Don Cunningham
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Don Cunningham: News

FEBRUARY 17, 2009

Twelve years ago, I began a new journey as I was sworn in as mayor of Bethlehem. I had just turned 32.

And since then, together, we’ve done a lot here. We’ve seen the best of times …and the worst of times. Since my initial days as mayor and the closing of Bethlehem Steel, we’ve been on a remarkable economic rebound and renaissance in this Valley that only slowed down this past year with the national economy. In Lehigh County and the Lehigh Valley, we’ve seen mostly… the best of times.

Four years ago, I returned home from a job in Governor Rendell’s Cabinet to seek the position of county executive. And, I asked for your support.

At the time, we said we would restore financial stability and eliminate the roller coaster ride of a 70 percent tax increase;

We said it was shameful that two-thirds of the county’s bridges had failing grades and that five bridges were closed or restricted;

We said we need a job creation and economic growth strategy that focused on preserving our farmland and quality of life while revitalizing our cities and boroughs;

We said we would work together, plan together and regionalize our efforts across government lines … and work with business leaders and labor leaders.

We committed to never forgetting that our job was to improve our quality of life and make this county a great place to live, to work and to raise a family.

Since then, we have made some history together.

It started with you making me the first Democrat elected to govern Lehigh County. I’ve seen election firsts before – as they made a big deal about me being the youngest mayor in Bethlehem’s history - but elections don’t matter unless you do something with the opportunity that you are given.

We set to work in 2006 in Lehigh County to drive change and get results.

  • Since then, we’ve become the only county in our state to provide funds to our local governments to put more police on the streets. We are the ONLY county that provided property tax relief to our military families.

  • We made public safety a priority of county government, investing in a central booking operation – that allows our police to do police work instead of paperwork – and bought our police departments the same record system so we could regionalize police data.

  • We spent a record amount to preserve farmland and today only two counties in our state have more preserved farms.

  • We are the rare county government that has invested millions to overhaul our buildings to cut our energy use by 20 percent, reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and save money on electric and gas bills.

  • By the end of this year, we will have opened EVERY closed bridge that the previous administration left behind.

  • We’ve invested in our cities and made regionalism a hallmark, striking the largest regional water partnership this area has seen by partnering with Allentown for new water supply, helping the city’s bank account and protecting our precious resources.

  • We broke the longstanding logjam and partnered with Northampton County, to be the first region in Pennsylvania to develop a bi-county Health Department.

  • We have partnered with our labor unions – made them our allies and not our enemies – while at the same time partnering with our Chamber of Commerce and business organizations to improve our downtowns and grow our economy.

  • We’ve organized all 25 our local governments into a Congress of Governments. Cities and suburbs. Rural townships and boroughs. All working together on regional plans and solutions. This didn’t exist before.

And we’ve done it by being fiscally responsible at every turn. No tax increases. No net growth in government employees. Reduced health care costs. Spending below the rate of inflation – but spending where it’s needed. And, making cuts where it’s not.  

It all started with reigning in an oversized and overpriced Taj Mahal Courthouse. Saving $20 million while fixing what was left broken for decades.  Because I believed, as many of you do, that our infrastructure needs are too great to spend ALL our resources on one building that serves so few people.

Instead of 20-foot high ceilings, the people of this county got new bridges, a new 9-1-1 Communications Center, more farmland preservation and a new community corrections facility.

And as communities in every corner of America struggle with economic collapse and job losses …we have a success story of economic stability and job creation.

  • 30 new businesses have located here

  • 20 businesses have expanded here

  • 5,000 new jobs have been created

  • And $1.5 billion in investments has been generated

That is not to say, everything is rosy. There are parts of our county … where people are hurting …. jobs are being cut….businesses are closing…and where crime is lurking … where even more leadership is needed.

But I’m here to say our county is sound because of what we did when the economy was strong. We took action with a clear purpose. As the farmers say, we made hay while the sun was shining.

Now, I believe what makes this county great transcends dollars and cents. Our vision for the county is greater and broader than just managing a prison, a nursing home and a courthouse.

We have focused on quality of life initiatives that will make this an even better place to live, to work and to visit. To sense the heart and soul of this region…there’s nothing like attending baseball games, taking in the arts and going to our zoo. That’s why we built Coca Cola Park, support our cultural arts attractions and saved our zoo.

This is our home. Has been my families for five generations. We are proud of our region – it’s our state’s third largest and, simply our best. It was – and will be again -- our fastest growing and the only one to make the full transition from an industrial-based economy to a vibrant, diversified economy. We have beautiful farms, burgeoning suburbs and growing cities.

People often ask me if I will run for Governor. Today, I don’t know the answer to that. It depends on a lot of things. But, I can tell you this – since I first ran for city council in Bethlehem at age 28 – I am committed to do whatever I can to make the biggest difference I can for this great place where I was born and raised and am raising my three children. And, I think it’s a shame that not since Governor Wolf in the 1840s has anyone from the Lehigh Valley held a non-judicial statewide office in Pennsylvania.

This year, as in the last four years, the task at hand is to build the best Lehigh County that we can. There is much work that needs to be done right here. And the times ahead will be more difficult than those in the rearview mirror.

Some say we are in a crisis. I don’t know if that’s correct but I do know if you’re in a crisis you want leaders who have been through them before. If you face tough times … you want the confidence you can get through tough times.

We’ve gotten through hard times before.  As mayor of Bethlehem, and the son of a steelworker, I remember the fear and uncertainty caused by the closing of Bethlehem Steel. I remember the 9 years of tax increases before we took office. I remember the 20,000 jobs lost during 10-15 years, the city debt of $330 million. But, more than anything I remember the sense of losing hope. It’s important to remember we not only survived, but emerged stronger and more vibrant after moving from a manufacturing economy to one of unlimited potential.

When I entered state government with Governor Rendell, there was a $1.5 billion shortfall, which seems small today. And, four years ago, in Lehigh County we had been leveled with a 70 percent tax increase, a huge spending project and broken infrastructure.

In a crisis, your principles shouldn’t change … only the stakes change.

Going forward, I will do what I’ve always done: 

  • Focus on tax stability

  • Invest in infrastructure and public safety

  • Provide critical services efficiently

  • And lead the way for economic investment.

In tough times, some seek to only survive … we seek to thrive and to emerge stronger. We did it before and we will do it again. In the darkest days of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt said, “This great nation will endure as it has endured.  We will revive and we will prosper.”

Our region will endure as it has endured … and we will revive and we will prosper.

Some may wonder if you can move a region from an industrial economy to a 21st century economy.  Some may ask if we can generate local economic growth and be fiscally responsible. Some may question whether you can protect union jobs and create new ones and still grow your economy, balance budgets and create opportunity for all.

I say to them…come to Lehigh County.

Looking ahead, we enter unprecedented times. We must continue to balance being fiscally conservative and socially progressive….responsible and compassionate…focused on immediate results and determined to plan for the future.

The people of Lehigh County are resilient, hardworking and community-minded. The foundation of our economic prosperity has been dug deep. There is work to be done, and we will need to stay disciplined and focused.

I’m pleased to report we have planned well and have the resources to succeed.

So, tonight, surrounded by this incredible group of family, friends and community leaders, I want to make it official. 

And announce what I came here to announce.

That I’m running for re-election … as your county executive. And, I ask for your continued support.

Thank you very much.


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