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Northampton County Council will vote Thursday on a 2023 budget that cuts spending and keeps taxes level.

County Executive Lamont McClure's spending plan keeps property taxes at 10.8 mills, or $540 for a property assessed at $50,000. The operating budget total is $544.8 million, about $25.5 million below the current year.

"We look forward to council passing a no-tax-increase budget proposed by my administration yet again," McClure said in an emailed statement Wednesday.

Council members have welcomed the no-tax part of the budget, but some minor items in McClure's half-billion-plus plan have drawn fire.

At a budget hearing Tuesday, a plan for a $1.15 million loan to New England Hydropower was questioned. The Massachusetts-based company plans to install an "Archimedes screw" along the Lehigh Canal in Easton, taking advantage of water power to generate enough clean energy to power about 500 homes. The ancient technology is named for Archimedes, the Greek inventor.

Commissioner John Cusick (council members are known as commissioners) has said the device is an interesting engineering proposition, but he said funding should be provided by private investors or the county's Industrial Development Authority. The IDA helps nonprofit groups and businesses obtain low-interest financing.

"I don't think taxpayers should be venture capitalists," he said.

New England Hydropower is a private company. The total cost of the green project is about $10 million, with the company putting up $7 million. A Pennsylvania state grant and the county loan provides the rest.

McClure confirmed Wednesday that the county contribution would be a loan at 2% over 10 years after power generation starts.

"That's more than we're getting on interest-bearing cash accounts now," he said. McClure has touted a green future for Northampton County by dedicating funds to open space and in this case, to clean energy.

A New England Hydropower spokesman declined to comment Monday when asked about the council vote.

The $50,000 proposed by McClure for the IronPigs minor-league baseball team has also drawn fire. The IronPigs have sought public funds for part of the $10 million in renovations Major League Baseball has demanded for Coca-Cola Park.

Cusick and Commissioner Ron Heckman have been adamant about not providing more funding for a stadium that is in Allentown and owned by Lehigh County. The IronPigs are privately owned, and affiliated with the Philadelphia Phillies, a major league team valued at $2.3 billion by Forbes.

Council did approve $200,000 for the IronPigs earlier but drew the line at an extra $100,000. The earlier grant came from the county's hotel-tax fund. That pot of money, raised through a levy on hotel stays, is used to promote tourism.

Another council/executive dispute will be voted on Thursday. Council is considering an ordinance to block McClure's administration from creating a health center for county employees and their dependents.

McClure has said the center would provide great care and save millions of taxpayer dollars. Some commissioners have sought more assurance about savings.

"Members of council are concerned about a lack of specific information," Council President Lori Vargo Heffner said Wednesday. She said the administration should have gone through a bidding process before choosing a provider, in this case, Integrity Health of New Jersey.

Start-up costs for a primary care center in leased space would be about $2.5 million, according to the administration, and the annual fee would be $800,000 annually.

Vargo Heffner works for St. Luke's University Health Network but said she does not hold an administrative role and has no conflict of interest.

"I'm a clinical worker," she said. "There is no financial gain for me."

Commissioners have questioned why Integrity, based in Hamilton, New Jersey, was chosen when the county is already served by two big health care outfits.

St. Luke's has expressed interest in the idea, while the region's other big health chain, Lehigh Valley Hospital Network, has commented on its commitment to serving Northampton County. LVHN opened a new hospital, Hecktown Oaks, in Lower Nazareth Township this year.

Council will meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in its chambers in the government center in Easton. The meeting will be streamed on the Internet.

 
 
 
 
 
 

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