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County executive submits budget plan

On Aug. 31, Lehigh County Board of Commissioners, officials and residents received their first look at the proposed budget for 2019 when Lehigh 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.

“This is the budget that meets the needs of the future,” Armstrong said, adding the budget reflects the commissioners’ desire to pay cash instead of buy debt.

“It’s a smart thing,” Armstrong said. “It doesn’t push debt down the road.”

Armstrong addressed critics who say government should be run like a business.

“You have to do what’s right,” he said. “Government is not a business.

“Businesses do products. Government does services,” he added. “Politics don’t matter at the local level. Everyone wants to get things done.”

According to Armstrong, his budgetary objectives demonstrate commitment to farmland preservation, renovate the Lehigh County Courthouse, prioritize delivery of quality services and promote financial stability that meets the five-year fiscal plan.

“This year’s new millage rate is a reflection of my administration’s commitment to strong, forward-thinking fiscal management,” Armstrong said. “Lehigh County elected me to make the tough and responsible decisions.

“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,” he said.

Falling back on juvenile humor honed while a teacher, Armstrong said 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 decided busing rural cows to town would be an “udder failure.”

He illustrated the impact on property owners by describing the impact on average homeowners.

The owner of a home assessed at $203,000 would pay $769.37 in real estate tax.

He said 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 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 of 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 five-star facility.

This, Armstrong said, reflects one of his 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, 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-percent funded, receives a $13.75 million contribution.

He then referred to his staff.

“I was so impressed with my cabinet. I kept all cabinet members from the previous administration,” he said. “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 911 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 in 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.

He emphasized his desire to keep the voting secure and said the new machines, which are approved by the state and the federal government, “leave a paper trail.”

Farmland preservation will receive $2 million.

“Preserving this land is of economic value to the county,” Armstrong said.

The proposed 2019 budget, which includes a stabilization fund balance of $19.6 million, is now in the hands of county commissioners, who will hold public hearings this month and have a final vote in October.

Lehigh County Board of Commissioners members Marc Grammes, of District 1, and Dr. Percy Dougherty, of District 2, watch as Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong presents his proposed county budget for 2019. On the right, Lehigh County Sheriff Joseph Hanna listens to the proceedings.Press photo by Douglas Graves