Northampton County Council last night unanimously approved a no-tax-hike budget for 2021. The $440 million spending plan for next year, which Executive Lamont McClure first introduced on October 2, is 11% lower than this year's budget. It comes at the end of over 20 hours of budget hearings. It keeps the tax rate at 11.8 mills, where it's been for the past seven years. A home assessed at $75,000 will receive a tax bill next year for $885. The budget is also balanced.
"Well Council, you can pat yourself on the back. You just passed a budget," observed Council President Ron Heckman.
The only bone of contention was DA Terry Houck's $100,000 request for participation in Lehigh County's Regional Intelligence and Investigation Center (RIIC). On Tuesday, Northampton County Council, at the request of Council member Lori Vargo-Heffner, voted to reduce that contribution by $50,000. But last night, Vargo-Heffner was the only Council member still willing to reduce Houck's request. The remaining Council members voted to restore the funding.
Houck made clear that the $100,000 requested is the "amount of funding that I feel is important to keep us safe. ... That's really what this is all about."
Council members John Cusick and Kevin Lott suggested that Houck use the drug forfeiture fund to pay for the RIIC, but that is arguably illegal. Under state law, a District Attorney "shall not anticipate future forfeitures or proceeds therefrom in in adoption and approval of the budget for the district attorney." Council member Peg Farraro made this point during the discussion.
Vargo-Heffner, who is up for re-election next year, denied she was cutting Houck's budget. "I'm not telling you how to fight crime," she snarked. "I'm not trying to be bat girl."
Perhaps not, but perhaps batty girl. Since the inception of the Home Rule Charter, County Council has never rejected a budget request made by a District Attorney. Council has always deferred to the county's chief law enforcement officer.
Houck disputed Vargo-Heffner's denial that she wanted to cut his budget, "I asked for $100,000, and that is not in my budget."
This is the third budget in a row that Executive McClure has proposed that calls for no tax hike while fully funding open space. No county contribution was needed at Gracedale.