Executive’s predicted tax increase arrives in 2020 budget proposal
Perhaps hoping that wearing a purple shirt would predispose Lehigh County Commissioners into thinking that his 2020 proposed $514.6 million budget is bi-partisan, County Executive Phillips Armstrong unveiled his fiscal plan on Friday to department heads and staffers, attending commissioners and the public.
Speaking in the public hearing room of the Lehigh County administration’s Seventh Street headquarters, Armstrong’s budget raises taxes to 5.5 percent, which translates into a 3.84 millage rate that will generate $115 million. That would be a $771.84 tax per year on a $201,000 home, according to information provided by Armstrong. That is about $3 more per month than families currently spend on taxes.
The new millage rate is where Armstrong predicted it would be as a result of the Republican-dominated board of commissioners cutting his proposed 2019 budget last year.
“People elected me to do the right thing,” said Armstrong, attributing the phrase to Commissioner Marc Grammes, who was in the audience.
“We’re trying to be responsible to the taxpayer. The [budget] process was long, with tough decisions. It’s been 15 years since an executive presented a balanced budget,” Armstrong said. “Only 26 percent of the budget is paid for with property taxes.”
Lehigh County pays a smaller percentage (1.26 percent) of household income, according to Armstrong, than does Northampton County (3.76 percent) or Berks County (2.41 percent).
Sixty-four percent of the budget is paid for with grants and reimbursements; 64 percent of the 2020 budget expenditures are for nursing homes ($46.7 million for construction of a new wing at the Cedarbrook Senior Care and Rehabilitation Center) and the Human Services Department.
The balance of the budget pays for the courts ($1.3 million for court security upgrades and $9.6 million for courthouse renovations), jail, District Attorney’s office, Sheriff’s department, the public defender and the coroner. Also paid for from the budget are General Services, which include bridges, parks, trails, the Velodrome ($420,000 for track resurfacing) and for historic sites, Coca-Cola Park, Trexler Nature Preserve, emergency management and the farmland preservation program ($3 million).
It also pays for salaries, benefits and the pension plan ($15 million to the employee retirement plan which is 86.5 percent funded); it pays for administration, which includes Lehigh County veterans’ affairs, human resources and the voter registration and election process.
“We made $638,000 in cuts prior to this presentation,” Armstrong explained. “We’re trying to predict 18 months ahead. If there is a surplus, I agree with the board that it should go into the Capital Fund.”
The proposed budget retains the Capital Fund at $25 million.
“This 2020 budget is fiscally responsible and adheres to the Five-Year Fiscal Strategic Plan,” said Armstrong. “It prioritizes the protection and security of the most vulnerable among us. It makes a significant investment in our infrastructure and ensures a balanced budget.”
The executive said the 2020 budget is critical to ensuring that, “we stay within Government Finance Officer Association standards.
“It prevents further cuts that would undermine our ability to provide services, promote public safety and to serve the people,” said Armstrong. “It ensures our bond rating remains stable, saving taxpayers money in the long run, and it protects Lehigh County taxpayers from a more painful and severe tax increase.
“And it keeps the stabilization fund at $25 million through 2023.”
Armstrong said his administration has made every effort to be transparent, accessible and open with the board. “We’ve invited them to the budget [meetings]. We’ve worked to remove politics from the budget process.”
While all commissioners were invited to attend, Commissioner Amy Zanelli said in an interview that she was alone among them who attended all of the budget input and planning meetings.
“This budget was the result of simply looking at the numbers, and making realistic decisions base off of them,” said Armstrong. “This is about ensuring we maintain a strong bond rating and leave Lehigh County in a strong position for the future.”
The proposed budget presentation ceremony was simultaneously uploaded to the Lehigh County website.