Panto: County Wrong On Commuter Tax
"The county can continue to threaten to leave and I say 'Go ahead,'" Easton's mayor says.
Easton's mayor ripped Northampton County Council Wednesday night for its resolution opposing the city's proposed commuter tax.
"The county can continue to threaten to leave and I say 'Go ahead,'" said Mayor Sal Panto Jr. about comments made at the July 5 county council meeting.
At that meeting, county council passed a non-binding resolution urging the City Council to reject the increase.
"Frankly, the City gets very, very little from hosting the county prison, the county administration building because the employees only get a half hour lunch (and can’t patronize local businesses)," Panto said.
The city is proposing raising the commuter tax on all non-residents that work in the city from 1 to 1.75 percent. Currently, the city gets no funding from the one percent as half goes to the employee’s home city and the rest goes to the school board. Easton residents already pay 1.75 percent.
According to City Finance Director Chris Hegele, the tax is needed to cover $1.35 million of a projected $1.85 million shortfall in the City’s pension obligations for its approximately 200 employees.
The shortfall was caused by a declining return on investments and more accurate information on the potential life spans of retirees. Hegele said he was unsure about how many people would wind up paying the new tax.
In its resolution, the County Council said the implementation of the tax increase in difficult economic times would be an “unfair imposition on workers already struggling to make ends meet.” The resolution also stated that the tax could force businesses to move out of the City.
Panto expressed surprise at the county's stand. He said he thought the city and the County were on good terms. He expressed dismay that no representatives from the county have attended any of the several city council meetings where the issue had been discussed including this one.
For their part, county council members expressed disappointment last week that no one from the city had approached them about the tax.
Panto said the city is hamstrung because of the large amount of land inside its borders that is tax exempt including that owned by the county. More than 40 percent of the property in Easton is tax exempt. For its property, the county does not make a payment in lieu of taxes, something Panto believes should change.
“If the County wants to protect its employees from paying a commuter tax, then maybe they should consider a payment in lieu of taxes,” he said. “And they haven’t been willing to do that.”
He said that non-residents need to realize that in order for Easton to exist and provide financial opportunities, they must pay a fair share for running the system. He noted the City has cut back on its employees and has asked its work force to pay more towards healthcare and pensions in recent years.
"If you want to live in the lily white beautiful suburban community, you have to do something to pay for that," said Panto.
Deputy Mayor Kenneth Brown said in comparison to the suburbs Easton has few bullets to employ when faced with fiscal challenges.
"What the suburbs don't realize is that they have the infrastructure that the city of Easton doesn't," Brown said. "We don’t have the malls. We don’t have the things to draw that revenue from."
A public hearing on the tax is set for Monday, July 16 at 6:00 p.m.