To Lehigh County Commissioner Dean Browning it feels like the height of irony that he has led commissioners’ efforts to pare county expenses yet he’s being targeted for defeat because of his vote on a budget that increased taxes.
Browning is running for re-election in a hotly contested race with a field of eight candidates for four at-large seats in the May 17 Republican Primary. A slate of four candidates – Vic Mazziotti, former Northampton County finance chief, Scott Ott, former Lehigh County GOP director, Lisa Scheller, businesswoman and wife of County GOP Chairman Wayne Woodman and David Najarian, a Lynn Township supervisor – say Browning’s budget vote spurred them to run. “A number of us are running with the thought that he needs to be replaced,” Mazziotti told Patch.
Mazziotti said he was among many Republicans who called Browning before the Oct. 27 budget vote imploring him to send back the spending plan to County Executive Don Cunningham for deeper cuts. To his critics, Browning compromised his conservative principals by crossing the aisle to vote with Democrats in allowing a 16 percent tax increase.
To his defenders, his vote was a “profile in courage” as County Executive Don Cunningham called it when Browning refused to side with his fellow GOP commissioners on a political maneuver designed to distance them from cuts or a tax increase.
For his part, Browning is unrepentant. “There was no realistic way to avoid the tax increase that we were faced with,” he said. “I wasn’t elected to play partisan politics with the county’s budget and that basically was what it was. I’m not going to tell them what they want to hear just because I think it’s going to get me re-elected.”
By working with Cunningham, he said he was able to prevent an even larger tax increase by pushing salary limits and a suspension of the county’s Growing Greener spending, which funds grants for parks and open space. “If you want to have any impact on the budget, you have to work with the county executive,” Browning said.
In December, he sponsored a wage freeze for 174 Cedarbrook nurses and human services supervisors that is expected to save the county about $370,000. Before that he led efforts to limit raises for non-union county employees.
This year the county must negotiate contracts with four unions – the prison guards, Cedarbrook staff, courthouse workers and human services workers. Browning supports a wage freeze across the board. Contracts in effect last year, which were negotiated before Browning became a commissioner, gave union workers a general 4 percent increase. Some workers got as much as a 5 percent step increase on top of that. Such raises are far above what most private sector workers get, Browning said, and Social Security recipients haven’t seen a cost of living increase in two years.
He knows his wage freeze position is bound to alienate county workers and their families who might have looked on him favorably after his October budget vote. “I’ve had this conversation with people who say my campaign strategy is to make everybody mad at me,” Browning said.
He also opposes the creation of a bi-county health department, saying proponents have outlined the problems – such as low birth weight babies – that the agency would address but haven’t offered evidence that it would solve them. “The problem in my mind was they didn’t’ make a logical connection between the bi-county board of health and the ability to make an impact on those problems,” he said. Also, while the initial Lehigh County contribution would be about $500,000 that cost is likely to grow quickly, he said.
Born in Kentucky, Browning grew up there until moving to Cincinnati, Ohio in middle school. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Denison University in Ohio and a master’s degree in industrial management with a concentration in finance from Georgia Tech.
It was a job at Air Products and Chemicals that brought him to the Lehigh Valley in 1979 and he worked with the company doing financial analysis until 1986. After that he held jobs at Nutrisystem in Willow Grove and then the Coca Cola Bottling Co. of the Lehigh Valley before being hired as chief financial officer for New World Aviation at the Lehigh Valley International Airport. For 11 years he’s worked at the company, which manages Gulf Stream and Leer jets for their owners and rents them out for charters when their owners aren’t using them. He and his wife, Cheryl, have two dogs and a horse.
Other Republicans running for the four at-large seats are Brad Osborne, Mike Welsh and Norma Cusick. The four Democrats running – Gloria Hamm, Geoff Brace, Dennis Pearson and Tim Waitkus do not have a contested primary.
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