“Our 2009 budget called for using $5.5 million from our Tax Relief Fund. As the final reports come in, it’s clear that we used none of it,” said Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham. “This comes from budgeting and managing in a conservative manner, expecting the worst and working your tail off to try to do better. This is consistent with every budget we have delivered the last four years.”
Established by the prior administration at $22 million, this Tax Relief Fund was supposed to be exhausted by 2008, but Cunningham actually added to it when times were good. It currently stands at $16.5 million, after a 2008 transfer of $12 million for open space, outdoor recreation and urban parks.
In spending that money, Cunningham was complying with a 2002 referendum authorizing up to $30 million in debt for Green Futures. By adding to this fund in his early years, Cunningham has been able to avoid that debt, which could easily cost taxpayers twice that sum in interest and debt service.
In addition to keeping the Tax Relief Fund intact, the County closed out 2009 with over $700,000 in its General Fund, almost $500,000 more than projected. A $20 million Tax Stabilization reserve fund has remain untouched. And, once again, the county's tax rate remains unchanged for the fifth consecutive year.
The 2010 county budget does call for using the Tax Relief Fund.
Can the County somehow miraculously avoid a tax increase next year?
“I am pleased that we have been conservative in our forecasts and beaten all projections,” Cunningham said. “The reality, however, is that we haven’t seen any net new revenues in more than two years and our budget will continue to be tight as we try to manage with no revenue growth despite increased costs.”
Dean Browning, who chairs Lehigh County's Board of Commissioners, has stated he is very pleased by the direction in which Lehigh County is headed. This is a credit both to Cunningham and his Director of Administration, Tom Muller. Below is a chart showing 2009's year-end fund balances, both budgeted and actual.