Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Tiny Freemansburg Big Winner in Casino Impact Grants
"I am confident in the gamblers of the Lehigh Valley that they will do their committed duty and spend at the Sands Casino."
Those were the marching orders of Stephanie Hoppes-Kovacs, Hellertown's representative on Northampton County's nine-member Gaming Authority, which on October 25 made their first award of gambling impact grants, totaling $1.3 million, to three municipalities.
Instead of taking our money, the one-armed bandits at Bethlehem's Sands Casino are finally finally giving back to places hit hardest by gambling. The grand prize - $825,000 - went to tiny Freemansburg (population 2,063) for a police processing and holding facility. Other big winners were Hellertown (population 5,738) and Lower Saucon (population 10,000), who received the balance of the $1.3 million awarded for police officers, law enforcement training, cruisers, ambulances, pedestrian crosswalks and traffic light signalization.
Bethlehem Township (population 20,000) is larger than Hellertown, Lower Saucon and Freemansburg combined. But it was still the big loser. Despite three applications for an ambulance, police cruisers and a traffic signal device - items similar to what were awarded Hellertown and Lower Saucon - it kept rolling snake eyes. Bethlehem Township failed to supply the documentation provided by other municipalities.
Thomas Nolan, Bethlehem Township's voice on the Authority, repeatedly complained that many of the grants being awarded to Hellertown and Lower Saucon are "budgetary line items" and "annual operating expenses." Then, when he attempted to justify a ambulance for Bethlehem Township, Authority Chair Jay Finnigan turned Nolan's argument against him. "Shouldn't that be part of the budget process?" asked Finnigan.
Northampton County also lost out on a $480,000 criminal justice sharing system despite an impassioned plea from Bethlehem Assistant Solicitor Joe Kelly, who argued this would "better arm police officers" and "make the Lehigh Valley a better place."
During a 2 1/2 hour hearing, the nine-member Authority actually rejected ten of the seventeen applications. Kovacs, a tireless advocate for Hellertown, tried very hard to convince Authority members to go along with a new dump truck. Failing, she wisecracked that they'd now need "sled dogs to get to the casino."
Now the Authority has a more daunting task. It must review 57 applications for grants that require no casino impact. "I don't think we can hear 57 applications," warned Authority Chair Finnigan. So they decided to form a three-person subcommittee to "prescreen" requests. Authority Solicitor Scott Allinson advised that this subcommittee need not meet publicly, but Bethlehem's spokesperson - Joe Kelly- recommended that all meetings be conducted in the open.
Authority members also plan to review the criterion by which they rate grant applications. Alicia Karner, who has been collecting the data, advised there is a too wide a discrepancy in the ratings.
The Gaming Authority will meet again on November 22, 5:30 PM, at the Northampton County Courthouse.