Is it the role of county government to create jobs, or to simply get out of the way of private industry?
With a week to go before the election, the candidates for executive of Lehigh and Northampton counties delved into these questions and more as they shared views on who could step up and be the best CEO of the county.
Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. and the nonprofit Lehigh Valley Partnership hosted the county executive forum on Monday in the new Gambet Center at DeSales University in Center Valley.
When voters are polled on their top concerns, employment issues, economic development and job creation always come out on the top of the list, said Christopher Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College and moderator of the discussion. With questions generated by investors and board members of LVEDC and the Lehigh Valley Partnership, candidates generally stuck to the main focus.
The candidates for Lehigh County executive include: Dean Browning, Thomas Muller and Scott Ott. For Northampton County, the race includes: John Callahan, Lamont McClure, Glenn Reibman and John Brown.
The private sector grows jobs, said Browning, and government has a small but vital role. Private enterprise needs assistance and guidance and that's the role that county government plays. Providing tax money to support private development benefits the community as a whole and Browning said he was very much in favor of tax increment financing plans.
Browning previously worked at Air Products and served as finance manager for Coca-Cola Bottling Company of the Lehigh Valley. Now, he is the executive vice president of finance and administration, chief financial officer of New World Aviation.
Muller said government can play a much larger role in growing the economy and the county's department of community and economic development has played a very active role. However, he said he is more interested in a company that adds a new plant or call center that employs a lot more people in the county than big box retail development.
Muller is supportive of tax increment financing plans, particularly for a project such as Hamilton Crossings in Lower Macungie Township; a shopping center plan that he said would bring 920 jobs, not counting construction jobs.
Muller serves as director of administration for Lehigh County, which employs more than 2,000 people and said he also has experience closing operations and relocating plants.
Ott said the Hamilton Crossings developer thinks they are going to create these jobs, but county and school taxpayers are footing the bill that PennDOT should have taken care of years ago. He referred to infrastructure improvements to the Route 222 bypass.
Overall, he said county government should not take an activist role with businesses but make county processes smoother and more seamless. Business people are chasing their dream and not in the business of creating jobs, Ott said. The greatest role of government is to "do no harm."
Ott co-hosts a news talk show for PJTV and served as editor-in-chief of Pennsylvania Business Central, a monthly business journal.
In Northampton County, Bangor Mayor John Brown said there needs to be a clear definition of what the county's role in economic development actually is and the county should also reach out to small businesses. County government should inspire and empower its constituents, or employees, Brown added.
Regarding tax increment financing plans, the county should be asking, 'what is the return on investment to the taxpayer and impact on infrastructure?'
"What is the local effect on businesses? I think they are good programs, I think they have to be used sparingly," Brown said.
Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan said it's not the role of government to create jobs but to "create the right environment for the private sector to thrive."
"I think you need to be targeted in the incentives that you do," Callahan said.
Callahan said probably the most successful example of a tax increment financing plan in the state is the development at SteelStacks and Levitt Pavilion in Bethlehem. He said he supported a TIF for redeveloping Martin Tower and pointed out another important use of a TIF for the Chrin Route 33 interchange project in Palmer Township.
Glenn Reibman, former Northampton County executive, county councilman and council president, said he helped create the first TIF in the county for the Bethworks, an industrial park site that includes Commerce Center Boulevard in Bethlehem, which he called "the boulevard to jobs for our citizens."
"We not only talked about economic development, we delivered," Reibman said.
Additionally, he said he helped develop Arcadia East Industrial Park off Route 512 and Portland Industrial Park near I-80.
Reibman said as the previous executive, the county became active, responsive partners and provided grants to all corners of the county that benefitted economic development.
County Councilman Lamont McClure said economic development and job creation is one of the things the county has not done well.
"We have to be focused on Northampton County first and Northampton County jobs," said McClure. "What we need to do is create a stable tax structure."
Regarding the TIF plans that many developers are now requesting for projects, McClure said the county should be mindful of how they are used and be aggressive about getting together to discuss the benefits.
He maintained the importance of having the county's fiscal house in order so property taxes don't rise.
"I pledge not to raise taxes the next four years," said McClure.
This will give stability to small businesses and give large employers the notion that they can come here and not worry about taxes, McClure said.