As Envision Lehigh Valley is asking the question “What will the Lehigh Valley be like in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years,” the state budget was passed late Saturday night with language that seemingly wipes away the need for 18 Lehigh Valley municipalities to continue lawsuits against the city of Allentown. Pennsylvania legislators made municipalities whole again, returning to them their earned income tax revenue that a 2009 Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) Act allowed the city of Allentown to keep in order to fund a new hockey arena.
For the second time in as many years, Governor Corbett signed a state budget on time and with no new taxes. This budget has some significant legislation attached, including amendments to the tax code for businesses that donate to private schools, amendments to the state’s welfare and school codes, and funding for the four state universities. Perhaps the most significant amendment for Lehigh Valley residents, however, is the change to the state’s fiscal code which prevents the city of Allentown from using earned income taxes from the suburbs to help fund the building of the hockey arena proposed for the area at Seventh and Hamilton Streets in the city.
Author of the original NIZ Act in 2009, State Senator Pat Browne saw this as an opportunity for the whole region to get behind a project that would surely stimulate not only the economy in Allentown but in the outlying municipalities as well. This opinion was not shared by many of the local governmental bodies in the Lehigh Valley, leading to lawsuits from 18 municipalities and one school district protesting the use of their earned income tax revenue to fund the hockey arena and the surrounding shops, hotel, and office space.
In an effort to keep the project moving forward and spur the economic development of Allentown, which presumably would lead to a better Lehigh Valley in general, Browne sponsored the amendment to the fiscal code so that the nearly $2 million that was to come from earned income tax collections from those who work in the 130-acre NIZ area but live outside the city would now stay in the municipalities. When asked about the NIZ funding, State Representative Joe Emrick said, “We have effectively fixed that problem with this budget…” and that is “one of the reasons it has my full support.” It seems likely now that the lawsuits will be dropped, if indeed all of the money already collected is returned to the appropriate municipalities and no further money is withheld.
Is this the spark that the communities needed to get back to the regional thinking that is necessary for a progressive Lehigh Valley to continue to be economically competitive statewide and even across the nation? With extremely limited resources at the local government level and municipalities forced to cut services to their residents or raise taxes to continue them, now is the time to consider these regional ideas as good for the Valley as a whole. Let’s work together and remove some of the costly barriers in order to make the Lehigh Valley more efficient and competitive.
Thank you to everyone who attended the “State of the Lehigh Valley” lunch event on February 15th, and a special thanks again to our sponsors, without whom this event would not have been possible: Highmark Blue Shield, Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, Capital Blue Cross, PPL, Air Products, Susquehanna Bank, Lehigh University’s Social Science Research Center, Just Born, Inc., Spillman Farmer Architects, and the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley!
With President Obama recently delivering his State of the Union address and Governor Corbett giving us the state of the commonwealth budget, it is an appropriate time to consider the “State of the LehighValley.” (To read the report: State of the Lehigh Valley 2011.) Last year the Lehigh Valley Research Consortium (LVRC) partnered with Renew LehighValley (RenewLV) to present “State of the Lehigh Valley 2010: Community Trends at a Glance” to an audience of 250 concerned LehighValley residents.
This year’s presentation of the 2011 data focused on the livability of the LehighValley as measured by indicators like health, economics, education, environment, and quality of life standards. This year’s results suggest that the LehighValley “is in a better position economically and socially than in the recent past” even though most will agree that there are still many challenges to overcome before we can boast of regional prosperity. The luncheon was very participatory, with audience members providing their perspectives about the LehighValley’s competitiveness, public schools, disparities in access to health care, air quality, jobs, housing, and quality of life using a hand-held electronic response system, thus allowing for real time results. There were community experts in attendance to facilitate discussion based on these results.
The LehighValley is a very diverse collection of 62 municipalities and 17 public school districts within two of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, all acting independently to govern and lead in the best interest of each area’s residents. While it is the uniqueness of each area that makes it pleasing to its inhabitants, the similarities from one municipality to the other and how they assimilate to form the Lehigh Valley is a natural progression of governance and decision-making, unnoticed by most who live here.
In looking at just one section of data from the report, one sees that the Lehigh Valley’s current unemployment rate is higher than the Pennsylvania average, but lower than New Jersey and the national average, and our job growth is also below the rate of growth of Pennsylvania as a whole. On the other hand, average weekly wages in the LehighValley are higher than the state average but lower than New Jersey and the national average, and LehighValley residents as a group had higher median household incomes than the state and the nation. The report highlights how educational attainment is tied to this data. Perhaps a surprising statistic, graduation rates are not very different when economically disadvantaged student rates are compared to overall graduation rates, and in some districts the rate of graduation is higher among the economically disadvantaged students.
What does this mean? Well, 90 percent of all residents surveyed rated the LehighValley as either good or excellent with regard to living in this area. In light of the dissatisfaction with the economic situation, this is a significant statistic. It is indicative of the many great things the LehighValley offers its residents that are above and beyond dollars and cents: a relatively low crime rate, good public schools, easy access to goods and services, and a great network of hospitals and health care professionals. All of these are highlighted in the report.
I’m going to borrow a thought from this Sunday’s sermon (hope you don’t mind Father Steve) and if you have ever played sports, you will appreciate this. Were you ever a bench warmer? Did you like sitting on the bench? Or for that matter, if you were a starter, did you like coming out and watching from the sidelines? I bet the answer is no. You wanted to be involved, to make your mark, to influence the outcome of the contest, to be heard and noticed.
Well now is your chance to do that for your community, our community, the community we all call home. Whether you live in the northern-most point of the Slate Belt or the west end of Allentown, you are a LehighValley resident and the health and well-being of our residents and our cities and boroughs is your business and your voice should be heard. Time to get off the bench. Time to get involved. This is your opportunity to be in the starting five. Take it and join the discussion.
On Monday, January 9, 2012, the Health Commission will hold its annual meeting at the Lehigh County Government Center. The newly elected Northampton County Council members, along with the Lehigh County commissioners, will be present at this meeting. This is the perfect opportunity to speak out in support of the Bi-County Health Bureau which has been studied and proposed for the Lehigh Valley and is supported at the state level (October 17 2011 Health Commission Presentationfinal [final10-17]). All we need is support from both county councils to create the first bi-county health bureau in the state. This type of cooperation and partnership is indicative of joint ventures for which the Lehigh Valley is known and rewarded across the state. Please mark your calendar!
Revitalizing our urban centers and sustaining vibrant communities where people want to live and work is not possible without strong schools that offer robust curricula and are safe for children. Last year, Pennsylvanians witnessed $900 million worth of cuts in public education. As a result, local school districts have been forced to cut kindergarten classes, after-school tutoring programs, the arts, and sports. In order to pay for what the public schools have left, boards must modestly raise taxes to fill the gaps caused by the budget cuts, but this isn’t even enough. Consequently, we are seeing reductions in programs offered to the students who attend the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania.
Make no mistake about it… this is not a Republican or Democrat issue; this is your issue. While the schools have been given more state testing requirements (a way to hold them accountable to the taxpayers and to the state for money spent), there has not been any meaningful review of how the schools have been funded through all these changes. The state has ordered a “costing out” study and a “school consolidation study,” neither of which have led to more streamlined or efficient school governance. It is time that we get serious about a statewide funding formula that is “aligned to learning standards, fiscally responsible, fair, and both Constitutional and ethical” according to “Education Voters.”
You have that opportunity to be heard on Monday, December 5th. Education Voters is calling on you to speak up. Go to the website (http://www.educationvoterspa.org/) and follow the easy prompts that will get you to your legislator so you can voice your opinion on public education in Pennsylvania. We must let them know what is important. Get involved in your community. After all, it is YOUR community.
Time to give thanks for $3.4 million coming to the Lehigh Valley from HUD! On Monday, 21 November 2011, HUD announced $96 million worth of “Sustainable Communities Awards” which were distributed to help communities create jobs and improve housing, transportation, and the economy in urban and rural areas. There were requests for over $500 million in funding from communities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, so as you can see, the competition was tough; only 29 regional areas received “Regional Planning” grants nationwide.
According to HUD’s press release: “The Regional Planning Grant program encourages grantees to support regional planning efforts that integrate housing, land-use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure developments in a manner that empowers regions to consider how all of these factors work together to create more jobs and economic opportunities. The program will place a priority on partnerships, including the collaboration of arts and culture, philanthropy, and innovative ideas to the regional planning process.” (To read the full release, click here: http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/press/press_releases_media_advisories/2011/HUDNo.11-274 ).
The article contains a chart listing every award in the country. There were only two awards granted in Pennsylvania: one in Erie and one in the Lehigh Valley. Another noteworthy fact is that only five of the 56 awards were greater than the $3.4 million granted to the LehighValley. Obviously HUD took notice of the impact our regional cooperation is already having and is encouraging us to continue to improve on the good things that are happening here.
Now, here’s where you come in. It is time to have your voice heard! Speak up and let us know what you want to see in the plan for YOUR communities. Renew Lehigh Valley is responsible for the “public participation” or community engagement piece. Start thinking as a participant in this process. More to come as the plan unfolds…
In the meantime, relax, enjoy your turkey, and give thanks.