the medical benefits in his budget, but commissioners decided against them to save $118,250.
The need for a $3.6 million cash infusion for Cedarbrook "was surprising to many commissioners." said commissioner Percy Dougherty.
Because of the size of Cedarbrook's budget, the $3,6 million "represents about three weeks of operation out there," Dougherty pointed out.
Dougherty said the commissioners will be "looking at expenditures more carefully," but, he added, he didn't think a special committee would be necessary.
Dougherty said it might be time to re-instate a program from years ago that paid cash rewards for employee suggestions that saved money.
Dougherty told Cedarbrook workers at the meeting that the commissioners would appreciate cost-saving ideas from them.
"This is an invitation for you to help out," he said.
The commissioners also moved an extra $200,000 from the general fund to the coroner's office.
"It seems like with the aging of the population, the coroner's office is getting busier all the time," Dougherty observed.
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