Catasauqua Press

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

No tax hike in proposed Lehigh County budget

Wednesday, September 6, 2017 by DOUGLAS GRAVES Special to The Press in Local News

Lehigh County residents got mostly good news from Lehigh County Executive Tom Muller Aug. 31 when he unveiled his Lehigh County budget proposal with no tax increase for 2018.

Muller presented his fiscal plan at Cedarbrook nursing home, which is owned by the county. A small crowd, comprised mostly of county staff, politicians, local township officials and residents of the nursing home, attended.

This would be the fourth consecutive year the current administration has delivered a proposed budget with no tax increase, according to Muller.

The $476.3 million budget includes a $68 million cost for the renovation and expansion of Cedarbrook in South Whitehall, which will be financed by a bond.

Lehigh County Board of Commissioners plans to vote on the renovation and construction options for Cedarbrook at its Sept. 13 meeting.

The 2018 budget overall is “slightly lower” than the 2017 budget, according to Muller.

Homeowners can expect to pay the same taxes as last year because the proposed millage rate remains at 3.64; the average homeowner will pay $645 in county real estate taxes.

“This is lower than neighboring counties,” Muller said.

The average residential tax bill has steadily fallen since 2013 when it was $672. At $645, it is $27 less in 2017.

Muller said Lehigh County will open the 2018 budget year by carrying a general fund balance of $8.7 million, carried over from the stabilization (or “rainy day”) fund from 2017.

He discussed staffing briefly during his budget analysis, saying even with the proposed staffing level of 1,964, overall personnel employed by Lehigh County will be “below where it was 30 years ago.”

Nonunion employees can expect a 2.75-percent increase in pay if the new budget is approved.

Three new positions were funded by money included in the 2017 budget: an attorney for the public defender’s office, a 911 operator and a full-time secretary for the regional crime center, which had previously been a part-time position. The proposed 2018 budget adds another 911 operator and an assistant deputy controller.

Muller credited the county’s wellness program with keeping Lehigh’s self-insured health care costs a “modest” 4 percent.

The proposed budget also includes $2 million for farmland preservation approved last year.

The proposed 2018 budget will now undergo hearings by the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners this month, culminating in a final budget vote at the end of October.

Muller pitched the need for a $5 registration fee for Lehigh County vehicles. The money raised would be used for Lehigh County roads and related infrastructure. This proposed fee did not appeal to several of the elderly residents of Cedarbrook who attended the meeting.

Cedarbrook resident Sharon Coulter let Muller know she opposes a proposed $5 Lehigh County vehicle registration fee. She said in a post-meeting interview she and her husband are on a fixed income and increased taxes and fees eat into their budget.