Lower Nazareth Township Plots Income Tax Increase

The Board of Supervisors has decided to give residents a chance to vote to increase their taxes at the May primary by increasing their income tax rate by 0.25%. If it passes, the township Earned Income Tax (EIT) rate will shoot from 1.2% to 1.45% and only the City of Easton (a whopping 1.95%) will be taxed at a higher EIT rate in Northampton County. Most municipalities in the county tax EIT at 1% to 1.2% per the state website.

In section 2 of this document is the referendum question that will appear in the ballot box, which the Board of Supervisors is apparently entitled to submit by merely passing a motion at a meeting, which they did unanimously with 4 supervisors present on February 13, 2019, even though 2 of 5 supervisors are currently unelected and appointed by the other Supervisors.

My understanding of the proposal is the township wishes to tax income at a higher rate in order to buy easements and the like to prevent further land developments. This is somewhat ironic as the township itself has overseen the development of a plethora of warehouses that – for better or ill – have greatly changed the composition of the township from mostly farms and home developments when I was born to many, many more home developments and warehouses over time. The township is practically at Peak Warehouse condition already – one would think the additional taxes from the existing warehouses and burgeoning developments of $400,000 to $600,000 homes would have reduced the tax load paid by the current residents instead of leading to new opportunities for the municipal government to tax more.

What is also somewhat odd is the manner of which the township is proceeding to raise taxes – as far as I am aware from reading the Board of Supervisor minutes in 2018-2019, this tax increase is merely at the will of the township itself. Perhaps a more well-intentioned set of overlords would first seek the opinion of the populace: many may in fact be bothered by the warehouses the township itself helped install over any protests – but to resolve it by raising taxes may not be as popular.

Why not give each taxpayer the option to pay voluntarily or with whatever funds they wish if the service is that important and popular? Or go door to door and take a survey as to how much each person wishes to contribute of their own money to pay to another resident so their land can be preserved?

Or might it be because the township government sees a possibility to grow their government and increase revenue by getting a minority of taxpayers – some of whom may not even pay the EIT tax – to inflict the tax on the other working taxpayers?

Now the township itself has already argued the matter is “legally” raised and a popular vote will decide it (see the letters below), but what is interesting is that they have purposely chosen a municipal primary where turnout is traditionally VERY low and where independents or third parties typically don’t bother to vote as they are legally banned from partaking in the Republocrats’ taxpayer-subsidized primary. Perhaps a more well-intentioned set of overlords would choose to have the referendum done at a fall election or during an election that is better attended, such as a presidential year when turnout can be 4-8 times higher.

I raised this issue in a continuing series of emails with the township government which you can read below. There will be an informational session on the tax on Thursday, May 2 at Lower Nazareth Elementary School at 6:30 pm.

Dear Board of Supervisors and Ms. Stauffer – 
I recently read in recent BOS meeting minutes that you all are planning a plebiscite to raise income taxes by 0.25% in the May primary.
As a township resident (I am also an elected auditor) I have two questions:
1) Do you have any documentation describing your pro-tax argument beyond that written in the BOS minutes? ie have you written anything that would describe estimates of the tax money raised, its assumptions, and how those funds could be used? also a justification why taxes must be raised instead of cutting spending? Have you considered any alternatives to raise funds besides taxation?
2) Can you provide justification why you would choose a May primary only 4 months away where turnout is traditionally very low and third party/independents usually can’t even vote in? While I realize both elections are taxpayer funded, why wouldn’t a November general election be better suited to more fairly allow residents to vote?
Your replies, if any, I plan to post online.
Thank you!
Jake Towne

The response followed on January 8th from the township manager’s email:

Mr. Towne,

Thank you for inquiring about the proposed referendum on Open Space Preservation.  I am attaching a copy of Pennsylvania’s statute pertaining to open space preservation.
At this time, it is estimated that the Township will collect approximately $700,000 annually from the increase in earned income tax.  While the Board of Supervisors and the Township Manager strive to the greatest extent possible to curb Township expenses, it is not possible to cut spending by $700,000 from the general fund.  I would like to remind you that while expenses have continuously increased, the Township has not implemented a property tax increase in over ten years while the level of services has remained consistent.
The preservation of open space provides an improved quality of life for the residents of a community.  Concerns have been raised by some constituents about the over-development of the Township and how we can move towards preserving what precious open space is left.  Open space preservation programs provide communities with a mechanism to work with property owners to preserve their lands.  These programs have proven extremely successful in other municipalities such as Moore Township, Plainfield Township, Bushkill Township and Lower Mount Bethel Township.  Northampton County also has active farmland and open space preservation programs.
Open space preservation can refer to properties that are farmland, environmentally sensitive lands, or lands for recreational purposes.  Properties can be purchased in fee simple or the property owner can enter into an agreement selling development rights in perpetuity.  The program is not compulsory.  Property owners volunteer to add their property to the program.  In some cases, these programs provide the next generation of farmers the means to continue farming instead of selling their lands to developers.
While I understand your concerns regarding the placement of the referendum on the primary ballot, please be advised that while you may not be able to vote for candidates, you will be able to vote on the referendum question.  This was confirmed with Northampton County Voter Registration.  The only obstacle to voting on the referendum is not showing up to the polls. 
Over the next few months, the Board of Supervisors will work on providing information as well as hosting an education seminar on open space preservation to the residents of the community.  It is the hope of the Board to provide voters with as much information as possible, so they may cast an informed vote on the referendum. 
Sincerely,
Lower Nazareth Township Board of Supervisors

I wrote the following back on February 7. I’d like to underscore that the township has purposely selected a municipal primary election that historically has the lowest turnout with 8% of voters showing up at the last one in 2017.

Dear Ms. Stauffer and Board of Supervisors – 

Thank you for the information. 

Have there been any attempts by those interested in preserving the land to raise the money themselves?

Can you please send me a list of all past transactions in the township that have taken place under this Act you shared since 1996? How many people in the township have directly benefited?

Does the township plan to share how they specifically intend to use the funds after the taxation is imposed?  When would the taxation begin? What is the proposed phrasing for the ballot and is it finalized? 

While you are probably correct that the vote can be legally held in May, many independents and third party voters have been:

1) turned away from voting at past primaries as there was nothing for them to vote on, 

2) may falsely assume they can’t vote, 

3) or else not be sufficiently motivated to show up at the polls to only vote on one item. 

In regards to the point I raised about having the tax referendum in May (only 4 short months away!), I would like to share with you the voting statistics from the last municipal election in 2017, which you can view here. In the May 2017 primary, only 367 people in the township voted for a turnout of 8.1%. In the 2017 general election, 1250 voted for a turnout of 27.6% which is nowhere near a majority.

The turnout is much lower in the general election in odd years, so perhaps if the Board of Supervisors is interested in any possibility of a majority of people voting, fall 2020 would be the best bet. At any rate, I don’t believe there is enough time to explain to residents the proposed tax, the only communication I have received on this to date is from reading the BOS minutes which certainly can’t be assumed to have been read by everyone in the township. It looks like you are planning to advertise this, but the primary is less than 3 months away.

Sincerely,

Jake Towne

The February 14th township reply:

Mr. Towne:

Thank you for your questions and concerns regarding the proposed referendum.  Open space preservation is a topic that has generated discussions within state, county and local governments for many years.  In our own area, there are some very successful open space preservation programs throughout Northampton County including Moore Township, Plainfield Township, Bushkill Township and Lower Mount Bethel Township.  Additionally, one of the top priorities of our current County Executive is the preservation of open space with the goals of preserving farmland and environmentally sensitive lands near the top of the list.

As I am sure you are aware, Pennsylvania is a pro-development state.  Municipalities are required to make “room” for every conceivable use per the Municipalities Planning Code.  In the past two decades, I’m sure you have witnessed the increased growth in both residential, commercial and industrial uses within the Township.  The intense pressure of development continues.  Residential development strains community resources with an increase in demands for services and creates a strain on the school system with the introduction of new children.  Commercial and industrial development increase the tax base without adding children; however, typically generates noise, excessive traffic and other undesirable nuisances.

Open space preservation is a benefit to both landowner and to the community.  The payment for development rights compensates a property owner who is pledging to never sell their property to a developer and the open space is a benefit to the community through an improved quality of life.  Fair compensation is determined by appraisal.  The compensation being offered is the incentive for the property owner to sign a covenant relinquishing their development rights.  Without the just compensation being offered, there is no incentive and it would be construed as a taking.  No one has asked a property owner interested in preserving their property to raise the money themselves.

The Township currently has 716.53 acres of preserved farmland that was preserved through Northampton County’s farmland preservation program.  To date, Northampton County’s farmland preservation program has preserved 193 farms totaling 16,265.84 acres of land throughout the county that will never be developed.  While open space preservation does not stop development altogether, it does slow it down.

If the referendum passes, the earned income tax will increase by .25% beginning January 2020.  The monies that are accumulated will be segregated in a separate bank account and they will be used for purchasing development rights or fee simple purchases of land.  The purchase of rights or property will adhere to the goals outlined in a prepared open space preservation plan.  Prior to the expenditure of funds, an Environmental Advisory Committee comprised of at least five appointed Township residents will review the applications and make a final recommendation to the Board of Supervisors for approval or denial of applications.  In order to receive approval of an application, the property must adhere to the goals and guidelines established in the Open Space Preservation Plan.  The discussions and final decisions on all applications will be done at public meetings.

I encourage you or anyone else in the community with questions to attend one of the two public education sessions.  Representatives from Northampton County and Wildlands Conservancy will be on hand to present information to the public on what open space preservation is about and how it benefits a community.  Information will also be posted on the Township website and in the upcoming Township newsletter.  Dates for the public information sessions will be announced soon.  It is the Board’s intent to provide the public with as much information on how the process works so they can cast an informed vote.

I am attaching a copy of the adopted ordinance that will prompt the referendum to be placed on the May 2019 ballot.  While I understand your concerns, I have confirmed with Northampton County Voter Registration that any registered third-party voters can vote.  Again, the only barrier between a person and the voting booth is if they choose not to show up.

Lori A. Stauffer, Esq.

Township Manager

I recently wrote the following back on April 11, copying the Board of Supervisors, and await their reply, if any.

Dear Ms. Stauffer –

I regret I was unable to attend the first informational session due to family commitments. How many people attended?
I would like to ask again a question which you did not fully answer since you just responded with an acreage amount. Public transparency, contracts, and financial specifics of past transactions would be helpful. 

“Can you please send me a list of all past transactions in the township that have taken place under this Act you shared since 1996? How many people in the township have directly benefited?”

Also, do you have an estimate of how many residents will profit from the easements at the expense of those that pay the tax?

How many registered voters are there in the township? How many of those voters paid the local income tax in the most recent tax year? How many people in total pay local income taxes? This would be nice to know since the number of those who don’t pay the tax may possibly exceed turnout.

Lastly, if the turnout is similar to past elections as highlighted in my earlier emails and only 4-8% of registered voters does the Board of Supervisors still plan to inflict the tax even though it will be obvious a small minority of voters voted for the tax?

Separately, I just received a letter from you demanding my resignation as a duly elected township auditor. In your letter, you loosely referenced my resignation needs to occur per the second class township code. May I ask which article(s) and section(s) of the code are you referring to?

Also, you have rejected my request both as an elected auditor, taxpayer, and resident to view the township’s wide format printer in 2018. You wrote in part: “As to your request to view the printer and the other physical assets of the Township, I cannot accommodate this request.  If I allow one resident to come in and view all the Township’s physical assets, I would need to provide the same opportunity to all 6,000 plus residents.  As you can imagine, opening this type of opportunity to residents would compromise the safety of the employees here as well as create a disruption in the office and road department every time a resident chooses to come in for a look at the Township’s physical assets.”

I would like to respectfully ask again to see the machine to verify its physical existence. Also, has any other resident during your employment as Lower Nazareth township manager requested to view any township asset? If so, how many? Lastly, can you share with me the number of copies the printer has been utilized to either printed or scan since its’ arrival?

Thank you!

Jake Towne

The references to the above in terms of the township demanding my resignation and the printer – a printer has cost taxpayers >>$35,000 to date and I filed multiple Right-To-Know requests on it last year – I hope to write about in the future. To have some understanding of how the township has treated my requests for a more open and transparent government, please read Township Obstructs Auditor Access to Records.”

Readers may also enjoy reading a past post of mine on income taxes, and wrote about a simple way how the township could have saved >$34,000… but obviously would rather raise taxes.

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