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Lehigh County Executive Tom Muller Delivers State of the County Address

By Colin McEvoy on February 18, 2016

More than 100 people attended Lehigh County Executive Tom Muller’s State of the County address this morning, held at DeSales University in Upper Saucon Township.

“We have a financially strong county, rich in resources, rich in opportunities,” Muller said. “But those opportunities can only be realized if we work together. We can be better together.”

The event was hosted by the Lehigh County Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC).

Muller said the economic picture for the county is good. The county tax rate is less than 1 percent above where it was 25 years ago, he said, and taxes on a median home in Lehigh County are more than 40 percent less than those of a median home in either of its neighboring counties.

“Economically, things are on an upswing,” he said. “Unemployment continues to drop, the real estate market has strengthened, and companies and developers continue to focus on our county.”

In Lehigh County, the tax bill for the median home is $723.49, compared to $1,251.39 in Northampton County, and $1,257.32 in Berks County, Muller said. The county tax bill amounts to 1.32 percent of average resident’s household income, compared to 2.08 percent in Northampton and 2.25 percent in Berks County.

Lehigh County entered both 2014 and 2015 with budget deficits, Muller said, and eliminated them by finding ways to improve efficiencies and refinance debt. As a result, county personnel has dropped in each of the last seven years, and is now below where it was in 1988.

At the same time, Muller said the county has added staff to critical public safety areas, such as central booking, the regional crime center, the digital forensics lab, the coroner’s medico-legal center, and the ballistics lab.

Muller acknowledged challenges facing the county moving forward, including eliminating a $6.5 million 2016 budget deficit, meeting pension obligations after a down-market year, positively concluding open union negotiations, and maintaining county services as Harrisburg “continues to bumble with a state budget.”

“Despite all the positives, there are issues of concern,” he said.

Muller also discussed several major Lehigh County projects, including Hamilton Crossings, a $140 million, 565,000-square-foot retail complex in Lower Macungie Township. After more than six years in the making, the Goldenberg Group broke ground on the project in May.

The three anchor tenants – Target, Whole Foods, and Costco – are expected to open by mid-summer, with other tenants opening up by early fall, Muller. The complex is now 96 percent leased, he said, and has already generated almost $1 million in tax revenue.

Muller also weighed in on the planned redevelopment of Martin Tower in west Bethlehem, which the city is seeking to rezone to allow a mix of uses and make it easier to demolish the former Bethlehem Steel headquarters. Some downtown city merchants oppose those plans, fearing it will threaten their businesses.

“Those concerns are understandable, but in my opinion those concerns underestimate the strength of those businesses, the strength they’ve created over the years,” Muller said. “I support what those elected officials are trying to do at the Martin Tower site.”

Muller also said cost reduction efforts at the Cedarbrook Nursing Home in South Whitehall Township have brought the financial situation “well under control” while also maintaining its four-star rating. He added that legislation pending before Harrisburg could positively affect county nursing home funding and bring Cedarbrook’s finances to “a break-even point or maybe even better.”

But he said the county government must reach agreement on improvements to the Cedarbrook building: specifically, whether it should be renovated or rebuilt. That decision should be reached mid-year, Muller said, so the county can take advantage of its strong bond ratings to handle whatever borrowing is necessary.

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