Northampton Co. Council reviews 2017 spending plan
On Oct.13, Northampton County Council conducted the first of four budget hearings scheduled for Executive John Brown’s proposed 2017 Budget. So far, there’s little indication that part-time elected officials plan any big changes to a $379 million spending plan that lays no one off and raises no taxes. But it’s a great opportunity for council members to meet the people who actually make the wheels of government turn. They always have insights about their departments. Here are a few brief highlights:
* Brown’s spending plan requires him to use $8.1 million left over from last year. This is deficit spending, a practice in which every Northampton County Executive has participated. To Brown’s credit, his deficit this year is about $1 million less than the previous year.
* Last year, Brown began setting aside a mill in taxes every year ($7.9 million) so the county can really plan its long term needs realistically. He continues this practice this year. This fund will be used to purchase the centralized human services building at the end of its five-year lease. It will pay for the P3 (bridge repair) project and for capital improvements at Gracedale, all without floating a bond. It will make money available to renovate or relocate the jail.
*Reassessment, which will cost between $3.5 and $8 million, is at east 18 months away, according to Brown.
* Thanks to what Fiscal Affairs Director Jim Hunter called a sluggish real estate market as well as the success of e-recording, the budget eliminates two of three positions that are vacant in the Recorder of Deeds office. Hunter told council they are no longer needed. He will use the money saved to hire a new accountant. E-recording is the process by which documents are recorded online, and it has reduced foot traffic to the recorder of deeds. Clerks in that department insist it takes as much or more time to process an e-recording as it does for one that is presented in person. “We need those people,” said one of these clerks, after the hearing.
* The county has still seen no money for farmland preservation from the Chrin TIF in Northern Palmer Township, where a new interchange was created for Route 33 at Tatamy to allow easy access by trucks. Chrin has committed to paying the county $2 million for farmland purchases, which will make up for destroying nearly 1,000 acres of farmland. Though warehouses are sprouting where cornstalks once grew, the boast that this development would create 5,000 jobs or more now seems somewhat hollow.
* To Council President John Cusick’s chagrin, the county is setting aside $422,000 to purchase “environmentally sensitive” land even though no projects have been identified.
* The Conservation District is so overwhelmed with permits for industrial development that District Manager Sharon Pletchan is asking for another field inspector. She said 1,000 permits need attention. She also told council that conservation does run a dirt and low volume road programs, but needs to make more township managers aware of what the county can do.
* The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission is slated to receive $525,000 this year, the same amount as last year. But what Northampton County provides will be dictated by what Lehigh County gives this planning agency. The county contributions must match, and Lehigh County adopts its budget before Northampton.
* LANTA, the Lehigh Valley’s transit service, is slated to get $510,100, about 3.3 percent more than last year. Unless this increase is awarded, LANTA will get far less money from the state and federal government. Lehigh County must provide the same sum.
Though many of the county’s department heads were at this budget hearing, Seth Vaughn was absent, even though he works from home.