Thursday, July 26, 2007

Northampton County Council Ignores Troubling Warning Signs

"Common sense jumped out of the window at a Northampton County Council meeting this month."

You could expect me to say something like that. But those words instead come from The Morning Call editorial board, clearly confused by a council that just makes no sense. Bill White deduces there must be a Mad Hatter faction.

Well, there is now a new reason to compare Northampton County Council with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Last Thursday night, the Caterpillar (Ron Angle) took the hookah out of his mouth, and asked the Mad Hatters, "What size do you want to be?"

Angle threw out a few facts he's learned from the finance committee, which he chairs. There's a 33% increase in sheriff's sales over last year. The county adds an average of forty new jobs every year. People are having trouble paying county taxes, and the debt to the county in unpaid real estate taxes now stands at $14 million. He believes the stock market is due for a correction, and when that happens, the county will have to deposit into the pension fund. He proposed forming a committee to meet with the administration to look for ways to cut costs now before the county finds itself in a dire financial crisis. He believes we need a task force to prevent a fiscal crisis.

Amazingly, not a single member of council was willing to go along with this idea.

After a few moments of silence, the Queen of Hearts, Ann McHale, told Angle he could just deal with this through his finance committee. Angle, who was hoping for a task force involving the administration, promised to try.

Looks like he's the only one.

It is precisely this unwillingness to recognize and react to warning signs, that leads to things like big tax increases and painful layoffs.

24 comments:

A.J. Cordi said...

I’m a bit unfamiliar with fiscal activities revolving around Norco. Please don’t judge me directly by this question because of my lack of knowledge thereof. But why can’t Angle in fact deal with this through his finance committee? Why must yet another committee be created? Why is it that the solution to everything seems to begin with a committee these days?

I understand that Council always chooses to ignore warning signs. I’m quite familiar with the importance of paying attention to warning signs by living in Bethlehem. I just don’t see the reasoning for a separate committee.

But either way, I’m glad Angle is up to the task, and I hope he can follow through. It's sad that Council doesn't even offer support or assistance.

Just think of how his public acceptance will improve if he can solve some problems without the assistance of a committee. Council may have just screwed themselves there…

Bernie O'Hare said...

AJ,

I know. Just what we need, another committee. The reason Angle wanted to do it this way is bc he wants this committee to include the executive branch.

If there is any area where that goofy council should listen to Angle, It's when it comes to money. He is concerned about troubles ahead. It would be wise to listen to him.

P.O'd Naked Blogger said...

"Wise to listen to Angle?"
Oh, I can't wait for this. perhaps he will write a book: The Tao of Ron Angle."
Or, In the guise of the "chicken Soup" series, we could have "Ron Angle's snippets for the fiscally impaired." Foreword by Jolly Joe Timmer!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Give the devil his due. When it comes to money, it's always wise to listen to Angle.

A lot of folks, with good reason, call him divisive. But this is one example of Angle recongnizing a potential problem and trying to head it off before it is too late. He's trying to be proactive.

I'd rather see the county try to get away with spending less now than having a massive layoff or major tax increase in the next few years. Memories around here are short. Not too long ago, that's exactly what happened in Northampton County. And that was when the economy was good.

You make the mistake of trashing a good idea because you don't like its source. That's illogical.

P.O'd Naked Blogger said...

Bernie O'Hare! I did not trash Angle's idea! I just had a little fun at his expense! I am mellowing out here in Starbucks land, but logic is what we wish it to be!
Just ask St. Bill of Gates!
I wish Ron the best in his endeavor towards fiscal bliss, and i wish you Bernie, Bliss in finding the perfect soulmate, with a higher PSI level! The firmer the better, right!

P.O'd Naked Blogger said...

Can you believe that our office offers daily Yoga before working Hours?! I am soooo at peace.

P.O'd Naked Blogger said...

Admit it Bernie, you love my sass, you miss it now that you know you can never have me!

Anonymous said...

Before anyone jumps on Angle's bandwagon, let's look at the facts.

1. Sheriff's Sales are up, but they are for mortgage foreclosures and money judgments. Not taxes, as insinuated by Angle. That would be Judicial Sales. Judicial Sales are remarkably down.
2. Even when properties go up for Sheriff's Sales, guess who gets paid first. Yep, the County. So, they still get their money.
3. Are people having trouble paying taxes? It is true that approximately 900 properties are listed for upset sale, each year, but people pay their taxes, either lump sum or payment plan as soon as it's listed. So the County still gets paid.
4. Those that don't are listed for Judicial Sale. Guess how many went for sale this past year. About 15. After they were sold, guess who got paid? Yep, the County.
5. The stock market is always due for correction. However, historically, the County pension fund usually covers itself.

To insinuate that people can't pay their taxes is the reason to chop programs is political rhetoric. Creating another committee is political rhetoric. What the hell was County Council created for anyway?

It seems to me that Angle wants to be an executive and legislature. He want to dictate policy and have fiscal power. Well if that's what he wants, he needs to change the home rule charter back to the Commissioner form of government. Stop the rhetoric Angle, and tell the people what you really want.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 6:41,

1) It's no secret Angle wants to return to the commissioner form of government. He has said so many times. I personally think we should stick with home rule because ideally, it brings government closer to the people.

2) Angle never claimed that sheriff sales have increased 33% because of back taxes. Whatever gave you that idea? Angle's point is that this increase in sheriff sales is evidence of a bad economy, an economy that doesn't seem to match the rosy picture painted by our stock market. Don't you think he has a point? I do.

2) Although Angle has equated a rise in sheriff sales with a bad economy, they can also be attributed to unpaid real estate taxes. When you talk about judicial tax sales, try to remember that you're talking to someone who makes his living searching titles. I am very familiar with that process. Many municipalities have contracted with Portnoff, a private bloodsucker, to collect taxes on delinquent properties. Portnoff files a lien and then executes immediately. It shedules sheriff sales, not tax sales to collect back taxes. it has done so with many properties in Bethlehem, Easton and Northampton. So contrary to what you assert, part of the increase in sheriff sales is actually the result of delinquent taxes.

3) Because so many properties are being sold for back taxes at sheriff sales, there is not as big a list for tax sales as in times past. I'd be surprised if it is as high as 900, as you suggest. But when it comes to tax sales, you are talking about a two stage process. First, there is an upset tax sale. If the property is not sold at the upset sale, it is exposed to judicial sale. Last year, many properties were sold at the upset tax sale. Those that were left, about 15, went at the judicial sale.

4) Angle's point, and I have not heard you refute it, is that our economy is not so rosy as we like to pretend. There is a high amount of unpaid real estate taxes owed to the county. He believes people, especially those on fixed incomes, are having trouble. The facts appear to bear him out.

5) Regarding the stock market and pension funds, are you out of your mind? Just a few years ago, the county had to dig into the general fund to make up the pension fund shortfall bc it was not covered by the stock market. There was a 67% tax increase over 2 years and over 100 positions were eliminated. It probably cost Reibman his job. Angle believes that market is artificially high, and most forecasters agree. it is inconsistent with our uncertain economy. When it comes crashing down, I want us to be ready.

When it comes to money, you really should listen to Angle. That way, you might avert problems down the road. He wants to shrink government where it can be shrinked, and there's nothing wrong with looking at that so long as services are not reduced. There is nothing wrong with seeking efficiencies in government.

And no one is saying we need to "chop programs." What we need to look at is spending our money wisely. Historically, NC has always been fiscally prudent. When someone says they need 40 jobs, do they really need 40? When wind-sensitive fountains have a broken pipe, do we want to waste the money this year to make it look pretty? Do we need to pay one employee to do nothing but buff marbe floors so they look pretty for the judges? These are the nitty-gritty questions we should look at, and that's not rhetoric. The easy answer is to chop programs. The hard thing, and the right thing, is to take a close look at everything and cut costs where we are wasting money. And we are wasting money.

I don't know, but don't think Stoffa would mind council breaking up into different groups to look at different areas whewre savings can be achieved. We're all in this mess together. You are interested in the county, aren't you? Or are you just trashing a good idea because it comes from Angle, the Evil One?

LVDem said...

Bernie,

Seek inefficiencies. Absolutely, but if Angle proposes cutting programs, I think we should be prepared to call him out. I am willing to bet that he does offer program cuts in any proposal that he lays out in this (or the next) budget cycle. I'll get specific: my guess is that he goes after DCED funding.

I'd offer pop tarts, but I ran out this morning. Instead, I have some left over rice from dinner that I'm sure will be quite tasty in several months.

Anonymous said...

From Anon 6:41

I'll try and answer without sounding like I'm trashing someone. To your points:

1. I agree with you.

2. I didn't say he claimed, I said he insinuated. I didn't want others (such as A.J. who said he didn't know much about county fiscal affairs) to be misled. I don't think it's evidence of a bad economy. I think the economy in the Lehigh Valley is OK (not strong or not bad). Just OK. I think it's evidence of bad lending practices, high end properties being advertised to NY & NJ that can't be maintained by commuters, etc...

3. The morality of Portnoff Law Firm is horrible. Agreed. But my logic (?) is that the County usually gets it's money in the end.

4. This is where we part ways, Bernie. The economy is not in the tank. There is relatively low unemployment, inflation is not too bad, job outlook is not too bad, housing has been increasing in the past couple years (although lately trailing off). If Angle wants to help seniors, then come up with ideas such as a rebate plan like the state and some school districts to help the seniors.

5. C'mon Bernie, you can't blame the whole 67% increase and 100 job layoffs all on the one year we had to help subsidize the pension fund. The increase and layoffs were because of other factors such as the new Taj Mahal. Admit it. The pension didn't help, I admit that. But don't blame the government workers pension fund for Reibman's and Judge's pipe dreams. (See what you made me do! I just trashed someone! Damn you Bernie!)

6. I agree, Angle probably knows more about county finances than the rest of County Council. But he did say that we may have to chop programs, even if it hurts. Remember? I agree that there's nothing wrong with looking at that so long as services are not reduced. Most programs are state mandated, however.

7. I agree about the Taj Mahal. But let's not trash the maintenance buffer worker because of policies of the "untouchables".

Bernie O'Hare said...

LVDem,

That's one bet I won't take. I'm sure Angle would like to eliminate DCED completely. Although John Kingsley from that office and I have different philosophies concerning economic development,I think he and his office are an asset and doubt Angle could get away with it. Besides, there's a recent emphasis on community development in that department with a new staffer who has worked hard with affordable housing as well as funding for homeless centers. We need that office.

I don't like the idea of getting a hatchet out and swinging away. But I think we are overdue for some attempt to cut costs.

Let me give you an example. I know a department head who recently hired a new staffer in a slow office. Her justification to me was that if he-she did not make this hire now, it might not be possible at budget time. I was also told it might get busy agains in that office.

I'm sorry, but that is an example of wasteful spending. These are the things that should be looked at very closely, and long before a gigantic budget is sitting on the table with only a few weeks to look things over.

The whole point of what Angle proposes is that it enables people to take a close look at things withour arbitrarily chopping away.

Anonymous said...

There's a place at God's table for everyone.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 8:37,

We do disagree over the state of our economy. I think it's much worse than projected. The housing market is in the tank, and that is reflected in my own personal income, so perhaps I'm just going by my own experience. (Blogging has not made up the difference).

Usually, when the housing market suffers, the rest of the economy starts to suffer about a year later. Like me, Angle thinks the economy is not all that great. He's been saying that for months, including on his radio show.

I'll readily acknowledge I'm no economist and my own experience is quite subjective. But when it comes to finance, Angle really does know what he's talking about. In fact, the day before the meeting, he walked up to me and said the same thing. He is really concerned that we are in for a nasty surprise down the road. This is not just election year rhetoric because he has been saying this a long time.

I looked over my notes from last week's meeting, and saw nothing there is which Angle said we would have to cut programs. He did say something about it being better that we suffer than letting the public suffer. And he may have mentioned chopping programs, but I don't honestly remember it.

Maybe I should order the tape!!!

Regardless what Angle said, and even if the economy is "OK," his idea is a good one, especially if you want to prevent the wholesale slaughter of good programs. If council took this seriously, and began looking at individual departments, they probably could find ways to economize while increasing the quality of services offered to the public. For example, a member if the custodial staff who doesn't have to devote his entire day to buffing halls might be able to make sure bathrooms are cleaner, etc. And I didn't mean to trash that poor guy. I meant to trash the "untouchables."

I actually think we probably agree. The reason I'd jump on Angle's idea is to prevent the very thing that concerns you, me and LVDem - "chopping" essential services. We went through that under Team Reibman. I don't want it repeated.

The 67% tax increase and massive layoffs were only partly the result of having to invade the general fund to pay pension accounts. Another big reason was the debt service on that $111 million megabond, but that's a topic for another day.

Keep on giving me hell!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 9:06,

There's a place at God's table for everyone.

I just called. I was told I didn't have a reservation.

Anonymous said...

From Anon 8:37,

I think we both met on middle ground. I wish Council could do the same. I guess my whole point is -

1. Don't punish the private for the generals mistakes.

2. For the most part, I think the taxpayer gets the most bang for the buck with County taxes as compared to Federal, State, Municipal or School.

3. If Angle needs a Committee to show him waste in government, he only needs to ask one long standing fiscal manager and/or one long standing auditing manager. The County is lucky to have both of them. I think you know who I mean. If anybody can smell poop, they can. They however, don't dictate policy. The untouchable generals do. And that's the dilemma. And since poop rolls downhill, number 1 is usually negated by layoffs.

Thanks for letting me vent. But damn it, Bernie, you made me trash someone again!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 9:54, let's blame it on that bastard Angle.

A.J. Cordi said...

"I just called. I was told I didn't have a reservation."

I'll sneak you in through the back door... just dress nicely and don't speak!

Anonymous said...

'ask a long time fiscal manager or auditing manager'. Back to the future we go. If you think Reibman came up with the layoff idea and the pay freeze idea, you're nuts. That idea was being pumped by some 'long time' fiscal experts. Dispite the pleas of a few of his Directors the 'fiscal' crowd won. Hell if they had their way even more jobs would have been cut. If you think thats bull, ask Reibman yourself he has no reason not to tell you the 'brains' behind the layoff/freeze debacle.
By the way I'll believe this belt-tightening when I see it. Once early on, Council, including Angle fumed a bit about the sterling silver doorknobs in the proposed new courthouse. The President Judge came to a meeting with every sitting judge. After the backpeddaling and ass kissing, again including Angle, nothing changed. I have never seen a council or Administration, including Angle and Stoffa stand up to the Gods in Black.
Councils' browbeat Directors to save money and if they did hung them out to dry. I know of one director who found a way to shave $100K from a line item, with no job losses, no losss of service. Managers in his/her Department got us to call and go to Council to torpedo it. I know I was there booing with the rest of the mob. Council, including Angle, smacked the Director and caved to the mob. Later I found out what our managers had told us was bull, the Director was telling the truth.
No one will touch the Courts and we both Know that thats where most of the County tax $$$ are.
One Appointed official once told me ,the line staff have more to fear from their fellow Career service managers then the appointed or elected folks. We learned that the hard way.

An, I saw the light working stiff!

Anonymous said...

To 1:12 AM

I don't think Reibmann could find his way out of a wet paper bag. However, he was the one to order the layoffs and raise taxes. That came with the executive territory. He alone is responsible. The one's that orchestrated the plans however were Hickey and Mateff. Don't kid yourself or let anyone else kid you. Reibmann would say anything to get reelected.

I agree that the untouchables in black have had their way, but at least Stoffa is making dents in their armor or else Moran wouldn't have shit his britches a few times in public.

By the way, since you know so much, most tax money goes to human services. And if that's where anyone wants to cut programs, they're a low life.

Anonymous said...

annon 7:15

I'm not defending Reibmans management style or abilities. But you are spewing the MSM line. Mateff was not the 'Fiscal Expert' that pushed the layoffs and painful as a it may be that idea came from a long time employee. You may hate Reibman and with good reason but don't let your anger blind you to digging for the facts. Another thing, I said most COUNTY $$$ goes to the courts. That is a TRUE statement. Human Services has the largest budget but most of that money is from the State and Federal Governemnt. You want to make dramatic cuts go after the courts and the prison. My point is I have never seen the political will or courage to do that.

As for Mr. Hickey's role he has always been more then capable of defending himself. My point is the kneejerk reaction to the REIBMAN ADMINISTRATION may have sold papers, made Angle a folk hero and got Stoffa elected but County history like all history is seldom black and white but nuancesed(sic). At the end of the day of course it is Reibman who makes the decision, but if he was as incompetent as you say others came up with the plan and it sure as hell wasn't Jean Mateff.
Regarding the Courts I agree with you. But rethoric won't get it done. Hell Stoffa needed a media dog and pony show as political cover to do what he always had the power to do with the computer contract, do you think he can take on the Courts? Stoff's always been good at speeches about what should be done just comes up short on what is done (thats the part the msm doesn't print).

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 2:52,

I agree w/ much of what you say. A lot of the wasteful spending is with the courts. That's why I oppose Baratta's retention. it's time we start sending those dudes in black dresses a message.

I saw Stoffa stand up to the courts over the 30 per cent payraise to its clerks. In fact, a majority of council agreed to table it, and I give them credit for that. I've heard about Hickey standing up top the courts, too.

But I'd agree that Stoffa and council need to do more. I think Stoffa picks his battles very carefully. He's in his second year and those dudes have been entrenched for decades.

Fight, but fight to win.

Anonymous said...

BO,
I'm crusin the blogs and have read these, I concur with you and anonn 2:52. I was told a few years ago about the night the President Judge and evey sitting judge showed up at a Council meeting. One of Reibmans Directors was there and said in all his/her years never saw anything like it. I understand they reserved the entire front row of seats. After The Prez Judge gave Council a tongue lashing they allegedly all followed him out of the room. That had to be a sight to behold.
By the way I hear the door handles are covered in Corinthian Leather and the water fountains are golden fish.

Y.L.T.O.S

Sir Dude

Anonymous said...

Queen says, "Let them eat Cake!"

Seems like the health of our county should be the focus for the whole council, not select members.