Northampton County Executive John Brown Delivers State of the County at Hotel Bethlehem
By Colin McEvoy on March 2, 2017
Jobs numbers in Northampton County are up, unemployment is down, the Gracedale Nursing Home turned a profit for the first time since 2008, and the county is relying less and less on reserve funds to balance its budget.
Those were among a few of the messages Northampton County Executive John Brown conveyed during his fourth State of the County address on March 2, held before a crowd of about 140 people at the Hotel Bethlehem.
“My commitment to you is to keep doing what we’ve been doing (and) to continue to be accountable to the taxpayers with the money that we spend going forward,” Brown said.
The event was hosted by the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC), as was Lehigh County Executive Tom Muller’s State of the County event the previous week.
Brown said Northampton County has accounted for an estimated 95,000 public sector jobs in 2016, a 7.5 percent increase compared to 88,000 jobs in 2012. The county’s unemployment rate is down to 5.2 percent, he said, compared to a high of 8.1 percent in 2012.
The average wage for a Northampton County resident increased by 5.2 percent from 2011 to 2015, Brown said, growing from an annual $41,456 to $45,452, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Northampton County tax revenue has increased an average of 1.7 million per year over the past decade, while personnel costs have increased an average of $2.5 million per year, Brown said.
“Obviously, we’re on the wrong end of that equation,” he said.
However, Brown noted that his budgets have relied less on the general fund to be balanced, with each his last two budgets drawing down about $10 million from reserves, compared to $20 million in his first budget in 2014.
The county has sought to identify where it is “leaking” cash and soft costs, Brown said, and sought to make operational improvements through organizational structure reviews and leveraging the use of technology. Employee benefits have been scaled back, he said, and health care and workers’ compensation packages now more closely resemble the private sector.
The county-owned Gracedale Nursing Home ended the year with a $970,000 surplus in 2016. It realized an annual savings of $101,549 in overtime costs due to electronic scheduling and time reporting, Brown said, and 2016 marked the second consecutive year that the Pennsylvania Department of Health identified zero deficiencies.
“This is the first time since 2008 that Gracedale has ended up in the black,” Brown said, although he noted the nursing home is projected to face a $2.6 million loss this year.
Major capital projects moving forward include improvements at Gracedale, the reconstruction of 119 county bridges, the potential acquisition of the human services building, the construction of a regional forensic center, and the construction of a new jail, Brown said.
The county has preserved 100 percent of farmland that meets program requirements, he said, and is pursuing technology upgrades at Gracedale (including electronic health records, workforce management software, and pharmacy) and county row offices (including orphan and wills, criminal, and prothonotary/sheriff).
Brown also discussed a state-mandated consolidation of 911 services between the city of Bethlehem and Northampton County. Bethlehem’s 911 center will merge with the county’s existing Nazareth location, and a consultant has been hired to facilitate that plan, Brown said.
The Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) was the presenting sponsor of the 2017 State of the County. Ed Dougherty, LVHN Chief Business Development Officer, said one-third of Northampton County residents who are admitted to a hospital go to an LVHN hospital.
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