If you own a home in Northampton County assessed at $75,000, your 2023 county tax bill will be $810. Two years ago, that same home would have cost you $885 tax bill. At a time when inflation has skyrocketed 7.7%, the 2023 Budget adopted by Northampton County Council last night should be welcome news.
The $544.8 million spending for next year plan is actually 4.5% smaller than it was in 2022. It follows what Executive Lamont McClure told Council was 14 hours of hearings. He said that, despite disagreements over some aspects of the budget, it's "another no tax increase budget, a credit to us all," He stressed that the spending plan will fully fund a green future, open space and environmentally sensitive land. He concluded the "overarching theme is working together and fully funding core responsibilities."
During courtesy of the floor, Council heard from three entities that would be impacted, positively or negatively, by how Council would vote.
Bruce Haines, managing partner of Historic Hotel Bethlehem. was lead-off hitter. there because Council was considering a request for $75,000 to promote the tourist agenda for historic Bethlehem. Through pass through grants from the Chamber of Commerce, historic Bethlehem has already received $185,00 to market the hotels, family-owned shops and restaurants along Main Street. He said they are under assault by Amazon and warehouses. He requested $75,000 in June and a county committee recommended only $12,500, not enough to buy even one ad in marketing magazines. He wants $62,500.
Kurt Landes, who lives in Nazareth. is President of the Iron Pigs and was second in the line-up. He was there because, as Council President Lori Vargo Heffner threatened two days earlier, they were about to get a "haircut" of the hotel taxes set aside for the Iron Pigs. He asked Council to fully fund the grant. He called Coca Cola Park a "regional asset" that "needs the full support of the Lehigh Valley. Of 700 people employed by the Iron Pigs, 44% come from NorCo. Of 8 million fans who have visited Coca Cola Park over 14 years, 41% from NorCo. The Iron Pigs is one of the top five drawing teams., but provides "affordable family entertainment," Of 30 teams, the Iron Pigs ranks 27 of 30 in costs for a family of four. "Baseball is a very small part of what we do," he observed. Coca Cola Park hosts 119 events a year, in addition to 75 season games. Iron Pigs Charities has given back $2 million over 14 years. mostly to youth organization and for kids who are differently abled.
Rick Molchany, a NorCo resident is Lehigh County's Director of General Services. He was the third hitter. He noted Lehigh County, which owns CocaCola Park, makes no profit. "People don't come here because we have a good jail; they come for quality of life." He conceded Allentown elected not to fund the Iron Pigs, but has assumed social services enabling Lehigh County to reduce its spending there by $1.5 million. He said Lehigh County has helped fund Artsquest, State Theatre and even to Northampton County Historical Museum. He said the counties should work together to improve quality of life and called Artsquest an incredible regional asset,
Bath Mayor Fiorella-Mirabito was the clean-ip hitter. She asked the County to consider a $50,000 grant for a park master plan. "We can't do anything without a master plan," she said. "We're growing but we need help."
Following courtesy of the floor and a brief report from the Executive, Council got down to business.
In personnel matters, a raise for the Deputy Director of Administration was approved by 5-4 vote, strictly along party lines. Council member John Cusick said he was unable to support a $10,000 raise for a "political hire."
They unanimously approved a payhike for the Clerk to $118,000 and Deputy to $61,000. Council member Tara Zrinski said there should be more parity. Council member Ron Heckman retorted that's the reason for a pay study.
Other career service (nonunion) workers are getting a 3% cost of living adjustment.. Last year, they received a step, which is about 5%. Administration officials previously explained that the raises were kept at 3% to maintain parity with the county's union workforce. Heckman said that what drives employees crazy is that the county got away from using step increases in any systematic way. "I just don't see the purpose of the steps any more." Cusick observed that steps should be awarded as persons progress over their career. He also said that the 3% fails to keep pace with inflation. He made no motion to increase it.
The first budget amendment proposed was a reduction of $1,147,000 from a $1.5 million loan agreement with New England Hydropower Company for a small hydropower plant along the Delaware and Lehigh Canal at Easton's Hugh Moore Park. This project, first approved in 2018, would generate enough power for 500 homes, but the plan is to sell the energy to a local college.
Zrinski called the measure irresponsible. Council member Kerry Myers said he just learned that day that the hydropower plant is educational. Council member Kevin Lott observed that this is not corporate welfare, but a loan. There is also a dry dock and it will keep the canal going for 75 years.
Cusick said the money would be better spent on farmland preservation, affordable housing and repayment of student loans. He said this project would be better undertaken by the Industrial Development Authority.
Heckman argued the hydropower project was valuable and it is a loan, not a grant. He said he'd be willing to give New England Hydropower one more year "to get off the stick."
At this point, Council President Lori Vargo Heffner sought an amendment that would just eliminate $647,000 from the New England Hydropower loan inasmuch as farmland preservation is fully funded. this year
Lott complained that Cusick has provided no detailed plan for paying off student loans. Cusick agreed he has no specifics, but argued the money must be there first. Then Lott noted that Cusick is being inconsistent because he opposes funding a health center without more detail. "You can't have it both ways, John," he said.
Council member John Brown said that Cusick's proposal will attract and retain employees.
By a 5-4 vote, Council voted to remove $647,000 from the New England Hydropower loan and use that money to fund student loans and affordable housing. Council Members Lori Vargo Heffner, Tom Giovanni, John Brown, John Cusick and John Goffredo voted Yes. Council members Tara Zrinski, Kevin Lott, Ron Heckman and Kerry Myers voted against defunding.
The second budget amendment considered was the removal of $50,000 from Iron Pigs for future grants. This motion failed 7-2. Cusick and Goffredo were the dissenters.
The third budget amendment was removing $100,000 from elections funding to help fund student loans.
"So we're voting to defund elections?" asked Zrinski. "Just to make that clear."
Cusick argued that a state grant for the conduct of elections could be diverted and that is what he's been told by a state county organization. Administrator Charles Dertinger responded that there are limitations on how the money can be spent. He said that it even proscribes payments to elections workers. "We're not imagining that we have this money," he remarked. The county has received $1.1 million for elections expenses, but it is considered deferred revenue because it's unclear how it can be spent. .
This budget amendment failed by a 5-4 vote. Voting to defund elections by $100,000 were Vargo Heffner, John Cusick, Tom Giovanni and John Brown. Voting No to defund elections were John Goffredo, Tara Zrinski, Kevin Lott, Kerry Myers and Ron Heckman.
The fourth budget amendment was the removal of $5,000 from Iron Pigs for Touchstone Theatre and Godfrey Daniels. This was proposed by Vargo-Heffner even tough both Touchstone and Godfrey Daniel were already awarded exactly what they sought. Ron Heckman said Council members have a "time honored right to give a few dollars here and there to charities op their choice." This passed 7-2, with No votes from Zrinski and Lott.
The fifth budget amendment was the removal of $20,000 from Iron Pigs for Bath's park plan. Myers said that amendment would still fund both entities. This amendment passed 7-2, with No votes from Zrinski and Lott.
The sixth budget amendment removes $50,000 from Iron Pigs and places it in future grants. This leaves the Iron Pigs with $100,000.
This passed 8-1, with Kevin Lott being the sole dissenter.
The seventh budget amendment takes $62,500 from future grants and awards it to the Chamber for the benefit of historic Bethlehem tourism. DCED Director Tina Smith advised Council that the $75,000 ask was reduced because there already are numerous websites and promotions of tourism in Bethlehem. The City of Bethlehem itself has provided no funding. Historic Hotel Bethlehem's Bruce Haines conceded he never approached other businesses because they are all mom 'n pop shops.
Council member John Goffredo said this will help the entire region, including the county.
This passed unanimously.
All budget amendments were then adopted unanimously, along with the budget itself. The capital improvements plan was also adopted unanimously.
The real estate tax millage rate is 10.8 mills.
Although a half billion dollar budget is a lot of money, only 18% comes from real estate taxes. Over half comes from the state and federal government as pass-through money to fund various county human services programs. And 20% comes from the county's fund balance, which is basically the equivalent of a family's checking account.
Gracedale, the county-owned nursing home, requires no county contribution. It has a separate budget of $103 million.
The county's fund balance hovers at around $60 million, is far too high. The spending plan has set aside $17 million as a stabilization fund, which you could call a "rainy day " fund. This includes two months of expenses. Finally, about $6 million has been set aside for a possible resurgence of COVID-19.
In other business, County Council next considered a proposed ordinance that essentially kills an exclusive and voluntary health center for county employees. During the hearing, McClure read a letter from AFSCME supporting the health center.
Heckman said he agrees with some of McClure's comments. He agreed that Council is unable to force employees into a survey. "I'm not against this," he said of the health center. "I don't have enough information."
Goffredo, who sponsored the ordinance, argued there's no competition. He said he sent a two-three page email to Integrity, and got no direct answers. "I'm very reluctant about a health center or a health department."
John Brown said he appreciates what the Executive is going through as far as rising health costs are concerned. He imposed a 10% co-pay when he was Executive. He suggested that very shortly, $40 million of $100 million collected in taxes will go to health care. He has a few problems with the proposed health center. He indicated that 40% of what Integrity does is already being done. "There's more work that needs to be done," he said. He indicated that a health center might save money, but not enough over the long term. He speculated that the program will probably become mandatory at some point. He does believe in actively speaking with Integrity.
Myers stated that he's concerned about the lack of competition. "We don't need to vote on this thing tonight. ... I personally would like to table this thing. " Lott seconded the motion to table, but not before Vargo-Heffner interjected herself to claim more time is needed to review the idea. . Then the ordinance was adopted 5-2, with 2 abstentions. The two No votes came from Zrinski and Lott. The two abstentions came from Myers and Heckman.
Although generally pleased with the Budget, McClure has promised a veto of the reduction of the loan to New England Hydropower. And he will also veto the Ordinance that attempts to kill a health center before it is vetted.