|Hayden Phillips and Phil Lauer|
What does this tax hike mean? For the average Northampton County home, which is assessed at $58,800, it means a $693.84 County tax bill. That's an increase of $58.80 over the the current tax bill of $635.04.
What prompted Republicans to propose the tax hike? Concerns over the depleted rainy day fund. Fiscal Affairs Director Jim Hunter has predicted that the County reserves will be down to just $1 million by the end of next year. The County spends between $8-10 million per month.
This news caused a sleepless night for Phillips, who is concerned about the County having no funds for an emergency. Part of his proposed tax hike would place that mill of extra taxes into the rainy day fund, which is technically called the stabilization fund. Phillips added that he would propose a new ordinance to "beef up" the requirements for dipping into that lockbox.
Lamont McClure scoffed at the notion of a tax hike "that can't be used for anything," But Geissinger, who was chairing the meeting while an ill Peg Ferraro tried to participate from home by phone, explained that the intent is to make sure that Council approves any future spending done from that fund.
Referring to Phillips' sleepless night, Lamont McClure stated that what keeps him up at night "is the elderly lady in Northampton, who's trying to stay in her house." He added, You want to raise taxes, and don't want to give me the parameters for what can and can't be done. You realize your stabilization fund could probably be raided by the Executive if he needs to."
Glenn Geissinger was uncharacteristically blunt. "We have sat and watched over $40 million get pissed away." He also added that he wants to make sure money is there to make payroll.
In addition to approving the tax hike, Council also adopted the revised budget that Executive Brown had submitted, but not before considering five amendments, four of which were adopted.
Tourism grants increases. - These are funded by hotel tax revenue, and not real estate taxes, and may only be applied to projects that enhance tourism. Ken Kraft proposed $25,000 for docents at The Historic Bethlehem Partnership. Peg Ferraro sought $30,000 for Easton's State Theatre. This passed 8-1, with only Hayden Phillips opposed. Noting all of Easton's fiscal problems, Phillips complained that Easton has adopted a resolution supporting driver's licenses for illegal aliens. Quoting from remarks by District Attorney John Morganelli, Phillips complained that granting licenses to illegal aliens places Yemeni terrorists and gang members on the same legal footing as law abiding citizens. "Easton is in a hole, it's dug it's own hole,and it's still digging," he remarked. "Don't pull us down." Though Ken Kraft noted that Easton and the State Theatre are not quite the same thing, Phillips called his vote a "protest vote."
Open Space funding restored. - Though John Brown gutted open space in his proposed budget, Scott Parsons proposed restoring $750,000 for farmland preservation as well as $400,000 for environmentally sensitive land purchases. Instead of using rel estate tax revenue, Parsons suggested dipping into $2.9 million in table games revenue. Solicitor Phil Lauer ruled that table games money can be used for any project "in the public interest." Hayden Phillips,an opponent of open space funding, was the sole No.vote.
Elimination of Deputy Director of Administration Position, $93,500. - This measure, proposed by Lamont McClure, was aimed at Deputy Director of Administration Cathy Allen. Her travel expenses were recently flagged by Controller Steve Barron. he has called on her to reimburse the County $1,006.85. Brown, whose travel expenses are also under attack, defended Allen, claiming it "wasn't an intentionality." He called the attack at her a "political jab" and stated he "wold love to have ten more Cathy Allens." This amendment failed in a straight-party, 5-4 vote.
Reducing Administration Budget, $150,000. - Over the past year, Council and Brown have sparred over his penchant to use consultants, including a controversial $75,500 contract with public relations consultant Sahl Communications and $58,000 for a series of contracts with cost control consultant C3. Lamont McClure proposed "breaking this culture of consultant cronyism" by making it more difficult for the Executive to negotiate these contracts without Council approval. This amendment passed in a 5-4 vote. It was supported by all four democrats and Hayden Phillips.
Reducing Inmate Treatment Program, $750,000. - Former Executive John Stoffa, a proponent of rehabilitation, had long advocated for rehabilitation of inmates at the County jail, arguing that programs that treat inmates reduce the rate at which they re-offend. But a performance audit performed by the Controller revealed that the jail is still a revolving door for 51% of the people treated in these programs. McClure recommended scrapping the program, arguing that it was time to come up with another treatment plan. Executive Brown argued against this cut, stating that Council was "artificially handcuffing" departments that need time to do it right. Council voted to eliminate the funding anyway, in a 6-3 vote, with only Ferraro, Benol and Geissinger siding with continuing the treatment program.
After considering all amendements, Council voted to adopt the $340 million budget, as amended. Only Lamont McClure and Ken Kraft voted No.
Blogger's Note Updated 12/5, 1:25 am