Bethlehem Press

Monday, December 11, 2017
press photo by bernie o’hareJohn Brown delivered his budget address at Gracedale Chapel in front of cabinet officials. press photo by bernie o’hareJohn Brown delivered his budget address at Gracedale Chapel in front of cabinet officials.

NorCo’s Brown: No tax hike in balanced budget

Tuesday, October 24, 2017 by Bernie O’Hare Special to the Bethelhem Press in Local News

Standing inside Gracedale’s Chapel, Northampton County Executive John Brown answered the prayers of many taxpayers on Oct. 3 when he discussed his budget for next year. That’s because, for the third year in a row, he’s been able to dodge a tax hike. Also, in what may very well be a first in Northampton County, he has avoided dipping into cash reserves to balance his $402 million spending plan. It’s a true balanced budget. Brown thanked his cabinet and the county work force several times. “Employees are the county’s most valuable resource,” is part of his message. The budget itself is online at the county website.

Same tax rate

It proposes a tax rate of 11.8 mills. The median value of a Northampton County home is $220,800. If assessed properly at $110,400, that means a 2018 county bill of $1,302.72.

“This is the fourth budget I’m introducing in which I am not asking, and do not intend to ask for, a tax increase,” he said.

A 10 percent tax hike was imposed in Brown’s first budget, which he approved without a veto.

Brown stated that when he first took office in 2014, the fund balance had dropped from $60.4 million in 2011 to $11.1 million at the end of 2013. For the previous four years, Northampton County had been deficit spending to the tune of over $15.7 million a year. Health care costs had been increasing between $1.5 and $1.7 million per year for the previous seven years. Gracedale had cost the county $20 million over the previous four years. But he claims that the general fund now is now stabilized at over $30 million as a result of “cash flow management” and a “systematic approach to expenditure reduction.”

Spending cuts

This “expenditure reduction” means he’s cut spending by $7.3 million. And mostly in personnel costs, which he has slashed by $3.3 million. Though he has cut personnel costs, he notes that his spending plan calls for a salary increase of $1.5 million, along with a two percent cost of living adjustment for nonunion workers.

So how has he saved on personnel costs? By reducing health care benefits, he has saved $7.6 million. In addition, workers’s compensation claims have been reduced drastically. Brown pointed to $4.4 million in savings over the past two years and a safer work environment.

Gracedale story

Brown called Gracedale a “remarkable story.” In 2016, Gracedale returned a profit of about $1.6 million for the first time in eight years. He expects that to continue, and is proposing no county contribution to the nursing home. Gracedale employs 800 people, and Brown said they do a “fantastic job.”.

He also touted a four-star rating at the nursing home by Medicare that lasted for two years, although it is currently at two stars and had dropped to just one.

He sees “far more upsides than downsides” to Gracedale, but long-term, “we don’t know.” He said changes are coming to the way nursing homes are viewed in the health care industry. “That’s a future conversation,” he remarked.

Brown conceded that Gracedale is relying on a $2.2 million grant from the federal government this year, and has budgeted for its receipt. Without it, Gracedale will be in the red, and the County will have a deficit.

P3 Bridge Project

He also touted his P3 program to repair or replace 33 bridges, and said work started in March. He boasted that the model used by Northampton County has attracted “state and federal interest.” He said the project will create 1,000 family-sustaining jobs and save taxpayers $17 million over what would be spent otherwise.

He also said that the training being done in Human Resources should continue, despite some abuses noted in recent audits.

Capital projects under consideration include more bridge repairs, Gracedale improvements, a regional forensic center (morgue), the purchase of the new Human Services building. And yes, a new jail. As he did last year, Brown wants to set aside one mill ($8 million) of tax revenue for the county’s short-term and long-term capital needs.

New county jail

Brown acknowledged that he has viewed a dozen sites for a new jail, but that relocating the jail to the Gracedale campus would require approval from Upper Nazareth’s Zoning Hearing Board. He said that architectural firm DSL is basically acting as a consultant. He acknowledged he has yet to discuss a new jail with the courts or District Attorney.

DaVinci Center

In presentations throughout the County, DaVinci Science Center has pitched a $130 million aquarium attraction in downtown Easton. Easton has committed $5 million to this project, and according to former Lehigh County Executive Jane Ervin, DaVinci wants Northampton County to front $15 million.

Though DaVinci is listed in the budget as a possible hotel tax recipient, no amount has been set aside. Next year, as much s $633,000 in hotel tax revenue is available.

Farmland Preservation

For the second year in a row, Brown is budgeting about $500,000 for farmland preservation, about half the amount assigned by former Executive John Stoffa. Brown stated the amount budgeted is sufficient to cover demand.

What’s Next?

Now that the budget is in their hands, County Council will review it, program-by-program, through a series of budget hearings. Though they are barred from interfering with the Executive’s revenue estimates, they may approve amendments that alter his spending plan.

They have until December 15 to adopt or amend the budget and adopt it as amended. If they fail to take action, Brown’s budget will be deemed adopted. Even if they reject his budget, it will be considered adopted. This failsafe exits in most home rule charters to prevent what happens on the state and federal level.