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4 posts from Parks and Recreation

03/01/2013

The State Of Lehigh County

Billhansell_editby 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.

05/07/2012

Region's Choice: Reap the Benefits or Bear the Burden?

Mayor_Ed_Pawlowski

By Ed Pawlowski, Mayor of Allentown

"A rising tide lifts all boats." This was spoken by John F. Kennedy in a 1963 speech at the dedication of a dam in Heber Springs, Arkansas.  He explained that the Greers Ferry project, and others like it, were investments not only in Arkansas, but in the nation's future.   After the dam was built and the lake filled, tourism boomed, businesses opened, and Greers Ferry Lake became one of Arkansas' leading destinations creating a broad economic impact in that region for decades to follow.

I tell this story because as was the case in 1963, I feel that we in the Lehigh Valley are at a similar turning point in the development of our region. 

Allentown's Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ), provides a tremendous opportunity for the entire Lehigh Valley.  Some see this legislation in a positive light, others in a negative.  Some Lehigh Valley municipalities are concerned about the effects of this new program. While we are trying to attend to those concerns quickly and fairly, I don't want us to lose sight of the big picture.  The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has given the Lehigh Valley a chance to reinvigorate our largest urban core.  As a region, we can either reap the benefits of this opportunity to renew Allentown or we can bear the burden of squandering it.

Will everyone reap the benefits?  My answer is yes, because Allentown's success is critical to the entire region. It is estimated that over 55,000 people work in the city every day and more than ONE BILLION dollars of annual earned income is generated by individuals who work in Allentown and live elsewhere. Allentown is an economic driver for our regional economy. If Allentown prospers, the entire region prospers, if it declines, the region will decline and our economy will stagnate.   

Allentown officials have presented a plan ensuring that our surrounding municipalities and school districts will not lose their current Earned Income Tax (EIT) from their residents working within the NIZ area. The City's latest proposal not only addresses concerns about current tax income but also shares the city's success with the surrounding municipalities and school districts. The City will develop a Baseline Payment Fund to assure that every taxing body in the region receives its current EIT payments for the life of the NIZ. 

In addition, to make sure the surrounding municipalities share in the upside of future development projects within the zone, all NIZ developers of commercial office projects will be charged $1 per square foot for occupied office space created in the zone. This fee will be assessed on a yearly basis to create a Regional Development Fund. That fund will share revenue with municipalities and school districts annually (much like the casino-revenue-sharing arrangement in Northampton County) and will be distributed according to the percentage of each municipality's residents working within the NIZ area. The creation of this fund will also help address the concern that there would be an unusual movement of office tenants from neighboring communities. It will apply to all of the municipalities, regardless of their position in or outside of any lawsuit.

Finally, let us remember the main intent of the Neighborhood Improvement Zone is to generate new economic development and increase regional employment opportunities.  It is estimated that the arena project alone will create more than 1750 construction jobs and 240 permanent jobs upon completion. Kevin Lott, a construction worker from Hellertown representing 470 Lehigh Valley carpenters, told the Salisbury Township Board of Commissioners last week: "It's been three years that have been very, very difficult. We really need this work...I have guys losing their homes. It destroys families." The NIZ offers a tremendous opportunity to help reverse this trend.  If we as a region can collaborate and strike a mutually beneficial agreement, we can get down to the business of offering thousands of desperately needed construction jobs to the Valley's unemployed workers.

Beyond job creation, there are other economic benefits to the Valley if this project succeeds: new commerce, increased tourism, and the ability to attract educated workers as well as new companies to the area.  An 8,500 seat multi-purpose arena will improve the quality of life in the region by increasing our options for leisure activities, our pride in the Lehigh Valley and, ultimately all of our property values.

Will the city's offer of collaboration to share in the benefits of the NIZ be accepted or will the redevelopment of Allentown be delayed indefinitely and the benefits of the NIZ wasted?  No one wins if no one is talking. If Allentown declines, many of the downtown jobs held by non-City residents will cease to exist.

If this region is to succeed, we must come together, pursue our common interests, and invoke the necessary changes that will benefit us now and for generations to come.

The Valley's tide has come in, let us not cling to the shore and miss our opportunity to rise to greater heights as a region.

10/31/2011

Allentown: Laying the Groundwork for 2012

Mayor_Ed_Pawlowski

By Ed Pawlowski, Mayor of Allentown

One of my favorite quotes is from Lyndon Johnson, "Yesterday is not ours to recover but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.

"With each passing day, I become more excited and honored to be part of this great City of Allentown. As we head toward our city's 250th anniversary, 2012 is lining up to be a fantastic year. We're a city with a proud history, a strong sense of community, a positive understanding of the present, and a very bright future. With so many areas of the world still trying to find their way, we have not only a vision but a path forward into 2012 and beyond. 

Like all great cities, Allentown is constantly reinventing itself. We remain in the early stages of this city's transformation into a city of the new millennium, a city without limits. Currently, the arts and cultural activities are the core of our downtown, anchored by the Allentown Art Museum, Symphony Hall and the new Arts Park. This year the Allentown Art Museum completed a $15 million dollar renovation creating a truly regional asset and a strong anchor for the city's downtown. The Allentown Symphony celebrated its 60th anniversary and came off its strongest season in a decade hosting more than 85,000 visitors and the city is starting an arts district streetscape project to connect the district to the broader downtown community.  

This year also ushered in the start of a new neighborhood improvement zone which allows the city to use state tax revenues to rebuild its downtown core and spur millions in economic development and activity. This new zone stretches from Allentown's center city to the Lehigh waterfront. A key project in this zone will be a new 8,500 seat arena for hockey and 10,000 for concerts (the first of its kind in the Lehigh Valley) which will be the home to the Philadelphia Phantoms AHL hockey team and the area's premier location for major concerts, sports and family events. 

The Allentown Entertainment District, Arena and Waterfront projects are just some of the many forward-looking projects the city is pursuing to transform Allentown into a "destination city." These projects are designed to bring to our community the much-needed benefits of significant new job creation and a long-term vision and anchor for economic growth and improved quality of life not just here in Allentown, but throughout the Lehigh Valley. 

We are already experiencing the fruit of our collective labors. This August, Lehigh Gas announced they chose to locate their corporate headquarters here in Downtown Allentown versus other cities, bringing 70 jobs with them and the anticipated addition of another 70 to 80 jobs.  Also, East Penn Real Estate acquired nine properties near the Arena block earlier this year, and plans to build a $60 million office center which is expected to draw hundreds of new workers to the city.   

These are exciting times for Pennsylvania's third largest city. Allentown is in the midst of major transformation and this process, like so many of this caliber and significance, is dynamic.

To keep the public informed on these exciting new developments and regional projects, we plan to meet directly with numerous organizations and individuals in the community, representing the many interests of our community -- from economic to social to environmental concerns -- to share information and gather input on the project. We will hold Open Houses, create a website and publish a series of newsletters to make it easier for folks to keep pace with our progress and our vision for the future.   We plan to continue to share information as we learn it and engage in conversations about the issues that matter to us all. 

Allentown has a proud history and great heritage. From our early roots as a small farming community to being the fastest growing city in Pennsylvania, Allentown is a city that continues to build upon its foundations to create a better tomorrow. As we celebrate our past and look to the future, I am committed to the residents, community and business owners of Allentown to continue to do everything in my power to work earnestly, toward realizing the great potential of this "City without limits."  

04/25/2011

Allentown's Future: A Bicycle and Pedestrian Friendly Community

Mayor_Ed_Pawlowski

By Ed Pawlowski, Mayor of Allentown

With summer fast approaching, I am delighted to share with you the many improvements planned for Allentown's bicycle and pedestrian transportation systems.  In 2010, our city adopted Connecting Our Community -- our plan for linking Allentown's parks and people through an interconnected network of bicycle and pedestrian trails.  Our goal is to encourage active transportation in Allentown by allowing people to access parks and other popular destinations located along a new network of on- and off-street trails.     

Encouraging active transportation in Allentown is of vital importance. Increased rates of walking and bicycling are linked to reduced pollution and lower rates of obesity, cancer, stroke, diabetes, asthma, and mortality. Currently, more than 40% of Allentown youth are overweight or obese. In addition, only 0.3% of commuters in Allentown regularly get around by bicycle (a tiny fraction of the rate found in numerous other US cities). 

The reality is that many people -- even confident and enthusiastic cyclists -- do not feel safe riding with cars on city streets without designated space for bicycles. In fact, where cities have implemented modern bicycle trail and lane networks, cycling rates have skyrocketed. Consequently, there is a need for new biking and walking facilities, especially on-street facilities, that will encourage more people to bike or walk to their jobs, to schools, the library, or other destinations, as well as providing a means of exercise. 

Streets with pedestrian improvements and bike trails and lanes don't just make people feel safer--they actually are safer. A recent Harvard School of Public Health study of on-street physically separated bike lanes found a reduced risk of injury and 2½ times as many cyclists on streets with such bicycle lanes compared to streets without them. In addition, these projects also reduce the rates of cyclist and pedestrian crashes by encouraging more people to bike and walk thus motorists become more accustomed to watching for these vulnerable users. 

In addition to the obvious health, safety, and environmental benefits, the traffic calming effect of on-street pedestrian and bicycle facilities has been shown to result in economic benefits such as increased property values, reduced vacancy rates, and new customers for businesses. Our new trail network will offer us the same economic, ecological, and health-related benefits enjoyed by many of our nation's most progressive cities.

Funding for the project has been secured through grants from the Harry C. Trexler Trust, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the federal government.
Whether you walk, bike, or drive, all of Allentown stands to benefit from implementing the city's new Connecting Our Community plan. By creating a comprehensive and interconnected network of trails that serves all user groups, the city will foster a culture of active living and promote Allentown as a recreational destination.  

I want to especially thank Allentown City Council, city staff, the Connecting Our Community Committee, and the several hundred city residents contributing to the city's up-and-coming trail projects.  In addition, I encourage everyone to attend one of the public meetings on the project being held on Wednesday, April 27, at 7:00PM, at Central Elementary School, or October 26 at the Public Library.   

For more information regarding the Connecting Our Community plan, please visit: www.allentownpa.gov/parks