|Hayden Phillips is NorCo Council's conservative conscience|
Brown's New Budget Reduces Fund balance to Just $1 Million
The storm clouds began gathering the day before, when Fiscal Director Jim Hunter told Council's Finance Committee that the County will end 2014 with a fund balance of just $21 million. This news comes at a time when Executive John Brown has submitted a new Amended Budget. It removes a $20 million line of credit that Council Solicitor Phil Lauer advised might be illegal. It makes up for that missing line of credit by spending down the reserve..
Since Executive John Brown is projecting to use $20 million of that fund to balance the 2015 Budget, that means the County will start off the new year with a reserve of just $1 million. That's risky business in a County that spends an average of $8-10 million per month.
It's also contrary to advice from the County's independent auditor. In June, she recommended that there should be at least six months of expenses in the till at all times, which is approximately $60 million. Other accounting firms are a little more lenient, suggesting that one or two months are sufficient. Even others suggest 10% of the total budget.
Council's Most Conservative Members Urge Tax Hike
This new budget, along with Hunter's recent disclosures, resulted in a sleepless night for Council member Hayden Phillips. Phillips, a member of the Lehigh Vally Tea Party, ran his entire campaign based on the principles of limited government, individual rights and fiscal responsibility. He is without question Council's most conservative member. Yet it is this conservative who called for a tax hike.
"I do my business and make decisions in my life based on how well I sleep," confessed Phillips. "yesterday, when we were told that we're going to eat into the reserves and go into a new budget with $1 million of reserve, I didn't sleep well. I didn't sleep well at all. I think if we do that, we are really fiscally irresponsible. And how can we cut $20 million? I don't see how we can ct $20 million. I'll go on record, I'm thinking we need a tax hike."
Phillips' remarks were echoed by Mat Benol, arguably Council's second most conservative member.
"We're in a mess," he admitted. "If a tax increase is needed, it's unfortunate, but we can't be dipping into our fund balances the way that it's proposed."
Ron Angle Challenges Council to be Leaders
Phillips and Benol may have been inspired by comments made by Ron Angle, a fellow conservative and former member of Council, earlier in the meeting.
"A leader is a person who makes the tough decisions that need to be made," he told Council. "Sometimes, it's a tax increase."
Angle was also highly critical of Brown's budget leaving just $1 million in the budgetary reserve, calling it "insane". He implored Lamont McClure and other Democrats to stop trying to make Brown look bad. "He's doing a pretty good job of it on his own," he observed. "You need to spend your time coming up with other ways to make things happen that are good here,"
Brown declined to respond to Angle's scathing assessment or provide any report at all.
Open Space Funding Pitched
Aside from $1 million in funding that has been promised for municipal parks, Brown's budget contains no finding for farmland preservation or purchases of environmentally sensitive land. Brown has told Council that open space activists are willing to wait. But that's not the case for Bill Mineo, a member of the Open Space Advisory Board, and Don Moore, a member of Plainfield Township's Environmental Advisory Council. Angle also urged Council to restore funding for farmland preservation, noting it is the number one industry in Pennsylvania. "When that land is gone, it's gone forever."
Though Council has no power to make revenue estimates, it does have the power to adopt a higher millage rate than the one proposed by the Executive. That matter and Budget amendments will be considered again when Council meets on December 4. If Council fails to adopt or amend the executive's Amended Budget by December 16, his Budget will be deemed adopted.