This year the ideologically driven members of the Board of Commissioners turned their back on common sense and refused to pass a bill that would benefit each of the county municipalities. I spoke up at the Commissioner meetings to oppose the withdrawal of bill 2017-09. The expanded text of my two objections are as follows:
The Lehigh County Commissioners just punted on an opportunity to improve transportation conditions in Lehigh County. At the recent meeting, they refused to consider utilizing a funding source provided by Harrisburg by withdrawing county bill 2017-09 from consideration. This bill would have provided funding for transportation improvements throughout the municipalities of Lehigh County. It was astounding that they were unable to come to grips with two simple, but powerful concepts.
The first is the concept of local control. The constant theme in conservative thought is to confer governing control to the local institutions where it is more effective. This bill fit perfectly into that ideology. Essentially, the PA general assembly, in passing a law creating this opportunity, said “we are dysfunctional with regard to funding local transportation needs, so if the counties want to take a shot at it, feel free and in fact we will give you a one time $2 million dollar sweetener to do so”. The state law permits a $5 annual fee per each vehicle registered in the county to be levied and returned, dollar for dollar, to the county to be used for transportation improvement expenditures. This means that every dollar levied in the county is directly returned to the county under its control for use in the county. This is a radically conservative approach, ceding control back to the local level without so much as a hint of interference from the state. In addition to accessing this revenue stream, the county bill included an innovative approach in order to revenue share these funds with local county municipalities. Appropriate transportation projects in the municipalities would be funded 50/50 by the county and the municipality. This approach accomplishes two things: the local municipality has skin in the game, and the municipality is not burdened with the entire cost of infrastructure improvement necessitated by the wear and tear from use by vehicles from outside of the municipality.
The second is the concept of front loading the expenditures via a bond, or loan issue. County bill 2017-09 proposed a bond issue of $20 million in order to provide the funds up front to pay for the transportation projects. Now, the word “bond”, or “borrowing”, is always a loaded concept. It is “government debt”. In this case, the bond was to be paid off gradually with the revenue stream from the $5 fee. This would allow the projects to proceed immediately so as to get the benefits of the improvements while interest rates and construction costs are less than they would be in the future. We all do this every day with home improvement loans, car loans, etc. It is good strategy in an environment where interest rates and costs will be rising in the future. What makes this powerful in this case is that the revenue stream to fund the bond issue is stable and predictable, so that the risk to the county is virtually eliminated. So the effects of this bill are totally insulated and separate from the normal functions of the county. In effect, it is a “stand alone” initiative.
Of course, the dog whistle response will be: “another new tax”. While it is clearly a new revenue stream for the county, it is of a different philosophy. It is a levy specifically related to use, recognizing that vehicles are responsible for the wear and tear on infrastructure and should bear the burden of their impact. Further, it recognizes that each municipality, while housing the roads and bridges, is not the entire source of damage to infrastructure and should not bear the entire burden of costs.
This bill is an experiment in returning control to local government that is more immediately responsive to the local taxpayer and voter. It is indeed unfortunate that our commissioners cannot see this, set aside ideological positions, and move Lehigh County forward.
Last meeting in my original criticism of the commissioners’ failure to pass bill 2017-09, I provided sound logical reasoning to support this bill. I have two more points to make in support of restoring life to this bill.
First, as I noted before, no one likes the burden of additional taxes or fees, including me. But, as we all know from state and federal budget talks, local governments are facing the reality of reduced fund flows in the future from both the federal and state governments WITH NO CONCURRENT REDUCTION IN TAXES. We need to realize that our local communities are going to be left out on their own more and more.
Mark my words: with funds sharing from the state and federal levels decreasing, with community demands for services increasing, and with a fixed tax base relying primarily on fixed real estate taxes, this commission is standing as an impediment to access a local funds stream that would help our local municipalities.
People may say that this is just another tax on top of taxes that we never see working for us and I am in sympathy with that. But that critique needs to be placed where it belongs, with the state and federal officials. This bill funding and control is strictly local and the local officials are very much more accountable to us.
Improvement - 4 additional conditions:
1 – Municipality to stipulate that project life is a minimum of 10 years
2 – County should have oversight in the form of approval of each project by Commissioners similar to service contracts
3 – County requires that labor content of projects must be 70% local to support our local workers
4 – Should allocated funds not be claimed by municipalities within a 2 year period, unused funds shall be retained for county use
To summarize, by adding these conditions upon the original bill, this bill would stand as a superb small government model where fees from local vehicle owners are used 100% to benefit local taxpayers, and they are controlled by local officials and use local labor.
This is the kind of initiative that local government needs to take back control of our community needs. It is a model for the future, so that we are not waiting for the hoped for handout from big brother.
Local funds, local control.