Below is the text of Ott's message. If you'd prefer Scott's truly melodious radio voice, you should be able to listen to an audio of his robocall here. I've concluded that Scott is mostly mistaken. As a matter of full disclosure, you should know that I support Cunningham.
Your Lehigh County taxes will jump in 2011 but you have the power to stop the looming property tax hike. Go to votescott.org right now. Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham spent all of the county’s reserve funds and his new budget is nearly 20 million out of balance. Our property taxes will jump if you do nothing. Go to votescott.org. That’s votescott.org. My name is Scott Ott, candidate for Lehigh County executive. I wrote this message and my campaign paid for it. Thanks for listening.
1. Has Cunningham spent all of the county's reserve funds? No. If he did, he'd be in jail. A reserve fund, as explained by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, refers to monies that are legally restricted for a particular purpose, such as state grants that must be used for specified human services.
2. Has Cunningham spent all of the county's unreserved funds? No. Cunningham's predecessor, Jane Ervin, imposed a 70% tax hike that turned out to be totally out of whack with Lehigh County's needs. She established two accounts for this excess money - a $28 million tax relief fund and a $20 million tax stabilization fund. The tax relief fund was established specifically to avoid tax increases when spending exceeds revenue. Cunningham actually contributed to that balance when times were good. Now he is exhausting that fund when times are bad, exactly as contemplated when the tax relief fund was first established.
The $20 million tax stabilization fund, or rainy day account, remains untouched.
3. Is the new budget nearly $20 million out of balance? Yes. The 2010 budget shows estimated tax revenue of about $91 million, but spending is at $110 million. That's why the Tax Relief Fund was exhausted.
4. Will there be a tax hike next year? Although Ott is no fortune teller, that seems like a safe bet. It is highly unlikely that revenues will match spending, even with draconian cuts. Cunningham has already reduced personnel to its lowest level since 1990, at about 2200 employees. Before he became County Exec, Lehigh County was actually on track to have over 2500 employees this year.
5. Can Scott Ott prevent a tax hike? No. I called Scott about his robocall this evening. He told me his three-point plan, spelled out on his web page, consists of (1) zero-based budgeting, (2) accountable leaders and (3) independence from state funding.
So far as I know, both Lehigh and Northampton Counties start each year's budget from the ground up. Some departments may get less while others get more. It also appears that Cunningham's staff, which has kept employment at its lowest level since 1990, is already accountable. Finally, I understand Ott's personal disdain for state funding. I get it. But it's really dangerous when it comes to county government.
Ott correctly notes that "Lehigh County's dependency on state funding [has grown] by about $35 million to a total of more than $305 million." But what he seems to miss is that this funding is for mandatory human services. If Lehigh County turns its nose up and sends the money back, it still has to supply the services. That would mean a Scott Ott tax increase in the vicinity of 400%.
Scott Ott? Not.