Most people start off speeches with quotes from Lincoln or Gandhi, but Don chose another famous thinker - Groucho Marx. In fact, he took one quote from Groucho and made it the thme of his entire speech.
Two Lehigh County judges, Sheriff Ron Rossi, Controller Tom Slonaker, Coroner Scott Grim and Superclerk Andrea Naugle were there, along with Commissioners Dean Browning and Gloria Hamm. Cunningham also brought some of his department heads, explaining that he though he might need to fill the room.
You night think Greater LV Chamber of Commerce CEO Tony Iannelli was blowing smoke when he called Don a "Superstar," but the atmosphere in the room did change once Cunningham arrived.
Northampton County Exec John Stoffa and his Director of Administration, John Conklin, were both mesmerized. The Northampton County Bulldog, Ron Angle, refused to leave Coca Cola Park after Don's speech, saying he wanted to stay in Lehigh County.
So did I. There was plenty of food and cookies. Angle and I loaded my jacket and a few brief cases and we'll be having a bake sale tomorrow.
It's more than flowery oratory. It's really a blue print for his pragmatic style of government, one that avoids ideological labels. It's realism, a trait Cunningham shares with people like Charlie Dent.
I filmed Cunningham's speech in its entirety and will load clips of it over the weekend. But for now, let me share it with you.
Near the end of last year, I was asked by The Morning Call to write an opinion column with my outlook for 2011 in Lehigh County. I began the column by quoting Groucho Marx.
Groucho once defined politics as: “the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” This would be funnier to me if it weren’t so true lately.
In this age of anger and discontent, we’ve become quite good at looking for trouble and finding it everywhere and, I would argue, at times, diagnosing it incorrectly. Maybe that is just benign politics. It becomes malignant, however, when the wrong remedies are applied.
I closed that column with a definition of wisdom. Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad. In the end, it’s about what you do.
We’ve been through a rough three years as a nation and across the Lehigh Valley. Times have been a little tougher for most of us and downright rotten for some of us. Too many of us have lost a job or a home or are struggling to keep pace with increasing costs. Big business and Wall Street have let us down and government has disappointed and angered us. The sins and stupidity of some have inflicted a painful penance on many, causing some of that anger and discontent. But some of it is just us. In recent decades, we’ve come to expect constant progress, regular economic growth and increased comfort. We look for a pill to heal all that ails us as we eat more and exercise less. It can’t always work that way.
There will always be tough times. This country and this Valley have seen worse times. And, as a people, we overcame those challenges with a rigid backbone, a strong work ethic and the ability to sacrifice to improve our own condition and that of our community and our country.
As a government, it’s critical that while we refocus our efforts to pare away all that we don’t need or can’t afford that we don’t weaken the foundation that has made us so strong and unique here in the Lehigh Valley. We are on the right course. We just need to stay that course, work a littler harder, complain a little less, keep pushing back the storm clouds and not pursue the wrong remedies. The sun is rising again over South Mountain.
There is much concern in America today about government being too large. There is no reason for that concern in Lehigh County.
Our workforce is smaller this year than it was in 1990, more than 20 years ago.
The majority of our employees pay 20 percent of the cost of their medical benefits, more than ever before. This county stopped providing full health care for retirees in 1987.
Our budget this year is $22 million less than it was last year. We maintain a healthy $21 million reserve fund. Our employee pension fund, unlike so many other governments, is fully funded by any relevant measure. Our Cedarbrook nursing homes have a four-star quality rating and are a positive on our balance sheet, proving quality public nursing care at no net cost to our taxpayers.
The county bond rating has recently been upgraded to an Aa1 rating. Our debt burden is low, just $15.6 million a year on a budget of $391 million. And, that’s after completing the borrowing for the most productive capital project and maintenance program in the county’s history, which among other things included renovating and expanding our Courthouse, building Coca-Cola Park, a new state of the art 9-1-1 Communications Center, a new Community Corrections Facility and repairing or replacing more than 20 bridges. Our buildings and infrastructure are new, energy efficient and sound.
Yes, this year, unfortunately, we had to roll back the tax cut that was put in place in 2005, which was paid for in part with a “tax relief fund” until the money ran out last year. Despite job cuts, the closing of our organic recycling center and a total of $7 million in position and program cuts on our general fund, we could no longer sustain that tax reduction. Despite the rate going up this year, it is still lower than it was in 2003. And, I must pause here for a brief political note -- because this is an election season -- to remind my Republican friends that President Ronald Reagan did the same thing when the federal budget could no longer sustain his tax cuts of 1981 during the middle of a recession. He rolled a portion of them back in 1982 because fiscal responsibility called for it.
Most importantly, however, we have a tax rate this year that is lower than it was eight years ago despite coming through three years of recession, a recession that took its toll on revenue. Last year was the first time in the county’s history that real estate tax revenues went down. New tax base, which comes from residential, commercial or industrial growth, was 50 percent less than it had been in 2009. We lost $1 million from property owners challenging their assessments. We saw more than 700 assessment appeals filed. To put that in perspective, during standard years the county hears about 150 to 200 appeals.
Reassessment has been happening in a de facto way on a property-by-property basis for the past several years in an unfair and selective way. If you’ve had someone to advise you and have had the money to pay the professionals, chances are you have a lower assessment than your neighbors. We are rectifying that this year. The county last squared up on the value of property in a comprehensive way in 1991. A lot has changed in the real estate market in 20 years. We have started in an in-house, low-cost reassessment process that will take affect in 2013. And we are putting in place the systems and technology so that we never again need to go 20 years between property assessments.
By any measure this is a fiscally lean and sound government. Our foundation is solid. Fiscal responsibility is balancing the services, costs, debt, reserve funds, and legacy costs in the short and long term. It means more than just tax rates. Fiscal responsibility is good management of people’s money for today and for tomorrow.
That is precisely what County Executive David Bausch did in 1987 when he had the foresight to end full medical benefits for life for county employees. Despite that action, today we have a total legacy cost of $141.7 million to provide health care for eligible retirees and the current employees hired prior to 1987 that are entitled. For Lehigh County, however, it is not a looming crisis. That is a fixed and finite number that does and will continue to go down every year. It is, however, a burden on our budgets. This year, we will pay $5.5 million to fund current costs.
The same can be said of pension costs. In this year’s budget, we will make a $10.6 million payment to the pension fund. We could do what other governments have done and not meet our obligation. It hasn’t been easy. Our obligation has tripled since 2007 but we have met it every year and, hence, we have a pension fund that is fully funded by any relevant measure. In addition, despite strong political pressure, my administration has consistently denied requests for increased pension benefits. We are funding what we owe and not passing along new legacy costs to future office holders.
This is a critical part of fiscal responsibility, as is controlling the size of the workforce and keeping a check on employee compensation. As we benefitted from the foresight of Mr. Bausch, future leaders will benefit from us imposing requirements for county employees to pay for 20 percent of the cost of their health care, which is a critical part of negotiations with a few remaining employee unions. We are pursuing similar actions to balance costs between taxpayers and employees on other wage and compensation issues in negotiations with four labor unions this year. We will continue to work with our leaders on the Board of Commissioner on this. Chairman Dean Browning led the effort to freeze salary increases this year for the two management bargaining units.
We will continue to find ways to do more with less and to reduce costs in our operations. There is no doubt that cuts at the federal and state level will find their way to our county budget. There is little chance that we will make up those cuts with local dollars. I am equally committed, however, to not arbitrarily cut back on our core responsibilities because it is politically popular. We will not apply the “wrong remedies” of Groucho’s observation, such as arbitrarily gutting $19 million from our budget.
As you’ve heard me explain before, on average about 70 cents of every tax dollar we collect in Lehigh County is applied to the area of law and order, the courts, corrections, probation, prosecuting crime, investigating deaths, emergency response and dispatch, the sheriff’s operations. This is the core of what county government does. And there is nothing more important that any government can do then to provide a safe community rooted in justice. Public safety is the prerequisite to all other activities. You cannot have a healthy community, create jobs or improve the quality of life unless people are safe and justice prevails.
When people tell you that we need to cut county government, ask them which part of this 70 cents of spending they will cut. If they tell you it will come from the other 30 cents, tell them this: of what remains, 14 cents is for debt service, about seven cents goes to run all our buildings, facilities, maintenance of bridges, parks and ball fields, about six cents for our local portion of human service programs, three cents to continue maintaining and improving our existing facilities and about three cents for administration, law and other overhead. That’s how your local tax dollar is spent in Lehigh County. This is not “big government.”
We have, however, spent wisely. Since 70 cents of our tax dollar goes for law and order, we’ve shifted a greater portion of it to working to combat crime, stop it before it occurs and to be creative about corrections to hold back the national trend of growth in incarceration spending. To accomplish this, we’ve worked across party lines and across the jurisdictions of independently elected officials: the judiciary, District Attorney Jim Martin, Sheriff Ron Rossi, Coroner Scott Grim and Clerk of Judicial Records Andrea Naugle. We have found the support of enough of our Board of Commissioners. Some of us are Democrats, some are Republicans. But we all have believed that in local government it’s about serving your community before playing politics.
This process of bi-partisan cooperation has delivered results. A cost-effective new courthouse, a state of the art 911 communications center, a central booking facility to allow municipal officers to get back on the street while we handle bookings in a uniformed way. It’s led to the Safe Streets program that has resulted in more police officers on the street. We have coordinated the purchase of compatible records management systems at all 17 of our local police departments so this year we can launch a Crime Data Center that will regionalize crime data, creating a virtual county-wide police department. For the first time, every police department in the county will share crime data in real time with county crime analysts to help coordinate it.
For more than 20 years, this county has had a community corrections facility. A concept that not only makes sense but it saves money. Non-violent offenders are kept separate from the main prison population, saving costly prison space. They are taught life skills and work habits in an effort to rehabilitate them to become productive members of society. This year, that deteriorating facility will be upgraded and expanded, increasing its capacity from 300 to 400 inmates and merging male and female into one facility with separate wings. This progressive community corrections approach has saved county taxpayers tens of millions of dollars during the last several decades. The use of this facility, a reduction in crime and the cooperative attitude of our judges in sentencing hardened offenders to state prison have resulted in our county having the same prison population in our main jail today as we did in 2001. This allows us to actually rent space in the jail to other governments, offsetting costs.
All of this must be working as crime rates are dropping and our prison population is being held in check.
The simplest way to save money and reduce the size of county government is for more people to obey the law and settle their disputes without going to court. We can’t dictate good citizenship but we do have an obligation to manage the cost of bad citizenship and to be creative and progressive about combating crime.
This year will see the launch of two major initiatives that we have worked together with District Attorney Jim Martin to put in place. Along with the crime data center I mentioned, the county has partnered with DeSales University to provide a much needed computer forensics and crime unit available to police agencies across the county. There is hardly a crime today that doesn’t involve the investigation of electronic records from computers to cell phones to bank cards or GPS systems. Our local police departments don’t have those readily available capabilities. Aside from solving crimes, the facility also will allow us to proactively combat vile offenses such as child pornography and sexual predators. Both facilities will give us the ability to identify and track gang members and the associated crimes they commit. We need to give our police the tools to combat criminals in cyberspace as well as on the street. Again, it would be cheaper if everyone just did the right thing and followed the laws but short of that we need to pay for safety and for justice.
It does cost us less as a collective community if we do these things regionally, which leads me to my final topic. Along with fiscal responsibility and public safety our third priority for my last three years as county executive is to improve regional approaches. We need to stop talking about regionalization as a grand academic theory and get it done at the functional level to improve services and opportunities -- and save costs -- across county and municipal government lines. We’ve been working hard at this within our county. Through the insights of our local government leaders organized into a unique Congress of Government, or COG, which has the support of all 25 of our municipalities, we’ve been able to launch these regional public safety initiatives, along with other cost sharing and joint planning initiatives. There is so much more, however, that we can and must do.
Just as our approach to public health would be better served by a Lehigh Valley wide effort, the crime data center would be much more effective if it went beyond Lehigh County and included neighboring counties. Crime knows no borders and the more we expand the reach of our shared data and information the more effective we will be at combating it. We are talking with Berks County and remain ever-hopeful that Northampton County will some day see the benefit of these shared efforts. Every county has different priorities and political and financial realities but at our core we share the same issues. We can work together to be more effective. We do that everyday in the Lehigh Valley with our airport, transit authority, marketing for economic development and tourism, our chamber of commerce. There is no practical reason we couldn’t do it with our prisons and community corrections facilities or our nursing homes. Northampton is still looking to site a community corrections facility and it’s become unknown now if the county will be allowed to sell its Gracedale nursing home. We remain willing to explore joint operations in both areas. Our Cedarbrook nursing home is run by a private company that specializes in nursing home operations. We own it. County employees staff it and, yes, we have unionized nurses and employees. We also have a four star rating and finish ahead every year on the books, with no net cost to our taxpayers. Imagine what we could save if we shared back office operations like laundry, food service, administration across county lines. The same can be said in the area of corrections. Northampton is pursuing the right solution in developing a community corrections facility. It’s a concept that works. Imagine if we did that together.
Functional regionalism can do more than just save operating dollars. It can make our region more attractive, create jobs and improve quality of life and the environment. Two quick examples:
We need to find regional solutions to provide water and wastewater infrastructure to protect our environment, manage our watersheds and create jobs. Two years ago, the Lehigh County Authority and Allentown struck a deal for the county to buy six million gallons of water a day from the city instead of drilling more wells in the ground. It was the right thing to do and a tremendous regional success. Today, we need to reach a similar agreement on the management and discharge of wastewater.
Development interest that will create jobs and expand our tax base has returned in Lehigh County. There are major companies looking at locating in the southern and western part of the county that will go a long way to improving the economy but the county authority has little to no existing wastewater capacity. We need to strike a mutually beneficial regional agreement with Allentown and other neighboring communities to move forward and create jobs and opportunity and lessen impact on our environment and watershed. Fortunately, we have an excellent committee of private sector leaders along with Renew Lehigh Valley and the Lehigh Valley Partnership working on this issue. For the benefit of the environment, cost control and economic growth, the solution will need to be regional, just as it is with our airport.
Northampton County Executive John Stoffa and I have long believed that our airport is an underutilized asset. It is a vital component of economic development and improving the quality of life in the region. A regional approach and a new, aggressive board of directors is breathing new life into the airport. Efforts are being made to meet with our business leaders to find way to increase the number of airlines and destinations, to make fares more competitive and to increase passenger traffic. Positive steps are being made. Last year, passenger traffic grew by 12 percent while the board has been proactive in resolving financial liabilities, getting its fiscal operations in order and improving the facility. Much remains to be done but it will continue to take a regional approach, supported by our private sector leaders, to have our airport realize its full potential. The opportunities are there as the New York City/Northern Jersey and Philadelphia regions struggle with congestion at their large metropolitan airports.
The quality of life and economic growth of an area is tied to its infrastructure, facilities, safety and some intangibles that make people want to live here, visit here and be proud their home, their community. That’s why we built Coca Cola Park, improved the walking trails and accessibility of the splendid Trexler Nature Preserve. Last year we added an extraordinary Environmental Center that has been winning design and environmental awards. That is why we are investing, along with the Trexler Trust, in the creation of the Jordan Greenway that will link the City of Allentown to the Trexler Nature Preserve with a passive walking trail along the Jordan Creek. That’s why we put our money where our complaints were and contributed $500,000 to the multi-million state project to finally repair the long-neglected Leaser Lake in the northern part of the county and restore that beautiful natural resource to its past usage as a fishing and recreation facility. It is scheduled to be completed this fall. That’s why we’ve preserved more than 20,000 acres of farmland, making us the third leading county in Pennsylvania in the number of preserved parks. And, finally, that’s why we will continue to fix our bridges, maintain our infrastructure and care for our parks.
We inherited a beautiful county from the generations that have come before us. We’ve also inherited a rich and bi-partisan tradition of managing it in a fiscally responsible way to provide a safe, growing community with an attractive quality of life. This remains a great place to raise a family and enjoy life. The state of our county is good. We just need to stay the course and not look for trouble to apply the wrong remedies.
Next year we celebrate our 200th anniversary, our Bicentennial as a county. We were created on March 6, 1812 at the dawn of the War of 1812 when our young nation didn’t know if it would survive into its fifth decade. We will honor our heritage and celebrate our founding appropriately. A committee is already working on some cool things, including a new written history and the creation of a Lehigh County Hall of Fame to recognize those born here or who have lived here that has contributed to this nation’s advancement in a range of fields from athletics to entertainment to business. We also will launch a legacy project to preserve and protect a piece of our history in recognition of our Bicentennial.
The people of this county had the resolve and optimism to create a new county, a new government, despite the hardships of war. During an uncertain time in this nation’s history, our county gave birth to its future. We owe it to those who gave us our foundation to work together to weather another kind of storm of a different day to provide for our future. Thank you for always supporting us as part of that effort.