When one was presented last night for approval, I left the star chamber for a minute to get a drink of water. But in that short time span, the amendment failed, 5-3. Council members Ron Angle, Barb Thierry, Lamont McClure, John Cusick and Tom Dietrich all said No.
They were obviously repeating a message delivered in the Finance Committee the day before, when Angle surprised Stoffa by calling for a 5% workforce reduction. Then they began picking at several contracts submitted for approval, questioning what effort had been made to negotiate the best possible price.
They also questioned the wisdom of a proposed lease renewal for District Judge Masut at 31C West First Street in Wind Gap. Owner Joseph Depue wants to increase the monthly rent to $2,250 at what Angle describes as a "strip mall off the beaten path." Although County officials obtained two comparables, Angle scoffed they were from Bethlehem and Allentown.
Noting all the empty office spaces in the Wind Gap area, Angle suggested the landlord should be happy to accept the same rent from a tenant that always pays.
Council will vote on that lease in two weeks.
While this was going on, Stoffa sat quietly, but toward the end of the meeting, he let them have it.
"Tonight, you cut $4.5 million from the state," he chided Council, pointing to specific grants eliminated in children and youth, homelessness, drugs and alcohol. He reminded them they would be "looking in the mirror tonight."
As Stoffa stormed out of the room, Council Prez Ron Angle asked Budget Administrator Doran Hamman whether the money has to be returned to the state. The answer is Not Exactly. The County can still keep the money, but can't spend it until a budget amendment is approved. Because the state fiscal calendar ends in June, Council does need to act quickly.
Hamann then laid out some of the fiscal problems facing the County:
* In 2009, the County dipped into its fund balance to the tune of $6.9 million to balance the books.
* In the first four months of this year, the County has already had to spend $4 million of the $6 million set aside in its fund balance. Hamman is concerned that the County may have to spend between $16 and $20 million of its fund balance by the end of the year.
* Combining the swaption cost as well as some anticipated state cutbacks, Hamman warned that the County could end up spending an additional $49 million.
* Real estate tax revenue, which is pretty much the County's chief source of income, has only risen 0.223% this year.
* Health costs have increased 43%.
Angle, who has been exasperated by the County's finances, stated that "if we continue on this same path, we're headed for a major tax increase." He explained that, while he admires and respects Stoffa, "we've got a job here also." Noting that little can be done about national or state finances, Angle said "there is something we can do about this County. That's why we were elected."
Lamont McClure, agreeing with Angle, stated that "significant and stark action needs to be taken." He pointed to positions that are fully budgeted but never filled.
Stoffa, who feels that he was ambushed by Angle during Wednesday's Finance Committee meeting, is justifiably concerned about losing pass thru grants that help our young, infirm and old. But County Council is also justifiably concerned that there's been no sense of urgency from the Stoffa administration about County finances.
Next Thursday, Stoffa and his Finance mavens will meet with Council to see where money can be saved. Already, the following cost-savings measures are being considered:
* Reducing the workforce via attrition, and insisting that employees in slow departments cross-train to work where help is needed (layoffs damage morale and result in no short-term savings because the County must pay unemployment compensation);
* As many as 54 unfilled Gracedale positions are included in this year's budget, and Some Council members have suggested that the budget amendment should eliminate the funding for those vacancies;
* The possible savings realized by employee buy outs needs to be studied;
* The County needs a plan for Gracedale and County-owned buildings like Governor Wolf (Easton) and Bechtel (Bethlehem).
* Do we need nine judges and three senior judges?
Despite the acrimony, which included shouting in the halls that brought back memories of the good ol' days, I thought last night was this new Council's most productive meeting to date. They really do intend to cut spending. Unlike Allentown City Council, I think they have the administration's attention.