Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Who Won Wolf-Corbett Debate?

Because I was at a Upper Mount Bethel Township Supervisors' meeting with Ron Angle and Mark "the bastard" Thatcher, I missed last night's gubernatorial debate between Democrat Tom Wolf and Republican Tom Corbett. Who came across better?

According to Democratic State Rep. Peter Daley, front-runner Wolf was "terrible." But Chris Borick, who is paid by newspapers to furnish polls, huffs that little things like debates have only a "modest impact" on elections.

I guess little things like seeing how candidates interact with each other, and how their ideas hold up, is meaningless to the poll man.

They will debate again on October 1 and October 8.

Nazareth's Pool Grant is Drowned By Gaming Authority.

In late August, Nazareth Borough Council member Frank Maurek patted borough officials on the back for getting a $39,750 grant for the new pool patio from Northampton County's Gaming Authority. But as I warned both Council and readers, that application was in serious trouble. The borough pretty much bungled a previous $27,500 road grant to build a road for its ambulance company. ... In Upper Nazareth.

Since that project has not even started, that money must be returned. And yesterday, the Gaming Authority passed on a $39,750 pool grant. In fact, Nazareth should know that it finished #35 out of 35 applications.

Dead last.

All told, Nazareth has missed out on $67,250 that could have been used on more worthy projects in the borough, like police vehicles or trucks for the highway department.

$710,747 in Gaming Funds Awarded to 16 NorCo Municipalities

Joe Kelly
Northampton County's nine-member Gaming Authority, at their September 22 meeting, placed a priority on public safety. They voted to provide the money for seven new police vehicles, establishment of the Slate Belt Police Department headquarters, in-car police cameras, a thermal imaging to help police during rescue operations, a computer work station for law enforcement, police radios, security cameras, speed radar signs and a breathing apparatus for firefighters. They also funded the purchase of road crew truck. Of 35 applications received for over $1.5 million, 16 municipalities were awarded a total of $710,747.

Each of the 35 applications received a numerical rating by each Board member.

The 6th highest rated application was a combined request by Wind Gap, Pen Argyl and Plainfield for $150,000 to help establish the Slate Belt Police Department, a new regionalize police force in Northampton County. This project had the support of Northampton County Council member Scott Parsons, who was President of Wind Gap Borough Council.

But Ken Kraft, the Northampton County Council non-voting liaison, argued that application should be rejected because Wind Gap mishandled a previous grant award in 2012. Executive Director Karen Collis explained that the previous grant award to Wind Gap "fell within the scope of the entire project." She added that Wind Gap did file a late compliance report, but did return unspent grant funds.

Kelly pointed out that Wind Gap's noncompliance was made known to all board members before they rated each project, and still came in at #6. "It finished fairly high in the overall ranking of the projects," he observed.  

By a 7-2 vote, the Gaming Authority voted to fully fund the 16 most worthy grants, as opposed to partially funding each municipal request.

Bethlehem Township Commissioner Tom Nolan, whose township's request was rated #30, advocated a distribution to each grant applicant, where "everybody goes away with something." Freemansburg Mayor Gerald Yob, whose Borough's application was rated at #28, joined Nolan in voting unsuccessfully against fully funding the highest rated projects.

Joe Kelly, representing the City of Bethlehem, countered Nolan's argument by noting that that some municipalities would lack the resources to fund the difference between what is needed and a pro rata award. Chairman Jay Finnigan agreed, noting that Tatamy in particular, had warned "they are pretty strapped for money." Joining Kelly and Finnigan in voting to fully fund the 16 most worthy projects were David J. Heintzelman, David Willard, Tony Pristash, John Dally,Jr. and James Pennington.

The highest rated projects, in order, are as follows:
  • Stockertown - $30,000 for a new police vehicle and accessories
  • Bangor -$47,461 for emergency response police vehicle and equipment
  • Bushkill - $50,00 for two new outfitted police vehicles
  • Forks - $36,531 for new outfitted police vehicle
  • Washington - $45,971 for Ford Expedition police vehicle with four-wheel drive 
  • Pen Argyl, Plainfield and Wind Gap - $150,000 to establish Slate Belt Police Station
  • Roseto - $50,000 for fire company breathing apparatus and portable police radios
  • N Catasauqua - $28,415 for updated in-car cameras
  • Upper Nazareth - $10,625 for thermal imaging equipment in search and rescue operations
  • Hellertown - $47.985 for new police vehicle and forced entry equipment
  • Lower Saucon -$9,398 for 16 security cameras at township complex
  • Hanover - $39,000 for two radar speed signs
  • Lower Nazareth - $49,431 for traffic signal battery back-ups
  • Tatamy - $28,058 for road crew truck and police computer work station
  • East Allen - $42,897 for security cameras at three municipal locations
  • Palmer - $48,965 for computerized accident and crime scene mapping software
You can see all 35 grant applications, and how they were rated, here

Monday, September 22, 2014

Should Foreskins' Chris Baker Be Suspended?



Because I have no desire to offend Native Americans, I'll join those who call Washington's football team the Foreskins. That name seems apt after the cheap shot that defensive lineman Chris Baker laid on Eagles QB Nick Foles yesterday.

Incredibly, Baker is saying he'd do it again.

Check this, from The Washington Post:
According to Rule 12, article 9.7 of the NFL rulebook, “it is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player in a defenseless posture,” including “a quarterback at any time after a change of possession.”
“I did not even really hit him hard,” Baker said of Foles. “I just happened to hit him on this shoulder, and he happened to fall. He’s the quarterback, and I guess that’s why there was an ejection.”
No shit, Sherlock. He clearly violated NFL rules, and if the league has any regard at all for its players, Baker should be suspended.

Face of the County v. Asshole of the County

In 2011, Northampton County voters spoke. By a 73-27% margin, they rejected any attempt to sell or lease the county's nursing hone, Gracedale, for the next five years. The County responded by privatizing the administration in an effort to reduce the annual County contribution, which this year should be over $8 million.

Millard "D" Freeman is the Premier Healthcare administrator in supposed command at Gracedale. He's trying to change what he calls the "culture".

I'd call it employee abuse.

Get this. Freeman has had to change the time clock to prevent workers from punching in any earlier than seven minutes before their shift starts. Before that happened, some employees would regularly check in 1 1/2 hours early and  collect the overtime. There are some who would even decide to report in on their day off and get paid.

"It is unbelievable," Freeman stated in a report to Council's Human Services Committee last week. He added this waste had been going on for 20 years.

It is wrong for Executive John Brown to arbitrarily impose health plan increases on an already beleaguered and poorly paid workforce.  But those few Gracedale employees who steal from the County deserve no consideration and disgrace the entire workforce.

Brown calls the County worker the face of the County. These thieves must be the asshole.

Any other County employee caught doing this would be fired on the spot.

Sunshine Act Reform Looks Likely

Under Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act, citizens and taxpayers have the right to address local governments before they do something stupid. That right means a lot more if you know what they intend to discuss in advance. So Jim Christina, an evil Republican from Beaver County, has proposed a reform under which agendas must be posted and placed on the municipality's webpage at least 24 hours before the meeting. There are exceptions if there's an emergency.

According to The Citizens Voice, this bill is opposed by local governments, including the County Commissioners' and Township Supervisors' Association. One of their complaints is that this would force them to break down and host a web page. If they're unable to do that, despite all the free sites available, they have no reason to exist.

Their real objection is that they'd prefer to keep you in the dark.

Because this Bill appears to have bi-partisan support, my guess is that it will eventually become law.

Unfortunately, none of that bi-partisan support is coming from the Lehigh Valley.

Did Seth Vaughn Call the NorCo Workforce a "Gang"?

Last Thursday, after Northampton County Council member voted to move to Courtroom #1 on Lamont McClure's motion, courthouse workers burst out in applause. Two Republican Council members were caught on an open mike, complaining. (See it here).

"When did Lamont become Council President?" asked Glenn Geissinger. "I missed that.".

"He's showing off for his gang", answered Seth Vaughn,.

Did Vaughn just refer to the County work force as a gang? It sure sounded that way to me.

He denies it with this statement:

It was not my intention to offend anyone with my comment. The comment was not directed at the county workers that evening. I was actually just joking around with Glen about Lamont and his close confidants. I often joke around with the other members and wasn't trying to be insulting. If anyone in the audience thought the comment was directed towards them, then I do apologize. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clear the air."

I'd agree Vaughn had no intention of giving offense because he did not know he was still being recorded. As for his claim to be the Council clown, that's a bit of a stretch. I regularly attend Council meetings, and he's been no barrel of laughs. I'll leave it to you to decide whether he is demeaning the workforce or joking.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Becahi's Golden Hawks Remain Undefeated

Freddie Simmons (#5) and Michael McDaniel (#2) 
Fireworks! You could see and hear them exploding at Sand Island as the first half ended in Saturday night's gridiron contest between East Stroudsburg South and Bethlehem Catholic. But they were nothing compared to the fireworks on the field. Those were all coming from the Golden Hawks, who were up already up 28-0. Becahi would go on to win its fourth victory in four games this season, by a final score of 42-0.

Was it Fabulous Freddie Simmons, who just last week returned three punts for touchdowns? No, Coaches sheathed their most powerful weapon during the first half, and only used him sparingly in the second. Instead, they relied on some other very powerful weapons.

Michael "M1" McDaniel took the ball down the field for a 61-yard touchdown in Beca's first offensive drive. He improved on that in the next drive with a 99-yard scamper from the one, in what might be a school record. He followed that up later in the game with a 23-yard run to the goal line. He ended the night with 215 yards rushing.

Antwon Keenan also scored on a 21-yard pass.

Becahi's bend-but-don't break defense mounted two goal line stands, stopping the Cavaliers twice when they threatened in the first half.

Then the sack machine went to work. Dante Lonordo had at least two sacks and another two hurry-ups on East Stoudsburg South QB Nick Boushell..

With the game in hand, McDaniel and other starters found themselves on the bench, too, as coaches wisely avoided the temptation to run up the score. High school football is so unpredictable that it could easily have been the other way around.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Custody Court Reorganization Proposal Unanimously Approved

Yesterday, I told you that President Judge Stephen Baratta has proposed a sweeping reorganization of custody court that will reduce the time it takes to resolve matters, as well as save $45,000 a year. His plan is to inject more court participation in order to finish these matters in four to six months. Though Council fought abut everything else, Judge Baratta's proposal received their unanimous support.

I also have to apologize to Court Administrator Jill Cicero for referring to her by her previous name yesterday. I've got early onset dementia, Jill.

NorCo Council Rejects Increased Contract Oversight

Brown and cabinet members sit at prosecutor's table
A divided Northampton County Council last night rejected an Ordinance that would dramatically increase their oversight over contracts. Currently, they must approve contracts in excess of $100,000, but Lamont McClure wanted it reduced to just $10,000.

This proposal failed along party lines after council members traded barbs.

Lamont McClure accused the administration of already wasting thousands of taxpayer dollars on contracts like one for Integrity personnel, which was paid $24,000 to help Executive John Brown find a cabinet. He noted it took Brown seven months. "What kind of public value was there to that?" he asked.

What rankled Republicans was McClure's additional accusation that they are all "complicit in allowing public money to be used for political work." As public relations consultant Kim Plyler shook her head, McClure read an excerpt from an email to Brown, in which she referred to someone as heavily involved in the GOP. A few other emails indicate that Plyler took notes for a fundraiser and met with Brown in his County office to discuss the matter.

Brown previously has strongly denied any impropriety.

McClure insisted Council needs to do more than simply alert authorities. "It should be us who takes care of this," he argued.

Republicans were appalled. "We have a good deal of witch hunting going on right now," remarked Seth Vaughn. Glenn Geissinger was more direct. Addressing McClure, he said, "As an attorney, I find it appalling that you would accuse a man without the proper foundation."

Knowing this was a loser, Werner proposed an amendment allowing to allow the Executive to have authority over contracts under $25,000. That failed in a 5-4 vote, along party lines. Then Ken Kraft suggested a $50,000 amendment, which met the same fate.

The Face of The County Speaks

NorCo Council on the bench
Last night, Executive John Brown referred to the county workers as the "face of the County." That face was bright red last night over health care plan changes coming at the same time that Brown is telling workers he has no plan to give them any raises. Most of them are going backyards. Over 200 people crowded into Courtroom 1 to let Brown know he's wrong.

AFSCME agent Justus James
AFSCME union agent Justus James spoke on behalf of several of the bargaining units currently in negotiation with the County. He said he's "mad as hell," not just at he health care plan, but Brown's unwillingness to fill vacancies. He noted there are 16 vacancies at the jail, which is making life more dangerous for corrections officers. He noted there are 113 vacancies throughout the County, which Brown himself confirmed in a news conference on Wednesday.

"Is it the employees' fault that $62 million in the reserve fund went magically away?" he asked. He said that when Brown stated that the county worker is its most important asset, he had "hope for a new day." But instead, he's doing more than balancing his budget on the back of the employee, "We just got kicked in the tailbone. ... The employee can no longer afford to pay for the mistakes you've made."

One of the more disturbing speakers was Stacy [last name withheld], a 20-year County employee who has seen her income reduced every year since 2009. She's a single mother, drives a 13 year old truck, has no money to buy a newer car, and for the past year, has been forced to go to a food bank and stand in line for hours because she has no money to go grocery shopping, Her kids eat the old food from Giant.

Tabatha Gartner warns of an exodus
"Why does a 20-year County employee have to go to food banks?" she asked. "There is something wrong with this picture."

Shirley [last name withheld] works in the Revenue Office assisting delinquent taxpayers in making payment arrangements. She noted that Executive Brown had the money for a public relations consultant and other no-bid contracts, "but the county doesn't have money when it comes to us."

Her office is so short-staffed that she was recently forced to work alone. She was nervous and suddenly began shaking and decided she needed to leave for the day. Her Supervisor told her she would need a doctor's excuse, so she went to one who ordered her to stay home several days instead of the afternoon she intended to take off.

"We're understaffed, underpaid, and now, I'm drugged to work here," she complained.

Tabatha Gartner warned these health plan changes will lead to an exodus from Human Services, creating a need for new staff that has to be trained, which will result in a decline of service and lawsuits." It's like firing the entire coaching staff and expecting the team to have a winning season," she observed.

After hearing from both workers and Brown, Peg Ferraro suggested that there be meetings in smaller groups to see if management and employee can come to some middle ground.

""I believe in my heart we should leave everything alone," said Lamont McClure, especially after Bob Werner pointed to research showing the County's health plan falls below the level needed to be considered a Cadillac plan. McClure was also disturbed that Executive Brown would impose these changes while refusing to discuss raises or other benefits. Brown responded that the County's health care plan will become a Cadillac plan by 2018 at its current rate of spending.

If that happens, and no changes are made, the County will be forced to pay a $9.3 million excise tax.

Ken Kraft, in response to several pleas from workers, noted that Council has no authority to prevent Brown from making changes to his health plan. But he added that they do have authority over the budges, which will be introduced next month.

NorCo Exec John Brown Health Plan Changes

NorCo Exec John Brown
Brown denied he has any desire to balance the budget on the backs of County employees.  He noted that if he wanted to do that, he could just stop providing health insurance directly. He'd take a $4 million penalty, and require employees to pay the going rate on employee healthcare exchanges. That would save $18 million per year.

His plan, which he described as a desire to impose "cost control" and "consumerism," would make the following changes:
  • The annual deductible will double.
  • The out-of-network deductible would increase by 1000%
  • He will add a 10% co-insurance cost
  • co-pay for ER care will double from $100 to $200
  • He will institute a $30 co-pay for urgent care
  • He will increase the employee payment for prescription drugs. 
Though he's attempting to avoid a $9.3 million excise tax on what may or may not be a Cadillac Plan, he explained his real goal is to lower health care costs, which have risen from $17.5 million in 2009 to $24.6 million this year.

Why There's No Video of NorCo Council

Before the move to Courtroom 1
Some of you are wondering why you were unable to livestream Thursday night's Council meeting. It was turned off. Deliberately. And it was my fault, too. Before you string me up, let me explain.

I am a Sunshine Act fanatic. It's one of the few good things to come out of the land of midnight payraises. Though state legislators naturally exempted themselves, they require pretty much every other governing body to deliberate and vote in public. In addition, residents or taxpayers have the right to address these officials on "matters of concern" before any action is taken.

Last night, Council chambers were packed. People from all over the County were there. Corrections officers, Gracedale workers, row office and revenue clerks and Human Services caseworkers, By the time the meeting had started, there were well over 300 people. They had filled up the seats and were even lined up along the walls. Moreover, there were 22 people standing outside in the hallway, and they would be unable to hear or comment..

"Hey Bernie, why don't you give up your seat to one of the women?" taunted Mary Ann Schmoyer, who disrupted numerous meetings when John Stoffa was Executive. I had something else in mind.

I objected.

Under the Sunshine Act, any person has the right to object to a perceived violation.

Over the years, reporters have usually raised these objections. But newspapers are dying. Last night, for example, The Morning Call failed to send anyone to cover a fairly critical meeting.

To their credit, County Council immediately agreed to move the meeting to Courtroom No. 1, which can accommodate larger crowds. In fact, the member of Council I criticize most frequently on this blog, Lamont McClure, made the motion.

The only concern Peg Ferraro had was that people at home would miss the livestream. My response is that the Sunshine Act gives people the right to participate, be present and comment, and there is no state law requiring a video. If one thing has to give, it would be the video.

After everyone moved into Courtroom No. 1, all those who wanted to speak were able to do so.

I thought the large audience, though loud, made every attempt to be respectful.

There were two exceptions.

While Executive John Brown was presenting his plan in more detail, one woman insisted on trying to talk over him.

"Can he shut up already?" she shouted at one point.

The second disruption occurred after the public had spoken, Controller Steve Barron, who had been sulking in the back, interrupted Mat Benol when he pointed out that the HR Director stated last year that the County's health care plan was a Cadillac plan.

"She was wrong then and she's wrong now," yelled Barron, who just two weeks ago stated he was unsure himself whether the County's health care plan is a Cadillac plan.

He was pandering.

After the move to Courtroom 1

Updated 11:00 a.m.: Turns out that The Morning Call had Christy Potter, a freelancer, cover the meeting. Sorry Christy.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Dent Opposes Arming Moderate Syrian Rebels

Congressman Charlie Dent is opposed to a Bill that would arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. His No vote was on the losing end of a 273-156 vote in which House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi were united.

His explanation:

“There may have been a time when, in 2011 or 2012, arming Syrian moderates would have been possible with a reasonable chance for success. That time has likely passed.

"Too many questions remain today that cannot be answered to my satisfaction. How will we effectively vet the opposition forces? How will we ensure that arms delivered will not be sold to ISIS forces or used against already persecuted people in the region, such as the Syrian Christians? In my opinion, the Administration has not provided reasonable answers to these key questions.

"ISIS is antithetical to American and civilized ideas of justice, equality and decency. They have demonstrated this fact with their barbaric beheadings of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff and of British aid worker David Haines.

"ISIS needs to be rooted out and destroyed, but to do so we need a comprehensive plan. What was proposed today was only a partial plan.

"Everyone is familiar with the saying ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ It certainly fits the notion of our being able to reliably identify and arm Syrian ‘moderates.’ With that in mind, I believe that if we err – it should be on the side of caution.”

Brown To Face Tough Crowd Tonight

County Executives, much like Presidents, are often liked a lot more after they leave office than when they're in it. Incumbent Executive John Brown is going to face a hostile crowd of County employees tonight. They're scared. Some think their jobs are in trouble. They're angry. Some can't really afford to pay more for their health insurance. They're frustrated. An Executive who claims they are the County's "most valuable asset," wants most of them to bite the bullet on wages while exalting a few. The biggest problem they have with John Brown right now is they don't really know or trust him. Is this quiet and unassuming man being honest with them, or is he going to balance next year's budget on their backs? Tonight Brown needs to take his case to them. He has made many mistakes in his first year, to be sure. But he is right about one thing. The County workforce really is the jewel of this County, not Gracedale or any program. If he is fair to them, that will erase many of his rookie errors. If he'snot, he's a one-termer.

PJ Baratta Proposes Sweeping Reform of Custody Court

PJ Stephen Baratta in street clothes, with Court Admin Jill Cicero
Custody disputes tend to bring out the worst in people. Children are pawns in battles between parents that often have nothing to do with them. Lawyers, who are trained to be adversarial, can sometimes make a bad situation worse. Cases that should take four to six months, often last a year or more. President Judge Stephen Baratta would like to improve Custody Court to make it more efficient, quicker and more likely to result in the correct result. Moreover, his plan will actually save taxpayers money. Needless to say, it sailed through County Council's Personnel Committee last night. His plan also has the support of County Executive John Brown, and will likely be approved by County Council tonight.

Back in the early '80s, there was just one custody master, Harry C.J. Blair. A Master is a lawyer who hears custody disputes and then makes a recommendation to the Court. Though people waited three hours or more to get in front of him, Blair resolved 95% of the cases he heard. But that was "a different day and age," noted Judge Baratta.

There have been changes in custody law and proceedings are much more adversarial. Only about 45% of them settle at the master's level because the process has become an "attorney-driven" instead of a "court-driven" exercise. Matters that do eventually settle, for the most part, are placed on non jury trial lists, but only when the attorney is ready to do so.

Instead of one part-time custody master, there are now three. In addition, two former judges who are beyond Senior Judge status listen to some of these cases.

"These matters are languishing far too long," complained the President Judge. He wants to get the judges more involved in the process. So he is proposing the elimination of all the part-time custody masters. They will be replaced by one full-time custody master who will ensure that the process is once again driven towards mediation and resolution, as opposed to an adversarial process. In addition, President Judge Baratta and Senior Judge Leonard Zito will ride herd, with the goal being a resolution in four to six months.

This will save taxpayers $45,000 per year, Court Administrator Jill Cicero told Council.

What do you say to a guy who tells you he wants to do things better and can save you money at the same time?

Thank you.

That's pretty much what Council's Personnel Committee did last night.

Another False Alarm For Trachta

Nazareth Police Chief Thomas Trachta has had one shitty summer. His prosecution of the Sticker Gang, a trio that had dared criticize him, blew up in his face when it was laughed out of court. Now they're suing him for civil rights violations. So is Officer Fred Lahovski, who was wrongfully terminated. Things got even worse on Sunday. While most of us were watching concussions disguised as NFL football games, Trachta had half of the county's police departments scouring the woods around Nazareth Park. Whirlybirds with search lights lit up little Nazareth, scaring all the ghosts away. They were looking for a missing seven year-old girl. But they'd been punked. On Wednesday, Trachta was punked again. Four schools were placed on lockdown while the Chief and 50,000 cops surrounded a vehicle they thought might be connected to the tragic slaying of PSP CPL Bryon Dickson.

All they found were cupcakes.

Trachta and his sidekick, part-time Officer Danny Troxell, want to prosecute the Sticker Gang and yours truly for making false reports. That way they can do another perp walk with new chains. He was daydreaming about that yesterday, when the phone rang, with a mysterious voice on the other end.

Voice: "How's it going, Cupcake?"

Trachta: "That's Chief Cupcake to you, asshole."

Voice: "All right, all right, don't get touchy. It's not like I'm ISIS ready to behead the Mayor at the Indian Tower. Did you want pepperoni on that piz---

Trachta: "Troxell, get in here."

Troxell: "Yes, Chief, What can I do Chief? Can I play the siren again?"

Trachta (lowered voice): "Shh. Get the Pentagon on the line while I keep this terrorist on the phone. This asshole doesn't know I was a New York City cop,"

Troxell: "Yes Chief, right away, Chief"

Trachta (back on the phone): "Now listen, you bastard, you know America doesn't negotiate with terrorists, don't you?"

Voice:  "Dude, I was just asking if you want pepperoni on your pizza.

Troxell: "Missiles, away, Chief!"

Trachta: "What?"

Troxell: "They'll be here in three, two, one ...

KABOOM!!!!

Half of Nazareth disintegrates and the line goes dead. 

Trachta: "Mother of God, What the Hell did you just do??"

Troxell (looking out window): "That blowed up good, Chief. Real good!" 

Trachta (as sirens wail): "Another false alarm. The Sticker Gang will pay for this!!!"

Troxell: "My daddy will say you did the right thing. Where's our pizza, Chief?"

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

NorCo Exec Brown: "I Have No Intention of Laying People Off"

If you are among the 2,200 people who work for Northampton County, you have been waiting for this report.

I'll start with the good news.

During a news conference this afternoon,Northampton  County Exec John Brown stated that the County workforce is the "most valuable asset we have." He denied telling anyone that he wants county workers to evaluate whether they really want to be here. He denied that there's a hiring freeze or that he has no intention of filling 16 vacancies at the jail. He denied that he's targetting any specific Department.

He also reassured workers concerned about their job security. "I have no intention of laying people off," he said. He also denied any plans to privatize county services "at this time", including custodial. He added that no department head has proposed layoffs.

He indicated he has every intention of offering a competitive total compensation package.

"We plan to contunue being a good employer," he said.

Now for the bad news.

Brown does expects wages to remain flat. He calls that part of the "active discussions" taking place in union negotiation. He declined to get into other aspects, like sick time and vacation.

He also wants the workforce to bear more of the burden of rising healthcare costs, regardless whether the County has a Cadillac plan. He is making "minor changes" that will have "as little impact on the employee as possible." He wants to "encourage consumerism" during the open enrollment in health care plans that starts on October 1. He insists that the County wil continue to offer a "robust" health plan.

Brown did give a 1 1/2 hour power point presentation to the labor leadership a few weeks ago. He plans on giving an abbreviated version of that presentation to County Council tomorrow evening, and promised to make it available to the media at that time as well.

He also provided a brief outline explaining the numbers, whgich I am providing below:

NorCo Employee Benefits Package
Employees are critical to the continued success of Northampton County. Northampton County has been able to attract and retain a dedicated workforce through offering a competitive compensation package that includes:
a. Salary
b. Healthcare Plan
c. Defined Benefit Pension Plan
d. Healthcare
e. Job Security
f. Work Environment
Tax Revenues, which are used to pay for the benefit programs, have remained relatively flat for the past several years. Despite revenues remaining flat, the County has consistently supported the benefits program for our employees. Costs paid by the County for the core benefit programs offered by Northampton County to all our employees are as follows:
a. Defined Benefit Pension
1. 2008 = $ 0.6 million
2. 2014= $ 11.8 million
b. Post Retirement Medical
1. 2008= $ 6.2 million
2. 2014= $ 5.7 million
c. Healthcare Cost
1. 2008 =
$ 16.7 million
2. 2014 =
$ 22.0 million
Cost to support the defined benefit pension and healthcare plans have significantly outpaced the tax revenue generation by the County.
a. Tax Revenue
1. 2009 = $ 83.0 million
2. 2014 = $ 87.7 million
3. Increase of $ 4.7 million between 2009 and 2014
b. Total Cost of core benefits paid by Northampton County:
1. 2008 = $ 23.5 million
2. 2014 = $ 39.5 million
3. Increase of $ 16.0 million between 2008 and 2014
c. Total Net Cost increase = $ 11.3 million
Northampton County will continue to provide a competitive total compensation package for all our employees but require your support and active participation in order to reduce costs and minimize required changes. Over the next few weeks the County will provide plan specific details to employees regarding changes being offered in the healthcare benefit program
Updated 6:45: In 2010, Northampton County Covoted to end post-retirement health care, but that only applied to new hires.

Grand Jury: Easton Woman Strangled Lover in 2011

Beth Marsteller mug shot
Beth Elaine Marsteller, age 31, strangled George Humbert to death in 2011. That's what Northampton County's Investigating Grand Jury charges in a Presentment that Supervising Judge Michael Koury ordered unsealed on Tuesday. District Attorney John Morganelli announced these findings at a news conference attended by Easton Police Lieutenant Matt Gerould, Detective Chris Miller and Bill Blake, the Assistant District Attorney assisting grand jurors in their investigation of a number of unsolved murders, white collar crimes and official corruption.

Marsteller is currently an inmate in the County jail. She was the female lead in an alleged Bonnie and Clyde crime spree, early this year, with Joseph Misero. She was in the getaway car when he robbed the Palmer branch of the Wells Fargo Bank, and is accused of participated with him in two thefts from the nearby Sunoco A-Plus gas station.

Lt. Matt Gerould and Det. Chris Miller
She can now add criminal homicide and robbery to her resume. She's being arrested and charged today.

Humbert's homicide occurred years before, on March 5, 2011. At that time, Marsteller was living with him at his apartment on South 6th Street in Easton. He gave her crack cocaine. She gave him sex and cooked. But the crack cocaine was not enough. Neither was the methadone she was taking. So she stole $20-30 from Humbert's change jar for some heroin, and made a buy from her brother, a few doors away.

Though Humbert himself was a crack cocaine dealer, he had his standards. He confronted Marsteller when she returned, not only for stealing, but for purchasing heroin. Though she smoked 3-4 bags of crack cocaine, she told Humbert she wanted $30 for more heroin, so she would wake up without being "dopesick.". Humbert refused.

He eventually kicked her out. His neighbors, who lived in the apartment above Humbert, returned home from McDonald's around 2 a.m. to see him telling her to leave.

Ass't DA Bill Blake
"She was trying to smoke me out," Humbert told them. "She was begging faster than I could give."

About an hour later, they were awakened by the sounds of a struggle.

"I'll give you anything," they heard a male voice shout, followed by the sounds of sobbing, pushing shaking and two very loud slams.

The next morning. Marsteller and her brother, along with a third person, ran out of Humbert's apartment and into Easton Police Officer Anthony Chaney. She told Officer Chaney that she "was just in my friend's apartment and he has been beat up and is bleeding."

He was dead.

Police on the scene saw blood on the floor near Humbert's head, but no signs of a struggle in the room where they found him. It wasn't until an autopsy was performed that law enforcement realized he had been strangled.

DA John Morganelli
Instead of going public with the cause of death, they tucked that card away.

Police also took samples of blood stains found on Humbert, and did DNA testing. Eventually, Marsteller was identified as a minor DNA contributor.

Marsteller gave conflicting stories. She told police she was home alone with Humbert all night. A few days later, she told police that he was visited throughout the evening by people buying crack cocaine, and eventually ran out. She told the Grand Jury that she stayed with Humbert until he fell asleep, after which she stole a large jar of change to buy more heroin. She claimed that, when she returned in the morning, she found the door was ajar and Humbert was lying face down on the floor.

She told her drug salesman brother that she "wanted an alibi" and suggested to another that she had been with him.

Then she gave a jailhouse confession to another inmate, after an interview with Easton Detective Chris Miller had her frazzled. She told Trisha Serrao that she jumped on his back and strangled him, until he dropped to the floor, dead. Then she rummaged through his pockets, looking for drugs and money.

Aside from police, the only person who knew that Humbert had been strangled was the person who did it.

Humbert, incidentally, was in poor health. He suffered from diabetes and had a stroke.

Morganelli credited the Easton Police Department for their "exhaustive" work,

Lieutenant Gerould, however, called it a "team effort," noting that the Grand Jury is a "fantastic tool" that "allows us to put pressure and get people to speak to us when they don't want to talk." He added that "no matter how old they are," Easton police are actively investigating every unsolved homicide.

Morganelli, who uses the Grand Jury to work on unsolved murders, stated there are 35 of them in Northampton County.

Why My Left Sidebar Was Not Working

Sometime yesterday, my left sidebar stopped showing up on my blog. My guess is nobody much noticed, but it was driving me nuts. It would show up if I  clicked on an individual post, but not on the blog itself.

I had to go through the HTML on each post to find the problem. I found it on my Clinton Oxford post. It's fixed, and I'm back in business, but behind schedule.

Freeman Wants to Tweak Recreation Fees

State Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Northampton, has issued a news release concerning a bill that will give municipalities greater flexibility in targeting recreation fees to benefit all residents of their communities. The way things are now, recreation fees that municipalities receive from new development may only be used inside that new development. The result, according to Freeman, is a pocket park that no one uses. Freeman's bill would allow municipalities to use the money for recreational facilities anywhere inside their borders.

Freeman's bill passed the Pennsylvania Senate today approved the bill 49-0, and sent it back to the House for concurrence on some technical changes. The House vote is expected to occur in the coming days.

"Parks, playgrounds and other recreational facilities are important to our quality of life," Freeman said. "They promote green space in the community, safeguard the environment and give people of all ages a place for exercise and recreation. My bill would ease the restrictions on the use of the recreation fees municipalities receive from developers, so that funding can be more wisely used to benefit the lives of all area residents."

Does NorCo Have a Cadillac Health Plan? Or Is it a Pinto?

Starting in 2018, thanks to Obamacare, a 40% excise tax will be imposed on plans with premiums exceeding $10,200 for individuals or $27,500 for a family (not including vision and dental benefits). These are the dreaded Cadillac Plans, which usually seem more like Pinto plans to those who are in them. Ironically, the so-called "Affordable" Health Care Act is not so affordable after all. Manufacturers have recently asked the IRS for an interpretation. They are working on a repeal of this tax because it just increases costs for everyone, but in the meantime, they need to start planning now. In the private sector, 81% of employers are making "moderate to significant" changes now. George Washington University just announced plans to trade in their Cadillac.

Does this plan apply to public sector workers like Northampton County employees? You betcha'. According to Governing, public sector employers have three equally lousy choices to deal with an excise tax that will cost Northampton County $9.3 million in 2018 and move up to $60 million by 2023. "They can cut employees’ health plans so they fall below the Cadillac threshold; pass the tax cost on to workers; or eat the tax themselves and make other budget cuts."

County workers work for less money than the private sector because the benefits are good. What happens if that changes?

Northampton County health care plan administrators believe Northampton County is offering a Cadillac. Controller Steve Barron said it's a Pinto, but backtracked when pressured by Glenn Geissinger. Chris Moakley, a former County HR worker with all kinds of degrees and accolades, says it's a good plan, but not a Cadillac (plan as defined by the ACA). Neither of those two will be paying the $9.3 million tax if they're wrong.

This question has to be answered conclusively.

If it is a Cadillac plan, the employees plans will have to be cut. But the County should make up for that by increasing wages. And taxes.

Hope I learn more about what is happening today. John Brown's news conference, originally scheduled for 8 am, will be at 2:30 pm.

Thank God.

Brother, Can You Spare a Tree?

Bethlehem is looking for a few good Christmas trees. The Citizens’ Christmas City Committee, which sounds like something out of the French Revolution, is looking fo tall trees for the Christmas holiday season, nicely shaped, about 40-50 feet tall, accessible to the roadway, and within ten miles of center city.

There must be a residency requirement. .

Donation of these trees will be recognized at the annual Christmas City Tree Lighting Ceremony, which will take place on Friday, November 28, 2014, at 4:30PM on Payrow Plaza.

Anyone wishing to donate a tree should call Citizen Greg Cryder or Citizen Chris Lenhart at 610-865-7108.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nazareth Park "Abduction" Shows Community Policing Weakness

On Sunday night, at least six local police departments, along with the Pennsylvania State Police and FBI, participated in the frantic search for a missing 7 year-old girl. Nazareth was in virtual lockdown as helicopters circled overhead and cruisers raced through town, looking for a mysterious Subaru that seemed to be everywhere and nowhere. The search was eventually called off because, as time ticked away, it appears there never was a missing girl. The supposed abductors may have engaged in an elaborate and cruel hoax. More likely, someone just misunderstood what he or she saw. Police really had no choice but to do what they did. But this tremendous expenditure of manpower shows a serious weakness in the Nazareth Police Department. Under Chief Thomas Trachta, all attempts at community policing have ceased. Had they been in place, this may never have happened.

Yesterday, I told you that there's supposed to be a special police detail at the Borough Park on weekends, from 4 pm until sunset. This detail lasts until the bathrooms are closed for the winter. But Chief Trachta, in a September 1 memo, ended the detail early, though it was part of the approved budget. Had an officer been at the park, it is certainly possible that what was perceived to be an abduction would still have occurred. But it would have been far more unlikely.

Before Trachta became Chief, Nazareth had established a fairly effective community policing program. Trachta ended it. Jack Herbst, a former member of Borough Council Police Committee Chair, explains. "The first decision he made when appointed Chief was to eliminate the community policing policies that Chief Sinclair put in place - crime watch meetings, park officers and bank and business checks."

This is simply insane. According to The National Institute of Justice, in police departments that have tried community policing for just one year, "99 percent reported improved cooperation between citizens and police, 80 percent reported reduced citizens’ fear of crime, and 62 percent reported fewer crimes against persons."

Those business checks were appreciated, as owners sometimes forgot to lock up when they leave for the day. The banks loved it.

Officer Fred Lahovski, who with former Chief Michael Sinclair was a community policing advocate, was ordered to send a notice to local businesses, announcing this termination. "Some time ago, 2008-2009, the police attempted a specific community policing service. It included walking patrol in the business district as well as a month community police meeting. However, due to a variety of circumstances, the program has ceased as a viable entity."

Lahovski attempted to establish an email database for local businesses and residents. For something as simple as a found dog, Officer Lahovski could send a blanket email with pictures and a note like this: "This little guy was found in the unit block of Belvidere St. We got along well after he straightened me and let me know who was boss. We held him for awhile unfortunately had to turn him over to the SPCA. If you know this dog or his owner, please help. FREDDY"

If this could work for a lost dog, it would certainly be something to use when a potential child abduction occurs.

Chief Trachta refused to use the email database. So on Sunday night, when there could have been a real missing child, the public was kept in the dark.

"We can't just blindly give out a description when things are still unfolding," Mayor Carl Strye, a carwash salesman, told The Morning Call. Why the hell not? I'd think that would be the first thing police would do, and would be one way in which the public could assist. Instead, people who were just walking the street at night were accosted and asked what they were doing.

Instead of reaching out to the public, Trachta treats them with disdain.

According to Herbst, "He is the first Chief not to go out on patrol, show his presence at Borough events and refuses to give an extra second of his time to the community. After meeting nights, he'll show up to the office later the next day based on how long the meeting went the night before. Wonder why Bushkill Twp. got to the park before him! I'm surprised that he even showed up at all, but I guess when the big boys got involved, he had no choice."

Numerous police departments responded on Sunday night for a search that really had to occur. But did Trachta call in his officers? No. Instead of calling on all the manpower he had, he let other departments do the work.

They know it, too. One fellow I know was stopped by a fed last night, and asked if he saw anything unusual. This federal officer told a citizen that if he saw anything odd or suspicious, to please call 911. Then as he left, he said, "I got to go see what Cupcake is doing."

Nazareth needs to re-institute community policing. There should be a block watch, business checks, foot patrols. Most importantly, there really needs to be an officer on beat at the park, especially on weekends.

Aurand - Scavello to Debate in Forks Tp

Comm'r Hudak Corrects the Press

On August 18, when a controversial senior living community near Green Pond was pitched to Bethlehem Township Commissioners, over 100 people appeared to oppose the plans. Many opposed the idea of a residential development next to a what the Audubon has designated an Important Bird Area that attracts 162 different species.

Michael Adams, another ardent environmentalist who grew up in Butztown, was one of these opponents.

He was furious at Commissioner Michael Hudak. Although I missed it, The Express Times claims he was reading a book while the public spoke.

"Mr. Hudak, I find your studied indifference contemptible, sir, and rude."

"That's your right," replied Hudak.

"I don't need you to affirm that right," said an angry Adams.

After that meeting, Hudak was asked by several residents what the hell he was doing. He decided to give an explanation at last night's meeting.

"I was reading the First Class Township Code," he explained, holding up his copy for all to see.

When Hudak saw the news account, without an explanation of what he was actually reading, "I was a little offended."

"One word makes all the difference," he added.

Although I was so busy watching the speakers that I had no idea what the Commissioners were doing, I am a little offended by Hudak's explanation. The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act gives the people the right to speak before elected officials take any action. That right means nothing if they don't listen. Whether Hudak was reading the First Class Township Code or Playboy is immaterial. He had a duty to listen. Adams perceived what Hudak was doing as a "studied indifference." He appears to be correct.

Bethlehem Tp Police Officer Receives Nathan Ogden Award

Sgt Richard Blake (blue shirt) presented Nathan Ogden award by Chief Dan Pancoast. His wife Krystyna and sons Ben and Paul attended the ceremony before Township Commissioners.  
In 1771, Northampton County Deputy Sheriff Nathan Ogden was killed while attempting to execute an arrest warrant. He is the first known law enforcement officer to make the ultimate sacrifice for his community in America. In his memory, the Northampton County Chiefs of Police Association annually honors a police officer who distinguishes himself and his profession.

This year's recipient is Bethlehem Township Sergeant Richard Blake, a 23-year veteran.

Chief Dan Pancoast told Commissioners at their September 15 meeting that the honor was conferred on Sgt. Blake because of his work in several cases.

When a mentally distraught and suicidal man had doused himself with gasoline, Sgt. Blake risked his life by climbing into a car with a man who was one lit match away from ending his life, When the statute of limitations was ready to expire on a brutal sexual assault, Sgt. Blake was able to develop information that led to the arrest of two assailants. In addition, Chief Pancoast detailed Sgt. Blake's work in breaking up prostitution rings and meth labs.

After the award was announced, Sgt. Blake received a standing ovation, and actually started to smile.

This is at least the second time that a Bethlehem Township police officer has received the Nathan Ogden award. In 2010, the honor went to Captain George J. Boksan, who is currently the Director of Safety at Moravian College.