NIZ News Is Good News
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.