As it turns out, Cunningham was able to avoid dipping into the Tax Relief Fund to balance the budget. That saved taxpayers $5.5 million. But don't get the idea everything is rosy. Tough times are ahead. In addition to pledging to review every department, he called for more regionalization, which could save money for both Northampton and Lehigh County. He even complimented LC Commr's Chairman Dean Browning and NC Council President Ron Angle, two Republicans, for their willingness to work together to try to identify areas where money can be saved.
Below is the text of Don's address, in which he retains his characteristic optimistic approach to adversity, telling us that "We will get through this together -- because that is what we do -- because we are unwilling to consider – for even a moment – that we will fail."
This is the time of the year when I’m supposed to give you some insight into our county; a window into our condition; a look ahead, a look behind.
I am honored that you all have come to listen to me. In these times, there is little faith in the words – or the actions – of those we elect. But, you have come – and even if it was just for the free lunch – I’m grateful that your interest in – or, at least, your exposure to -- civic affairs will extend beyond the opening of your tax bill.
For 15 years, I’ve served in elected or appointed office in our county, our state or my home city of Bethlehem. In college and graduate school I studied government and politics. I was a newspaper reporter early in my career covering local and county governments. This is my 11th state of the county or the city address. And, I’ve watched others as a city councilman and a cabinet secretary as part of those governments.
I have not seen a time when people were more frustrated with government – both the private citizen and those who are elected or selected to serve. And we all realize why.
The recession has been longer than is comfortable. There are fewer jobs available than we would like. Some of our institutions have let us down -- from the banks and brokerage firms to the credit card companies to the Congress. Simply put, everything is a lot tougher when you have less money.
In my view, an Age of Discontent appears to have emerged. Anger and frustration have to go somewhere – and government often does a good job of painting a big bull’s eye on itself. The root cause, however, of discontent is created by the decline of wealth for Americans. Wages have grown very little or been cut. Health care either costs more or is unattainable. Real estate values are less than what they were five years ago – and so are 401ks. College costs more and so does gasoline. Credit card interest runs in the double digits but a standard savings account earns less than one percent.
Simply put, most Americans have less money and net value than they did five years ago.As difficult as this is, we all need to understand that economies have cycles. We’ve had recessions before, even Depressions. The country has seen worse times and returned stronger.
But today’s economic pain is fueled by 24 hour, seven day a week news cycles flaming with television pundits and analysts on 300 channels. Gertrude Stein once wrote “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”
We tend to whip ourselves into a collective frenzy, whether it’s over an impending snowstorm or an economic downturn. There is little time anymore for perspective, for depth of thought, for contemplation. Each day provides new news, more instant reaction and opinion; more consumption and less digestion. We can only imagine how the outcomes of World War II or the Civil War may have differed if they happened in today’s all-news, all-the-time climate.
We have had it so good for so long that there is little tolerance for sacrifice anymore in our democracy -- little understanding that we can’t have everything when we want it, how we want it. I believe this is the context in which we meet today. There are real problems for all of us – individuals, families, companies and governments -- because we have less money. That means some leisure needs to be replaced with sacrifice, tough decisions. And, the reality is that we Americans look to government for the answers, for the solutions – whether we like to admit it or not. Whether we are conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats, by what we expect government to do - or not to do - we expect government to solve the problem, either by being active or inactive. We expect rapid response when something happens to us, to our neighborhood, to our company to our business sector, to our special interest. Most among us, however, are less concerned when it doesn’t affect us, when it’s someone else’s problem. Some among us are all too willing to solve someone else’s problems with someone else’s money.
The very tradition of these “state of the government” addresses reflects the premium we place upon our governments in our great multi-layered democracy, which Abraham Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth.” And, God knows, at least here in Pennsylvania, we have a lot of governments.
The state of Lehigh County is intertwined with the state of our nation, our region and each and every one of our lives. In most measures, Lehigh County is doing better than most other counties in our state. I’m sure there are some counties doing better. The reality, however, is that the challenges we face are more national in creation; the affects of this recession, for the most part, have been distributed equally.
I’ve been elected again to run the government of Lehigh County. This is a $412 million business with about 2,200 full-time employees. I have lots of great help – and we have three full branches of government under our Home Rule Charter – an executive, a legislative and a judicial, along with several elected row officers. I get to give this address on behalf of all – but as they usually disclaim in the forward of a book: any errors of opinion or fact are mine and mine alone.
We run nursing homes for the elderly among us that can’t afford private care. We run correctional institutions and jails to punish and to rehabilitate those among us who’ve broken with the conventions of our society. We oversee the delivery of a wide-range of primarily state and federal government funded welfare services to care for the elderly, treat the mentally ill and mentally debilitated, to save kids from the parents who are supposed to love and nurture them, to find families for adoption, to save people from their own addictions to alcohol and drugs. We run an extensive court and domestic relations operation to adjudicate, to prosecute and to protect people in both civil and criminal situations. Our judges and masters resolve disputes and administer justice to those who have broken the law and those who’ve been victimized by law-breakers. We provide parks and ball fields and nature trails for recreation and nature preserves and protected farmland to ensure that our children’s children will experience some of the same county as us. We have built a baseball stadium, a bicycle racing veledrome and a zoo for the entertainment and recreation or our residents and visitors. And, we help to develop our economy, work to create jobs, maintain our infrastructure and improve the safety and quality of our downtowns and neighborhoods to provide more opportunity and a better quality of life.
We have done good things in the management of these operations. And, as the farmer says, we have made hay while the sun was shining the last four years. We have also gone 2 ½ years without seeing an increase in new tax revenue in almost every category – earned income tax, real estate transfer tax, business privilege tax. No new money makes things a bit more challenging. Much was made during last year’s election of us needing to budget $14.2 million from out Tax Relief Fund to balance this year’s budget. But, today, let me tell you some new 2010 news that has yet to be reported.
Once again, Moodys Investors Services has given Lehigh County one of its highest bond ratings, calling the county financially stable and a good credit risk for investors. The rating agency wrote that the county’s “historically strong financial position is expected to remain sound despite (revenue) declines.” What this means for us is that several weeks ago we saved about $1 million when we went out to the market to refinance some old debt.
As we close out the books on our actual spending for 2009, once again, we’ve beaten our budget and spending forecasts. Our 2009 budget called for using $5.5 million of our Tax Relief Fund, which set off a hailstorm of political upheaval.
As the final reports come in, it’s clear that we will use none of it. We have beaten our budget by that much and, most likely, more when the final numbers come in. This is consistent with every budget we have delivered the last four years. That comes from budgeting and managing in a conservative manner, expecting the worst and working your tail off to try and do better. The credit goes to Tom Muller and Brian Kahler and all of our directors, managers, employees and unions. That comes from having the smallest county workforce in more than 20 years and holding average annual operating spending to a growth of less than 3 percent.
This year’s budget retains a $20 million Reserve Fund that is unbudgeted and will be untouched. And, once again, our tax rate remains unchanged for the fifth consecutive year.
And while it is imperative that our economic development team works to help foster growth and development and make job creation our primary focus, we also need to pour over every corner of our county operation to see where we can find more savings. This year, all is on the table for review. We will do whatever is necessary and prudent to maintain financial stability and accountability in county operations. That may mean ending some things we would like to do and can do in good times but fall victim to the sacrifices that tougher economic times entail. We can’t spend more than our residents can afford. As Peter Drucker put so ably, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” That’s why during my Oath of Office Address in January I solicited ideas from the community for saving money and growing the economy. We received several ideas including offering early retirement packages – I don’t think you’d be surprised if I told you a county employee submitted that one – to conducting energy audits of our buildings, which we’re in the process of doing. We will be advancing many ideas this year to our Board of Commissioners as we prepare for our 2011 budget, which we expect to be our toughest budget challenge in the last five years.
Appealing to the public for ideas is not just about sharing ownership of our county and future, but trying to shake things up a bit and find new ways of doing business and utilizing the best ideas, whether they from Republicans or Democrats, from within the government or the private sector. Not all of these ideas need to be big. As the Dalai Lama said, “If you think small things don’t matter, try spending the night in a room with a mosquito.”
Our story is no different than that of every county, city and municipality throughout the Commonwealth or nation. Government at every level must figure out how to operate more efficiently with less and provide core services to a larger populace with greater needs. And we must do it while respecting the interests and wallets of all.
These times call for cooperation, not competition; creativity, not status quo.
The Regional Crime Date Center is a perfect example of how we can reach across geographic borders with an eye on consolidating services to save taxpayers money. The Center would be the first of its kind in Pennsylvania. Any incident report or information of criminal activity will flow from various police departments into one central repository where crime analysts will help local police departments identify patterns, solve crime and take criminals off the streets. This would come on the heels of our Central Booking Facility, opened last year at the behest of Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin. The facility processes all bookings in Lehigh County at no cost to municipalities and allows police officers to get back on the street quickly instead of spending hours mired in paperwork.
Taking a regional approach to fighting crime makes sense because criminals don’t respect municipal or county boundaries. It is my core belief that the most important role of any government is to provide safety and security for its people -- whether it be national defense at the federal level, homeland security at the state level or the reduction of crime at the local level. I will continue to pursue that as a fundamental and core role of county government. As some of you may have read in the local newspaper, the crime rate is down in the Lehigh Valley. I’d like to think that our public safety initiatives have helped.
Our Safe Streets program has allocated $1 million over three years to Lehigh County municipalities to hire 10 additional police officers in six communities. We initiated the first county-wide Citizens’ Police Academy and today more than 300 residents have taken the eight-week course, strengthening ties between the community and police, and give residents a sense of control and peace of mind in protecting their families and neighbors. Our new 9-1-1 dispatch center and emergency training facilities have improved our response and emergency preparedness functions across the entire county.
I believe that now is the time for all of us in the Lehigh Valley to recommit to regional cooperation and improve our regional institutions. In tough financial times, it’s more imperative to find economies and share costs. We need a better and more productive Lehigh Valley Airport. We need a Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation that can market our region to help create jobs and get the wheels of growth churning quicker again. We need a Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce that can afford to stay committed to improving our cities and downtowns, along with our malls and suburban office parks. We need both of our counties looking for ways to do things together to save money and share resources. I applaud Dean Browning and Ron Angle, the chairman of our respective county legislative bodies, for forming an alliance and looking for ways to do things together. They will have my full support.
We have seen our Congress of Governments – the council of all 25 of our Lehigh County governments, suburban and rural townships, cities and boroughs – get even stronger and bond together as those local leaders look for regional solutions and the efficiencies of doing things across municipal borders. I hope the day can come that we have a Lehigh Valley-wide Congress of Local Governments.
We all want to see a better and stronger Lehigh Valley; a return to prosperity for the individuals, the companies and the governments: both counties, all 60 plus municipalities and 20 some school districts. In that pursuit, we are united. No matter our political ideology, religious beliefs, gender, race or culture, we all want peace of mind that our families are secure, our jobs are stable and we are safe in our homes. We want our savings protected and a fair wage for our hard work. We want peace in our neighborhoods, safe places for our children to play, vibrant downtown communities, bridges, roads and buildings that don’t crumble and a solvent government that upholds a democracy we love and cherish.
We want a future built on decency and strength not promises or political rhetoric.
It will not be easy. That’s one thing I can promise. I can also tell you that there is no simple solution and no one person has all the answers. As Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The interesting thing regarding that Dickens passage is what comes after that famous opening line. He goes on to write, “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us….”
We live in the greatest democracy in the history of the world. We have managed to advance free government of and by the people and free markets for longer and in a more prosperous way than any other country in the history of mankind. We’ve done this by shedding the idea of nobility and drawing from the sons and daughters of all to lead us. Our government is us. It reflects our attitudes, our desires, our culture, our strengths, our weaknesses; our ability to rise above and do great things and our ability to fail and flounder and fall to the ground. From a cynical perspective, we can turn to the great Walt Kelly line, “We have met the enemy and it is us.” Across our nation, at all levels of government, we want great services and low taxes. We want our issues addressed but we want government to be small. We tend to elect leaders who tell us what we want to hear. How good we are. That we can have it all and we won’t have to pay for it. Bertrand Russell wrote that, “to be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.”
Generations before us understood the meaning of sacrifice, of differed gratification. Our forbearers were not afraid to do what was hard, and what was needed to sustain the dream of a better life for them and their children. My family has been in this county for five generations and I believe this region, this Valley, has always represented the best of the American spirit. We are a people unafraid to roll up our sleeves, to pour hot steel, swing an I-beam or quarry slate from rugged hills. A people willing to fight for family and home. After the fall of Fort Sumter during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln called on 16 regiments across the state of Pennsylvania to defend the National Capital in Washington, D.C. Members of the Allentown Militia in Lehigh County were among the first to arrive. That is our legacy. Today, we may be teachers, construction workers, small business owners, nurses, waiters, doctors, lawyers, accountants and salespeople but we are the same.
Times may be a little difficult but a new day will come. The hardships will pass. We will get through this together -- because that is what we do -- because we are unwilling to consider – for even a moment – that we will fail. Let us seize this moment and move forward. Together.