The big announcement from my 2022 Budget Address is a proposal to cut the Northampton County Real Estate Property tax by 1 mill. Currently, the County’s millage rate is 11.8. Cutting the rate by one point will result in a revenue loss of approximately $8 million but, thanks to the prudent cuts we’ve made over the last three years, this reduction won’t be a one-off.
Our Department of Fiscal Affairs believes we can keep this cut as we move into the future.
How are we able to do this? The last time Northampton County raised the property tax was for the 2017 budget. In 2016, my predecessor felt the county did not have enough money to function. This turned out to be a gross miscalculation and it has been reflected in the numbers in recent years.
Since I began my term as county executive in 2018, my team has looked for ways to reduce costs without cutting services. We’ve cut excessive travel and identified systems to improve energy efficiency in our buildings. Our departments have been aggressive in applying for Community Development Block Grants, open space and environmental lands grants and funds for rental and utility assistance.
Our purchase of the Department of Human Services in 2019 saved taxpayers $21.2 million in rent along with another $8.75 million in property taxes. It also allowed us to leverage state reimbursements for the property.
This tax cut will not come at the expense of the county services many residents rely on. In the last four years, our Public Works Department has maintained all County properties to a high standard, replaced 20 bridges and repaired three more. An additional three are currently under construction and should be finished by the end of the year. We also built and opened the County’s first Forensic Center with a state-of-the art design and solar panels on the roof as well as finishing construction on the historic Louise Moore Farmhouse.
Merged 911 service
In, 2019 our 911 Emergency Management Services Department integrated with Bethlehem’s 911. This took four years of planning and effort and, I’m proud to say, there haven’t been any disruptions since the switch. Public safety is one of my highest priorities and the county will fully fund our 911 departments so our residents can rely on a high level of service.
Northampton County also purchased electronic voting machines and E-poll books that have helped us put on secure, safe and accurate elections. Elections have been a hot button issue in recent years and more challenging to stage, especially during a pandemic. Thanks to Act 77, which passed in 2019, all Pennsylvania citizens now have the right to vote by mail.
With COVID-19 raging around the country and the world, many of our citizens choose to use this option. This has been great for voters, but it forces our Elections Office to conduct two elections on the same day, one at the polls and one by paper ballots, which increases expenses. Thanks to County Council’s willingness to step up and provide the funding, we’ve made all necessary investments in personnel and machinery such as ballot counters so our residents can have their election results within 12 hours of the polls closing.
Protecting our seniors
The biggest challenge posed by the pandemic was keeping our residents and staff safe at Gracedale Nursing Home. Gracedale is the largest long-term care facility under one roof in all of Pennsylvania. In 2019, we installed diesel generators with their own backup system to keep the electricity on during power outages. A respiratory virus always poses a risk to the seniors and the medically compromised, but COVID presented a completely different sort of crisis than functioning for a few days without power.
Gracedale staff were, and still are, heroes. They built an isolation ward with negative air flow for residents who tested positive and adopted new masking and cleaning protocols to prevent transmission of the virus. Vaccines have made a huge difference at Gracedale. After we began administering shots there last December, case numbers stabilized and we were able to bring back some of our volunteers and allow family visits.
This past year, the county used money from the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan for grants to more than 1,000 small businesses and to sponsor drive-through clinics for COVID testing and vaccinations. Combatting the virus isn’t just about lives, it’s also about livelihoods. When the pandemic ends, and it will, we want our business community to be healthy and ready to supercharge our economy.
The proposed tax cut will not have a negative impact on our ability to pay our bills. Northampton County has an A-plus credit rating which means we are a high credit worthy institution. With our government reserves, we don’t expect the drop in the county real estate tax to affect our credit rating.
Lamont McClure is the Northampton County Executive.