by Bill Hansell, Lehigh County Executive
Under our charter, the Lehigh County executive is required to deliver a "State of the County" message to our Board of Commissioners before the end of February each year. I decided against an elaborate presentation of this message and instead chose to simply deliver it to you in writing. I was invited to speak at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon next month and I will also outline the state of our county to the businesses and members there.
Our county is among the largest in Pennsylvania. More than 350,000 people call Lehigh County home. Tens of thousands of businesses operate here, countless cultural arts institutions and organizations thrive here, and we assess property taxes on more than 125,000 properties. The sum total of all of those people, institutions and businesses is the essence of Lehigh County.
This message is intended to brief you on the state of Lehigh County's government, not necessarily the state of Lehigh County, which encompasses much more.
Over the past seven years, through Don Cunningham's stewardship and, more recently, mine, Lehigh County's government has been managed in a fiscally prudent but responsive manner, balancing the need to keep our tax burden low with providing services needed to help the county's most vulnerable residents. Despite the increased demand that a recession brings to county services, Lehigh County's government is considerably smaller than it was seven years ago.
The 2013 budget that my administration proposed was the third consecutive year for the County's budget to be lower than the prior year and was a full $50 million lower than in 2010. The number of employees working for Lehigh County is now 6 percent below our employee compliment of twenty years ago. As a result of bipartisan collaboration that was carried out in good faith with four commissioners as well as other elected officials, we committed to find another $3.5 million in spending cuts and turn a planned one-year tax credit into a permanent reduction in our millage rate.
I have been privileged to serve local governments for over half a century, from a small town to a growing suburb to the 1st and 3rd largest cities in our Commonwealth. I have lead two major associations devoted to improving local government and have advised local governments from Australia to South Africa to the Balkans.
Because of the long career and wealth of experience that I have with government budgets, I know what a well-managed government looks like. The management and direction of Lehigh County at present and over the past seven years has been a resounding success by any measurable standard.
In that period of time, Lehigh County was able to renovate our county courthouse, saving $20 million in the process, build Coca Cola Park, which is rapidly becoming one of the biggest attractions in our area, and create a plan to significantly enhance the Trexler Nature Preserve. With the capital funds that were saved through numerous cost-cutting measures on the courthouse, the county was able to undertake the most comprehensive facilities and capital program upgrade in this county's history, ranging from a state of the art 911 dispatch center to more than 20 bridge replacements and repairs.
Through the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program we are providing $2.2 million which will be used in neighborhoods that are in danger of decline by purchasing, rehabilitating and selling of distressed properties. Meanwhile, our Green Future Fund program has pushed the total of farmland acres preserved past the 20,000-acre mark and, most recently, released $1.1 million to six municipalities for important parks and recreation projects.
As a result of the business community and our county government's hard work in the area of economic development, earlier this year, Lehigh County was recognized by the Fourth Economy Community Index as one of the top ten best counties in the nation to attract growth and investment in the future.
The first priority of the county must be to protect the people who live here. Providing a safe environment is the first and most important step to creating economic growth. Our highest priority over the past seven years has been a commitment to public safety and justice.
More than seventy cents of every Lehigh County tax dollar is spent on people, institutions and systems that combat crime and help to maintain law and order. Strong efforts in this area have benefits that are twofold. First, our efforts help to make Lehigh County a safer place to live in the short term, and second, every dollar that we spend today on law and order helps to prevent further spending to pay the costs associated with crime and punishment down the road.
We have fully funded the effort to connect every police department in Lehigh County to police departments in other counties, to each other and to the State Police with "real time" sharing of data records. We also provided funding to put ten new police officers on the streets of six Lehigh County municipalities, opened a new state-of-the-art 911 center and fully renovated and expanded our work release center with a focus on more effective counseling for both men and women.
In collaboration with District Attorney Jim Martin, we have opened a Central Booking Unit designed to put officers back on the street quickly after making an arrest, a digital forensic lab in collaboration with DeSales University and a Regional Crime Center, which can pull in data from an extremely wide range of law enforcement sources to determine crime patterns, cross-match information on potential suspects and provide solid leads to the local police.
The overall goal has been simple. We want Lehigh County to be a safe place to live and a very unfriendly place for lawbreakers.
Just last week, some of you may have attended the groundbreaking of a facility that was the result of a unique partnership between Lehigh County and Cetronia Ambulance Corps. We sold the land to Cetronia, who built a facility that was big enough to house their own public health and safety operations and include a new medicolegal facility for our coroner as well as space to house our emergency management vehicles. We were able to save millions on the facility through this partnership.
In a month or so, we will hold a grand opening for our new Lehigh County Detoxification Center in partnership with a private provider, White Deer Run. This facility was built without the use of Lehigh County tax dollars.
The only way that Lehigh County can enhance services in these crucial areas without putting a burden on taxpayers is to be as frugal and efficient as possible with what we spend on our basic operations, and I'm proud to report that that's exactly what we've done and what we will continue to do. Most important, our employees have been committed to that goal and I take particular pride in recognizing the great partnership that we have gotten from our unions.
Total staffing has been reduced by 143 full-time positions and another 28 positions have been converted to critical public safety positions--with the reductions occurring in both our union and non-union units. All the while, we have successfully avoided having any contract negotiations move to arbitration.
I am also proud to say that the County's healthcare costs have increased an average of only 1.3% annually since this administration took office in 2006, which is something I doubt many private sector companies can say. We have gotten there by tough negotiating, transferring a significant portion of the costs to all of our employees and increasing the focus on wellness programs to limit the future growth of this very challenging budget line item.
This has happened not in spite of, but because of, our union contracts. Without arbitration, we have negotiated agreements with all our unions to keep wage growth under control and for all workers -- union and non-union -- to pay about 20 percent of the cost of their healthcare.
We are emerging from the recent recession in sound financial condition, and in better shape than many other municipal and county governments in America. Any way that you choose to measure it, the state of our county finances is sound.
Thanks to the spirit of cooperation that has prevailed on the Board of Commissioners, especially through the early years of the administration, we have been able to accomplish a great deal in just seven short years--and we have been able to do what we have done in a cost-effective manner. But I am a strong believer in continuous improvement.
When I was appointed County Executive, I made a commitment to focus on continuous improvement and we are following through on that commitment. I have tapped into my old rolodex and sought out resources and former associates from the professional association that I used to lead, the ICMA, to begin the implementation of a performance management process for all departments. This performance management initiative will sharpen the focus on the goals that we hope to achieve and it will increase efficiency in the processes we use to get to those goals.
We have also launched a major priority-based budget initiative which could have a dramatic impact on the way we approach our budget process and on how we analyze the things we do with our taxpayers' money. We plan to explore several possible and examine different scenarios for changes or reductions in functions and services. Over the coming months, we will undertake a new way of looking at how we choose what is important and what ends up in our budget.
Despite the County Executive's veto and the administration's advice against reassessing last year, we were able to make the best of the situation and follow the Board of Commissioner's direction to reassess, and the process went smoothly.
We have come through the reassessment process and the required appeals period with very good results from a County financial perspective, if not to the delight of almost half of our property owners. As we have experienced, reassessment can be a very controversial issue and one which can be seriously flawed if left in the hands of politicians. Barring unexpected action by the State to make the process occur at regular intervals, this administration recommends that the Board of Commissioners press for a charter change via referendum to ensure that it happens.
Lehigh County is home to all of us, and the decisions that we make will have an impact not just today, but far into the future. I believe that government has a place in our lives; it has a role to play in the provision of basic services and that it must be properly funded in order to fulfill its mandates.
Overall, the state of Lehigh County government is strong and our county is steadily recovering from the devastation of the recession. Reports from the housing market are encouraging, salaries are beginning to rise again and we are seeing more companies opt to move from outside the area to within our borders, which should work positively on the stalled job market.
However, we're certainly not out of the difficult times yet and there is a greater need than ever to demonstrate the spirit of cooperation that has always been the hallmark of Lehigh County government. This is a time when we have to put political party differences and ideology aside, as we did in crafting a bipartisan 2013 Budget, and work together toward the common good, and in the best interests of our county's taxpayers. That's what I committed to do when I was appointed County Executive and what I continue to hope can be forged with our Board of Commissioners, despite the fact that it is an election year.
We've weathered an extremely difficult economic stretch but were still able to get many important things accomplished. We need to do even more together now that we see a light at the end of the tunnel.