|Phil Lauer and Lamont McClure|
$20 Million Line of Credit Makes Budget Illegal
Their action followed a determination by their Solicitor, Phil Lauer, that the Budget violates the Home Rule Charter requirement of a balanced budget. Brown had proposed balancing a budget with a $20 million line of credit, but the Home Rule Charter also prohibits using borrowed money for operational expenses in the absence of an emergency. Lauer also advised that the absence of details concerning the interest rate and terms of repayment may be contrary to the Administrative Code.
"I happen to disagree," responded Executive Brown, based on previous county practice. He noted that the County borrowed money in 2005 for open space, and that a bond refinance in 2012 included money that went to the general fund. But he agreed to amend the budget to remove the line of credit and instead use money from the general fund.
McClure Argues Brand New Budget Needed
This solution was unsatisfactory to Lamont McClure, who claimed that Council was tied into a "procedural knot." He noted that the Home Rule Charter contains no provisions under which the Executive can amend his budget. It also bars Council from revising revenue projections. So he argued that a new budget should be advertised and forwarded to every municipality in the County. Peg Ferraro asked Brown if he could do that in time for adoption in December, and he shrugged.
"This is part of the problem," said McClure. "We don't get to make up the rules as we go along. ... We can't just wave a magic wand."
Even Phil Lauer balked at McClure's proposal, noting it would be difficult to have a brand new budget ready in December. Peg Ferraro echoed a concern over time constraints.
"I don't think you ignore the law because there's time constraints," retorted McClure. "There's been too much ignoring the law around here."
Can the Executive revise revenue projections?
In previous budgets, Executives have often revised revenue projections, a point that Peg Ferraro made. "It's not something that hasn't been done," she observed. "We just need a revised revenue amendment."
While the Home Rule Charter has no express provision authorizing the Executive to amend his own spending plan, it fails to expressly ban it. Council, however, is barred from interfering with the Executive's revenue projections, and thus has no authority to remove the $20 million line of credit from the budget on its own motion, even if it is deemed illegal.
Do you really need to re-advertise?
In addition to the question whether an Executive can amend his own Budget, McClure expressed concern that the public has been misled that the Budget includes borrowed money, and believes the only way to cure that problem is with a new budget.
Seth Vaughn, in his eleventh month on Council, agreed that it "would in a sense be deceptive to the electorate." He believes that a brand new budget would protect the County from "potential litigation." In reality, Council has the authority to amend any ordinance after a public hearing, with no further need to advertise the matter.
Benol Claims McClure is Playing Politics
Mat Benol called McClure's proposal nothing more than an attempt "to throw more slings and arrows at the executive. Nothing is being hidden. All the meetings are recorded. Everything is out there."
"I take umbrage at your saying this is a political mudslinging deal," Ken Kraft told Benol. "That's just nonsense. ... It's helping the process along"
Peg Ferraro, a veteran of many Councils who knows that Executives routinely adjust their revenue projections, was the sole No vote. Glenn Geissinger was absent.
Did Council Just Enact the Very Budget They Rejected?
This was a dangerous move.
Under Northampton County's Home Rule Charter, the Executive's Budget goes into effect if Council fails to approve or amend it by December 16. Even if council votes to reject the Budget, it is deemed adopted. Executive Brown, who has been at odds with Council, could simply do nothing and the Budget he's already proposed, legal or not, will be deemed approved on December 16.
The Home Rule Charter may actually prohibit him from submitting a new plan at this time, even if he wanted to do so, He is required to submit his budget no later than 75 days before the next fiscal year, and that time has already passed.
So by rejecting the Budget last night, County Council may have unwittingly approved it.