Why I’ve re­quested a Le­high County tax in­crease

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE - Phillips Arm­strong is the Le­high County ex­ec­u­tive.

Bud­get sea­son is upon us again and that means the in­evitable fights over tax rates, amend­ments and com­plex fi­nances. As both county ex­ec­u­tive and a res­i­dent of Le­high County, I want to set the record straight and spell out the facts.

While ev­ery bud­get in­evitabil­ity comes down to two key num­bers, rev­enue and ex­pen­di­tures, let’s rec­og­nize what those num­bers truly rep­re­sent. A bud­get is about our values, our com­mit­ments and pri­or­i­ties.

It’s also re­flec­tive of hard truths.

Num­bers don’t lie, and a good bud­get is about more than the next year.

First, I’d like to ex­plain plainly some key mis­con­cep­tions sur- round­ing this year’s bud­get.

Yes, I’ve re­quested a tax in­crease this year, which breaks down to about $3 more per month for a home­owner. Let’s be clear, this pro­posal is not made lightly or with­out re­gard to the well-be­ing of our county tax­pay­ers.

This ad­min­is­tra­tion made many tough de­ci­sions. We saved over $1.5 mil­lion in pre­scrip­tion drug costs and made $638,000 in pay­roll cuts. My ad­min­is­tra­tion takes se­ri­ously the sig­nif­i­cance of ask­ing for this in­crease, but it’s en­tirely nec­es­sary.

Sec­ond, you’ll likely hear two claims from some com­mis­sion­ers. One is we don’t have the abil­ity to ac­cu­rately pre­dict tax rev­enues. The sec­ond con­cerns the va­lid­ity of our five-year plan. It was re­cently sug­gested by one of our com­mis­sion­ers that last year the county came in with $9 mil­lion more than ex­pected. This is mis­lead­ing.

In lo­cal gov­ern­ment, we deal with en­cum­brances. Plainly speak­ing, this is money planned for an ex­pense that has yet to pro­duce a bill. In 2019, we had $8 mil­lion in en­cum­brances payable in 2020, mean­ing we truly only came in $1 mil­lion bet­ter than ex­pected.

It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that our bud­get is $514 mil­lion — of which only $115 mil­lion was from lo­cal prop­erty taxes. So pre­dict­ing our ex­act rev­enue within $1 mil­lion is es­sen­tially a 1% mar­gin er­ror. That’s a high de­gree of ac­cu­racy and com­mon in any or­ga­ni­za­tion with a large bud­get.

Fur­ther­more, sev­eral com­mis­sion­ers have cast doubt on our five-year fi­nan­cial plan. It’s a plan they re­quested and it’s a plan you paid for, to the tune of $40,000.

That plan shows us de­plet­ing our sta­bi­liza­tion fund by 2023 at our cur­rent mill­age rate. The fact is: You paid for a plan that pointed to facts that some com­mis­sion­ers are choos­ing to dis­agree with be­cause it’s po­lit­i­cally con­ve­nient. In the end, you’ll pay a lot more.

Le­high County is filled with ex­am­ples of mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that chose to take things year by year in­stead of plan­ning for the fu­ture.

In South White­hall Town­ship from 2005-2012, for ex­am­ple, taxes stayed flat, while ex­penses went up and re­serves went down. Three years later, South White­hall saw its taxes rise, 36% in one year, and 11% per­cent the next.

Al­len­town made the same er­ror, hit­ting its res­i­dents with a 27% in­crease last year. And Le­high County not long ago passed along a 70% in­crease to its res­i­dents.

As a so­cial stud­ies teacher, I can con­fi­dently say those who don’t learn from their own his­tory will cer­tainly re­peat it.

Fi­nally, it’s about what’s in the bud­get that should mat­ter to our res­i­dents. It’s our $46.7 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion of Cedar­brook, the so­cial safety net for our se­niors. It’s two sher­iffs deputies who will process pro­tec­tion from abuse or­ders, en­sur­ing that do­mes­tic abusers no longer have firearms to harm their part­ners. It’s $3 mil­lion for farm­land preser­va­tion. Our bud­get funds Chil­dren and Youth, the courts and correction­s. It’s a mat­ter of pro­tect­ing the vul­ner­a­ble, keep­ing you safe and in­vest­ing in your fu­ture.

Com­mis­sion­ers can’t say they sup­port these ini­tia­tives but op­pose how we get there; block­ing this year’s bud­get puts our values and wal­lets in jeop­ardy.

Three dol­lars more per month is a small price to pay for these things, and it’s cer­tainly prefer­able to the sticker shock of a large in­crease down the road. I pro­posed this in­crease be­cause I be­lieve that we must meet the needs of our com­mu­nity.

If you be­lieve in this mis­sion, too, then sup­port this bud­get at the com­mis­sioner meet­ings. You can stand up for our se­niors, our chil­dren, our sher­iffs, our pub­lic ser­vants and our fi­nances.

LAU­RIE MA­SON SCHROEDER/THE MORN­ING CALL

Le­high County Ex­ec­u­tive Phillips Arm­strong says a tax in­crease is needed to avoid a much higher hike down the road.

Phillips Arm­strong

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