Friday, November 27, 2009

Should We Cut Open Space Funding to Reduce Tax Increase?

Several years ago, Northampton and Lehigh County both overwhelmingly adopted referendums to approve public funding for farmland preservation, county and municipal parks and environmentally sensitive land. It's what we call open space.

After being elected County Executive, John Stoffa proposed a half mill tax increase for a "pay as you go" open space plan that will generate $84 million over twenty years, and provide a source for matching funds from the state's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Stoffa's plan, adopted in December '06 by a dubious County Council, had overwhelming public support. Sandra Yerger and Tom Maxfield, Lower Saucon Township Supervisors, spoke of their own referendum for open space, which passed with 66% of the vote. Williams Township supervisor Robert Doerr told Council that a similar tax increase in his community had already resulted in $3 million for open space. Jerry Steele, who chaired Williams Township's preservation board, warned we are "being circled by corporate developers."

Since that time, the economy has nosedived, year after year. County Executive Stoffa has warned that, unless the economy suddenly improves or we take drastic measures to reduce costs, Northampton County is looking at tax increases in each of the next three years. A tax increase is all but certain next year in Lehigh County, too.

Ron Angle has suggested we forego open space funding until the economy improves. This step alone would reduce next year's tax increase by half. But he was surprised at a recent Nazareth COG (Council of Governments) meeting to learn there is little support for his proposal, at least among township leaders. So he has asked me to post a poll, asking you how you feel. Should tax dollars set aside for open space be used to reduce a tax increase next year? Angle is proposing a one-year moratorium on open space. What do you think?

On my left side bar, you can see the poll. I've set it so you can only vote once from a computer, but someone will figure out a way around that. I think Angle, and the rest of Council, would really be interested in your views. Do you continue to support open space, even when it hurts?
Update: (7:20 AM) - The early voting overwhelmingly supports using open space money to reduce this year's tax increase, 10 - 6.

39 comments:

Anonymous said...

A tax is a tax. Counties don't have special taxes!

Bernie O'Hare said...

I'll take that as a NO.

Anonymous said...

I voted to do anything possible to not raise taxes at this time - too many struggling unemployed and because I live in the Bethlehem School District I am terrified of what the district has been doing and will need to do to cover the "Swaptions".

I am interested in hearing about potential negative consequences if the open space spending were to be postponed a year or two.

not so casual observer said...

It is a good idea to reduce the taxes via halting the green space monies HOWEVER we must weigh the fact that there are bargains out there too. We can buy land cheaper now than we have been in the past 5 years. Perhaps one year moretoreum , and pick it back up in 2011 in a limited and targeted manner.

monkey momma said...

Is it legal to take this funding (that was voted on by taxpayers) and use it for something different? I have a hard time with the precedent this is setting. Basically, if we redirect this money, it appears to me that the voter's wishes mean nothing - it's up to the politicians anyways to spend our money. Talk about corruption! I realize Angle's intentions may be good, but they may not. Nobody knows but him.

The problem with using this money for a different use is that open space does not come back. Once it's developed, it's gone. So, it's now or never in terms of preserving the space.

I would say another vote is in order, at least.

Anonymous said...

The county does precious few things well and should always seek ways to limit the scope of its activities, and consequential harm to taxpayers.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Is it legal to take this funding (that was voted on by taxpayers) and use it for something different?"

Absolutely. It was a nonbinding referendum. In NC, it authorized the county to borrow up to $37MM for open space projects. The idea was that it was going to be another big bond on top of the $111MM megabond.

Then the Reibman tax increases hit, and there was no political will to do anything to fund it.

Stoffa is the person who ran the campaign supporting this referendum. I am the person who opposed it. ironically, we were on different sides of the fence, and boy did I torment him! I was never opposed to open space but did not trust that the money would be used properly. I also objected to floating a big bond, knowing it would cost us up to three times that amount.

When Stoffa ran for election, he came up w/ a different idea, a "pay as you go" 1/2 mill tax dedicated to open space. He basically promised voters that if they elected him, he'd raise their taxes. "They elected me anyway," he likes to joke.

I like Stoffa's funding approach, and now that an actual plan for open space has been developeed, I even have confidence in that.

In some ways, the voters have already twice voted for open space, both in the referendum and when they voted for Stoffa.

The weakness in Stoffa's plan, and one he noted himself, is that it is up to Council to decide whether to implement it on a given year. So do we implement it this year? If we do not, that cuts the tax increase in half. But won't this be more temptimg to do next year, and the year after that? If Council cuts it just for this year, will Stoffa veto the cut?

Because of the high unemployment rate and a 5 year decline in real estate tax revenue, I'll support a one-year maoratorium on open space.

But you and Not so Casual are right. Once developed, the land is gone. Now may be the time to buy. This is a tough question. It's also a tough lesson. When casn't expect open space and a myriad of services w/o expecting to pay for them.

Anonymous said...

That's the point though. We are already paying for open space and farmland via the dedicated .5 tax increase in the first Stoffa budget.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's a tough question at all. The people of Northampton County have spoken. Now, Angle wants to change what the voters asked for. Angle is wrong this time. I understand in a non-binding referendum. But the people have spoken, overwhelmingly. If Council changes its mind, the citizens can never trust another referendum. Doesn't our vote count? I understand the taxing consequence, but isn't that what the voters balanced in their mind, when they voted for the referendum? This revenue was to be protected for the sake of protecting open space. This is a VERY slippery slope and this time, I disagree with Angle. Stoffa warned us about tax increases, but the citizens voted for it anyway, knowing that it will help the environmental character of our communities.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 10:57,

I cannot argue with you. Yo make your points well. Angle's argument is that because economic circumstances have changed, people must have changed their minds. Would you oppose a one-year moratorium?

Anonymous said...

a tax for a special program should be dedicated to that program or eliminated.

When things are tough, the county like every business in the world has to contract. That does not mean opening the prison cells, but it does mean lesser hours, layoffs and every savings that can be found.

One year moratorium means reduce my taxes. It does not mean you can divert these program funds to another use. You don't have adequate revenues, do what everyone else has to do, suffer.

St. George said...

Bernie, thank god you are brave and plucky enough to publish comments that you do not agree with. I wish I could say the same for that churlish Molovinski the "shadow mayor" who does not even live in the city he purports to lead.

Bernie O'Hare said...

St. George, To keep your saintly status, I ask you to try not discussing your MM complaints on this blog. I've learned the hard way that people have no interest in the various "he saids" and "she saids" among our bloggers. Emphasizing these petty squabbbles just diminishes us and makes us lose credibility, and we don't have much to start with in the first place. No matter who is at fault, everyone looks bad.

The topic here is whether we should divert open space money to reduce a tax increase.

In three years of blogging, Angle has never asked me to write about a specific subject. He was certain people would readily sacrifice open space to eliminate or reduce a tax increase. Now, after a meeting with Nazareth's COG, he's not so sure. The online poll reveals this is a close question. It's now 15-13.

Anonymous said...

From 10:57

"Angle's argument is that because economic circumstances have changed, people must have changed their minds."

I don't know how Angle can say logically, that since economic circumstances change that people MUST have changed their minds (my emphasis added). He unilaterally has posited this opinion. But the people have already spoken, knowing through press releases, that the taxes would increase. Overwhelmingly, the citizens of Northampton County voted for it. So, in a nutshell, I do oppose a one-year moratorium. My position has been logically offered, wherein, Angle is assuming such logic, with economic future consequences.

Bernie O'Hare said...

That's why Angle asked for the poll. He is quesionig wghat he thought. The poll could be useless bc of manipulation. What matters most is what people say here. I will print out the comments next week and give them to him.

not so casual observer said...

I was witness to what transpired at the COG meeting. Some municipal reps did balk at backing off the open spce, but then too some of the municipalities have passed green ways and open space referendums that now must be funded, I think that they realize if they do not have county help with it they will need to raise their own millage to cover the deficit created. Also not everyone was opposed to ROn Angles's idea. There was a discussion, period. No vote or suggestion, they moved on to the pressing matters of the evening. This is something that was brought up without prior notice at the meeting so no one had any idea of and details or the opportunity to discuss with their own governing boards.\\Ron's impressions are very different from mine from the same discussion

Anonymous said...

For over a decade, it seems my municipality fended off tax increase by relying on new development. Every election cycle they claim to be advocates of open space, and every year they become more dependent on development. Now there is an opportunity to preserve what little open space is left with matching funds from the County and they rather cut services.

I consider our taxes very low compared to other communities. I do believe a moratorium is worthy consideration, however, now is the time to buy land.

Sooner or later development catches up and municipalities have to pay for up keep of those neighborhoods. That is the backend tax people seem to forget about. One could argue, pay now for open space or pay later for the street and infrastructure expansion/repairs.

I never really understood paying farmers not to farm. Maybe that money should be diverted to preserving open space for the next two years.

Anonymous said...

BTW, some of the owner of land who receive payment not to farm are not farmers. The are landowners who know the system.

Anonymous said...

From 10:57

After reading NSCO's comments, to break agreements or understandings with local municipalities regarding local assistance with open space opportunities would be disastrous to the County's constancy and fidelity.

Bernie O'Hare said...

That's an excellent argument andf one i completely missed. Thanks. Looks like the worm is turning now. The poll shows a slight majority oppose using open space money to avoid a tax hike.

Anonymous said...

How about those of us who are arguing over the impractacality of the Tax.

Why are you deleing yhose comments? Hidden agenda?

How is your blog any different from the Pawlowski fluff pieces?

Bernie O'Hare said...

The only comments deleted here are those posted by trolls. There are several comments standing, that reflect numerous views, including people who disageree w/ me. The only people who cant't comment here are trolls, people who insist on personalizing everything. Anf you're one of them. You could write a sonnet and I will delete you.

Anonymous said...

Angle has been very consistent in his opposition to open space and farmland preservation. He sees an chance to kill it. He may well get his wish.

Anonymous said...

Move to Central PA if "open space" is what you seek. Yet another tug on the emotions rather than rational thought. Chasing this mythical, pastoral memory of the past thinking your sacrifices to the cause will actually mean anything. Sounds familiar.

usa1 said...

Angle said he wants to auction off the parks to the highest bidder. My comment to him, shall you print it, is drop dead and keep your hands off our parks and open space, and the funds for both.
He's a disgraceful politician.

Anonymous said...

Low taxes just entice bring poor people who need social services and Jersey transplants.

This place should be more than just a cheap housing county.

If you want cheap, move to central PA.

Anonymous said...

bernie has already posted comments to the effect that open space should be cut in tough economic times.

We know what his agenda is...

He cant even afford to live without Ron Angle paying his bills so what does Bernie care about open space? And Ron is just a loud mouthed redneck.

Ron and bernie both have issues with women in power (Peg, Pelosi, etc etc etc)

You guys are just pathetic and ignorant commies.

Bernie O'Hare said...

cuckoo.

Bernie O'Hare said...

usa1,

Ron's a disgraceful politician bc he does not think we should build parks we can no longer maintain??? Let me tell you what's going on. Ron wants municipalities to take them over. One way of doing that is by threatening to auction them off to the highest bdder. In most cases, that can't happen.

Anonymous said...

Some parks purchased with bond money and dedicated sources, they can't just be auctioned off. Angle may be use to doing what he wants but like most puffed up bullies he will be backed down by the law.

Bullies like Angle are only bullies with a megaphone or an audience, one on one they tend to run for the hills.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Bullies like Angle are only bullies with a megaphone or an audience, one on one they tend to run for the hills."

Kinda' like people who anonymously post personal attacks.

Anonymous said...

SO you are saying Ron is a liar or trying to manipulate the public through fear tactics and deception? oh, ok. That's your buoy BO.

Bernie O'Hare said...

What I'm saying is that the auction threat is an obvious bluff, made by someone who beleves it is time that wealthy townships start assuming the responsibility for maintenance at some of these parks. He is trying to save a few bucks for the little old lady on a fixed income in Walnutport. You can call it what you want.

lighthouse said...

A.) what constitutes a "wealthy" township? perception?

B.) are property owners in these demonized townships currently exempt from County taxes and not already paying their share of maintenance? If they are paying taxes, then the above comment borders on demagoguery.

C.) are these not county parks for the benefit of all county residents? If so, shouldn't the County be maintaining them? Theoretically, making them municipal parks could give first priority to municipal residents only, and perhaps charge non-municipal residents a fee for use, or higher rates for rentals of pavilions,etc. Afterall, municipal-only tax dollars would now be funding.

D.) this looks like any other "bigger fish" who does all kinds of wonderful things for votes until it causes pain, and then pushes that pain on to the "little fish". Just like (since Angle is currently on the Bangor school board, he might appreciate) how the Commonwealth used to fund up to 55% of public education costs, but is now around 36%. The costs didn't go down. On the contrary, they continue to increase. Yet the Commonwealth and Federal governments have no problem cutting funding while mandating additional programs without funding them. Basically Angle's plan is an attempted unfunded mandate on to municipalities. Pushing maintenance and liability on to muncipalities doesn't make the costs magically go away. It just makes the County look like they can better balance the books.

I say call the bluff. Do the county tax payers really want the County auctioning park land to private developers?? But then again, you get what you elect...and so few bothered to vote, why should they complain, right?

Finally, the frequent references on the related blogs about continuing to pay for building the park in Weaversville is a red herring. Sure, I agree to stop building it until better times. But that is a completely separate issue from auctioning off current County Parks to the highest bidder.

Also "not continuing to borrow" from the open space bond (which is fine by me) different than "Should tax dollars set aside for open space be used to reduce a tax increase next year? " That sounds illegal...using voter approved bond limits to pay for general revenue expenses, and thus tax rates lower.

Perhaps I read something too fast while catching up on a few days out of town. If so, I am welcome your corrections.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Lighthouse,

(a) Compared to the cities and land-locked boroughs, the townships are doing nicely. Look at the competition over community centers and municipal buildings involving Hanover, Bethlehem Tp, Forks and Palmer. That certainly creates such a perception.

(b) My father was once told he was bordering on contempt. He calmy told the judge that bordering on contempt is not contempt. Angle's threat to ayuction off couinty parks is an idle one. He just wants townships to agree to share in the maintenance costs. For example, the new Wayne Grube park will require a three-man crew. Maybe Allen Tp, which is adjacent, could share some of the maintenance.

c) I don't know any municipal parks, from Bethlehem Tp to NYC's Central Park, that restricts use to residents.

(d) You are right on this point.

NC is facing three years in a row of tax increaes. It is time to look for places we can cut. If we can shed a few parks and get the municipalities to take over, why not? If we can just get municipalities to share in the cost of maintenance, we will effect a savings.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should think about more efficient County management. Sadly, the huge surplus of just three years ago has been squandered by this Administration. Now they want to sell parks and close the Nursing Home.
This crew is a disaster. Hopefully the new Council can force them to straighten out and fly right.

Anonymous said...

Agreed 11:55, the Administration has done nothing for four years and somehow pissed away a huge surplus.

Certainly the hugely generous union contracts didn't help but I am sure there are places they could save money.

Seems like drastic actions on a sinking ship. Where did this Stoffa guy come from, the Titanic?

Anonymous said...

Hi Bernie, even though you won't retrun my e-mails anymore, I couldn't stay out of this.

I just came from a meeting of the Lower Saucon Township EAC and they were all abuzz about your blog and your poll. They were very upset about the county's actions. But I am not and I consider myself to be a big enviornmentalist.

Open space is important, but not on my dime. We are spending too much money on open space and recreation. Most of the property I see protected by my tax money under the name of open space is property I am restricted from using and that is not right. Why do we need all these parks? When did the Lehigh Valley become NYC? I grew up playing in my yard, not a park.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Lower Saucon resident,

I am sorry. I am unaware that you have been sending me any emails. Please try again, just a "test" email, and I'll look again. I set my spam folder a few months ago to be more restrictive bc i was getting 200 spam emails per day, and some people got caught in that. I am sorry if that has happened. BOHare5948@aol.com