What Do We Want to See From County Executive Candidates?

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(This is a pretty Lehigh Valley-specific post from the other blog, but I thought I would cross-post it here since I’ve been writing about regional services and a progressive agenda for County governments here at KP too.)

The COAF folks have been doing some posts on the Northampton County Exec race, asking what we should be looking for in the candidates. So far they’ve come up with one policy idea: not selling Gracedale.

I disagree about this* but the successful ballot initiative likely has scared politicians off from selling for a while, and I don’t really see this being an election issue next year. None of the Democrats will support selling Gracedale, and I’m guessing none of the Republicans will either. So what else is there?

Here’s my ideal policy agenda:

1. Reassessment: If it doesn’t get voted on this fall, it’s got to get done soon. Aside from the fairness issues, it’s important for a healthy real estate market to have up-to-date valuations.

2. Assessment reforms:

a) An actual value system for assessment, using selling prices. The current method is too unwieldy and imprecise and gives politicians too good an excuse to not reassess regularly.

b) split-rate real estate tax. The next assessment should collect separate data on land values and building values. Maybe people think land and buildings should be taxed at the same millage rate, in which case they can do that, but this would at least put the option in front of County, muni and school district politicians to tax land and buildings at different rates. For now, just start collecting the information.

3. Transferable Development Rights Bank: replace the current farmland preservation and open space programs with a TDR Bank. The county currently buys up development rights to preserve farmland, but then doesn’t use them. A TDR bank would allow them to turn around and sell those development rights to areas that want the development, by converting them into air rights, greater lot occupancy, etc. A TDR bank would have several advantages over the current open space programs, namely that it wouldn’t require taxpayer funding, and it wouldn’t decrease the supply of developable space, so it would keep housing affordable. The funds currently spent on open space programs could be used for Gracedale or pensions or tax cuts or whatever you like.

4. Expansion of County’s Role as Municipal Service Provider: along the lines of Cuyahoga County in OH, and Los Angeles County, NorCo should begin building its capacity to deliver municipal services, allowing municipalities to contract for services with the county instead of directly administering them. This would include:

a) A County police force. Start by offering police services to the municipalities that do not currently have them. Once that’s up and running, extend the offer to more municipalities. Rather than paying for the service directly, residents of those municipalities would just pay higher County taxes.

b) A County fire department. Same deal. It’s time to professionalize this service and stop relying on volunteers. Volunteer fire departments are a nice thing, but fire protection is a useful public service that’s worth paying for.

c) A County public health department. Lehigh County isn’t going to be willing to join a Bi-County Health Department for another election cycle or two, so Northampton County should go it alone for now. Absorb Bethlehem’s Health Department so its paid out of the County tax base, and scale up its capacity to serve the whole County.

d) Consolidate municipal water authorities. a peer-reviewed Water Research Foundation study commissioned by RenewLV found that consolidating all the water authorities would save the Lehigh Valley between $40-60 million per year by 2020.

e) The “Sam’s Club” plan for purchasing and contracting. Municipalities and school districts have to buy a lot of stuff in the course of administering services  (computers and AV equipment, office supplies, etc) and they also contract for a lot of services (garbage collection, construction, maintenance, food service, etc). The state has saved hundreds of millions of dollars by consolidating purchasing for all its agencies, and counties can save a lot of money by consolidating purchasing for all their constituent municipalities and school districts. For instance, if Northampton County negotiated a single garbage hauler contract for all of its municipalities, they’d be able to get a better deal than municipalities can get negotiating individually, and people would pay a lot less for garbage service. Same thing with buying computers for all the school districts or electronic parking meters for cities.

5. Cut the Recidivism Rate. The best known strategy for reducing recividism is Hawaii’s HOPE probation reform program. Harrisburg just passed a pilot program that will allow Counties to try this strategy out. The next Northampton County Executive should jump on that ASAP. The strategy is basically this: probation supervision with random drug testing and swift, certain, mild sanctions for every instance of detected drug use. NCJRS recently found this strategy reduced drug-taking by about 85% in a population of criminally-active long-time meth users, in a randomized controlled trial.

6. Close the County cafeteria. People made some noise about boycotting Easton’s downtown businesses in protest of the commuter tax, but how much are County employees really contributing to the Easton economy anyway? By maintaining an internal cafeteria, the County is needlessly stunting the market for lunch and takeout food around the courthouse. If all that land was used for regular offices and businesses, you’d see a lot more workers going out for lunch at nearby businesses. The County’s already not paying property taxes to Easton on all the land its buildings take up. The least they could do is unlock a lunchtime stimulus for the West Ward neighborhood every day. In a few years’ time, I could imagine the St. Anthony’s lot turning into a nice food truck market for a few hours during lunchtime every day.

*I still haven’t gotten a good answer as to why it wouldn’t be better to just give low-income seniors cash to stay at a private nursing home, or get in-home care.

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