This can't be good.
Last week, Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham announced the elimination of 50 positions, bringing the County workforce to its lowest point since 1990. During a news conference yesterday, things got worse. Cunningham announced the elimination of several programs.
Is this his way of bracing everyone for a tax hike? That's what Morning Call reporter Jenna Portnoy asked, and although he told her she'll have to wait for her answer until he unveils his budget next week, it's clear that a tax hike is coming. The only real question is how much.
Claiming local governments are like "junkies addicted to property tax revenue," Cunningham stated that revenue has been stagnant the past three years. He's doubtful that will change anytime soon. But he's unwilling to freeze wages, noting that union workers have negotiated contracts and that it is simply impossible "to balance the budget on the backs of County employees."
In January, he asked for help. "If you have new ideas send them our way in the next 30 days…before February 4th. Democrat or Republican. Elected leader, community leader, county employee or high school student. Anyone." Aside from Commissioners, few took him up.
Cunningham's chief priority is public safety. He considers that the basis from which everything else, including economic development, flows. His budget axe is falling on the following four programs:
1. Organics Recycling Facility in Schnecksville, North Whitehall Township, located on 15 acres of county land. The facility is used by municipalities in the county to turn yard waste and natural debris into compost. The facility has operated at a financial loss to the county since a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision eliminated its funding source.
2. “More for Children” program. This has been funded by hotel tax revenue, but that has dropped 19 percent since 2007. The county has historically provided $100,000 to $150,000 a year to county school districts to support student educational visits to cultural arts and educational facilities in the county. “All of these programs have merit and benefit,” Cunningham said. “In normal economic times, these are initiatives that we would fund. When revenue levels drop, however, spending has to be focused on the things that we absolutely need to do in government.”
3. Quality of Life grants. Last year, Lehigh contributed about $200,000 to more than 20 cultural arts and community organizations. Cunningham is proposing a 13 percent reduction in funding, which will result in a cut to the Allentown Art Museum and the Mayfair festival in the city. Other organizations will receive the same funding level as this year with no increase. Pip the Mouse is safe.
4. Doe hunting license operations are being eliminated as a county function and turned back to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. “We are not required to do this and have not been doing it very well in recent years because it is not a core function,” Cunningham said.
“Everyone thinks that government only ever gets bigger,” Cunningham said. “Here in Lehigh County our government has gotten smaller. We are working to balance the impact of the necessary reductions between employees and programs. There will be shared pain in these cuts. ... Where the rubber meets the road is local government."
Cunningham plans to release additional information on the county’s financial situation this Thursday (8/26) at the Lehigh County Annual Financial Outlook Luncheon, sponsored by the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce at Allentown Symphony Hall. He will release his 2011 budget next Tuesday, Aug. 31.