Let me explain what's going on. The Guaranteed Energy Savings Act allows a municipal body like BHA to borrow money to hire an approved energy consultant to reduce energy costs. The debt is funded from the money saved on utility bills. If no savings are realized, nothing has to be paid.
In principle, this sounds very good. But in practice, Bethlehem is perverting a good idea for political purposes.
Eighteen firms are state-certified for energy savings contracts, including Allentown's DMJMHarris. But the only firms seriously considered for a $7 million BHA energy savings plan were North Carolina's Ameresco and Pittsburgh's CLT Efficient Technologies. Given the amount of money involved, I'd expect to see more than two companies interested. This lack of competition might be troubling, but BHA had already paid Enlightened Energy Consultants, to recommend the best outfit for this energy savings deal. Their recommendation? Ameresco. It currently has fourteen public housing clients. It's experienced.
But last Monday, BHA chair Dave "Lumpy" Sanders had no interest in this recommendation. He had already made up his mind. When the resolution to approve the contract came up on the agenda, Sanders immediately asked that the contract be awarded directly to CLT, the second highest scorer. Commissioner Joe Long, who chairs the local Democratic party and is notorious for back-room deals, seconded this motion. They had no interest in their own staff's recommendation!
An Ameresco rep, sitting in the peanut gallery, asked and was permitted to address the authority. He raised enough questions about the contract that the other BHA commissioners, Paul Reitmeier and George Samuelson, voted against awarding the contract to CLT.
The decision to award the contract to CLT was defeated by a 2 to 2 vote. Commissioner Iris Linares, a member of the Democratic state committee and the deciding third vote, was absent. Had she been present, the contract would have been awarded to CLT. And when she shows up for a second vote in May, that's what will happen.
Here's why. CLT's owner, Charles Zappala, is heavily connected to the state Democratic party and isn't afraid to throw his money around. Since 1997, he's contributed over $90,000 to Democrats seeking federal office. He's donated a whopping $208,000 since 2000 to mostly Democratic candidates seeking state office. Beneficiaries of his largess include indicted state senator Vince Fumo ($44,000) and the Guv, Ed Rendell ($25,000). Now gee, why would a dude from Pittsburgh be giving money to two boys from Philly?
Wait. It gets better.
On September 29, 2005, Zappala picked up the $652 catering bill for some event in honor of Lehigh County exec Don Cunningham. That same day, Zappala and his wife each kicked in another $2,500. Do you honestly think this Pittsburgh gazillionaire is just interested in good local government, far from his own home? Has Zappala also contributed to Bethlehem Mayor Callahan's campaigns? I don't know. I'll be checking.
Zappala does spread his money locally, and it seems to pay off. In Pittsburgh, his firm was one of just two companies considered for an energy savings deal. Guess who just got the deal? CLT. Zappala had contributed $10,000 in the Pittsburgh mayoral race, and another $500 to a city council campaign.
Funny thing. Zappala is neither a populist nor an environmentalist. His investment firm has interests in large waste treatment facilities in largely black and poor Chester, Pa. In 1997, a federal court concluded that the concentration of so many waste facilities in one area constitutes environmental racism.
I've been informed that board members have already received calls telling them to vote for CLT in May. "It's what the Mayor wants." Aside from an obvious Sunshine Act violation, it begs the question whether Mayor John Callahan is really looking out for Bethlehem or Democratic campaign coffers.
Isn't this just the latest example of "pay to play" under our archaic campaign finance laws? It occurs under the radar, largely unnoticed, especially on the local level. But it's destroying our democracy. A nonlocal moneybag like Zappala becomes far more influential than Bethlehem's own residents.