Lehigh County Executive Tom Muller Delivers His Final State of the County Address
By Colin McEvoy on February 22, 2017
During what will be his last State of the County address as Lehigh County executive, Tom Muller promised not to raise property taxes in 2018, and called renovations to the Cedarbrook Nursing Home the “number-one priority” for his final year in office.
“I want to thank you for the support so many of you have given me over the years, and I will continue to work hard to justify your support,” Muller said. “I will give it my all.”
More than 140 people attended Muller’s fourth State of the County address, which was held at DeSales University in Upper Saucon Township. The event was hosted by the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC).
Muller said economic output in Lehigh County is up 2.6 percent from 2015 to 2016, higher than the neighboring counties of Northampton (2.2 percent) and Berks (1.9 percent). Likewise, job growth is up 1.6 percent in Lehigh, compared to 1.5 percent in Northampton and 1.1 percent in Berks.
The unemployment rate in Lehigh County is 4.7 percent, Muller said, That is about on par with the national rate of 4.8 percent, but, as Muller noted, slightly lower than the neighboring Northampton and Berks counties, which are both at 4.4 percent.
“By most economic measurements, Lehigh County is in good shape,” Muller said. “… The real estate market has rebounded, pushing inventories down, (and) economic output is showing a steady upward trend since the low point in 2009.”
Muller noted there are six major factors that drove county expenses in 2017: wages ($58.3 million), benefits ($14.9 million), retiree health care ($9.8 million), pension contributions ($6.1 million), debt service ($15.6 million), and capital spending ($4.3 million). This amounts to $108.9 million, which is 106.25 percent of the $102.5 million in tax revenue the county collects.
“These six drivers won’t surprise you when you recognize the county government is essentially a people-centric service operation,” Muller said. “The basic challenge every year is to keep doing things better and smarter, to trust the professionals who staff our departments to stay on top of the details, to avoid expanding services unnecessarily, and to hope both the market and the state legislature behave.”
The average Lehigh County tax bill is $723.49, or 1.32 percent of the tax percentage of household income, Muller said. That compares favorably to $1,251.39 (2.08 percent) in Northampton County and $1,257.32 (2.28 percent) in Berks County.
Regarding Cedarbrook, the county has fielded an architectural and engineering study that, combined with an operational analysis, will help secure the future path for Cedarbrook facilities this year and allow the county to proceed with financing, Muller said.
“Everyone has claimed a commitment to the future of Cedarbrook, and we’ll have the opportunity to ‘walk the talk’ by late summer,” he said. “Whatever path we choose won’t be cheap, but it is my number-one priority.”
For the third straight year, Moody’s Investors Service recently reconfirmed Lehigh County’s an Aa1 rating, which higher than all but two of the other 66 counties in Pennsylvania, Muller said. This allows the county to borrow or refinance and very beneficial rates, although Moody’s has noted that rating could dip if county reserves were to decline significantly.
Lehigh County has recommitted to an aggressive approach to farmland preservation, Muller said, committing $2 million of county funding for each of the next three years to partner with state and municipal funding. The county already has more than 20,000 acres preserved, the third-highest amount in the state, and Muller expects to preserve more than 700 more each year with this commitment.
In an attempt to make county government more transparent, Muller released the first-ever Citizen’s Annual Report last year, and announced he will do so again in 2017. Available on the county website, it seeks to provide a better understanding of county finances without “burying you in financial details.”
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