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.