Partisanship foils county commissioners’ agenda
Lehigh County commissioners had some political moments Wednesday as agenda items were floated, then after sharp questioning by fellow commissioners, sank beneath increasingly turbulent political waters.
A tax rebate proposed by board President Marty Nothstein never made it to a vote because it wasn’t seconded in the Finance Committee, where it came under bipartisan criticism.
The tax rebate resolution was still on the agenda for the regular meeting of the full board of commissioners later in the evening but was not addressed because it was not approved by the Finance Committee.
The resolution, as drafted, had the board of commissioners “urging” the Lehigh County Executive to submit the 2019 Lehigh County Budget with a real estate rebate of $2.5 million.
A clause in the proposal sought to put some teeth into the request:
“If the County Executive opts to submit the 2019 Lehigh County Budget without a tax rebate of at least $2.5 million, the Board of Commissioners will support the necessary amendments to implement a tax rebate.”
The assumed $2.5 million surplus was “accomplished by a lot of hard work by our county employees and administration and all involved in county government,” said Nothstein as he introduced the resolution to the Finance Committee on Wednesday.
“We’re not in the business of holding money we don’t presently need and does not belong to us,” explained Nothstein.
He said the average taxpayer would see a refund of $16.25.
“This is money they paid in,” said Nothstein.
“It’s their money. We should give it back to them.”
Nothstein’s tax rebate idea came under immediate criticism by fellow commissioners on the Finance Committee.
Commissioner Percy Dougherty, the senior Republican on the Board of Commissioners, immediately suggested that if there is a $2.5 million surplus in the 2019 budget, it should be used to buy down the cost of future bond issues expected to be needed for the rehabilitation for the Cedar Brook Nursing home. “I will not be able to support this,” said Dr. Dougherty.
Commissioner Geoff Brace, a Democrat, said the board should acknowledge the 2019 budget may come in with a deficit — not a surplus.
Commissioner Amy Holt, a Democrat, also suggested reinvesting any surplus into capital improvements would save taxpayers money in the long run.
Commissioner Nathan Brown also pushed back against Nothstein’s tax rebate idea.
He referred to an unfunded mandate that the county buying $3.1 million worth of new voting machines.
Commissioner Amy Zanelli weighed in with the opinion it was a bad idea to give back money when Lehigh County is faced with an appeal that it is “almost guaranteed to lose.”
She was referring to the commissioners’ decision to appeal the lost legal challenge of the Christian cross being in the County’s seal.
Democrat Zanelli also saw political motivations behind Republican Nothstein’s proposed resolution. “The timing of this I can’t ignore,” said Zanelli. She said the proposal had a lot less to do with giving back to the taxpayers than with politics.
Nothstein is currently campaigning for election in the upcoming May 15 primary as the Republican candidate to replace Congressman Charlie Dent, who is retiring from Congress.
In another Nothstein-connected issue, the Commissioners deferred a vote on a $627,000 computer contract with Allentown-based Computer Aid, Inc. because Commissioner Brad Osborne, also a Republican, said he wanted to discuss another Computer Aid Inc. contract and its connection to the county’s management software.
Computer Aid Inc. had made a $2,700 contribution to Nothstein’s campaign.
The contribution was later returned by Nothstein as it was noted by the Lehigh County law department as a possible violation of the Lehigh County’s anti-pay-to-play law enacted after former Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski was indicted on a charge of accepting bribes from vendors seeking government contracts.
A move by Nothstein to put former Lehigh Commissioner Lisa Schiller on the Velodrome Fund sputtered when Leigh County Commissioner President Nothstein recused himself from nominating Lisa Schiller to the fund but then could not get any other member of the board to nominate her.
Nothstein is executive director of Valley Preferred Cycling Center, Trexlertown. Valley Preferred Cycling Center leases the Velodrome from the county.
In other business, commissioners appointed Catherine P. Caracio to the Children’s Youth Services Advisory Board.
“I know her personally and she’s a fighter,” Commissioner Amanda Holt said.
The board also approved a contract with Fedetz and Martin Associates PC to provide architectural and engineering consulting services to convert a section of the Lehigh County Court House basement into a juvenile holding Area.
They also proclaimed May 6-12 as National Drinking Water Week, joining with the Lehigh County Conservation District and Lehigh County Authority urging residents to “celebrate the gift of water and protect this natural resource for generations to come.”