LEHIGH COUNTY Partisanship foils agenda
Lehigh County Commissioners had some political moments April 25 as agenda items were floated, then after sharp questioning by fellow commissioners, sank beneath increasingly turbulent political waters.
A tax rebate proposed by Commission President Marty Nothstein never made it to a vote because it wasn’t seconded in the Finance Committee, where it came under bipartisan criticism. The tax rebate resolution was still on the agenda for the regular meeting of the full board of commissioners later in the evening, but was not addressed because it was not approved by the Finance Committee.
The resolution, as drafted, had the board “urging” the Lehigh County executive to submit the 2019 Lehigh County budget with a real estate rebate of $2.5 million.
A clause in the proposal sought to put some teeth into the request: “If the County Executive opts to submit the 2019 Lehigh County Budget without a tax rebate of at least $2.5 million, the Board of Commissioners will support the necessary amendments to implement a tax rebate.”
The assumed two and one half million dollar surplus was “accomplished by a lot of hard work by our county employees and administration and all involved in county government,” said Nothstein as he introduced the resolution to the Finance Committee.
“We’re not in the business of holding money we don’t presently need and does not belong to us,” explained Nothstein. He said that the average taxpayer would see a refund of $16.25.
“This is money they paid in,” said Nothstein. “It’s their money; we should give it back to them.”
Nothstein’s tax rebate idea came under immediate criticism from fellow commissioners on the Finance Committee.
Commissioner Percy Dougherty, the senior Republican on the board, immediately suggested that if there is a $2.5 million surplus in the 2019 budget, it should be used to buy down the cost of future bond issues expected to be needed for the rehabilitation for the Cedarbrook Nursing home. “I will not be able to support this,” Dougherty said.
Commissioner Geoff Brace (Democrat) said the board should acknowledge that the 2019 budget may come in with a deficit – not a surplus.
Commissioner Amy Holt (Democrat) also suggested that reinvesting any surplus into capital improvements would save taxpayers money in the long run.
Commissioner Nathan Brown also pushed back against Nothstein’s tax rebate idea. He referred to an unfunded mandate that the county must buy $3.1 million worth of new voting machines.
Commissioner Amy Zanelli weighed in with the opinion that it is a bad idea to give back money when Lehigh County is faced with an appeal that it is “almost guaranteed to lose.” She was referring to the commissioners’ decision to appeal the lost legal challenge of the Christian cross which appears in the county’s seal.
Democrat Zanelli also saw political motivations behind Republican Nothstein’s proposed resolution. “The timing of this I can’t ignore,” said Zanelli. She said the proposal had a lot less to do with giving back to the taxpayers than with politics.
Nothstein is currently campaigning for election in the upcoming May 15 primary as a Republican candidate to replace U.S. House of Representative Charlie Dent, who is retiring from Congress.
In another Nothstein-connected issue, the commissioners deferred a vote on a $627,000 computer contract with Allentown-based Computer Aid, Inc. because Commissioner Brad Osborne, also a Republican, said he wanted to discuss another Computer Aid, Inc. contract and its connection to the county’s management software.
Computer Aid, Inc. had made a $2,700 contribution to Nothstein’s campaign. The contribution was later returned by Nothstein because it was noted by the Lehigh County law department as a possible violation of Lehigh County’s anti pay-to-play law enacted after former Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski was indicted for accepting bribes from vendors seeking government contracts.
A move by Nothstein to put former Lehigh Commissioner Lisa Schiller on the Velodrome Fund sputtered when Nothstein recused himself from nominating Schiller to the fund, but then couldn’t get any other member of the Board of Commissioners to nominate her.
Nothstein is currently the Executive Director of the Valley Preferred Cycling Center headquartered in Breinigsville. Valley Preferred Cycling Center leases the Velodrome from Lehigh County.
In other business, the commissioners appointed Catherine P. Caracio to the Children’s Youth Services Advisory Board. “I know her personally and she’s a fighter,” attested Commissioner Amanda Holt.
Commissioners approved a contract with Fedetz & Martin Associates, PC to provide architectural and engineering consulting services to convert a section of the Lehigh County Courthouse basement into a juvenile holding area.
The commissioners also proclaimed May 6 – 12 as National Drinking Water Week. Lehigh County “joins with the Lehigh County Conservation District and Lehigh County Authority in urging all resident to celebrate the gift of water and protect this natural resource for generations to come.”