ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Lehigh County commissioners debated several proposed amendments to Executive Phillips Armstrong's 2021 budget during their Wednesday night meeting.
Armstrong has proposed a 2021 budget that holds the line on property taxes, maintaining the 3.78 millage rate. That means a home appraised at $201,000 would pay about $760 annually in county property taxes. Last year, commissioners approved a 3.8 percent tax hike on property owners.
The 2021 proposed budget includes a Stabilization Fund balance of $25 million.
Most of Wednesday night's action involved commissioners' proposed amendments. A plan, originally proposed by Commissioners Percy Dougherty and Marc Grammes, will place $1 million in unassigned fund balance to a restricted fund designated for farmland preservation easements. It was approved with full board support and sponsorship. Armstrong supports this amendment, according to county documents.
"It's important we preserve the farmlands," said Dougherty.
A second amendment on the evening's agenda was pulled by sponsor Commissioner David Harrington. The proposed amendment would have restructured the county's criminal justice system.
Harrington's proposal would have eliminated employees from various positions of Lehigh County's correctional and criminal justice structure.
The bill would have cut nearly $1 million from the district attorney's office by laying off five high-level attorneys and two county detectives. The next area of cuts would have eliminated six correctional officer positions totaling about $475,000 in salaries and benefits. Harrington's proposal would also have eliminated a corrections officer position and a part-time employee in juvenile probation. The cuts totaled $1.6 million.
Harrington would have redistributed the money by funding five lower-level attorneys for the district attorney's office. The public defender's office would have received funding for one full-time social worker, part-time interpreter services and a non-classified service attorney. The county jail would have received a new re-entry director. The community corrections department, court administration, drug and alcohol, mental health and children and youth services budget lines also would have received more money under Harrington's amendment. Finally, the community and economic development budget would have allocated $150,000 in grants to three categories - youth violence reduction, re-entry and jobs and homeless prevention. The proposed reallocation totaled about $1.35 million, with the unassigned fund balance receiving the difference, roughly $229,000.
"This didn't come out of left field, I think," Harrington said in pulling the amendment. "...It's time to consider what we can do for the community and not what is best for an ideological sense...This will certainly not be the last time we ask for reform."
The amendment set off a marathon public comment session that lasted for several hours. This was followed by a vigorous and, at times, heated discussion by commissioners that lasted until Thursday morning.
Another amendment to make June 19th a county holiday and require $150,000 in funding for holiday pay was also on the agenda. The proposal, offered by Commissioners Amy Zanelli and Zakiya Smalls, passed 7-2.
A second reading and final vote on the 2021 budget is scheduled for Oct. 28. Armstrong has 10 days from that date to veto amendments approved by the full board. Should that occur, the board has 15 days to reapprove any vetoed amendments.
In other news, commissioners approved legislation on second and final reading allocating COVID-19 relief funds for various entities. These include small businesses, municipalities, the regional tourism industry and the CARES Act. Collectively, the relief package from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development totals nearly $33.4 million.