Blogger's Note: On Monday, I published an op-ed from Lehigh County Comm'r Brad Osborne, opposing a 5.5% tax hike proposed in next year's budget. Fairness dictated a request to Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong, asking him to explain why it's needed. His response is below. I thank both of these county leaders for their input.
Budget season is upon us again, and that means the inevitable fights over tax rates, amendments and complex finances. As both County Executive and a resident of Lehigh County, I want to set the record straight and spell out the facts.
While every budget inevitability comes down to two key numbers, revenue and expenditures, lets recognize what those numbers truly represent. A budget is about our values, our commitments and priorities. It’s also reflective of hard truths, numbers don’t lie, and a good budget is about more than the next year.
First, I’d like to explain plainly some key misconceptions surrounding this year’s budget. Yes, I’ve requested, a tax increase this year, which breaks down to about $3 more per month for a homeowner. Let’s be clear, this proposal is not made lightly or without regard to the well-being of our county taxpayers.
This administration made many tough decisions. We saved over $1.5 million in prescription drug costs, and made $638,000 in payroll cuts. My administration takes seriously the significance of asking for this increase, but to be clear, it’s entirely necessary.
Second, you’ll likely hear two claims from some commissioners. One is we don’t have ability to accurately predict tax revenues, the second concerns the validity of our five-year plan. It was recently suggested by one of our commissioners, that last year the county came in with $9 million more than expected. This is deliberately attempting misleading to the public.
In local government, we deal with encumbrances, plainly speaking, this is money planned for an expense that has yet to produce a bill. In 2019, we had $8 million in encumbrances payable in 2020, meaning we truly only came in $1 million better than expected.
It’s important to remember, our budget is $514 million of which only $115 million was from local property taxes, predicting our exact revenue within $1 million is essentially a 1% margin error. That’s a high degree of accuracy and common in any organization with a large budget.
Furthermore, several commissioners have cast doubt on our five-year financial plan. It’s a plan they requested and it’s a plan you paid for, to the tune of $40,000.
That plan shows us depleting our stabilization fund by 2023 at our current millage rate. The fact is this, you paid for a plan that pointed to facts that some commissioners are choosing to disagree with because its politically convenient. In the end, you’ll pay a lot more.
Lehigh County is filled with examples of municipalities that chose to take things year by year instead of planning for the future. Commissioner Osborne, should know this best.
As a South Whitehall Township Commissioner from 2005-2012, taxes stayed flat, while expenses went up and reserves went down. Three years later, South Whitehall saw its taxes rise, 36% in one year, and 11% percent the next.
Allentown made the same error, hitting its residents with a 27% increase last year, and Lehigh County not long ago passed along a 70% increase to its residents.
As a social studies teacher, I can confidently say those who don’t learn from their own history will certainly repeat it.
Finally, it’s about what’s in the budget that should matter to our residents. It’s our $46.7 million renovation of Cedarbrook, the social safety net for our seniors. It’s two sheriffs’ deputies that will process PFA’s ensuring that domestic abusers no longer have firearms to harm their partners and $3 million for farmland preservation. Our budget funds Children and Youth, the courts and corrections. It’s a matter of protecting the vulnerable, keeping you safe and investing in your future.
Commissioners can’t say they support these initiatives but oppose how we get there, blocking this year’s budget puts our values and wallets in jeopardy.
$3 more per month is a small price to pay for these things, and its certainly preferable to the sticker shock of a large increase down the road. I proposed this increase because I believe that we must meet the needs of our community.
If you believe in this mission too, then support this budget at the Commissioner meetings. You can stand up for our seniors, our children, our sheriffs, our public servants and our finances.