Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"Missing" Jessica Padgett Victim of Homicide

DA John Morganelli and PSP Lt Joseph Sokolofski
Updated 6:07 pm:
A Whitehall Township woman who has been missing since November 21, when she left her job at Northampton's Duck Duck Goose Child Care, has been found. Gregory Robert Graf, age 51, is being held in Northampton County jail on charges that he killed Jessica Padgett, age 31, and then disposed of her remains behind a shed on his property, located along Covered Bridge Road in Allen Township. According to an affidavit of probably cause filed by Pennsylvania State Police, Graf admitted to shooting her and hiding her body.

So ends a strange disappearance that had drawn national attention. Padgett's sister, Kristi Davis, had set up a "Help Find Jessica Padgett" Facebook page that had attracted over 5,000 followers. Flyers were posted along telephone poles and at local businesses, and search parties were organized.

One of those who assisted in the search is Graf, the man who allegedly had known all along that she was dead.

District Attorney John Morganelli, who will be trying this case personally, stated that things happened very quickly after she left the day care on November 21 at 1 pm for the four-mile trip to use her step-father's fax machine. Within a half hour of her departure, she was dead. Morganelli believes there may have been a sexual element, although he is waiting for an autopsy.

Graf lived with Padgett's mother, Danelle, but she was in Florida at the time of the homicide. She and Graf are the owners of Distinctive Fence, which is based at their home.

Padgett's car was later discovered at a Dollar General Store. Pennsylvania State Police were able to review surveillance video, and could see the vehicle being parked, but the person who exited was not her. Her step father's truck was parked near by, and there is surveillance video of that truck later being driven away. Morganelli believes this may be evidence that this was a planned killing.

Padgett, whose Facebook page indicates she was just married in September, is survived by her husband Mica, two biological children and a step-child.

Her family released a statement stating, "The world shines less bright today," and calling her "a beautiful, vibrant young woman who was beloved by her family and friends." After thanking the Pennsylvania State Police for their "tireless efforts," they asked that " you please respect our privacy while we grieve."

NorCo Controller: Exec and Appointee Abused Mileage, Meal Allowance

Updated 11:10 am:

Northampton County Executive John Brown has unilaterally imposed significant reductions in the health plans offered to the County workforce. He's told them he'd like to eliminate other benefits as well. If he can get away with it, he'll keep their wages flat, too. Helping Brown is Deputy Director of Administration, Cathy Allen. He brought her with him from Bangor, and she has has taken the Brown line in union negotiations. But while demanding that employees make do with less, they're squeezing every nickel out of the county they can.

Both of them are padding their mileage and meals, according to a report that Controller Steve Barron has just released. Allen has charged taxpayers in some instances for her daily commute. She even billed taxpayers for food at two local eateries. Brown charged for his mileage from his home in Bangor to Bethlehem's Celtic Classic parade.

I first heard about this from a worker yesterday. I filed a Right-to-Know and also alerted Barron. As Controller, he has a bit more power than a bottom-feeding blogger, and does not have to wait over a month for a Right to Know Request. He has the authority to review County spending, and can review whether payments are proper.

Take a gander at Allegheny County, for example. There, the Controller recently accused the Executive  of abusing his mileage, just as being done here. The Exec dismissed the whole thing as "petty." But he returned his county car and repaid $42,700.

Barron believes that Brown and Allen combined have squandered only about $1,500 in taxpayer money. But he believes the issue is important. He told me that if the Exec and one of his appointees decide to seek travel expenses for their daily commutes, it won't be long before every employee starts to do so. Also, is it right that Allen can eat ham and eggs at Perkins at our expense, while county employees stand in line at the food bank?

Brown's expenses. - The reports obtained by Barron reveal that Brown only sought reimbursements from January through April. During this time, he charged for a 4-mile round trip to the West Easton Treatment Center. He would charge for his entire trip from Bangor by making a pit stop at a diner or Gracedale. He even charged for commutes when hew had meetings at nearby places like State Theatre or even Gracedale. He charged taxpayers for a visit with his publicist, a trip to a Pennsylvania Society event and the Bethlehem parade I mentioned.

"Clearly, waving in a parade serves no county business purpose and is more about political self-promotion," is Barron's assessment of Brown's mileage claim to attend a parade in Bethlehem. On February 28, he claimed travel expenses from Bangor to the 248 Diner, and from there to County Council. There was no Country Council meetuing that date. 

Allen's expenses. - Allen has submitted expense reports through at least September. Her gimmick is to stop at Gracedale or Human Services on her way to the courthouse, and then bill taxpayers for her entire trip. Employees are strictly forbidden from charging meals to the County unless more than 50 miles away. But she did so twice in June, and from local eateries. Most of her expense claims appear to be an abuse.

Former Executive John Stoffa stated yesterday that he never sought reimbursement for mileage, except for the annual County Commissioners' Conference. District Attorney John Morganelli, who is often pulled from his bed at 3 am to travel to homicide investigations, never charges for mileage except for the annual prosecutors' conference. He won't even allow his part-time assistants to charge mileage when they attend a preliminary hearing.

Here's Barron's report:

Please note I have requested that John Brown reimburse the county $528.64 in mileage and the Assistant Director of Administration $1,006.85 in mileage and meals.

Mr. Brown has been reimbursed $963.16 in mileage since the beginning of the year. Several of the trips are questionable. He even billed 35 miles in round trip from Bangor to Bethlehem to be in the Celtic Classic Parade. I and I'm sure the taxpayers of the county would not consider waving and marching in a parade a valid county business expense.

As for Ms. Allen she has been paid $2,273.60 in mileage and charged several trips from her home and back to county facilities. Mileage to and from home is not allowed under county policy or IRS regulations. Customary mileage of a commute is never allowed. I gave Ms. Allen the benefit of the doubt that she began working on those days at Gracedale or the Human Service Building and therefore allowed the remaining mileage unless she left and went home from a location which happened on several occasions as well.

Of the money already mentioned $54.91 has been added in for meals at Tic-Toc Diner and Perkins. Meals are only reimbursed if an employee is a longer distance from the courthouse. In audits I have been critical of the Sheriff's Department for meals at Lutz's so I must be here as well to remain consistent with previous audits and policies of the county.

This information was brought out by a county employee who noticed the mileage being registered to and from home. This prompted my investigation. I have acted on employee tips in the past when Human Service Staff under Ross Marcus and the Stoffa administration purchased $100.00 in art for the new Human Service Building. That money was reimbursed and I would hope this administration sets the example and reimburses the county for this misuse of taxpayers money as well.

Director of Administration Luis Campos has responded to these accusations.

"The Administration budgets for travel and expense reimbursements. At times meetings can be held at off County Office locations. The County’s policy for travel and expense reimbursement is in line with IRS and auditor’s guidelines. If there is an inadvertent error, practice is to correct the expense appropriately."

I saw Campos in an elevator this morning, and he said he'd get me whatever I needed. I told him he could start by complying with my RTK, filed yesterday, seeking the following: "This request relates to County Executive John Brown and Ass't Dir. of Administration Cathy Allen. Please provide a record of all mileage, travel, lodging and meal expenses claimed by and paid to each of these employees during calendar year 2014. The mileage log and any other records for reimbursement are requested. In addition, the payroll line item reflecting payment of these expenses in each pay period is requested."

Adult DayCare Bringing 50 Jobs to Hanover Township

An adult day care is coming to Hanover Township, and bringing 50 full-time jobs with it. North Star Construction's Jim Gentile sketch plans for the $5 million project, located at 3365 High Point Boulevard, received a favorable reception from Supervisors at their November 25 meeting.  A proposed 25,000 sq ft facility, located on a four acre lot. will be able to handle up to 150 clients. Like most day cares, this will be a nonresidential center.

Gentile predicts it will be operational by this time next year.

In addition to the adult day care, Gentile is considering a 48-unit Alzheimer Center, but is still considering several sites. He also reported that business is picking up. "In 2008, I had 100 properties and my phone didn't ring for four years," he reported. "Now the phone is ringing off the hook."

In other business, Joseph Moeser was unanimously appointed to the Zoning Hearing Board. Supervisors' Chair John Diacogiannis urged residents interested in planning or zoning issues to apply for openings on the Planning Commission or Zoning Hearing Board.

Supervisors also learned that Hanover Garden Center, located at 2720 Jacksonville Road, has been sold and will be replaced with a plumbing business. Though the change in use "sounds OK" to Diacogiannnis, he and the other four Supervisors unanimously authorized their Solicitor and Engineer to attend the zoning hearing on the change of use, "just in case."

Supervisors also adopted a new noise ordinance and have authorized the advertising of a new permit fee schedule for processions and parades in the Township.

Public Works Director Vince Milite, who was in the midst of preparing the Township for its first major Winter storm of the season, was absent. Township Manager Jay Finnigan quipped, "The good news is we have salt!"

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hanover Tp Declares Snow Emergency

From HANOVER TOWNSHIP - NORTHAMPTON COUNTY

Hanover Township announces a Snow Emergency effective at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, November 26, 2014 through 11:59 a.m. on Thursday, November 27, 2014.

Hanover Township has found it necessary to declare a "Snow Emergency" due to the potential for a significant snow event starting Wednesday morning into Thursday morning.

Parking on all Township streets is prohibited and vehicles may be ticketed ($50.00 fine.) Section 172-29 of the Codified Ordinance reads, "Whenever a snow emergency has been declared it shall be unlawful for any vehicle to be abandoned or parked on anyt public highway/street".

Again, the Township has declared a Snow Emergency as a result of an impending storm with significant accumulation forecasted. The combination of snow and leaves presents a danger to the Township's snow operations.

Tickets can be issued once the Snow Emergency goes into effect and in some instances prior to the snow actually starting to fall or snow plowing operations commencing.

Best Sports Interview Ever

Can NorCo's Budget be Balanced on Backs of Workforce?

Though he denies it, it's pretty apparent that NorCo Executive John Brown is making up a $20 million deficit next year by cutting deeply into employee benefits and compensation and by allowing departments, even the jail, to remain short-staffed. He is, despite all claims to the contrary, attempting to balance the budget on the back of the County worker.

It's impossible without massive layoffs.

When he was Executive, John Stoffa used to claim that the average salary and benefits per employee cost the county $50,000 per year. Let's say it's $60,000. In order to make up the $20 million deficit, Brown would have to shed 333 of the County's 1925 full-time workers. In fact, since Northampton County is self-insured and pays its own unemployment, he would more likely have to shed around 400 workers.

Since the state mandates certain staffing requirements at the jail and at the nursing home, the brunt of this would be unevenly felt in other departments.

Sometimes, you just have to raise taxes.

Jennings Defends Wealth Disparity Forum

If pioneers were still wearing coonskin caps, Alan Jennings would have one. As the Executive Director of the CACLV, he has spent decades fighting a war he knows he will lose - the war against poverty. He was one of the leading proponents of Friday's wealth disparity forum, which I pretty much panned as itself a racist exercise. Alan has a different view, and it should be heard.

Each time I've posted something here, someone tells me not to "feed the trolls." Most of the folks on this thread seem to be thoughtful, not mean-spirited and hateful, so I'll ignore their advice.

I'd like to clarify a few points:

First, the $3.4 million grant paid for only about $10,000 of the "Justice For All" portion of the over-all planning effort. Frankly, I would argue that the most valuable and desirable purpose of government is to attempt to guarantee equal access to opportunity. If you believe in the free market, then you should believe in it being a fair market. We are simply raising questions about
whether the free market is, indeed, fair. I don't think anyone in the group suggested that all of us white folks are racists. But we'd be lying to ourselves to suggest racism isn't a factor in market distortion.

Second, the task force was formed to enable people of color to voice their concerns; that freedom of speech is one of those pesky little rights enumerated in that most American of documents, the Bill of Rights. CACLV provided the staff support to facilitate that voice.

And that voice did a damn good job, as those present at the 2-hour forum included two school superintendents, a college president, three foundation directors, community and economic development officials, bankers, CEO's of two well-regarded local companies, the United Way, and others. To a person, we heard high praise for the forum.

Third, there is barely a hint of asking the rich to give up a penny. This, as the report said, was about opportunity, not entitlement.

Fourth, Bernie, with all due respect, we have been doing homeownership counseling for 20 years and, yes, we are especially focused on helping lower-income and minority homebuyers. And HUD has been funding it, along with those Commie bankers, for most of that time.

Folks, read the report. It's not radical, really. And we think it can make progress on the uncivilized level of disparity in our world. What's so bad about that?

What is bad about that report, which I have not seen anywhere online, is that it starts off by playing the race card. It attempts to argue that wealth disparity exists because of racism.

Anyone who did read the report would realize it does call for more funding to urban school districts, that quality pre-kindergarten be provided to low-income families. Local colleges are told they must offer 50 scholarships per year to children of color. Employers are called on to provide subsidies. A living wage, not a mere minimum wage, is advocated. Large purchasers are expected to buy from under-represented groups. Some of these are good ideas, and I agree with most of them. But they do require the rich to give. They do call for wealth redistribution.

I am sure the forum was popular to the invited participants.But it was a simplistic and jingoistic approach to a nuanced problem that extends beyond race. Whether Alan knows it or not, there are poor white people, too. I'm one of them.

As for the task force, it lacked the very diversity complained about in the report. Not one token whitie. Doesn't the pesky First Amendment apply to us, too?

Alan's homeownership counseling program is open to one and all. The program advocated in the report is one "marketed to homeowners of color." That's discriminatory and violates the Fair Housing Act.

Finally, I agree that the $3.4 million HUD grant funded other projects, including the Envision LV report. I agree a free market needs to be fair, and believe that Congressman Charlie Dent had some ideas about fairness that were mysteriously absent in the one-sided report.

Grand Jury Helps Bethlehem PD Crack Attempted Homicide

Castellanos and Cadwallader
Bethlehem police are crediting a Northampton County Investigating Grad Jury with assisting them in cracking the attempted homicide of Anthony Berliner, earlier this summer, near Yosko Park. He was shot in the chest outside his Atlantic Street residence on June 15. He immediately turned and ran, and could hear another bullet pass by his head as he fled to a neighbor's home.He suffered massive blood loss, a collapsed lung and multiple fractured ribs. The couple whom police think are responsible are now behind bars in Florida, awaiting extradition.

According to Berliner, he was lured from his residence by a phone call from by Leah Calwallader, age 18. When he left the house, her boyfriend Evan Castellanos, age 19,  got out of a Pontiac Grand Prix driven by Calwallader and shot him.

Castellanos and Cadwallader told Detective Sean Molony that they were in New York City at the time of the shooting and denied any involvement. Because of communications issues with potential witnesses, Molony reached out to the District Attorney John Morganelli and received his permission to use that tool to continue the investigation.

Through video surveillance footage, Molony was able to establish that Castellanos and
Cadwallader were at the Lehigh Valley Mall on the evening prior to the shooting. They were also able to identify the Grand Prix in South Bethlehem on the morning of the shooting. Through cellular telephone record mapping, he was able to establish that they had been in the Lehigh Valley and were, in fact, in South Bethlehem on the morning of the shooting.

In addition to the records that Molony obtained, the Grand Jury was used to compel testimony. Witnesses describe Castellanos as a drug supplier. A street dealer named Joseph Shupp, who is supplied by Castellanos, told jurors that they had not been in New York, but had been with him in several occasions prior to the shooting.

Another witness told jurors that Castellanos left book bag at her residence, containing a revolver and two shell casings.

On Thursday, November 20, Grand Jury presentments and arrest warrants were sealed by Northampton county Judge Michael J. Koury, Jr. Bethlehem police had information that Castellanos and Cadwallader were hiding out in Kissimmee, Fl. Within five hours, both were in custody and are awaiting extradition on charges of attempted homicide, aggravated assault and conspiracy.

"You can run but you can't hide," noted Morganelli. Bethlehem PD Chief Mark DiLuzio added that, thanks to recent technology, they can communicate instantly with other departments. But he and Detective Molony were even more complimentary of an older prosecutorial tool - the Grand Jury.

"It's a very powerful tool,"observed the Chief, noting that it also moves "otherwise stale cases forward."  

Bethlehem Begins Thanksgiving Week With a Homicide

Thanksgiving week in Bethlehem started with a homicide. On November 24, shortly before 2 am, 911 dispatchers received a call from Ebony Anniqua Jones, age 31, of the 1200 block of Wodbine Street. She informed them that she had just thrown a knife at a male visitor. That male visitor, Ismael Bonets, age 37, was pronounced dead less than an hour later. The deceased and Jones were the parents of a six year old girl. Jones has two other children, and all three lived with her. Bonets had come from New York City for a parent-teacher conference.

Detective Moses Miller stated that there was no record of prior incidents at the Jones home, and that her three children (aged 6, 9 and 11) were being looked after by friends.

Jones admitted the stabbing.

"It is a clue to a holiday," remarked Chief Mark DiLuzio, "We don't want to see this kind of thing." Northampton County District Attorney John Morganell called the case "a real tragedy. The caretaker of these three children is now in custody."  He authorized thefiling of a general charge of homicide, which could range from first degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.

Morganelli and Bethlehem police urged people who feel the pressure of the holidays to seek help. There are a lot of resources in the Lehigh Valley," Morganelli noted.

The domestic violence hotline number is 1-800-799-7233. "No fees, no names, no judgment. Just help."

Northampton County Graduates Third Citizens' Academy

Citizens' Academy grads
Most of you know your Mayor or Township Supervisors. You see city, borough and township government every day. They provide the police who patrol the streets and fix your roads after a winter of snow. But few of you know anything about County government. Yet it is this government that gives you both your wedding license and divorce. This is where people go to get their passport or hunting license. This is the government that cares for abused and neglected children, seniors with nowhere to go and mentally distraught people. It fixes your bridges. It makes sure that, when you pump a gallon of gas, you really get a gallon. It handles the cases brought to them by police. It helps local municipalities attract new business. Thanks to the Northampton County Citizens' Academy, nine people have a better understanding of just how government works. They were honored at the November 20 meeting of County Council as the third graduating class.

This year's class went through 20 hours of lectures, listening to 37 speakers over the course of 10 weeks.

Last year's graduates included Glenn Geissinger and Mat Benol, both of whom are now members of Northampton County Council. Former Council member Ladd Siftar called it "a great idea." He added, "I wish I had thought of it 20 years ago."

The graduates: Katie Crowell, Nancy Jones, Christopher Lynn, Sherrie McNicoll, Sandi Meuir, Mona Rodriguez, Victor Schmidt, Eileen Segal and Jeannene Smith.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Are You Ready For Wednesday?


Map above is from Eastern PA Weather Authority. Unfortunately, they were on the nose last year. I'm still recovering from last Winter. Couldn't come at a worse time, either, for those who are on the road.

Task Force Blames Wealth Disparity on Racism

Olga Negron and Rev. Gregory Edwards
We've all seen the race card played. But thanks in part to a $3.4 million sustainable communities grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2011, a local "Task Force on Wealth Disparity" has now used federal tax dollars to play it. During a November 21 presentation at Northampton Community College before an audience of about 50 people, co-Chairs Olga Negron (La Ola Radio) and Rev, Gregory Edwards (Life Church) released and read from a report entitled "Justice For All". The report concludes that wealth disparity is the result of racism.

"In fact, denying that racism exists is the new racism," the report charges.

Interestingly, the 12-person task force responsible for this report itself has no diversity. It lacks a single white person. Kevin Greene (Lehigh Valley Faces), the task force member who led the discussion, complained that only "a few people rise at the expense of others."

The data

The data definitely demonstrate that there is a huge divide between the white and other families in the Lehigh Valley. Whites have a better education, make more money and live in nicer homes.

- In 2007, only 4% of black students took the SAT, the standardized test used for college admissions, compared to 79% of white students.
- 27% of white people have at least a Bachelor's degree, compared to blacks (18%) and Latinos (13%).
- Loan approval rates for white people are nearly 70%, regardless of income level. For blacks and Latinos, the approval rate is closer to 50%, regardless of income level.
- Latino and black poverty rates are 220% and 166% higher than white residents of the Lehigh Valley, respectively.
- Whites make 40% and 62% more, respectively, than black and Latino Lehigh Valley residents.
- A white person's home value is 17% and 29% higher than a black or Latino person.

Greene concludes that racism not only exists, but that the "exclusion is intentional." His comments were echoed by another task force member. "Wealth diversity is a function of our values," she asserted. "We value people who have white skin more than we value people who have black or brown skin."

Alan Jennings, Executive Director at CACLV, disputed Greene. "I don't want to believe it's deliberate," he told the group.

The Recommendations

The Task Force has recommended a minimum wage that is a "living wage," although it fails to specify an amount. It insists that all children, regardless of the family income level, should participate in pre-kindergarten. It demands an end to what it calls "educational apartheid," a "separate an unequal public education."It is calling for expanded home ownership, including a "post-homeownership counseling program marketed to persons of color." It also calls for the elimination of minimum lot sizes to enable a "more equitable distribution of wealth,"  It even calls for more diversity on non-profit boards.

One of these recommendations, home ownership counseling marketed to persons of color, appears itself to be discriminatory.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, Pa-15
Dent: Wealth Disparity is The Result of Free Market Economy

Lehigh Valley Congressman Charlie Dent, who appears to have been the token conservative participating in an otherwise one-sided forum, gently reminded that audience that wealth disparity is the necessary result of a free market economy. "We've always had it," he noted. He also cautioned against changing that approach to one in which power is concentrated. Under other systems, "You will see less prosperity and a heckuva' lot more cronyism," he warned, in an obvious reference to totalitarian regimes.

But he conceded that the disparity has increased in recent years. "We have to fix the policies that make it harder for people to make more money," he argued.

Part-Time Recovery

One of these policies, brought about in large part by Obamacare, is what Dent refers to as our "part-time recovery." He pointed to data of his own, showing that 7.6 million Americans are involuntarily working part-time, either because their employers have reduced hours or because that's they best they can do. This in turn has resulted in a "very erratic" recovery, one that Dent warns is unstable.

Employers like Red Lobster and Olive Garden are trying to remain under the Obamacare requirement of providing health insurance to employees who work more than 30 hours per week. This hurts working families, and Dent supports expanding the 30-hour cutoff to 40 hours.

Flawed Monetary Policy

Dent also argued that our monetary policy is flawed. The Federal Reserve's interest rates on short-term loans has been near zero since late 2008. But there's been no mad rush for mortgages, and no real incentive to save. Those who do are investing in the stock market instead of depositing at their local bank. "It drives people to the stock market," Dent observed. "The wealthy are getting wealthier." But he worries that "[w]e are creating another bubble in the stock market."

Tax Code Policy 

A third policy change desperately needed, according to Dent, is a simplification of the 70,000-page long Tax Code. Calling it a "hodge podge of special income breaks", he noted that 2/3 of the population is unable to take advantage of them because they don't itemize.

One of the more nonsensical federal tax policies, he argued, is one that discourages American companies from bringing their profits back. A recent report does indicate that $2.1 trillion is held by American companies overseas.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Angle Blasts Brown Over Budget, Employees

Angle with a member of the County's "most valuable asset"
Ron Angle is not just a Republican, but is a state committee member. But politics is one thing and government is another. The Northampton County Bulldog visited Northampton County council last night to deliver a scathing assessment of Executive John Brown's budget and his treatment of the employees. The fact that Brown is a Republican made no difference. He also called on Democrats and Republicans on Council to stop acting like the ones in Washington, D.C. It was a moving speech, perhaps the best I've ever heard him give. Excerpts are below. But you can see it here.

Budget: "I've never heard of anybody fielding a Budget with a Line of Credit. ... That was a little bit mind-boggling. I've seen some interesting trickery under the Reibman administration, but even they wouldn't have done that one.

"So now the Executive's answer is to deplete the budgetary reserve. ... You understand you can't do that. You wouldn't do that in your business and I don't believe Mr. Brown would do it in his business. You can't do it in the people's business.

"You are the Council. Your number one most important job in a year's time - probably your only job other than ribbon cuttings - is the Budget. The Budget is his (Brown's) to submit, but it's your baby to pick apart and approve.

"I'll gladly sit down with any of you and help you draw up a Budget to offset that [the Executive's] Budget, which is, frankly, insane. You can't carry $1 million in your budgetary reserve and you're a 300 and some million business.

A millionaire's hat
Employees: "Employees are retiring right and left. When I see people like Mr. Flisser and Doris Lombardo down in the Prothonotary's office retiring, I say to myself, 'Wow! What a loss! These people - I worked with these people are just outstanding individuals doing an outstanding job.'

"I've had a lot of employees call me. It's kind of comical because people still think I'm on County Council. ... Employees' morale is at an all-time low. Nobody stopped to think. OK, you want to chop into their health care. I understand. That's nationwide. People are paying more for their health care. But you also need to look into the big picture. Why did County employees work for the County all these years? Because the pay wasn't always all that great, but you did have good benefits and you had job security. ... Now all at once you're messing with that, and people are retiring because they can do better financially [by] retiring than they can do by continuing to stay here and work because of that proposal on the health care coverage.

"So is anybody starting to say when an employee retires, we can no longer get any work out of them ..., but we now have to pay them a pension for the rest of their life? Better to have those good employees still working here and happy versus the morale you got right now in this building. And it's not good. In all my years, I never had so many calls from employees about their morale.

A millionaire's hat right behind the Executive
Northampton County Gov't Like Washington, D.C. - "We got a man at the top who, frankly, doesn't seem to know what he's doing. And Mr. Brown, that's kinda' what I believe about you, to be honest.

"He's surrounded himself with people who weren't sharp. I was here through several administrations. Nobody was more critical of the Reibman administration than I. It was a passion. But I would give him credit. He was surrounded by good people who kept it running. ... He didn't make it run. Jim Hickey made it run. All of us who were here knew that.

"In the case of you, Mr. Brown, so far, in the one year you're in office, you hire a public relations person so you look good. I can tell you from many years in public service, if you're doing good work, you don't need a public relations firm. Voters will figure out you're doing a good job. You don't need a public relations firm.

"I don't know who you talked to about a $20 million line of credit to balance the budget, but it's insane.

"I looked at your cabinet. You needed to surround yourself, not with old friends from Bangor and people that you figure will help you politically. You need to surround yourself with people who add to your ability to make this a functioning county. And it's not happening.

"And for you Democrats on Council, Mr. McClure, you're number one. You don't need to spend your time making him look bad. He's doing a pretty good job of it on his own. You need to spend your time coming up with other ways to make things happen that are good here,  Not making him look bad. He'll make himself look bad. ... Most of you Democrats have become obstructionists and somehow you Republicans, who hold a majority, aren't united. It shouldn't be that way. I understand why the Democrats want him to look bad. It's the game in Washington and it's the game here. It's sad, though, because we are the people who suffer when that happens.

Tax Increases. "Nobody likes to see tax increases. We all know that. If you're a conservative Republican like I and several of you are, we're for less taxes and less government. In the case of the Democrats - I used to be one -  they're not going to vote for a tax increase because it looks bad to vote for a tax increase. That's not the real issue here, though.

"A leader is a person who makes the tough decisions that need to be made. Sometimes, it's a tax increase.

"You have to have a balanced budget that is doable, and right now, you don't have that. You do not have the budgetary reserve, and it requires a tax increase. Sure, it's going to be unpopular. If Mr. parsons, who replaced me, says we need a one mill tax increase, well, people are going to say he voted for the tax increase. That's not really what it's about. It's about the responsibility of the management of this County. If he [Brown] doesn't know how to do it, you are the checks and balances at budget time. It is your job, then, to do it. It is your job to pick his budget apart,"

NorCo Council's Hayden Phillips - "We Need a Tax Hike"

Hayden Phillips is NorCo Council's conservative conscience 
Is Northampton County poised to adopt a tax hike, even though none has been proposed by the Executive? Will it actually be proposed by the most conservative voices in the County? Will a desire for good government finally transcend party ideologies on the County level? As the days tick off toward December 16, when a Budget of some kind must be adopted, answers to these questions will be more clear. But after Council's November 21 meeting, it's safe to say that a tax hike is on the horizon.  

Brown's New Budget Reduces Fund balance to Just $1 Million

The storm clouds began gathering the day before, when Fiscal Director Jim Hunter told Council's Finance Committee that the County will end 2014 with a fund balance of just $21 million. This news comes at a time when Executive John Brown has submitted a new Amended Budget. It removes a $20 million line of credit that Council Solicitor Phil Lauer advised might be illegal. It makes up for that missing line of credit by spending down the reserve..

Since Executive John Brown is projecting to use $20 million of that fund to balance the 2015 Budget, that means the County will start off the new year with a reserve of just $1 million. That's risky business in a County that spends an average of $8-10 million per month.

It's also contrary to advice from the County's independent auditor. In June, she recommended that there should be at least six months of expenses in the till at all times, which is approximately $60 million. Other accounting firms are a little more lenient, suggesting that one or two months are sufficient. Even others suggest 10% of the total budget.

Council's Most Conservative Members Urge Tax Hike

This new budget, along with Hunter's recent disclosures, resulted in a sleepless night for Council member Hayden Phillips. Phillips, a member of the Lehigh Vally Tea Party, ran his entire campaign based on the principles of limited government, individual rights and fiscal responsibility. He is without question Council's most conservative member. Yet it is this conservative who called for a tax hike.

"I do my business and make decisions in my life based on how well I sleep," confessed Phillips. "yesterday, when we were told that we're going to eat into the reserves and go into a new budget with $1 million of reserve, I didn't sleep well. I didn't sleep well at all. I think if we do that, we are really fiscally irresponsible. And how can we cut $20 million? I don't see how we can ct $20 million. I'll go on record, I'm thinking we need a tax hike."

Phillips' remarks were echoed by Mat Benol, arguably Council's second most conservative member.

"We're in a mess," he admitted. "If a tax increase is needed, it's unfortunate, but we can't be dipping into our fund balances the way that it's proposed."

Ron Angle Challenges Council to be Leaders

Phillips and Benol may have been inspired by comments made by Ron Angle, a fellow conservative and former member of Council, earlier in the meeting.

"A leader is a person who makes the tough decisions that need to be made," he told Council. "Sometimes, it's a tax increase."

Angle was also highly critical of Brown's budget leaving just $1 million in the budgetary reserve, calling it "insane". He implored Lamont McClure and other Democrats to stop trying to make Brown look bad. "He's doing a pretty good job of it on his own," he observed. "You need to spend your time coming up with other ways to make things happen that are good here,"    

Brown declined to respond to Angle's scathing assessment or provide any report at all.

Open Space Funding Pitched

Aside from $1 million in funding that has been promised for municipal parks, Brown's budget contains no finding for farmland preservation or purchases of environmentally sensitive land. Brown has told Council that open space activists are willing to wait. But that's not the case for Bill Mineo, a member of the Open Space Advisory Board, and Don Moore, a member of Plainfield Township's Environmental Advisory Council. Angle also urged Council to restore funding for farmland preservation, noting it is the number one industry in Pennsylvania. "When that land is gone, it's gone forever."

Though Council has no power to make revenue estimates, it does have the power to adopt a higher millage rate than the one proposed by the Executive. That matter and Budget amendments will be considered again when Council meets on December 4. If Council fails to adopt or amend the executive's Amended Budget by December 16, his Budget will be deemed adopted.

NorCo Says Good-Bye to Three Valued Employees

Throughout the week, people have been saluting three Deputy Prothonataries, who are leaving Northampton County, and taking their vast institutional knowledge with them. Though not one of them wants to leave, they feel they have no choice. Roseann, Marie and Doris (I won't use their last names) are names you'll never see in a newspaper, except for the PFAs they occasionally have to file against me. But these are the people who have made Northampton County work over the decades. They show the same respect to everyone.

Yesterday, there was a small lunch party inside the Civil Division for these departing workers. Everyone was welcome. And a lot of people came. Judge Craig Dally, above, is posing with Roseann and Marie. President Judge Stephen Baratta, Judge Michael Koury and Judge Emil Giordano also paid their respects. So did District Attorney John Morganelli.

One person who did not show his face is Executive John Brown. So far as I know, he's never even been in the office.

So much for calling the employee the most valuable asset.

Save Green Pond Q & A

The Green Pond Marsh
Earlier this week, I told you that Green Pond Marsh has been designated a wetland by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Environmental Protection. Here are some questions and answers from Save Green Pond

Does this mean there is no further action needed at this time? If there is further action needed, what does that action need to be?

Not sure. The Army Corps of Engineers recognition of the actual wetland boundaries is the big one that we've been working towards for the past year and a half. If the developer continues his disregard for the Marsh, then we must be vigilant and watch his every move. Up to this point, since he hasn't shown any concern for the unique gem that is Green Pond Marsh, we believe his future plans could still adversely impact the Marsh.

One thing that should be done is to make the local legislators very aware of what is happening and let them know that their constituents don’t want to see Green Pond Marsh ruined. Green Pond Marsh should be showcased as the gem of Bethlehem Township.

So does that mean that the Marsh is safe?

Not necessarily, but it certainly is a positive step toward the preservation of the Marsh.

Does that mean the developer will stay out of the Marsh? And what about the holes they already dug in the Marsh?

Legally, they should stay out of the Marsh.

Hopefully the holes they dug didn't penetrate the impermeable layer of the Marsh which would allow the Marsh to rapidly drain after it is replenished from Green Pond overflow water. But we won't know that until Green Pond flows over the road and fills the Marsh again.

Do you know if PennDOT is planning on installing a culvert that will allow Green Pond to overflow into the marsh without flowing over the road?

As you know, the marsh has not been receiving as much water ever since PennDOT raised the road 3 years ago.

This is an important point to raise with local legislators.

Does that mean that the Army Corps of Engineers will now be the watchdog for the Marsh?

Although they were the agency that determined the location of the wetlands in the Marsh area, the Army Corps of Engineers has no jurisdiction over the Marsh area.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) has jurisdiction over the Marsh area. So we hope they will do their job by protecting the wetlands there.

Is it possible to see a copy of the wetlands report that was done on the Green Pond Marsh area?

Yes. The 66 page wetland report, that was done by ‘Schmid and Company’ is posted on the home page of the SaveGreenPond.org website in PFD format.

NorCo Mental Health Court to Start in 2015

From Left to Right: Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta, District Attorney John Morganelli, and Executive John Brown announce the formation of a Mental Health Court 

When Steve Baratta was a lowly District Attorney in John Morganelli's office, he used to tell his boss how helpful a Mental Health County could be in Northampton County, Now, as President Judge, he'll be in charge of it.  DA John Morganelli, along with Judge Baratta and County Executive John Brown, have announced the formation of a Mental Health Court. It goes into business next year. Judge Baratta called it a "real problem-solving court." It will be administered by him and Judge Craig Dally.

"For far too long, I witnessed individuals who are truly mentally ill enter the criminal justice system," explained Morganelli. "I am not talking about those who commit a horrendous crime such as a homicide and then feign mental illness in order to escape responsibility. I am talking about individuals who have a life long history of mental illness and also commit most often misdemeanor crimes and summary offenses over and over again, which brings them into the system.

Morganelli spoke in particular of veterans "who have placed their lives on the line" overseas,only to return home to face inner demons far more sinister than any other enemy. Certain kinds of crimes, particularly felony crimes of violence or felony drug offenses, would be excluded, he explained.

Currently, there are 17 mental health courts in Pennsylvania  The concept was formally proposed by Morganelli in February,  After that, President Judge Baratta conducted several meetings involving law clerks, assistant DAs and representatives of the Administration.

Morganelli will personally screen applications, which are available in his office. Judges Baratta and Dally will then administer the program, twice a week. They will provide classic mental health treatment, along with housing opportunities, for up to 25 people in the first year. "Our job will be to make sure people are complying with mental health needs, he explained.

No new resources are needed for this project, noted Morganelli, "The hope is that there will be some savings to the County." Baratta added.

Like Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD), a special program for first offenders in which charges are dismissed after a successful period of probation, charges against mentally ill people who are successful in the program will avoid a record that often prevents them from getting a job

Pledging his support, Executive Brown called the Mental Health Court a "team effort right from the beginning."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

30-Unit Apartment Building Approved Behind Roosevelts 21st

ZO Suzanne Borzak and Solicitor Erich Schock 
Michael Perrucci is a co-founder of a prestigious law firm that includes former New Jersey Governor Jim Florio. But he's really made his mark as a developer. He owns Peron Construction, and recently received approval for Bethlehem's first CRIZ project, the conversion of a vacant bank building into a distillery. His soft-spoken approach and willingness to walk away from a project when legitimate concerns exists, sets him apart and disarms opposition. That style was very evident last night, when Bethlehem's Zoning Hearing Board unanimously granted dimensional variances for a 30-unit apartment building at 1325 Chelsea Avenue. Perrucci was not there. It was his son, Christian, and principal Rob Tebeer, who persuaded zoners and even some of about 20 opponents with serenity instead of swagger.

At the moment, 1325 Chelsea Avenue is a chained off parking lot, inaccessible to everyone, located behind Roosevelt's 21st along East Elizabeth Avenue. A Perrucci spin-off, PD Property Holdings, has an Agreement to purchase that property along with contiguous 57 East Greenwich Street, giving it a total of 75,000 sq ft. It could build 62 units by right at a building on both properties. Instead, it was proposing 30 units (18 - 2BR and 12- 1BR) at the Chelsea site in a building that will be 3 1/2 to 4 stories tall. It would agree not to develop the East Greenwich Street property. The apartment building would be 193' long instead of the 180' length permitted. Also, unit sizes would be much smaller, just 758 sq ft instead of the 1,200 sq ft required in a commercial zoning district.

Christian Perrucci, who like his father is a lawyer, presented the case. He relied solely on the testimony of PD Property principal Rob de Beer. For his part, de Beer explained that there would be on-site parking for 30 vehicles and room for another 23 on another lot being purchased. He described the project as upscale rental housing that would be aimed at Moravian College staff and recent grads. He assured neighbor Lynne Brolley that a church using that lot would still be able to do so.

James Lawrence asked whether a geological survey would be done, adding that there are rumors that the property was once a dump. De Beer responded that this would be part of their due diligence,and if they found something negative, they would have to decide whether to remediate or walk away.

Alex Chabot expressed concern over noise pollution, noting that intoxicated Roosevelt patrons already congregate at the end of his driveway. De Beer responded that the apartment building would actually buffer the noise.

Katie DeVine questioned the lighting at the rear of the property, which is near where she lives. "We would have to be soft," answered de Beer, adding that the rear would receive more attention than other buildings because it faces residential properties.

Jeff Marsh, who with his son owns Chelsea Court across the street, suggested that it might be time to consider metered parking in that area so that residents do not park in front of the businesses who are his tenants.De Beer stated he was amenable to that proposal. He also told Marsh that it's likely pets will be banned because there are so few green spots in that area. "There's going to be a lot of people running around with sandwich bags," joked Marsh.

Marsh also questioned whether children would be permitted. De Beer stated that, while there is no desire to discriminate, 'those units are not conducive to families with children."

Planning Director Darlene Heller was there on behalf of the City. "We support the project," she said,noting "it would be a very attractive neighborhood for people who want to live in the City." She indicated that concerns about lighting and traffic would be vetted during the planning process.

"We want to make it another great development for the City of Bethlehem," concluded Perrucci.

After the variances were granted, Chairman Gus Loupos thanked the audience, who was concerned but very civil. " I hope you are able to work with the neighbors," he advised Perrucci and de Beer.

Jerry & Julie Seyfried Recognized For 50 Years of Voting


Julie and Gerald E "Jerry" Seyfried were recognized yesterday by Dee Rumsey, Chief Voting Registrar of Northampton County, for fifty years of voting in every single election. Few people can claim this distinction.

They have a 50-year milestone coming up that is even more important than voting. In March, they will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

Jerry is a former Executive, County Council member and cabinet member. He's seen it all. I could write page after page about his accomplishments, which include being the first Executive to do something serious about open space. But more than this, I know no person who is more knowledgeable about the Home Rule Charter than he.

Though Jerry ran and lost in a council race this year, that's just the politics. He has met with some of the people who beat him to help them be better servants of the people. He has also offered to help Executive John Brown in any way Brown wanted.

Instead of relying on political hacks who know nothing about county government, now might be a good time for Brown to seek Jerry's help. He doesn't even charge.

Blogger's Note: Though I begged her, Dee Rumsey refused to let me take her picture. She knows I'm a terrible photographer.

Remember John Callahan?

I saw John Callahan last night at a meeting of Bethlehem's Zoning Hearing Board. The bastard looked as relaxed as I've ever seen him. He was there with the Perrucci law firm, which successfully pitched an apartment building.

Had this man been elected County Executive, there would have been a Budget that actually makes sense, and it would have included the tax hike that should have been imposed two years ago. Instead of hiring consultants to tell him what to do, he would have relied on the people who actually work for the County to come up with ideas.

I saw him speaking, one on one, with some of the twenty or so people who came to complain about this project. And though they still complained, it was not as loud. Though they still had concerns, they were willing to listen.

That's what a leader can do.

During a break, I couldn't help but speak to him. I was ready to talk politics, but he talked about his son, who played outside linebacker and wide receiver this year for Freedom High School.  The Patriots were 11-0 until being bitten by Easton's Red Rovers.

Brown Will Start Next Year With An Empty Tank

The Express Times' Tom Shortell has already said it, but let me say it again. Based on the third quarter financial report, NorCo Fiscal Director Jim Hunter is projecting that the County will end the year with just a $21 million fund balance. Since John Brown is projecting to use $20 million of that fund to balance the 2015 Budget, that means the County will start off the new year with a reserve of just $1 million.

This is irresponsible.

In June, the County's independent auditor criticized the County for spending $14 million more than it took in during 2013. She recommended that there should be at least six months of expenses in the till at all times, which is approximately $60 million. Other accounting firms are a little more lenient, suggesting that one or two months are sufficient. Even others suggest 10% of the total budget. By any accounting standard, this is insane.,

In recent years, Northampton County's stabilization fund has hovered between  $18-25 million. But this is contrary to Northampton County Council's GASB 54 policy, under which it calls for a stabilization fund.

I have yet to hear any accountant recommend starting off a new year with just $1 million in a County that spends $10 million per month.

After the meeting was over, Shortell walked up to Brown with a question. Most of you don't know Shortell, but he's nothing like me. For one thing, he's nice. Brown answered the question, and then just walked off when a follow up question was posed. It was though he might get dirty by lowering himself to speak to an inferior.

This follows his abuse of taxpayer money to say everyone should thank him.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

All Hail Our Dear Leader Brown

Northampton County News is supposed to be a bi-weekly update on Northampton County happenings, prepared for employees and delivered electronically. In reality, it is propaganda, designed to prop up Executive John Brown. A perfect example of this appears in the form of a "Reminder" in the latest newsletter.

All month long you can donate to the food bin at the Government Center inside the front entrance, which benefits the Hispanic Center of the LV Food Bank. John Brown allowed for this food drive where past administration has said "no" to the idea. We're thankful to John for allowing this Drive.

Maybe you have a different view, but most of us would agree it is highly inappropriate for the Executive to use his taxpayer-funded public relations consultants to take shots at previous administrations. This is especially so when the accusation is untrue.

I called the Hispanic Center of the LV and spoke to Courtney, who is coordinating this food drive. The claim that any past administration said "no" to a food drive was news to her.

It was also news to former Executive John Stoffa, who stated emphatically that  any food drive would have been welcome.

While we're on the topic, perhaps Executive Brown could coordinate a food drive or two for the employees who have told him, during meetings of County Council, that they are food bank regulars.

Instead of being thankful to John Brown, employees are now calling him "Dear Leader."

Updated  Thursday, 11:10 am: John Brown has updated his newsletter and has removed the offensive and narcissistic comment. Good for him. 

LV Jewish Federation Condemns Senseless Slaughter of Four Rabbis

Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley President Mark H. Scoblionko and Executive Director Mark L. Goldstein have issued a statement condemning the senseless slaughter of four rabbis who were in the middle of prayer. Eight others were wounded.

“The Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley sends its deepest condolences to the families and friends of those murdered in the terror attack that took place earlier today at a west Jerusalem synagogue. We pray for the recovery of those wounded in the attack.

Four rabbis, including Rabbi Moshe Twersky, grandson of renowned Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a dominant American Jewish leader for over 50 years, were senselessly murdered in today's attack.

The recent wave of Palestinian terror attacks in Israel is outrageous and completely unacceptable, but today's attack on innocent people praying in a synagogue is incomprehensible. We pray that the authorities will do everything they can to put an end to the incitement and will find a solution to curb escalating tension in Jerusalem and the rest of the country.

We thank President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro for their swift and strong condemnation of the attack. The support of the U.S. Administration in these harsh times serves as a reminder of the unbreakable bond that exists between our nations.

At the same time, we condemn in the strongest terms the statements by Hamas, which celebrated today's attack and called for further terrorist attacks against Jews. While Palestinian Authority President Abbas did condemn today's attack, it was offered in the context of his having already incited violence by his libelous statements that Jews were contaminating Muslim holy sites and his Fatah‐controlled broadcast media glorifying today's attackers as martyrs and heroes. We ask for the international community to unite and demand that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas put an immediate end to its campaign of libel and incitement. Responsible language and actions by Palestinian and Israeli leaders will help calm the tensions and bring about reasoned dialogue.

We encourage people of all faiths to voice their rejection to the violent attack that took place this morning in Jerusalem. May the families of the victims and may peace and tranquility be restored to the residents of Jerusalem.”

"One Lehigh Valley" Report Unveiled to Bethlehem's Southside

Southside Steely
A two-year study of the Lehigh Valley, funded with a $3 million Sustainable Communities HUD grant, was the focus of a November 18 public meeting at Northampton Community College's South Side campus. Eric McAfee, Director of Community Planning for the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, summarized the report to an audience of about 35 people, each of whom was supplied with a hard copy, along with a tote bag and water bottle. The report lists 35 goals, based on numerous public meetings that even included a LV Iron Pigs baseball game.

This public participation also included a survey of 800 Lehigh Valley residents, performed by Muhlenberg Colleges's Institute of Public Opinion, who were asked questions about challenges to the, economy, environment, transportation and livable communities. People would most like to see better-paying jobs; clean air and water; better roads; and more quality housing for working families.

Jobs. - Over the past five years, the biggest gains in employment have been in the healthcare and social services industry. There are also 4,567 new transportation and warehousing jobs. Many of these jobs, however, are in industrial parks away from the cities. Though agri-business is considered an emerging job market, the Lehigh Valley has lost 80% of its farms and 53% of its farmland since 1930.

City or Suburb? - According to former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, the move to the suburbs is “over.” Not in the Lehigh Valley. Between 1980 and 2010. Lehigh Valley townships and boroughs are responsible for 87% of the population increase. Most people - 57% - live in single family detached homes. Whether it is city or 'burb, 89% of Lehigh Valley residents are within bicycle distance of schools and stores (2 miles). Only 15% of the Lehigh Valley, however is within walking distance, calculated at 1/4 mile, of a school or grocer.

Public Health Rate. - Out of 67 counties, Lehigh County is ranked #19 and Northampton County #21. Northampton County has more morbidity (#53) than Lehigh (#35), but strangely is ranked higher in health behaviors.

Bethlehem's Eastern Gateway. - Darlene Heller, Bethlehem's Director of Planning, explained changes at Bethlehem's Eastern Gateway, which extends east from the Skateplaza and includes the greenway in South Side Bethlehem, between 3rd and 4th Streets.

Southside Steely was there, too, proving that even super heroes believe in good planning.

Why Has Poverty Rate Gone Up in Upper Milford?

This was just a very small part of the discussion last night at Envision LV's final presentation last night, at NCC's Fowler Center, concerning its One Lehigh Valley Report.

According to the data, the poverty rate in Upper Milford has gone up by more than 5% over the past ten years. No other suburb in the Lehigh Valley has experienced that change. What makes Upper Milford so special?

According to Eric McAfee, the Director of Community Planning for the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, it's because of the real estate crash. People unable to pay their mortgages moved out and people of more moderate means moved in. It is by no means a poverty community, just not as wealthy as it was before the real estate bubble collapsed.

Wouldn't this argument apply everywhere?

Any of you out there have any idea why Upper Milford is the sole LV suburb to experience this swing?

Why Has Hanover Tp (Lehigh County) Lost So Many People?

They've all moved to Hanover Township (Northampton County).

Last night, I was at the last presentation being made by Envision Lehigh Valley with the $3 million HUD grant received for "sustainable communities", which translated means they want everyone living in the cities. I'm glad I waited because they had tons of free food and I even got a tote bag. In honor of Nazareth, there were dozens of cupcakes, too.

I got caught up with demographics, as you can see in this story and the two below.

Hanover Township - Lehigh County is depicted on one of many graphs as the only community in the Lehigh Valley to have lost over 15% of its home ownership over the past ten years.

Why?  

According to Lehigh Valley Planning Commission Community Director Scott McAfee, it's lost 50% of its population. A large mobile home park which once straddled Airport Road is now the site of a shopping center with a Panera Bread.

Why Has Poverty Rate Decreased in Wind Gap?

The experts at the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission have an explanation for the increased poverty rate in Upper Milford, but have no clue why it has decreased by over 5% over the past ten years in Wind Gap. "That has us scratching our heads," says LVPC's Eric McAfee.

Is it because Detzi's Tavern has become more popular now that Scott Parsons is on Northampton County Council? Is it because Blue Mountain Consumer Discount is now finally reporting its income? Caesar's Diner? Fracking?

What's your explanation? The experts want to know.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bethlehem Catholic, Parkland Win State Volleyball Titles


Bethlehem Catholic's female volleyball team has left Johnstown as state championships. The news was announced Saturday night, as the Golden Hawks football team were playing, and defeating, Saucon Valley in their own bid for a PIAA state title.

Saturday's volleyball win is the first ever state championship by any female team at Becahi. The picture above comes from a title searcher whose sister happens to be an assistant coach.

Parkland's girls managed to pull off their third straight state title as well, in the larger AAA Division.

They stuck around after their victory, and cheered on Becahi.

Two Lehigh Valley teams. Two state titles.

NorCo Records Denial Appealed

On Friday, at 4:58 pm, Northampton County's Open Records Officer Daniel O'Donnell denied a request for emails between the County's cost control consultant and County employees I appealed that decision today.

The C3 Group, a Scranton-area based cost consulting company, is the company that made the recommendations to reduce health care coverage. Its employees sat in in several meetings with employees to discuss these changes. In response to questions at one meeting to explain the changes, C3 employee Colin Healey told a worker, "Nobody subpoenaed you to work here."

Because it stretches credulity to suggest that no emails are discoverable, I have also asked for an in camera review.

Among the county's more goofy arguments is the claim that these emails are part of labor negotiations. That's just silly. This request concerns a reduction in the health care coverage imposed unilaterally by the Executive. Labor relations necessarily require the participation of management and labor. This never occurred. There have been no negotiations, collective bargaining or arbitration concerning these health plan reductions. This is why the health plan changes have been so unpopular. It was a decision made in a communication vacuum, with no transparency or willingness to talk with the very people being adversely affected. The public has a right to know what Brown and his consultants were saying behind closed doors, and the invocation of the labor relations exception here is pure nonsense.. The RTKL is "designed to promote access to official government information in order to prohibit secrets, scrutinize the actions of public officials and make public officials accountable for their actions.” Bowling v. Office of Open Records, 990 A.2d 813, 824 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2010), aff’d 75 A.3d 453 (Pa. 2013).

Under the County's interpretation, the Right-to-Know Law might as well be called the Right-Not-to-Know Law.

I could go on, from point to point, and I did in my legal argument. But I will spare you.

Had the county denied half or even 3/4 of the emails, I probably would walk away. But denying them all is throwing the gauntlet at transparency.

I am informed that a similar RTK request filed by the Controller has received the same short shrift.

Bethlehem Tp Proposes No-Tax-Hike Budget For 2015

Andrew Freda
For the sixth straight year, Bethlehem Township Commissioners have proposed a no-tax hike budget. A taxpayer in a median market value home worth $177,618, can expect to see the same $521 tax bill he saw in 2014. It's his lowest tax bill, too.  County taxes last year were $940, while school taxes were $4,428. The millage rate is 5.99 mills.

Finance Director Andrew Freda went through the numbers, and also submitted a detailed report, outlining next year's budget. The most troubling aspect of the financial plan is that it spends $1.6 million more than it takes in. This shortfall will be made up by taking money from the fund balance On paper, the fund balance is projected to drop $2 million over the next year and end at just $1.46 million. Funds on reserve will only be 10% of the budget. Freda stated that the reserve should be between 12-18%.

Freda did explain that, in budgeting, revenues almost always come in higher than anticipated and expenses are less. So the Township's actual fund balance next year may be higher than is projected.

The Township's largest revenue source is Act 511 taxes, which consist of transfer taxes, earned income taxes and business mercantile taxes. These provide 31% of the Township's revenue. Real estate taxes, the second largest revenue source, brings in 27% of the Township's income.

The biggest drain on revenue is personnel. Ten years ago, the Township had 93 employees. Today, there are just 85 represented by three different unions.

Another major expense is health care. It is projected at $2.1 million next year, which is just two per cent higher than it was this year.

The Township will also pay $1 million into its pension, with the state kicking in another $500,000.

Unanimously, Commissioners authorized that the budget be advertised. A copy will be available online and at the Municipal Building.

Pektor Pitches Office Park Next to Route 33

Lou Pektor
At a time when Bethlehem Township residents have complained loudly to Commissioners about traffic and storm waters, developer Lou Pektor has pitched yet another building project. This one is called Mill Creek Corporate Center, though there's no creek by that name in the township. Instead of straddling a stream, this 72-acre development is located along Route 33, extending from the William Penn Highway north to Church Road. It includes ten of what Pektor calls "Class A" office buildings, to be built over ten years, and occupy 550,000 to 600,000 sq ft.

"Stormwater is an issue; traffic is a huge issue," Pektor conceded.  He indicated that he plans to set aside 15-20 acres for open space, though he acknowledged that land will be used to address stormwater.

Over 60% of the project will be impervious coverage. "In looking at this, I just see black top," lamented Martin Zawarski. He suggested that, instead of all those parking lots, the developer should construct a garage.

"I can't sit here and say we can afford to do it," responded Pektor. The "we" to who Pektor referred is PennCap Properties, which touts itself as "the leading owner and operator of class 'A' office and flex properties in the Lehigh Valley." Its portfolio includes 32 properties comprising approximately 1.4 million sq ft of office and office/flex space located in six corporate office parks within the Lehigh Valley.

Phil Barnard challenged Pektor to explain what benefits this development would bring to the township.

"125 million," was Pektor's reply. "We'll not create one child," he added, referring to the drain that residential dwellings place on school districts.

"We have an area problem," Tom Nolan told Pektor. Ticking off some planned and existing development, Nolan worries about how to address the William Penn Highway. He added there is no public sewer or water.  

Bethlehem Tp Monthly Report Highlights

Once every month, the Bethlehem Township Commissioners' Agenda contains an item entitled "Acceptance of Monthly Reports." These are reports by different department heads and are accepted without comment. I've been bugging Township Manager Melissa Shafer to start making these available, and she did. Each report is posted prominently on a bulletin board. I love these reports because they provide a perspective from the people who do the work. Here are some October highlights:.

Police
- Officer Pat Brehm has begun his Act 120 training at Montgomery County Police Academy.
- All officers have completed their semi-annual firearms training and qualification.
- Two officers have been re-certified as TASER instructors.
- There were 71 traffic accidents involving 137 vehicles and 13 injuries.
- 186 traffic citations and 202 warnings were issued.
- There were 33 misdemeanor/felony arrests, 19 summary arrests and 3 DUIs.

Public Works
- Old mulch at Comer Park has been replaced with certified playground mulch.
- New outdoor fitness stations are being installed at Municipal Park.

Community Center
- Breakfast with the Elves takes place on December 12 at 9:30 am.
- Gingerbread Houses will be built on December 12 at  5 pm.