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Muller seeks consensus in State of the County Address

By LVEDC Staff on March 4, 2014

lehighcountyIn his first state of the county speech as Lehigh County Executive, Tom Muller deftly played the dual role of politician and tightrope walker.

Mull attempted to make the case that good government is worth paying for in a political environment that says that good government isn’t worth as much as much-less government.

The new county executive delivered his address to a packed house of regional dignitaries and county row officers on Feb. 27 at Coca-Cola Park. Muller was introduced to the crowd of 250+ by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham. LVEDC was the event sponsor for the first time.

“As in my campaign I’m not going to give any promises or projections about the county’s tax rate moving forward,” Muller said. “I never did do it during the campaign and I’m not going to do it for you this morning…To do so would premature and disingenuous.”

Muller is trying to build consensus with a board of commissioners that wants him to produce a 2015 county budget that not only eliminates the deficit and restores a surplus fund, but a spending plan that also holds the line on taxes.

Muller said he has been tasked with slashing about $14 million “without clear direction from commissioners.”

Muller did not mince words. He portrayed himself as a man who is not afraid of having a scrap with potential political advisories.

“The average Lehigh County residential tax bill for 2014 is $676, which is lower than it was 10 years ago,” Muller said. “The challenge, as I see it, is to get a consensus from our citizens on the proper balance between taxes and services.”

Muller noted that during his first seven weeks on the job he’s had more than his share of discord with county commissioners – a group that he claims isn’t reading the same book, let alone on the same page, as him.

“Fortunately our Lehigh County is financially sound, and recovering steadily from the recession,” Muller said. “Your county is financially very sound. All we need to do is come to grips, collectively, to determine the balance of what the citizens want in their taxes and services.”

Basic economic indicators provide encouragement.

The Lehigh County real estate market is recovering, according to Muller, with both sales and prices up. Employment figures for county residents have improved, although substantial progress still must be made, he said. Companies are also back to giving pay increases to employees.

And even during some challenging economic times, the county managed its share of robust economic development projects.

“Companies such as Ocean Spray chose to come into the area and FedEx seems poised to put a very substantial hub in Lehigh Valley,” he said.

The growth in downtown Allentown has been nothing short of transformational, Muller noted. Thanks in large part to the booming Neighborhood Improvement Zone, the city is not only being revitalized for generations to come, but will provide Lehigh County with a substantial boost in its tax rolls.

“The NIZ didn’t require any county real estate tax dollars,” he said.

And while the federal government’s bond rating has recently been downgraded, Lehigh County’s status was upgraded to an impressive AA1. It marked the county’s second such increase in the last few years.

“That enabled us to realize debt service reduction of $5 million which was returned to the taxpayers in a one-time tax credit,” Muller said.

He added that while he did not foresee the need to seek any new financing in the next four years, he will consider refinancing opportunities.

During his 28-minute address, Muller remained a proponent of the proposed Costco-anchored shopping center in Lower Macungie Township.

The county does have some “pending needs” that should be dealt with sooner than later.

The Old Courthouse and Legacy IT system need capital funding. Muller did note that the county has been “ahead of the curve” with keeping its 44 bridges functional. He then mentioned recent state transportation legislation that allows counties to add a $5 vehicle registration fee – a user tax that could potentially end the county’s reliance on local tax money for bridge upkeep.

“I would like to explore that,” he noted.

Muller broke the news that the county would be closing the juvenile detention center – a move that he said will allow Lehigh County to save about $750,000 annually.

 

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