Friday, January 22, 2010

Bethlehem Loses Most Favored City Status in Northampton County

Has Bethlehem been getting too much money from Northampton County? Is it favored over other Northampton County communities? That's what five members of Northampton County Council think.

In Northampton County's 2001 megabond alone, Bethlehem raked in about $20 million. Thirteen million dollars of that money was intended for a road. But even Bethlehem was unable to blow all that dough on a 4,000 foot road, and spent only $11 million. Mayor John Callahan wanted the rest for shrubbery and signs. Eventually, Callahan and County Exec John Stoffa agreed to let Bethlehem keep $686,000, but the money was never spent.

Last night, Northampton County Council voted 5-4 to take that money back, and spend it on Gracedale, which is bleeding money. But before that happened, there was a raucous debate between the Ann McHale, who represents the Christmas City and is viewed by many as its Queen, and Forks Township curmudgeon Ken Nagy.

McHale: "We spend money on farmland preservation ..."

Nagy: "We have two farms that haven't qualified in over five years."

McHale: "The City of Bethlehem, the residents there, we pay our tax bill just like you do."

Nagy: "Ma'am, we got $200,000 in open space money. That is all the money Forks Township has gotten from the County. We have farm properties that have been sitting for farmland preservation for multiple years who can't get qualified. Yet, we gave $1 million to the City of Bethlehem to create its "rails to trails" proposition, which is more commercial than anything else. It's in the Bethlehem plan. It talks about the commercial expansion that will come from that.

"When is enough, enough?"

McHale: "It's never enough."

Nagy: "Well, I know that. You know, there are townships and other municipalities that come up to the trough to feed, but Bethlehem never leaves. They raise their head up, belch, and go back for more."

McHale: "That's why Bethlehem is the star of the Lehigh Valley."

Nagy: "In the eyes of the people from Bethlehem."

McHale: "No, it's a fact. We were - I think we're in the top 100 best and safest places to live in the country."

Ron Angle: "Actually, number one in the world in number of rhododendron per capita."

Nagy: "I think County Council could take the TIFF money. It's constantly, 'feed me, feed me, feed me.' I think Council could take all these monies back and not feel any guilt because there are other areas. We have a bridge we're talking about, we have other things. We have a parking facility that needs fixing. There are a number of things out there this County could use that money for, instead of puring it into Bethlehem. You know, you got $2 million for the Steel Stax."

McHale: "That was from the hotel tax. That's not our money ..."

Nagy: "Where else could that money have been used?"

McHale: "It can only be used for certain things, providing tourism."

Nagy: "Right. Certain things in Bethlehem only."

McHale: "No. No."

Nagy: "OK. Bethlehem seems to be first in line every time ..."

McHale: "Bethlehem has a heavily populated area, and all the properties in Bethlehem, Northampton County, do pay taxes, and I think a large majority of our tax base comes from the City of Bethlehem."

Nagy: "Mrs. McHale, do you want to go on the average tax bill in Bethlehem vs. the average tax bill in Forks?"

McHale: "Well, I'm talking County tax. I'm only talking County tax."

Nagy: "Well, it doesn't really matter if you're talking county tax from the homes in Bethlehem vs. the homes in Forks Township."

McHale: "Maybe you're a lot richer than we are in Bethlehem."

Nagy: "Well, no, we're a lot poorer because Bethlehem keeps getting the money we keep asking for."

This exchange concluded, Council VP John Cusick explained that Bethlehem could find money for its rhododendron from the following sources that were unavailable in 2001: Stim funds; earmarks; Gaming Authority grant; and private developer Majestic, who has the means and wherewithal to beautify the road it wants to market. "All of those are changes in circumstances that warrant using this money for our oldest, poorest, sickest residents at Gracedale. We allocated $550 thousand to repair the elevators, to fix the motor room. I think that money would be far better spent at Gracedale than for shrubs and signs."

Council member Mike Dowd opposed taking the money back because he feels there was a deal. He was one of the persons who sat down with Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan and negotiated a deal "that we were all thrilled about 1 1/2 years ago to get $1.6 million back. ... I have a concern about us changing that opinion. We said this is what we're going to do."

Dowd, McHale, Peg Ferraro and Lamont McClure voted against taking the money back. But all three new Council members, joined by Cusick and Angle, voted to pull the plug on the Christmas City.

According to a well-written Express Times news account, Stoffa may very well veto this clawback because there was an agreement. But even if that happens, Bethlehem should consider itself on notice as having lost its most favored city status in Northampton County.

47 comments:

Anonymous said...

has anyone ever done a per capita comparison of
a) county dollars spent per capita in each region
b) county tax dollars generated per region
and
c) jobs per region? (i include the latter only because if community A is strictly a bedroom community, while community B is employing significantly more county residents, a higher public dollar expenditure per capita in community B may be justified)

Anonymous said...

It really is time to purge Ferraro.

Anonymous said...

"It really is time to purge Ferraro"

You must live outside of Bethlehem. She will continue to win her seat as long as she keeps defending Bethlehem. I am sure last night will be a campaign ad.

Anonymous said...

Very unprofessional.

I can see the spending on Gracedale over the Industrial park but public officials should never just go back on their word.

That money was given to Bethlehem through a deal Northampton County proposed. Outright liars.

Anonymous said...

Can I ask a question that is a bit off point?

I've been reading about proposed double-digit school tax increases (EASD 12%). If the districts accept slots revenue, weren't they then limited in raising taxes beyond a certain point w/o a referendum? I know that districts could opt in or out, and I'm assuming these districts opted out and therefore have limitless ability to raise taxes.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anon 824am. A deal was struck and you don't renege.

Now having said that, I wonder if I feel the same way about the labor contract dispute?

The Banker

Anonymous said...

Where in the hell is Forks Township?

Anonymous said...

School districts can raise taxes without referendum if their needs fit into the exception areas.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 8:33, I'm unable to answer your question w/o doing some research. I'll try to find out, but Anon 9:08 sounds right.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Regardless of legalities, we do set a poor precedent by going back on our word to another municipality.

The amount of money given to Bethlehem in that 2001 bond was excessive, compared to what went elsewhere. It was never really intended to supuir economic development, but was a plan to get Reibman re-elected.

Having said that, Bethlehem does probably deserve that preferential treatment for all the reasons stated by Anon 6:57.

I doubt that a dime will be taken from Bethlehem, but now that the casino is generating revenue, I doubt the county will be inclined to spend anything there.

Anonymous said...

Funny, Queen Ann argued the county property Gracedale might not have been in the 'original' bond details.

I wonder if Shrubs were?

Anonymous said...

it seems very clear that Norco council is still very partisan, perhaps with the change being only in the registration of the partisans. disappointing and probably ensures that the next at-large race will turn the balanace of power again.

Anonymous said...

Birds of a feather stick together. Angle, Cusick and Stoffa should be classified as "CAN'T BE TRUSTED WHEN NEGOTIATING AGREEMENTS". Why should any agreement be safe in Northampton County with the likes of these guys in charge. What will they revoke or renege next? The clock is ticking.

lighthouse said...

Bethlehem is a beautiful city, and did a wonderful job reinventing its economy when Steel went bankrupt.

However, that Reibman bond was more about politics than County economic redevelopment. That said, it is arrogant for Bethlehem to try to hold on to that money as if it is "their" money (that all of us happen to be paying for). They got a grant, and didn't need it all--that is a great testament to some efficiency on their development. Pat on the back. However, it is not a "punishment" to demand the balance back for other real needs, vs. COB's wants. That is a bureaucrat's mentality to try to think up ways to "spend it or lose it" (and to hell with Gracedale or other needs).

Bernie O'Hare said...

Let me state a few things here. if you check by link to the 2007 meeting, you'll see that Angle and Cusick wanted to take all the money back then, every penny they could. They have consistently maintained this position, and never were part of any agreement with Bethlehem. They broke no word.

But Dowd's point is persuasive. Although I doubt any kind of binding agreement was struck, it is important to keep your word, even when it hurts you. Dowd feels he gave his word. I respect and admire that. He was part of the team that hammered out a deal.

The question is what does Stoffa think? If he feels he gave his word, too, I know he will veto this ordinance. That's his nature. I think he, too, was part of the team that sat down w/ Bethlehem. He knows what happened, not me, and will follow the dictates of his consciense.

We could use the money, more than Bethlehem.

LSTresidentPIA said...

A deal is not a deal until it is a done deal, ideally deal should not be broken, but in the real world deals get broken all the time,especially when circumstances change. Also, sometimes you have to give a little to get a little. Bethelhem needs to suck it up this time.

There is also an assumption that eveyone who lives in a township is rich and that is not the case, just as not eveyone who lives in a city is poor. Not all township are rich.

I remember a few years back the county approved giving money to Lehigh Univeristy for something, but at the same time, the university had a million dollar endownment. The county hands out just way to much money to everyone including the townships for open space while letting things like infastrucutre repairs go.

Fixing the problems at Gracedale is important but at the same time, maybe it is time to get for a private company to come in and run it. I don't have any idea how a county nursing home works versues a private owned, but it sure seems to be money pit.

The casino, which was suppose to right all that was wrong in PA has in fact put a lot of stress on the finances, infrastrucuture, emergency services of surrounding communites such and the amount of compensation they recieive for it compared to Bethlehem is minimal. Didn't the Sands get enough favors/perks for agreeing to put a casino in Bethlehem, time for them to give back and anyone else who is or will benefit from it.

Signs are not alwasy a good use of money, look at the money wasted by the state of PA on signs that annonced that stimulus money was being used for aparticular project, while other states canned the signs and used the money for the project.

Anonymous said...

How much has the Commonwealth given in recent years? The South side has never looked better. I can see how some would say time to consider other areas in need.

With $9M of new revenue, isn't it appropriate to consider other communities or projects?

Anon 657 The sad truth is your argument C only applies when it benefits certain entities.

Anonymous said...

Amazing how the one bright spot in Northampton county's economic picture is Bethlehem. The "Reibman Bond" was a major part of the solution. Of course Ohare and his Stoffaholic band of haters will go on that the Bond worked but Reibman didn't do it to work. Of course not he did it to fail???? Politics, ok, as I guess every word and action Angle and Stoffa have played out has not been political. They are two of the best political players in the area. Ohare goes on about Stoffa the non-political guy. No one gets elected County Executive who isn't political. Stoffa is a gifted pol who gets others to do the dirty work and can walk to re-election with no opponenets. Yhat is impressive for a pol with a record of zero accomplishemnts in four years. Now that is political skill.

You folks are so full of hate and venom you can't see beyond it. Ohare tried to stop the Bond and dispite his disbarred way of saying he won the case, he failed to stop the Bond. Angle failed to stop the Bond. They delayed it and cost the taxpayers thousands but the truth prevailed.

So while you group of social rejects whine on about Reibman, normal folks will remember it was his Bond and not Angles words that brought about a rebirth.

Anonymous said...

All of this political "deal" discussion is nonsense. Things change; situations change. My president made us a deal that if he spent $789 billion, we'd cap unemployment before it hit 8%. Bethlehem taxpayers were promised property tax relief and that's clearly not happening in this lifetime. Things change; situations change. Stop with the "we made a deal" nonsense. You made a bad deal with MY money. You have MY permission to fix your stupid mistake and better spend (or not?) MY money.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I don't know the right answer, but I would not condemn someone for wanting to keep his word.

Anonymous said...

Bethlehem voters sat on their hands in the last election. This resulted in a Republican sweep. To the victors come the spoils. Bethlehem deserves nothing..

Anonymous said...

Like I always said in the past, Bethlehem spends on what they want and begs county for money for what they need. It's about time that Bethlehem helps out the rest of the county.

Anonymous said...

Anon842 You are absolutely right. If live in the town that is run as a paygo, there is the mentality that you should not expect any of the State money to come back to help support big ticket project.

It is time for some of that money to be spread around. This topic is bigger than the bond issue.

I support money for trails, however, why the hell are we spending money on new walking trails (where there are no pedestrians) at the same time we ignore hazardous pedestrian corridors.

Why are we spending money all over Southside to replace sound lighting standards when other projects to replace or rehabilitating deteriorating lighting standards cannot get a dime.

I think there is animosity directed at our Townships and Boroughs and it is time to share in the Revitalization and Sustainability efforts.

Anonymous said...

Why would the Republican's on County Council want to piss off Bethlehem residents? Next time they are up for election, Bethlehem will be having a open mayoral seat. We sure as hell won't be sitting on our hands then.

The Republicans who won, were fortunate this time. Next time they won't get that lucky.

Anonymous said...

Impractical and unfeasible. It does not take a legal scholar to interpret the plain meaning of those words. Council's decision to ignore the obvious demonstrates the shallow, partisan motivation of those in the majority on this vote. Ignore the plain meaning of the law when it suits your purposes. A good start for the group. Sounds like a good principle to teach our children.

Anonymous said...

The whole conversation illustrates the need for the smallest possible government commandeering the minimum of the public's wealth.

Mommy and Daddy government always favor one kid over the others, based on who's in charge. Even with an honest effort, someone's gonna feel like everyone else got more for Christmas.

Maintain the infrastructure, run the courts, keep the bad guys in jail, and let localities keep the rest of the money they pay in and they can care for themselves.

Anonymous said...

How much is the county and the surrounding localities PROFITING from Bethlehem's Sands?
We should have spent the damn money.
Idiots - who help onto it?
Why is Ann McHale still at meetings? Curious.

Anonymous said...

The ones who voted to break the agreement and take the money for Gracedale are the same members who want to sell Gracedale.

Nice.

Anonymous said...

"Why is Ann McHale still at meetings? Curious."

Because she is the elected Councilperson for the Bethlehem region of the county.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"The ones who voted to break the agreement and take the money for Gracedale are the same members who want to sell Gracedale."

Not exactly. First, council members did not vote to break any agreement. They voted to take the money back, Second, Cusick and Angle have steadfastly opposed this, so they can't be accused of breaking any agreement they never made. Third, these are the council members concerned about runaway costs at Gracedale and elsewhere throughout the county. The original bond did provide $550k to fix the elevators at Gracedale. That seems like a better use of the public's money than shrubbery.

Anonymous said...

Anon 130. Good point. Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton are the ones who benefited from the Sands. Now you and I are stuck paying for all the infrastructure upgrades in South Bethlehem.

So far the only ones RENEWLV have come out in support of are Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton. The only transportation projects they support are the ones that benefit A, B, and E. Watch and see, the only players in their water and sewer regionalization plan will be ABE.

Anonymous said...

"I don't know the right answer, but I would not condemn someone for wanting to keep his word."

The right answer is - do right by the taxpayer. I understand keeping your word, but Bethlehem can voluntarily give the money back. Exchange the shrubs for quality health care for the indigent elderly at Gracedale. No brainer, BO. Anyone who says differently has no conscience for the disabled.

Anonymous said...

The 2001 bond issue was a massive political smoke screen. The 20 year debt service will cost the county double that. Give the money back to the county. They're the ones paying the bill!

Anonymous said...

It wasn't their money they used when they gave their word. The honorable thing to do is what is fiscally responsible for all the citizens they represent. This weird politician honor code is so typical of how detached their thinking is. Be honorable by being responsible.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Commerce Center Boulevard a 'private' road?

Bernie O'Hare said...

It's a public road.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I should clarify it's a public road whose very presence is for the direct benefit of majestic and its tenants.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I rec'd an email from a Bethlehem resident today, who tells me it isn't right that the county's money sit unused. he suggests that Bethlehem be asked to give it back if it is not used by a date certain. That sounds reasonable.

I understand the sentiment for taking this money back. I litigated the bond issue, and contrary to what someone suggests here, did manage to get the 2000 version killed. Obviously, they just tried again.

On the other hand, I respect those who feel their integrity demands letting Bethlehem keep that money. They must follow their conscience.

Right now, the county is worried that the city will soon break its own word to the county, and expand a TIFF beyond areas originally agreed. The state constantly promises one thing to counties, and delivers something else. I think it is important that all publicly elected officials strive to keep their word to each other.

I understand and respect both views, and am glad I did not have to cast this vote.

To those who argue this will cost council members their seats or that there will be political repercussions, these council members are elected to represent ALL the citizens of the county, not just Bethlehem or the slate belt or Easton or Nazareth.

When Bethlehem reaps $20MM of the $29MM set aside for "economic develpment" in the 2001 bond, it's hard to avoid the conclusion it got preferential treatment. Easton, another financially troubled city that actually hosts the county and its jail, got next to nothing.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised big Ron didn't want to sink his claws into that money for the Slate Belt.

Anonymous said...

Wher is the tax break from gaming that was promised.

Anonymous said...

"Wher is the tax break from gaming that was promised."

It was spent on shrubs. Sorry try again next time.

Anonymous said...

" It was never really intended to supuir economic development, but was a plan to get Reibman re-elected."

i would dispute that for the following reasons:

"Having said that, Bethlehem does probably deserve that preferential treatment for all the reasons stated by Anon 6:57."

Bernie O'Hare said...

You got me!

Our urban cores (Bethlehem, Easton and older boroughs) deserve preferential treatment bc they have been hit hardest by the changes to our economy, even before the recession, that damaged their tax base.

The 2001 bond provides that to Bethlehem, but not to Easton or the older boroughs. That's why I think of it as a re-election gimmick, first and foremost.

Anonymous said...

The 2001 Bond was a great economic stimulus tool. It will be remembered that way by those without the bitter hated of Ohare and Angle.

There were other provisions that were stripped by shortsighted partisans like Angle.

Sadly we now have an incompetent Administration and pliable Council led by a madman. There will be no exciting or innovative action from this bunch. They will slowly undo all the good that has been done.

Stoffa did nothing over four years. He did figure out how to squander the largest cash surplus ever inherited by a County Executive. He will propose a 15% tax increase for next year.

Oh yeah!

Bernie O'Hare said...

You had your chance to get rid of Angle and you failed. You had your chance to get rid of Stoffa and fell on your face. Suffice it to say people have rejected you and your message of hate.

Anonymous said...

WOw. When is the webcam going to be set up? THis was juicy. The "star of the Lehigh Valley?" who are her writers?

Anonymous said...

Better the armpit of the Lehigh Valley, Bangor?