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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

LC Comm'rs, Confronted by Tea Party, Trim 16% Tax Hike to 14%

It was democracy at its best. It lasted 4 1/2 hours. Over 180 people - County workers, union bosses, party bosses, nonprofits, and tea party activists - braved a cold rain and the crime-ridden streets of downtown Allentown to swarm into the Lehigh County Commissioners' meeting room and talk about money. Our money. Public sector workers, unions and nonprofits have long ago learned that the squeakiest wheel gets the grease. They've been very well greased for some time. But that dynamic has changed. The "takers," as one spectator called them, were heavily outnumbered last night by rowdy tea party members, who were squeaking pretty loudly themselves. When the meeting finally ended at 11 PM, Commissioners succeeded in approving amendments that will shave about $3 million from Executive Don Cunningham's already lean budget. If the amended budget is adopted later this month, Lehigh County taxpayers will face a 14%, instead of a 16%, tax hike.

Big deal, you might say. I've seen county governments crumble under the pressure of people with their hands out, and authorize spending that was never even proposed by the County Executive. Last night, Commissioner Bill Hansell tried doing that for to increase spending for the arts. Commissioner Gloria Hamm made the mistake of dismissing $1.6 million as just a small amount of money. Commissioner Percy Dougherty prevented one citizen from exercising his right to speak. But in a marvelous and refreshing display of democracy, Commissioners were forced last night to listen to more than the usual "takers."

It was the tea party's turn.

Who are these people? Where they totin' guns, and spitting chew all over the place? No, that was me. The tea party crew are the same people you see at the grocery or drug store. Some have been laid off. Others are just fed up by increased government spending at a time when good people are losing jobs and homes. Last night, they participated in their government and made a difference that extends beyond a 2% reduction in Lehigh County's anticipated tax hike. They represent a new attitude among formerly apathetic people. Elected officials who would like to remain elected noticed a difference in the atmosphere.

Here's the play-by-play, including clips from the meeting to give you some flavor .

1) Commissioner Glenn Eckhart proposed a budget amendment freezing wages for non-union workers, which would save $1.37 million, but might drive the 32% non-union staff into the warm embrace of public sector unions.

Eckhart's amendment failed 5-4, with Chair Dean Browning and the four Democrats opposed.

2) Commissioner Andy Roman proposed reductions in the salaries of the highest paid ($86k+) non-union workers.

The four Democrats and Browning blocked Roman's proposal.

3) Eckhart and Roman proposed eliminating "Quality of Life" grants for Lehigh County non-profits.

This motion failed, 5-4. All Democrats and Comm'r Dougherty nixed this budget amendment.

4) Eckhart proposed using the $1.67 million in gaming revenue to reduce the millage rate and provide the tax relief that gambling proponents promised. Commissioner Gloria Hamm got into a bit of trouble when she said this is "only" $1.67 million. All Republicans ended up supporting the use of gaming revenue to reduce taxes.

5) Eckhart proposed reducing the County's contribution to the Lehigh Valley Zoo by $245,000. He would allow them to keep $80,000 to feed the elk and bison. His proposed amendment died for lack of a second.

6) Eckhart wants to eliminate a General Services Manager position, which will save the County $88,123 so they can feed more of those damn buffaloes. General Services Director Glenn Solt argued against this, noting that the County will be responsible for 21 capital projects next year. By a 5-4 vote along party lines, the Republican majority accepted an amendment eliminating this position.

7) Eckhart also proposed eliminating two new Deputy Sheriff positions, and using the $107,561 saved to reduce the tax increase. Even though the Sheriff's Department noted that there are 3,500 outstanding warrants for criminals who need to be taken off the streets, the five Republican Commissioners approved an amendment that will defund these positions.

8) Eckhart and Creighton propose slashing the IT budget, as well as some mowers in General Services, by approximately $1.3 million. All five Republicans approved this amendment to the budget.

9) Chairman Dean Browning wants to end longevity pay, step increases and wage hikes for all union workers during 2011, excepting Deputy Sheriffs, which will save the County $1.6 million. Implementation is contingent upon collective bargaining.

Browning's amendment was adopted by the Republican majority.

10) Comm'r William Hansell wants to use gaming revenue to restore the $100,000 "MORE for Children" program.

Only Hamm, Dougherty and Hansell supported this initiative.

11) Hansell's budget amendment to provide $75,000 for a regional composting project from gaming revenue, died for lack of a second.

12) An Andy Roman proposal to eliminate funding for a widely regarded Main Street revitalization program was accepted, 6-3. Commissioner Hamm sided with Republicans on this one.

13) Glenn Eckhart called it the "nuclear option" on the radio, but supported an Andy Roman proposal to raid the $20 million stabilization, or "rainy day" fund, to reduce a tax hike. Commissioner David Jones, in what was thankfully his only sermon of the night, condemned the idea, noting that "cannibalization of our previous stabilization fund is what led to this crisis."

Only Eckhart, Roman and Creighton were willing to raid the rainy day fund.
Blogger's Note: In the video compilations of last night's meeting, I tried to avoid identifying people, but one of the major playas was Lehigh County GOP Chair Wayne Woodman. I also finally got to see Otto Slozer. It was one of the most interesting meetings I ever attended, and I pretty much stayed up all night to get those videos ready.

When I wake up later today, I will immediately seek therapy.

44 comments:

michael molovinsky said...

bernie, thank you for this outstanding post. you truly brought the meeting to us who did not attend. more so, you managed to highlight the style of our players, on both side of the dais.

Anonymous said...

Wow. All these adverse affects on County government operation and they only reduced the budget by 2%. It appears most of what they did was did a pass down responsibility to Municipalities.

Did Eckert propose to cut funding for kitty cats?

It is quite interesting that the school district employee Mr Creighton voted against the same kind of funding/benefits/salary increase he himself benefits as a taxpayer funded school district employee.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 7:17 AM said...
Wow. All these adverse affects on County government operation and they only reduced the budget by 2%. It appears most of what they did was did a pass down responsibility to Municipalities.

****

Yep, they did, and you know what--- good for them. A lot of this 'stuff' should be municiple responsiblity, and not handled at the county level. TY Comm. Eckert for leading the charge for fiscally responsible gov't.

Chris Casey said...

I was bothered by the obviuos manipulations to pit certain divisions of employees against each other. I also feel that at times the Tea Party activist were not just confrontational but downright disrespectful.
A Throwback to the early days of democracy? Maybe, but I'm not sure it is a good thing

Bernie O'Hare said...

MM, Are you OK? Knowing that this post has pleased you, I'll immediately take it down.

Clem said...

The base premise that government must provide services at above market value prices has not, and will not, change. Singular, disconnected cuts that do not even begin to address the systemic dysfunction.

A public display of energy and effort, and still a 14% increase. Once again, activity is confused with accomplishment.

Anonymous said...

Good for Commissioner Browning for helping eliminate longevity pay. Seems to me the long time employees ought to be paying the County longevity pay for letting them keep their cushy jobs and benefits.

Anonymous said...

Browning, Creighton, Doughtery, Eckhert and Roman will vote against the amended budget (they don't want to be on record voting for a 14% tax increase), meaning it will fail and the 16% tax increase will become the budget.

These guys are in a bad situation. Vote for the 14% tax increase or be responsible for a 16% tax increase. Not a good place to be for these guys.

Anonymous said...

What is really sad about this is that all the gaming revenue that they speak of should have been Northampton county's money..They never should have gotten their hands on that money nor should have the city of Easton..Whoever horse traded that away and all of those who let it be done shouldn't be balancing budgets on the backs of the employees because they screwed up. Be responsible and increase rates at a moderate level like Stoffa proposed last year..That makes sense..Again an 18% increase means about $2.00 a week for taxpayers..So let's be responsible and spread the pain around and stop listening to these tea party nuts who want to slash everyones salary so they can save a buck a week...Go yell at the school boards..School taxes are what's killing us all!!

Anonymous said...

That's a fair point, anon 9:22.....and one I sure hadn't thought of. Anyone with half a brain should have known that the casino was going to Bethlehem, not Allentown. It is surprising that Northampton COunty didn't negotiate the home county portion harder.....but....then again.....it could be said that that's how the area got a casino at all.....the host fee sharing agreement.

Good point though.

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:17 ----

I don't think Creighton is a school district employee......he's a contractor.

Anonymous said...

Well thank you 9:28,

Should note that the casino was definitely coming to this area..Everyone knew that..So the infamous host fee sharing agreement was crap..Northampton County got screwed. Then the second time they allowed easton to get 450,000 a year for no reason..At this time the casino was already here...

Patrick McHenry said...

Anon 9:22 said:

"Again an 18% increase means about $2.00 a week for taxpayers."

*********************************

It is not an insignificant amount to people on fixed incomes, people with children, or anyone who thinks they know how to spend their money better than the government does.

If the amount is so insignificant, let the county workers give back what has been overpaid to them. It is the greed of union employees that is causing the increase.

Anonymous said...

Permission to Change Topic:
Bernie
It just occurred to us as we were reading about county employees, who took over Kevin Easterling's job in
Allentown? Doesn't the city
require job posting and the ability of city workers as well as residents to have a chance to apply? What happened to that job?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good for Commissioner Browning for helping eliminate longevity pay. Seems to me the long time employees ought to be paying the County longevity pay for letting them keep their cushy jobs and benefits.

8:15 A

Boy is this true! We'd love one of these county jobs and would be grateful the rest of our working days to have one.

Anonymous said...

Wow..If the County employees have such cushy jobs why not apply? Hopw come you dont work for the County?? I am sick and tired about hearing about the greedy unions..The county had to agree to any contract they have morons..It's not as if they asked and the county said, "sure whatever you need..Geez how stupid are you people?? Cant afford a dollar a week? Stop going to casino..Stop smoking..Use coupons!!!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Change Topic Guy,

I don't think Easterling's slot has been filled.

Anonymous said...

I think it's funny that some people cant figure out how to save a dollar a week but they want government to trim millions in employee salries instead..Give me a break!!

Anonymous said...

Employees are taxpayers too and believe it or not they have children to support also..So to save taxpayers $2.00 a week they and their families should cut out hundreds a month in salaries..Yea, that's fair..

Anonymous said...

"and the crime-ridden streets of downtown Allentown"

Very subtle. Next time include an express reference to big Ed and try and work in the man cave.

Anonymous said...

"and the crime-ridden streets of downtown Allentown"

But they are. It's true. Two murders and a young woman almost killed, all in one week, we'd sure call that crime-ridden.

Chris Casey said...

I just checked the census figures, and we have about 350,000 residents in Lehigh County. All things being equal (Which they are not) to cover $16 Million dollar gap you are talking about $52 bucks a resident. But the rub here is the County collects its revenue through property taxe assessments.

I look at my Lehigh County Tax bill, and I see it going up $130.00 next year. So monthly it is going up from around $71 to around $80.

$130.00 is a lot more than $52.
So are we getting punished for being stupid enough to try and own our home (Well at least lease it from the School District for all intents and purposes, they get close to $3500 a year)?

And Upper Macungie is raising their taxes next year, as well as garhbage and sewer fees.

I'm looking at a total of $5K just to the government for owning a home. That's over $400 a month, that is a car payment!

And I haven't tallied the 1% PIT that my School districy gets on top of property taxes. That pushes our household over $6k (At least it did last year, this year, probably not)

And people wonder why citizens aren't buying anything?

I understand we can't unilaterally cut out everything, but these arguments are taking place at every level.

I actually support the Quality of life grants and other community spending, but I agree they should be pared back to show some recognition of shared sacrifice.

There are certain things we need in the community, what we need to do is spend less on everything, and quit dreaming.

I think there are some people in Government who would suggest balancing the budget by purchasing powerball tickets and promising we will win.

Oh wait, BASD already did that with Swaps, didn't it?

Guess that won't work after all!

Anonymous said...

Right Chris, Your county tax is going up $9. a month...So why are the employes asked to give up hundreds a month so you don't have to pay $2.30 a week? Not fair since most of them are taxpayers also..Are there other places to cut., I'm sure..However could most taxpayers save $2.50 cents a week to pay County taxes..probably..It is the school district that is killing everyone but we can thank the republican state senate for not moving on state income taxes and assisting districts through a
less than regessive property tax system.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I suspect that BOTH parties can share the blame for the complete failure to adopt meaningful property tax reform. I also suspect that Cinnungham's 16.1% tax hike will go into effect by default, as there is no political wll to approve an amended budget with a 14% hike. So all the cuts proposed will have been for naught.

But even if an amended budget were adopted, the nonunion raises are safe.

Anonymous said...

"also suspect that Cinnungham's 16.1% tax hike will go into effect by default, as there is no political wll to approve an amended budget with a 14% hike."

In other words, they would rather taxpayers get screwed more b/c they don't want to be accused of raising taxes. This is like 2005 all over again. If they had any decency, they would raise taxes 14% and save us money.

To be really cynical, I could see Browning, Creighton, Eckert and Roman voting no, Doughtery voting yes and two D's (Hamm/Hansel) voting no either b/c they like Cunninghams budget more, b/c they think all the cuts are too many cuts or b/c they don't want to give the block of four R's a victory over Cunningham. Either way, Cunningham's budget will be past. Browning, Creighton and the two clowns will be stuck with a tag of "voted for a 16% tax hike" or "voted for a 14% tax hike." Good conservatives.

Patrick McHenry said...

Anon said

"Employees are taxpayers too and believe it or not they have children to support also..So to save taxpayers $2.00 a week they and their families should cut out hundreds a month in salaries..Yea, that's fair."

**********************************

Government (all levels) salaries have gone up well above the level of inflation over the past several years, and at a much higher rate than the private sector.

It is about time that public sector jobs correct themselves to face this reality.

It is certainly fair that those who have benefited from this inequity (government employees) be the ones who pay for this correction.

So yes, it is fair and you should be thankful that you don't have to pay back the amounts you've been overpaid to date.

RS said...

Anon 1:31:
"Right Chris, Your county tax is going up $9. a month...So why are the employes asked to give up hundreds a month so you don't have to pay $2.30 a week?"

The employees are being denied a raise. That's different from having the money taken out of your pocket.

Take to the retired or the private sector employees. What type of raise are those who still have jobs getting?

Anonymous said...

RS 4:18,
The non-union county employees are paying a higher contribution towards health insurance. Without a modest increase in salary, these employees would see a large reduction in their actual income.

Anonymous said...

Generally speaking, how are we solving any problems if we simply push the tax burden down to the Muncipalities especially when we hear all this talk about Regionalization and steamlining government to cut costs. Is the new trend now a greater emphasis on stronger local governments?

Anonymous said...

Once again blame the Union County Employees...this is just ridiculous! Cushy jobs?? Please. Just because you say it doesn't make it true. The fact is most of us Union Workers are struggling right along with the private sector. Our wages aren't what you make them out to be. I couldn't live on my own on my wages working for the County for over twenty years...if it weren't for my husband who works in the private sector I would be requiring assistance to survive. Some County postitions pay well and are above average however the majority of workers who you attack that are union workers don't make the great salaries you want to public to beleive. As usual blame the little worker. Politics as Usual.

Anonymous said...

The below post made at 10:03 am, no doubt made by a county employee at work on a county computer, proves the point precisely!
Long term County employees should be paying longevity pay to the county taxpayers!

"Wow..If the County employees have such cushy jobs why not apply? Hopw come you dont work for the County?? I am sick and tired about hearing about the greedy unions..The county had to agree to any contract they have morons..It's not as if they asked and the county said, "sure whatever you need..Geez how stupid are you people?? Cant afford a dollar a week? Stop going to casino..Stop smoking..Use coupons!!!"

10:03 AM

NLVlogic said...

Browning, Creighton, Doughtery, Eckhert and Roman will vote against the amended budget (they don't want to be on record voting for a 14% tax increase), meaning it will fail and the 16% tax increase will become the budget.

BINGO and Deja Vue. Give the author a cupcake!

This is exactly what they did the last time, but failed because they did not want to go on record for voting for any tax increase, even the lesser one, and they let us all suffer with the 70% increase versus their then proposed 45%(ish). They could not pass the lesser budget lest they have been brandished for voting for any increase. The GOP then blacklisted those that voted for the lower increase, in that case in point Roger Reiss. They threw him out with the bath water.

In this case they have again two evils, take the lesser one or propose and vote for something better! This is what we elect them. Lets see if they have any balls. Draw the line in the sand!

And one commenter is right, only slash two percent, HA!

My prediction: the result will be a BOTH PARTY failure. And give BO a silver star!

Anonymous said...

Although I am a Northampton County Union (not by choice) employee, I believe I can speak for the Lehigh County employees.

There are employees that are paid quite well in the County (normally non-union employees). I already gave Bernie an opportunity to look at the pay scales. If you ACTUALLY looked at them you will find that they are NOT paid at the level of Industry. Again, these scales would be from Northampton County. I do appreciate the economic times, and understand the financials hardships we ALL are experiencing. Just don't be so quick to blame one group when you REALLY haven't seen all the facts. You've only heard about them in a blog/newspaper. Obviously the newspaper is 100% accurate, 100% of the time.

As far as the 10:03am post that some person is saying is being written on work time; ever hear of 2nd and 3rd shift workers you idiot?

Long time Northampton County employee

Anonymous said...

If you view county union positions you will find many that are paid very well, Most far out pace their private sector counterparts.

The days of a public service union are long past. Longtime union employees would rather the counties lay-off than take a freeze or a cut. They know that with seniority and "bumping", the most senior staff is safe so screw the new staff.

It is funny that when Northampton County did this in 2004, Reibman was lambasted by Republicans and O'Hare but now it is a wonderful idea. Funny how it comes down to personality not policy. The hypocrisy lives on.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think the excess proceeds from gaming should have been distributed to more municipalities to augment police funding. How is it that Cities and municipalities in Northampton County can apply for gaming money from Monroe County casino but Anon 922 thinks Northampton County should keep it all the Sands proceeds? Lehigh County municipalities do no have an exclusivity on retail, hotels, or entertainment, however Bethlehem and Northampton County does have an exclusivity on gaming.

Anonymous said...

Nearly every private sector firm has restructured their businesses reducing headcount, cutting compensation or both. Government has done nothing. To say that taxpayers are greedy for wanting to save $2 a week while County employees are being asked to cut hundreds a month is either disingenuous or ignorant. Taxpayers in huge numbers have seen their own income decline by that and more. Now County residents are being asked to pay more taxes to support a work force that has regularly received above inflation wage increase and now County employees want to protest a pay freeze. If the County was acting properly it would substantially reduce headcount and begin to pressure the remaining organization to raise their productivity. Any County employee that is dissatisfied with the proposals affecting their jobs has the same right as the rest of us to seek employment elsewhere. I can guarantee the opening they create will happily be pursued by the over 10% of our County that is unemployed. Its time to stop whining. We should be better than that. Shared sacrifice doesn't mean that I sacrifice more of my dollars to taxes while County employees share them.

Anonymous said...

To Patrick McHenry 3:46 PM,

Arent you embarrassed at all when you make such ridiculously ignorant statements as you have.."let the county workers give back what is overpaid to them."
Has your brain gone south for the wintwer? What the hell are you talking about? When the economy was buzzing along and county employees were getting a 2% increase did they ask the County to reopen their contracts so they could get a "fair" increase. How many times in good times or whenever has the county reopened the contracts to increase salaries?
Duh! Let me think? OK, never!
The county has agreed to the contracts and they have no right to ask for hundreds in monthly consessions..No more right than the County employees had to open the contract during good times and ask for more money..Fair is fair. Period. The greed of union employees..Again, the county negotiates the contract also..Why is that so damn hard for you teabagheads to grasp...Geez..Go south and fetch your damn brain already patrick!

Anonymous said...

Dear 8:11,

Why aren't you a county employee if things are so good. Due to constant turnover because of the demands of the job County children and youth are always looking for workers..Just take the civil service test and see how you do..No one said taxpayers are greedy for wanting to save $2.00 a week except you..I guess it might be ignorant to say that, you did however, not me. You say county employees have received wages exceeding inflation Do you even know what these wages are? I guess not..What is the average wage of a County employee? You have no freaking idea , do you..Stop making statements that have no basis in fact..None! You say the county should reduce it's headcount. Yea Mr. Ignorant. that would make no sense at all especially in human Services..The County pays about a tenth of the salary and benefits of human service workers but gets 100% of the services. So if you cut these people you have to be a complete and utter fool. You speak of county employees seeking employment elsewhere. Well maybe you should seek county employment if it's so damn cushy and they are so overpaid. Join them!!! Shared sacrifice is asking the county employees to give some while asking the taxpayers to do the same..Asking County employees and their families to take cuts of hundreds a month so you dont have to pay an extra dollar a week is just freaking insane. In fact, why don't you run for office and tell everyone that's what you want to do..Best of luck with that!

Anonymous said...

Government workers always whine about the money they make, or could earn in the private sector. Go there then! You trade security for capital when you choose a public position, it's that simple. BTW, those of us in the private sector pay a lot for our health benefits.

Many of us have not received an increase in 2 years because of the economy, and layoffs everywhere. You folks are truly out of touch.

It's amazing and sad to see how little government officials know about economics.

Anonymous said...

Dear 1025 am,

Who is whining about their job? Who is saying they'd do better in the private sector? Is that on another blog? The County employees that have received increases got those increases because they are contractual. You know what that means? God, people, employees don't walk into a room and say "hey, give me more money." They have contractual raises..If the county doesn't wish to give raises at the end of these contracts then they shouldn't offer any..Maybe you are the one that needs to take an economic course! If you didn't get a raise for two years maybe it's based on merit..

Anonymous said...

Dear 10:24

County employee compensation, particularly union compensation, has grown at 2.5 X inflation rates for 20 years. That is a fact of the budget and beyond dispute. I am sorry that government mismanagement has now caused a need to restructure government. However that is also a fact. As I pointed out previously this is a common fact of life for everyone else both citizens and business. We have all taken a hit as the economy tanked. It is now time for government to be confronted by the pressure of this recession. This is not with an intent to punish government employees or government itself. Rather it is with an intent to create an environment in this County for recovery to occur. Do you really think that people will put up with endless tax hikes and lazy government. This County has been a major beneficiary of NJ migration as people fled ever escalating property tax and lazy government. Do you no see that any of us can move away to more effectively managed counties or states? You suggest I become a county employee if things are so good? I did not suggest that. I am sure county employees work as hard as the rest of us and have the same concerns. I run my own business. That is my choice and I have to confront the tough choices that running a business entails. You are where you are by choice. You are not there by right or entitlement. No on guarantees your life or your future. Simply, the environment we are in requires government to shrink if the rest of our society is to have a chance to recover and thrive again. If government here does not get a grip on itself then the county will deteriorate.

Anonymous said...

Dear 11:21,

You sound a bit more reasonable. Very doubtful that Northampton county employees are making 2.5 x the inflation rate for the last twenty years..unlike lehigh county, until their past contract, step increases have not been a part of their contract. So I although i cannot speak for other government employees I can assure you that is not the case for Northampton county employees..Northampton County employees are also paid less than their counterparts in bucks, berks, and Lehigh counties..Across the river in new jersey County employees in Human services are paid much more...My point is that NorthamptonCounty employees are far from overpaid..Therefore , again, it is patently unfair to expect them to freeze salaries which would cost them hundreds a month because you don't want to ask county residents for $2.00 a week for all County services..Again, Human Services especially is a great deal for the County because they only pay 10% of the employees benefits and salaries but county residents get 100% of the services...

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:04 A few of the county workers that filed up to the podium were complaining about the fact that they make less than the private sector, and they could be making so much more.
The wage freezes were company wide, not based on merit. It's called basic economics. When things are stagnant that's what happens, except in government. I guess you think money comes from magic.

Anonymous said...

Well... the world needs ditch diggers too. That is what a County and Local Municipal employee equates to in the eyes of the private sector employee. But we all know that a government has to be provided. In today's day and age, it can't be provided by ditch diggers. Many if not most municipal jobs require technical and college training as a minimum. It involves dealing with irate people for the most part. Trained people need to provide these services. If not, there will be no government and no one will get any services. I guess the anarchist will prevail if this bash the local government employee mentality continues.