BANGOR, Pa. - Government spending in Northampton County is "on a curve that is just not sustainable," County Executive John Brown said Monday night at a town hall meeting in Bangor.
The town hall meeting was the first in a series of public forums Brown said he intends to hold throughout the county.
The county has been dipping into its reserves for years to fill multi-million dollar shortfalls between revenues and spending in its budget, currently pegged at $343 million, Brown told an audience of about 25 people.
As a result, he said, the balance in the reserve account has "dropped precipitously" and by next year there will be only $12 million left, he said.
Brown, the former mayor of Bangor who became county executive in January, said the county started the new year "$6 million in the hole" and faced $18 million in spending "over what we were able to collect."
At Gracedale, the county-owned nursing home, which he said is a "financial challenge," an additional $6.3 million was needed to keep it open, he said.
"We have some significant challenges," Brown told the audience.
Brown offered no detailed plans on how to balance the budget other than to say he and his team were "methodically and systematically" moving through every "system" in the county's vast array of services, which include the courts, the prison and services for children and youth, among a long list of others.
"It's not about cuts," Brown said, adding the question is , "Can we better leverage the dollars we have?"
The county employs 2,200 people and Brown said his job is to help remove barriers that prevent them from doing their jobs.
"They know what to do," Brown said. "Before, they didn't feel empowered to do it."
A member of the county's prison board, Daniel Christenson, amplified Brown's remarks about the need to take a broader approach to solving problems, rather than making quick decisions while jumping from one crisis to another.
The Northampton County Council recently ordered a review of the county-funded programs at the prison with an eye toward determining what impact those programs have had on reducing the recidivism rate.
Christenson said the county prison is well below the national average of 69 percent.
In 2006, he said, 53 percent of the inmates returned to prison while only 42.4 percent returned in 2010.
He credited the prison's programs, notably those involving drugs and alcohol, with those results.
On the business front, Brown said the county anticipates business growth migrating north along the Route 33 and Route 512 corridor with the completion of the "Chrin Interchange" under construction.
"There's been a lot of interest in the whole (Route) 33 corridor," Brown said.
The key to job growth lies in the creation of new businesses "storefront by storefront."
Asked how he likes being the county executive, Brown said, "I love this job."
Asked what he believes his biggest disappointment has been, Brown said, "I don't think I've achieved enough."
Allentown, PA 18102