Bethlehem Press

Friday, March 22, 2019
press photos by bernie o’hareWhat about me? The budget includes no salary for Dani, a drug-sniffing Belgian Malinois donated to the County anonymously. She is assigned to the jail. press photos by bernie o’hareWhat about me? The budget includes no salary for Dani, a drug-sniffing Belgian Malinois donated to the County anonymously. She is assigned to the jail.
Fiscal Affairs Director Steve Barron with 2019 budget book. Fiscal Affairs Director Steve Barron with 2019 budget book.

NORTHAMPTON COUNTY-McClure’s budget: No 2019 tax hike

Monday, December 10, 2018 by Bernie O’Hare Special to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

Northampton County Council has unanimously approved Executive Lamont McClure’s $455 million spending plan for next year. It holds the line on taxes, keeping the tax rate at 11.8 mills There’s been no increase in county taxes since 2015, when a half mill tax hike was approved by a previous council under former Executive John Brown.

What this budget means is that a homeowner or business with property assessed at $125,000 will see a county bill of $1,180. In addition to county taxes, these property owners must pay school and municipal taxes. These combine to make Northampton County’s total property taxes among the highest in the nation. According to Tax-Rates.org, Northampton County ranks 129th of the 3,143 counties nationwide in order of median property taxes.

The county has no authority to impose an income tax.

It’s an ambitious spending plan. McClure plans to purchase the county’s Centralized Human Services Building, located on Emrick Boulevard in Bethlehem Township. The purchase price is $14,468,731. It is currently being leased at a cost of $1.05 million per year. It is also a “triple net” lease. This means the County must pay taxes, maintenance costs and insurance. The real estate tax bill alone is $190,000 per year.

Though the county has sufficient funds on hand to complete the purchase, McClure intends to borrow the money. The reason for this is that the state currently reimburses the county for 80 percent of the cost of the lease, and will continue to do so if the county borrows money to complete the purchase. There will be no reimbursement if the county has no debt. This state funding can be leveraged.

In addition, McClure intends to build an $11 million state of the art forensic center, where autopsies and toxicology tests are performed to help solve murders. A location has yet to be established, although McClure has told council he is leaning toward a site on the Gracedale campus near the 911 center.

Council has already authorized a $26 million bond, which is structured so that it will actually decrease the county’s debt in the long run.

With bond proceeds and money on hand, McClure will be able to pay for a controversial $38.5 million public private partnership project under which 28 county bridges are being outright replaced or repaired over the next four years.

There will be no county contribution earmarked for Gracedale, the county’s nursing home. In fact, McClure intends to replace Premier, the county’s outside administrator, with certified in-house staff who are certified. This will save the county $450,000 per year. Part of the budget package includes approval of a $119,000 per year administrator.

The budget maintains the county’s commitment to open space, devoting $3 million to a farmland preservation, the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands and park projects.

The budget includes a 2 percent COLA for nonunion employees, as well as step increases for nonunion employees hired in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Last year, a step increase was awarded to more senior nonunion workers. Employees hired in 2017 or 2018 are excluded. According to Fiscal Affairs Director Steve Barron, a good number of employees hired in 2017 are being upgraded. The executive will also eliminate gap insurance and co-pay for employees. He expects this to increase the bottom line of every worker.

The budget package includes 20 position upgrades to current county employees. But six positions are being eliminated.

The budget grants no increase to union workers because they are subject to collective bargaining agreements. Administration sources have stated that eight union contracts either are or are close to being ratified.

Northampton County and Bethlehem are in the process of consolidating 911 service. McClure predicts it will take place between April and July.

It is a true balanced budget. There is no deficit spending of cash reserves. .

The lion’s share of McClure’s budget (51.2 percent) will fund Human Services, which serves 80,000 people.

The budget fails to address salary compression among county employees or low wages in many positions. But Executive McClure told council, “You can’t move forward until you put the past to rest.” He said leveraging state money to buy the human services building, construction of a forensic center and razing the Milides building to create 104 parking spaces is good government. “You’re governing,” he told council.He is hopeful the state will grant funding for a “safe” crosswalk for people who need to use the courthouse. “I watch senior citizens struggle every day to get in the front door,” he observed.

The budget includes the elimination of some positions that are no longer needed. Council VP Ron Heckman was careful to ask whether other jobs were found for those employees. In all but one case, another job has been found or the person is retiring.

The budget also calls for six additional corrections officers on the theory that this will reduce mandated overtime at the jail, which guards complain is very stressful. Council member John Cusick voted against these additional positions because there is “no corresponding reduction in overtime” in the budget.

Cusick was also the sole No vote for a $119,000 in-house nursing home administrator. “Premier [a third-party administrator] did an outstanding job and I would prefer that we retain them,” he explained. Council member Matt Dietz agreed that council needs to “stay on top” of what happens at Gracedale. Council member Peg Ferraro said she is “very leery” of the return to a county employee serving as Gracedale administrator. But Council Vice President Ron Heckman said Gracedale is a “tighter operation now” than it was in previous years.

Cusick also voted against some minor budget amendments because he said they failed to include the cost of new voting machines with a paper trail, which the state has mandated. While doing so, he derided three nonbinding environmental resolutions that Council member Tara Zrinski wanted heard after the budget. She would later insist on reading a solar energy resolution in its entirety. “Before we save the planet, we need to provide the voters of Northampton County with a state of the art voting system,” Cusick remarked.

Finally, Cusick voted against the capital improvements plan for next year because it fails to include a new voting system, yet includes a county expenditure of up to $1.5 million for a for-profit alternative energy company. Cusick complained, “it funds a project that is not a core function of county government.”