LEHIGH COUNTY New budget to buy assets, forgo debt
Lehigh County Commissioners, officials and citizens got their first look at the proposed budget for 2019 last week when County Executive Phillips Armstrong presented his first budget since assuming office. After a visual presentation of supporting charts and documents, Armstrong gave the hefty 488-page budget to Commissioner Dr. Percy Dougherty.
To make the proposed $506.1 million budget (themed “Back to the Future”) balance, Armstrong resurrected the 2015 millage rate of 3.79 to meet projected needs. “This is the budget that meets the needs of the future,” said Armstrong.
He said the budget reflects the board of commissioners’ desire to pay cash instead of buy debt. “They want to pay cash; not go into debt. It’s a smart thing – it doesn’t push debt down the road.”
Armstrong addressed critics who like to claim that government should be run like a business. “You have to do what’s right. Government is not a business. Businesses do products. Government does services.
“Politics don’t matter at the local level,” he said. “Everyone wants to get things done.”
According to Armstrong, his budgetary objectives demonstrate commitment to farmland preservation, renovate the Lehigh County Courthouse, and prioritize delivery of quality services and promote financial stability that meets the five-year fiscal plan.
“This year’s new millage rate,” said Armstrong, “is a reflection of my administration’s commitment to strong, forward-thinking fiscal management that prioritizes the delivery of quality services and maintains the fiscal stability of the county through our five-year fiscal plan.
“Lehigh County elected me to make the tough and responsible decisions,” said Armstrong. “This is about more than just revenue and spending; it’s a decision about taking steps now to maintain our current services – short versus long-term planning – and making the right decision; not the political one.”
Falling back on juvenile humor honed while a teacher, Armstrong said that farmers, when complaining about school taxes, say, “Cows don’t go to school.” Riffing on that, Armstrong said he had considered sending cows to school, but had decided that busing the rural cows to town would be an “udder failure.”
He illustrated the impact on property owners by describing the impact on average homeowners: a home assessed at $203,000 will pay $769.37 in real estate tax.
He said that among the factors leading to the decision to adopt the new 3.79 millage rate, was the county’s decision to pay for capital expenses out of operating revenue instead of financing debt. Other factors driving the decision were the state-mandated expenditure on new voting machines and the fact that the jail has been losing income from holding fees charged to other jurisdictions for housing their prisoners.
Armstrong said the budget reflects his priorities to include keeping a good safety net for senior citizens, having a secure voting process, preserving farmland, and remodeling the court buildings.
One big-ticket item is $68 million to finance the new wing and renovation of the Cedarbrook Senior Care and Rehabilitation Center which he said had been rated as a “5-star” facility. This, he said, reflects one of Armstrong’s stated budget objectives, “the protection and security of the most vulnerable among us: our seniors.”
Another is $29.6 million for county employee health costs; the county’s 2,003 employees contribute $4.9 million from their pay to finance their health care. In other words, on average, the taxpayers pay $1,477.83 for each of the county employees, while the average worker contributes $2,446.33.
The pension fund, which Armstrong said is 87.9 per cent funded, gets a $13.75 million contribution.
Referencing his staff and employees, he said, “I was so impressed with my cabinet that I kept all cabinet members from the previous administration.
“We have good employees; we want to keep our good people. We must have competitive wages.”
The projected 2,003 employees include 39 new positions connected to the consolidated 9-1-1 center operation. Armstrong said Lehigh County spends 66 cents of every tax dollar on “law and order.”
The historic courthouse is slated for $9 million for renovations, while the 1964-era courthouse is budgeted for $4 million for heating, ventilating and air conditioner replacement.
Pennsylvania has directed Lehigh County to buy new voting machines, which accounts for another $3.5 million in the budget. Emphasizing his desire to keep the voting secure, Armstrong said, “The Russians have never hacked Lehigh County.” He said the new machines ,which are approved by the state and the Federal government, “leave a paper trail.”
Farmland preservation will get $2 million. “Preserving this land is of economic value to the County,” said the county executive.
The proposed 2019 budget, which includes a stabilization fund balance of $19.6 million, is now in the hands of the board of commissioners which will hold public hearings in Sept. and have a final vote in October.