State of the county
Historic Hotel Bethlehem was the venue for Executive John Brown’s State of the County address on a blustery March 2 morning.
More than 150 guests were treated to scrambled eggs, bacon and home fries, along with a variety of juices, coffee and tea.
Brown spoke for nearly an hour, the longest speech he’s given as county executive.
It was a dry, matter-of-fact speech, with no jokes to break the ice, but there was still a political overtone. Those attending the speech had to pass by a John Brown yard sign, as well as a circular seeking last-minute signatures for Brown’s nomination petition. This had never happened before at a State of the County address.
In addition to numerous business leaders, Brown’s breakfast guest list for this free event included Lehigh County Executive Tom Muller, Lehigh County Commissioner Brad Osborne, Judge Craig Dally, Easton Mayor Sal Panto, Controller Steve Barron, Northampton County Council member Hayden Phillips, Easton Councilman Pete Melan, Palmer Township Supervisor Dave Colver, Hanover Township Supervisor John Diacogiannis, Discover LV’s Mike Stershic and Lehigh Valley Planning Commission’s Becky Bradley.
Brown’s cabinet was there, too. Lehigh Valley Economic Development Council CEO Don Cunningham did the intros.
Two people who were never introduced were Lamont McClure, who is running against Brown, and Ron Angle, who since then has announced he is running for council.
Brown started by affirming the county has an obligation to deliver services, keep taxes as low as possible and grow the community. He spent his first year stabilizing finances, he said. In his second year, he claimed to have introduced accountability to the workforce, which may have been a reference to his unilateral reduction of health care benefits for county workers. He called his third year in office a year of innovation, referring to a bridge project to repair 33 bridges and a program at the county jail designed to reduce recidivism. He called this year one of sustainability.
“What we do is not sexy,” he said. “It’s like blocking and tackling. It’s fundamentals.”
Stagnant revenues, rising expenses
Brown painted a picture of a county with stagnant revenue and rising costs and a 2,200-person workforce, 75 percent of whom are unionized through 11 different unions. Revenue increases about $1.7 million per year, while personnel costs rise abut $2.5 million annually. Pension costs have risen from $600,000 in 2008 to $10.8 million this year. Despite his reductions in health care benefits, they still increase $1.5 million annually.
“Every year, we’re sliding on the wrong side of that equation,” he said.
Workers comp claims
Brown credited his administration for changes in the payment of workers compensation claims. Traditionally, the county paid 100 percent of the salary of an employee injured on the job but is only required to pay 66-2/3 percent. He eliminated this practice in 2015. He called this 100-percent pay-out an example of “leaking cash” that he stopped. It has resulted in a $2.5 million savings each year.
Voters decided against privatizing the county-owned nursing home in 2010, where 800 county employees work. He noted that, every Sunday, it took four people to add up all the time cards with 300 different pay codes. There was also “casual overtime,” in which some employees worked and charged overtime to the county without express authority from a supervisor. By eliminating this practice and streamlining the pay card process, Brown has saved $100,000 per year. Brown also maximized the census, keeping 680 beds filled. He also benefited from something called the “intergovernmental transfer,” a federal program that added $2.4 million to Gracedale’s coffers in 2016. As a result, Gracedale actually turned a profit that Brown placed at $150,000 in 2016.
Brown said he has preserved 100 percent of the farms that applied for preservation and were qualified. He said there is no backlog of farms waiting for funding, and 14 farms are in the pipeline for preservation. The county also contributes $1 million per year for municipal parks.
Brown said Bethlehem’s 911 facility will be merged with the county facility in Nazareth over the next four years. “I don’t think the city’s happy about it,” he said, calling it “one of those government mandates.”
Brown said his Department of Community and Economic Development is managing a program he calls the Community Investment Partnership Program. This uses table games revenue from Sands Casino to provide grants and loans to develop business.
Brown said about 7,000 jobs have been created since 2012 and salaries have increased $4,000 on average over the past four years. He said that is mostly the result of marketing by LVEDC.
Brown said Corrections Director Dan Keen has managed to reduce a three- or four-hour process of booking a criminal defendant to about 15 minutes, enabling police officers to return to their jurisdiction and resume patrols. This makes the community safer, he said.
Brown credited Dally for problem-solving courts for people with addiction or mental health issues who are better served outside of jail. In the jail itself, Keen has begun a program to help inmates adjust on release with simple things like securing identification cards.
Rapid bridge replacement program
Brown is spending $38 million to replace 33 bridges over the next four years. This, he said, is 20- to 30-percent cheaper than dealing with bridges individually.