Tuesday, August 31, 2010

ScrappleFace Doing Well With LC GOP

ScrappleFace, aka Scott Ott, aka the LC Republican choice for County Exec last year, is one busy dude. He's written Laughing at Obama," which you can pick up for just $15.95. He also touts himself as a "dynamic public speaker" available through Premiere Speakers Bureau. He's a columnist for the Washington Examiner. He’s even a voiceover artist.

Now with all these voiceover gigs, book sales and operation of an "almost famous" blog, you might think Scott Ott is too busy to immerse himself in mere County politics. But Lehigh County Republicans, the same group that decided to bail out on the Allentown Fair this year, have appointed him their "Executive Director," whatever the hell that is.

What has he done? Well, he's named Captains. He's also raised a lot of money. But it's for him. According to 2010 campaign finance reports, ScrappleFace has pulled down $13,545 between 1/15/10 and 5/28/10, which is over $700 per week.

Maybe that's why LC Republicans have no booth at the Great Allentown Fair.

Emrick? Dertinger? Where's a Third Party Candidate When We Need One?

Arrogant. Spiteful. Mean-spirited.

Those are excellent qualifications for anyone interested in a rewarding career as a blogger, but they're not the first things we look for in an elected official. But that's exactly what we have in the race between Charles ("don't call me Charlie") Dertinger and Joe ("Got creatine?") Emrick. It's enough to make me pray for some third party candidate.

Here's the battleground: 137th Legislative District: (Boroughs of Bangor, East Bangor, Nazareth, Portland, Roseto, Stockertown, Tatamy; Townships of Forks, Lower Mount Bethel, Palmer, Upper Mount Bethel, Upper Nazareth, Washington).

Democrat: Charles Dertinger
Webpage located here.

When he was a member of Northampton County Council, he once told me he has no obligation to listen to a word I say because I own no real estate.

But suddenly, he cares about the little guy. On his Facebook page, he lets everyone know that Charles (Yes, he refers to himself in the third person) took a "strong stand on the need to preserve Gracedale Nursing Home, truly one of the jewels of our region, which is located in the center of the 137th district." Of course, this has nothing to do with his state house race or any deep-seated concern for teh elderly. His campaign finance reports this year make very clear that what he's really interested in preserving are those union jobs. You see, those unions are his real constituents, not you. Here's what he's raked in from through June 4 this year:

IBEW LU 5 3/8/2010 $250.00
IBEW LU 325 3/10/2010 $100.00
IBEW LU 712 3/29/2010 $100.00
IBEW LU 139 4/9/2010 $100
STEAMFITTER'S LU 1/29/2010 $500.00
LABORERS LOCAL 1174 2/4/2010 $500.00
PLUMBERS LOCAL 2/11/2010 $500.00
IBEW LU 1600 2/15/2010 $2,000.00
IBEW LU 102 2/22/2010 $1,000.00
IBEW LU 102 4/20/2010 $500.00
IBEW LU 3/5/2010 $1,000.00
IBEW LU 1249 3/8/2010 $300.00
IBEW LU 840 3/10/2010 $500.00
CEMENT MASONS LU 592 3/10/2010 $500.00
IBEW LU 456 3/17/2010 $300.00
IBEW COPE 3/20/2010 $2,500.00
PA STATE BUILDING & CONSTR. TRADES 4/28/2010 $1,000.00
PENNSYLVANIA AFL-CIO 5/1/2010 $500.00
IBEW LU 812 5/13/2010 $100.00
STEAMFITTERS LU 5/6/2010 $500.00
SHEET METAL WORKERS 5/10/2010 $500.00
IBEW LU 5/13/2010 $1,500.00
PLUMBER LU 5/24/2010 $650.00
IUPAT 5/29/2010 $2,500.00
WESTERN PA LABORERS 6/4/2010 $300.00
STEAMFITTERS LU 6/4/2010 $500.00

Incidentally, he's not worried at all about the rising costs of government pensions. He thinks we can just raid our rainy day funds, as he claims here.

If you want to hear how petty and divisive he can get during a council meeting, listen to the clip below. (Note: If you have an old dial up modem, click here, look for the 64Kbps M3U (Lo-Fi) at the left sidebar and you can stream the audio).

He's also lazy. In my annual review of Council attendance, Dertinger ties for last place in 2006, 2008 and 2009. He's third from the bottom in 2007.

Republican: Joe Emrick
Webpage locate here.

Instead of discussing any state government issues, Emrick uses his webpage to brag that he "strongly defeats" his primary opponent, who spent no money. He pretty much continues patting himself on the back at his Facebook page, where he has himself photographed standing next to the Lycoming College Athletic Hall of Fame. He's running for the state house, not to be captain of the football team.

His campaign finance for 2010 reveal practically no PAC money. But he is favored by local aristocrats Elmer "crabbypants" Gates ($500) and L. Anderson Daub ($3,500).

In January, he stormed out of a Republican Committee meeting when things went against him, even lashing out at Peg Ferraro.

He also thinks that submitting to an interview with a blogger is beneath him. But then again, so does Dertinger. Come to think of it, they're probably right.

In his favor, Emrick has cut taxes in Upper Nazareth Tp twice, and did get a webpage going in Upper Nazareth Township.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Hanover Tp Investment Banker to Fill Dexter Vacancy on Bethlehem School Board

Benjamin M. Tenaglia III, 61, a Hanover Township investment banker, will fill the vacancy created by Judith Dexter's resignation from the Bethlehem school board. He was named by the Board at a special meeting tonight.

Doughty Out, Krauter In, at LVIA

Following a three-hour executive session, the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority unanimously accepted the resignation from employment, by retirement, of Executive Director George Doughty, effective May 31, 2011. They accepted his resignation as Executive Director immediately, but will continue to furnish services as directed. Lawrence Krauter, who currently serves as the Chair of Bethlehem's Planning Commission, was unanimously appointed Interim Executive Director.

Krauter also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Aviation Council.

Updated 5:45 PM: For the back story and more detail, check out Matt Assad (Morning Call) and Lynn Olanoff (Express Times). The Board is unhappy because of an unpaid $24 million judgment as well the declining business. During the three hours I spent in a hallway with reporters, we all could see the security staff sitting around, doing nothing.

Is Airport Authority Grounding Director Doughty?

That's the inside word. At a noon meeting today, Airport Authority Director George Doughty will get his wings clipped, and is expected to resign.

Easton Only LV City to Finish 2009 With a Surplus

Mayor Sal Panto calls it a "whopping" $32,953.

So it's not a lot of money, but an independent audit shows that Easton, unlike sister cities Allentown and Bethlehem, finished 2009 in the black. It's the third year in a row that Easton has finished with a surplus.

So what does Shadtown have that you won't find in Peanutville or the Christmas City?

Sal Panto.

On Friday, while Callahan was campaigning for Congress and Pawlowski was shaking down campaign contributors, Panto was one of very few elected officials listening to a discussion of municipal finance. He works for you while they seem to promote themselves. They insist nobody could have predicted stagnant real estate revenue, but he did.

Elias Farmers Market Reaches Out

"Open up! I know you're in there!"

That's how Bethlehem resident Dave Capuano woke up early one morning a few years ago. Fortunately, the yelling was not intended for him, his wife, or children. The shouting was instead directed at a young man, who lived in a garage across the alley, and was vainly trying to hide from his girlfriend.

Capuano was describing life as a next door neighbor to Bethlehem's Elias Farm Market, located at 3131 Linden Street. In addition to the market, numerous young tenants were renting out garage bays, where they'd work on their cars late at night.

Gus Elias, stuck with these tenants by a prior owner, gradually ended those leases. "Do you realize the money I could make there?" he asked. "I don't want the money. I want to improve the property. But we never had a chance to tell our story."

Judge Edward Smith and Planning Chair Lawrence Krauter have both suggested that Elias do that, especially with those who oppose the planned expansion of his popular produce store. Tell his story is exactly what Elias did during a August 29 open house, conducted at the store. He was joined by Joe Elias, George Azar and numerous wives, sons and nephews of this large, talkative and cheerful Lebanese family. Unfortunately, the people who need to hear that story most- the ones who've filed legal roadblocks to his proposed expansion - were unable to attend.

Elias' Bethlehem store - there's another in Allentown - employs around twenty people. At this time of the year, 70% of their fruit and produce is obtained locally. But as they explained yesterday, they have three problems. First, a fire has ravaged their largest outbuilding, which needs to be demolished and rebuilt. Second, their single loading dock, located at the bottom of a steep ramp, is prone to flooding and ice, making it extremely unsafe. Finally, their warehouse, if it can be called that, is simply too small.

In a tour of the store yesterday, the Elias family and engineer Steve Pany went over their plans to improve their store. It started with their "warehouse," which is smaller than the break room at most grocery stores. "Our warehouse in Allentown makes this one look like a shed," said Elias.

Partner George Azar showed seven crates of watermelon that are sitting outside because there simply is no room inside the store. Eventually, some of that produce will have to be discarded. His wife Najwa said they have no choice. "We have fresh produce and good prices," she said. "The only way we can do that is by buying a lot."

This explains their need for a larger warehouse, and Elias points to the burned out building as the perfect place to build it. They also want an enclosed, three-bay, loading dock leading to that warehouse. This has raised concerns that what they really plan is a distribution center.

The entire family, at various points during the tour, denied that possibility. "We don't sell wholesale," noted Elias. "If I wanted to build a distribution center, I'd build one; but it wouldn't be here."

With a three-bay loading dock, George Azar explained their two trucks would always be parked next to the dock, with room for a third truck to make deliveries. This would reduce the need to move trucks in and out as deliveries come. The larger warehouse would also reduce the demand for as many deliveries, and would make it easier and safer for store employees to store and move inventory.

What about the current loading dock? What's wrong with that? "Today's a beautiful Sunday and you probably aren't thinking about this, but Hurricane Earl is coming later this week, and I'm really thinking about that, " said partner George Azar. "In a normal rainfall, this dock turn into a swimming pool in about five minutes. I have to pump this out to keep water out of the store." His wife, Najwa, added things are much worse in the winter, when the dock turns into an ice rink.

Elias explained his plans to enclose his lading dock and move and fence his trash bins. "We want out neighbors not to see or hear us. Not for us. For their benefit."

This farmers market, in 1929, was an 18 acre orchard that sold locally-grown apples, cherries, peaches, plums, and pears. In 2006, the Elias family took title, minus the orchard. Gus Elias spent $500,000 in renovations to the site. Many of the homes that now surround the market were originally a part of that orchard.

Because none of the opponents of the proposed expansion attended this open house, the Elias family will schedule another. Opponent Al Bernotas has suggested they meet at a "neutral" location, but the Elias family make the case - and it's a good one - that it is easier to understand a problem a its source.

"Come and hear us," Najwa Azar said. "We'll have as many meetings as we need. We'd like to hear what they need, and what we can do."

Freeman v. Shegda, or Wonk v. Wingnut

On Friday, I spent my lunch hour listening to wonks discuss the perilous state of our municipal finance during a well-attended RenewLV brown bag session in downtown Easton. I actually had been looking forward to it, a sure indication of just how boring I've become. I'll have a separate post on that little adventure soon, but my focus right now is on one of the wonks who attended and participated heavily in that mini-seminar. He even brought a brown bag! He's Bob Freeman, a state representative seeking re-election to the state house. His opponent, for the third time in a row, is Northampton County Oddball Ron Shegda. Some might portray this as a battle between elitist liberalism and populist conservatism, but the reality is that this is a confrontation between a man of integrity who does his homework, and another who has an increasingly unhealthy obsession with getting elected to something.

It's wonk v. wingnut. The battleground is the 136th Legislative District: (City of Easton; Boroughs of Freemansburg, Glendon, Hellertown, West Easton and Wilson; Townships of Bethlehem wards 3, 4 (district 1), Lower Saucon (Hellertown, Leithsville, Lower Saucon, Shimersville and Wassergass districts), Williams).

Republican: Ron Shegda
Webpage located here.
His YouTube channel indicates he really likes Lou Rawls' "You'll never find another love like mine."

Campaign Finance: Two online reports indicate that philanthropists Roland & Doris Sigal are Shegda's biggest contributors, having kicked in $7,800 so far this year. In return, Shegda carts Sigal to ball games. LV Conservative Voice PAC, which snubbed LV Congressman Charlie Dent at a pre-primary candidates' forum, actually gave him $300. The only other candidate who got anything from them is payjacker Sam Rohrer.

Shegda is blatantly using the supposedly "nonpolitical" LV Tea Party to fund his local radio program ("They're paying for this microphone because people in the tea party movement care about this nation."), In a recent broadcast from "Tea Party Platz," the local tea party pays for video that features two "Ron Shegda for State Representative" signs. As Shegda drones on, some kid in the video does a dumb bell workout while occasionally giving thumbs up signals at Shegda's campaign signs.

In addition to the LV Tea Party, nonprofit Notre Dame High School briefly linked to his radio show until this blog called attention to the politics.

Shegda annoyed the hell out of Bobby Gunther Walsh on WAEB Radio when this perpetual candidate said he's running to "serve people with the abilities God gave me."

He is against polygamy.

Democrat: Bob Freeman (incumbent)
Webpage located here.

Campaign Finance: Two online reports reveal his campaign treasury has $33,000, but he's only raised $750 over the first two election cycles.

Bob chairs the state house local government committee, where he shepherded the Elm Street Bill through the state legislature. That program helps revitalize older residential neighborhoods. He is currently working on legislation that will provide grant money for municipalities who struggle with revenue lost to tax exempt properties.

LV Conservative Voice PAC Hiding Contributors

According to its Ronald Reagan-decorated webpage, LV Conservative Voice is a "Political Action Committee made up of valley residents, from all walks of life, who believe that liberty, opportunity, and prosperity stem from economic freedom." For $100, you can be a "minuteman." $500 makes you a federalist. And $1,000 makes you one of the "Founding Fathers," right up there with George Washington and Benedict Arnold.

State campaign finance records reveal that this PAC has made three contributions this year: $300 to state house candidate Ron Shegda; $1,961.33 to failed Gubernatorial candidate Sam Rohrer; and $500 to Lehigh County Republicans. But there is no campaign finance report online filed by the PAC itself, enabling the public to follow the money.

Who gave this PAC the money for Rohrer, Shegda and County Republicans? We simply don't know. According to state campaign finance law, once a PAC spends more than $250 for one candidate or $1,000 total, it must file reports just like the candidate. In this case, this means that LV Conservative Voice should have filed reports in Harrisburg on May 7 and June 17. But no report appears online, depriving the public of its right to know.

Last year, I won a fruit basket in one of their raffles. I wonder if that makes me an accessory.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rumor Mill: Cunningham to Propose 15% Plus Tax Hike

Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham dazzled everyone so effectively with his oratory last week that nobody bothered to ask him whether there will be a tax hike next year. When he delivers his budget to Commissioners next week, the rumor is that he will propose at least a 15% tax increase. The actual figure I've heard is 18%. We'll find out how accurate this rumor is next week, when the budget is unveiled.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Scott Armstrong: Eliminate Middle Schools?

He's the conservative you all love to hate. I'm speaking, of course, about Allentown's Scott Armstrong, who is always interesting. Today, he's giving Allentown schools a detention.

Is the newly proposed idea by the just hired superintendent of the Allentown School District a brilliant idea or a sign of real concern? As an Allentown parent, I see it as a problem, a big problem. I would ask any doubters to stand outside Raub Middle School in the morning and ask themselves if, as parents, they would want to drop their elementary aged child off with these kids. I would ask them to go back at dismissal time to ask themselves if they would want their second grader intermixed with these urbanely sophisticated teenagers. I think the answer will be immediately obvious. The mere fact that K through 8th grade schools are under consideration is reason for real concern.

The new superintendent uses parochial schools as a model for his suggestion of the idea. This indicates to me that the poor soul is clueless as to the drastic differences in the make up of the student bodies of these two entirely different scholastic entities.

When one thinks they have seen it all in Allentown this sort of absurdity is presented as feasible in the news. Remember the police contract? One can only scratch his head and keep an eye on the exit. Clearly, the new superintendent is off to a very bad start with this idea.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Allentown #9 on America's Ten Dead Cities List

That's according to 24/7 Wall Street. A desolate urban landscape. I wonder if King Edwin will list this with his other campaign propoganda.

Thanks to ACLU, Stevenson Going Into Extra Innings With Reichley

Carl Stevenson, an independent candidate for the state house seat held by State Rep. Doug Reichley in the 134th District, was last week removed from the ballot by Commonwealth Court Judge James Kelley.

Using surrogates, Doug Reichley wanted Stevenson off that ballot. This conservative independent might siphon votes that would otherwise go Doug's way, giving Democratic challenger Patrick Slattery an upset victory.

Stevenson had more than enough signatures. But the person who did most of the circulating, Jake Towne, lives outside the state house district. Now, according to our state election laws, that's a no no. But former Northampton County jurist Franklin Van Antwerpen, who now sits on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled in 2002 that this requirement unduly infringes on free speech and free association rights. Petition circulation is "core political speech" because it involved "interactive communication concerning political change." In fact, he pointed to a Supreme Court decision ruling that circulators need not even be registered voters.

What's even more amazing is that the state elections bureau told other independents, like Manchurian Candidate Jake Towne, that they could use circulators from outside their district. Stevenson supplied me copies of the emails, but get this. He asked me not to use them becaue he has no desire to embarrass state officials who were only trying to help.

I told him they should be mentioned on every page of his brief.

Jake Towne relied on this advice, too. This means that many of his signatures are arguably invalid. But LV Congressman Charlie Dent, who takes no one lightly, filed no challenge. He's willing to let voters make the call. Doug Reichley should have followed Dent's lead, but instead used baseball metaphors, complaining about three teams.

Last time I checked, there's more than two teams in MLB.

It looks like this one's going into extra innings. The ACLU just notified Stevenson they'll appeal on his behalf.

The Bulldog Barks About Gracedale

Ron Angle's Op-Ed, published both by The Express Times and Morning Call, makes a convincing case for getting RFPs for the sale or lease of Gracedale. Frankly, the more I think about this, the more convinced I am that selling Gracedale would be the best guarantee residents would have of continued, high-quality, care. As the County rubs nickels together, it is only a matter of time before our elderly are deleteriously impacted.

Elias Market: Can't We All Just Get Along?

When we think of Elias Farmers Market, which has stores in Bethlehem and Allentown, the thought that comes to most people's minds is fresh produce at reasonable prices. My grandson is a regular customer at the Allentown store, where he stocks up on oranges and watermelons before baseball, football and basketball games. It's also a locally owned business, unlike the chains we see everywhere else today. It's the kind of business we all like to see succeed.

But Elias' desire to expand its Bethlehem business has upset neighbors, who complain about loud trucks, noxious odors and the "horrific impact" that a 25' high warehouse, just a stone's throw from homes, would present. "They're building a factory in a residential area," complains expansion opponent Al Bernotas. This argument has spilled over into Court, where Judge Edwards Smith's chief concern is that "neighbors and owners have different views of what is going on." Planning Chair Lawrence Krauter last week encouraged the parties to sit down and talk to each other.

To that end, Elias Market has reached out with this message:

To all Elias Market Neighbors,

As you all know, we all have spent the past year debating about the improvements we would like to make for our business. Therefore, we would like to be given the opportunity to meet with all of you and explain, in person, our plans. We feel this meeting is crucial to fully understanding the necessity behind our reasoning for making these improvements.

We would like to meet with all of you at our store location on Sunday, the 29th of August, at 6 PM. Refreshments will be provided. Please email us at nakazar5@msn.com if you plan on attending or have any questions or concerns.

We hope this meeting will eliminate some of the misunderstandings that are occuring and help us all come to an agreement.

Elias Family

Unfortunately, many of the expansion opponents are unavailable this Sunday, as Al Bernotas states in this email:

To the Elias Family:

A number of neighbors around the 3131 Linden Street store received invitations to meet with you at the store, on Sunday, August 29th, at 6:00 PM.

We appreciate the good gesture.

Unfortunately, many of the neighbors cannot make the August 29th meeting. Many have to work, myself included. I work until 9:00 PM on Sunday nights. Two others are in the healthcare field, and they are scheduled to work their shifts at their hospitals in your suggested meeting timeframe. One other interested neighbor is on vacation over this coming weekend. The short notice caught many of us off guard. It would be better to arrange a mutually convenient time and location, and it would be better to meet somewhere other than the store, such as a church meeting room, or possibly a meeting room at the Northampton Community College. We can arrange another location, one that could hold a large number of people. Neighbors, in addition to the ones with notes posted on the door may be interested in attending.

I have spoken, directly, with members of the following families: Fang, Arbushites, Long, and Ward.

In speaking with these families, they have suggested that we meet sometime after Tuesday, September 7th, in order to allow families to complete their vacation plans, and make themselves available. Therefore, we will contact you after September 7th with suggested meeting dates. This should give these families, other neighbors, and you, ample time to plan a mutually convenient meeting.

Please acknowledge receipt of this email.

And please feel free to call me anytime. I would be happy to coordinate the neighbor side of this meeting.


Al Bernotas

I've been told that the Elias family intends to go ahead with their open house as planned, and hope that as many neighbors as possible can attend. I hope they also can host another open house for those who were unable to make it the first time.

Hanover Township's Invisible Weis Market

Unless armed with a GPS system, compass or machete, it's pretty hard to find the Weis Market located at the intersection of Route 512 and Crawford Drive. "It's almost like the building is in a forest," remarked Hanover Township Zoner Vincent Horvath. Surrounded by a forest of 20' evergreens, a 14' high pole-mounted sign buried among all those trees is all but invisible. And that's why Weis Market Director of Architecture David Gill was before the Zoning Hearing Board on August 26.

According to Hanover Townshiip Zoning Yvonne Kutz, those trees are sacred. Zoning regulations prohibit their removal unless they are diseased or damaged. So Gill asked zoners to allow Weis Markets to replace what he called a "commercial gas station lollipop" with two 7' high monuments, both located near the Route 512 and Crawford Drive entrances. He argued the "visibility of this store is really important to the success of this store." He complained it is already starting to "trend down because nobody can see it." Gill was supported by Pointe North Shopping Center owner Larry Dienar, who told zoners that Rite-Aid Pharmacy left over a year ago, and he's still unable to rent the space. "The main problem is visibility," he said. "We want to have a viable shopping center but we can't do it if nobody can see it."

Gill indicated these monuments would be safer because drivers would be able to identify an entrance instead of suddenly braking. Finally, he argued that monument-style signs are aesthetically more pleasing.

Hanover resident Bill Stein, whose back yard faces the Crawford Drive entrance, liked the idea of a smaller, internally illuminated sign. "It'll be nice," he said.

Zoners unanimously approved the monument markers conditioned on Weis' agreement to identify other tenants in the shopping center.

Weis Markets, which originated in Pennsylvania, employs 120 people at its Hanover Township location.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cunningham Financial Outlook Hints at Gracedale Sale & Bethlehem Deficit

Stuck in Easton, I missed Don Cunningham's annual financial outlook speech today. It really is my loss. He's undeniably the LV's best public speaker. His disarming style has won me over more than once, and I'm by no means alone. Today, for example, everyone was so mesmerized that nobody even thought to ask about Lehigh County's looming tax hike next year.

Don's finale this year actually takes a pot shot at both Northampton County (selling assets, i.e. Gracedale) and Bethlehem (selling forest lands, running at a deficit).

His criticism of Northampton County is no surprise to me. Cunningham told me earlier this week that selling Gracedale is a mistake. He told Angle several years ago that private management is the answer, and repeated his concern at Musikfest. He'd be right, too, if we could just get unions to give back 1/3 of their benefits.

After his speech, I'm told he walked over to Northamton County Exec John Stoffa to apologize for criticizing his neighbor, but Stoffa was so impressed he never really noticed.

What really surprises me is that Cunningham even included the Callahan administration in his cross-hairs. As ex-Mayor of that City, he's certainly entitled. I guess he's not buying the Callahan-Reynolds-Holland spin that everything is beautiful.

Here's the County news release.

Allentown – Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham delivered his annual financial outlook speech today (8/26) to the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce at Symphony Hall in Allentown and outlined how Lehigh County’s government has gotten smaller. Cunningham previewed some of his upcoming 2011 budget, telling the audience that next year’s budget will be at least $20 million less than the current budget. He reviewed a list of budget cuts announced during the last month that will cut $7 million through freezes, eliminations and reductions.

“The combination of all these cuts, a drop in capital project spending and state reductions in pass through spending will result in a budget that is at least $20 million less than this year’s $412 million budget,” Cunningham told the business leaders. “Yes, you heard that right, next year’s budget will be lower than this year’s budget. And, our work force will be smaller than it was twenty years ago.” Cunningham recently announced the need to cut 50 jobs from the county payroll by the end of this year, bringing a total of 150 positions removed during his tenure. The cuts will reduce full time employment to 2,122 people, shave $3 million from payroll and create a government smaller than it was more than 20 years ago.

“The ability to do this is a testament to our managers, our employees and our labor unions,” Cunningham said. “They are truly delivering more with less for our taxpayers. The bottom line is that Lehigh County government is smaller today than it was in the past. Everyone thinks that government only gets bigger. And, maybe that’s true in some cases but here in Lehigh County we’ve shown that government can get smaller. We have fewer employees than we did 20 years ago, a smaller total budget than last year and a tax rate that will remain lower than it was eight years ago.”

For the last four years, growth in general county operating spending has only been two percent. Next year, there will be no growth in general county spending, despite wage and health care cost increases, Cunningham said. “The $7 million in cuts will help to achieve a budget that nets out with no growth in spending.”

The actions are necessary because of the national recession’s affect on Lehigh County’s revenue. “The last time we saw new revenue in county government was the beginning of 2008, about two-and-half years ago,” Cunningham said. We don’t project any new money in 2011 or, for that matter, the foreseeable future. In fact, our income will drop for the third consecutive year.”

Since the recession began, revenues to the county will have declined by nearly $5 million in 2011. Cunningham outlined a series of revenue factors.

1. Hotel tax revenue to the county is down 19 percent since 2007.
2. The first four months of this year, hotel tax revenue to Lehigh County was 29 percent less than the same period in 2007.
3. Investment earnings have slid from almost $7 million to only $1 million.
4. Revenue from deeds is down 27 percent since 2008, almost half a million dollars.
5. Losses in the stock market have more than tripled pension fund contributions, skyrocketing to almost $10 million this year.
6. And, real estate tax revenues have remained close to flat. Any minor gains from slight growth have been offset by an explosion of assessment appeals that have stripped away nearly $1 million in real estate tax earnings in the past year alone.
Before today’s speech, Cunningham began announcing cuts and reductions last month in preparation for the release of the 2011 budget. The county capital budget released earlier this summer was reduced by 50 percent. Along with the recent job cuts, Cunningham has announced the closing of the County’s Organics Recycling Facility, along with the reduction, freezing or elimination of a myriad of county programs, including “More for Children,” “Green Futures,” and “Quality of Life.” The reductions amount to $7 million in budget cuts.

“There is no one size fits all model in government,” Cunningham said. “You have to manage government to fit the times. In the end, what we do cannot exceed what the taxpayers can afford.” Cunningham also told the business leadership it’s critical for the county to remain fiscally sound to come out of the recession stronger. He outlined several indicators of the county’s underlying fiscal soundness.

1. The county retains a $20 million cash reserve. “We are not eating up savings or going without a savings account and rainy day fund to accomplish this,” he said.
2. The pension fund is fully funded. “Despite payments that have tripled, we are the rare government that is fully funded,” he said.
3. The rating agencies have rewarded the county’s approach upgrading its bond rating twice recently to an Aa1 rating.
4. The county’s debt burden is very low, about 14 percent of its budget payments and of short duration. “Most of it goes out only twelve years, unlike many governments that extend debt as much as 40 years, increasing interest rates and payments,” he said.
5. The county has new buildings and infrastructure. “We are in the final stages of the most productive capital project and maintenance program in the county’s history,” Cunningham said.
In the last four years, we built Coca-Cola Park, renovated and expanded our Courthouse, relocated and upgraded our 9-1-1 Emergency Communications Center to a state of the art operation, re-built or repaired more than 20 million bridges, upgraded and improved our IT infrastructure, developed a Central Booking operation to help local police departments an expedite bookings, relocated and improved our Domestic Relations Office, and overhauled our Cedarbrook Nursing Homes for energy savings efficiency, reducing energy consumption by 20 percent, a move that we will repeat this year in all our government buildings. We built the Trexler Environmental Center and the Autism Resource Center, two one of their kind facilities. In addition, we invested tens of millions of dollars toward the preservation of open space, building nature trails and improving municipal parks.

Cunningham said the spending controls of the previous four years have allowed the county to finish this year with $4.5 million untouched in the much talked-about Tax Relief Fund, which was scheduled to have run out in 2008, but remains alive and well this year.

In light of the depth of this recession, all of the reductions are still not enough to sustain the full tax cuts county property owners were given in 2004 and 2006, Cunningham said. “Fiscal responsibility does not just mean cutting taxes, it means maintaining a financially sound operation at the lowest possible tax rate,” he said. “We have seen this year in Northampton County and Bethlehem discussions about selling county assets to plug shortfalls and local governments running actual deficits. In my view, neither should happen. As we finish the budget, I can assure you that the property tax rate will be lower than it was in 2003, prior to the two recent tax cuts.”

Cunningham will release his 2011 budget to the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners next Tuesday (8/31) for their deliberation.

LC GOP To Skip Great Allentown Fair

With all the culinary contests scheduled, I'm sure Morning Call columnist and gourmand Bill White will be there. I'm talking about the Great Allentown Fair. I go there for the pigs myself. One act you'll miss this year is the Lehigh County GOP.

Inside word is they've decided against the $900 cost for a booth this year. Republicans being Republicans, they've apparently done a financial analysis and concluded that the ROI is too small. They'd much rather pay for an unelected "Executive Director," whatever the hell that is. It does sound important. Oh yeah, and appoint "captains."

That leaves everyone at the mercy of the Democrats. Who the hell do you think is doing all those freak shows?

Bet Your Bottom Dollar A Grocer is Coming to Stefko Boulevard

You can bet your bottom dollar that Bottom Dollar grocery store is coming to Stefko Boulevard, the first store of its kind in Pennsylvania. An 18,279 square foot store, with 93 parking places, will be built at the 3.7 acre site of Pharmachem Specialties, located at the northwest intersection of Stefko Boulevard and East North Street. It will be just north of the WaWa already in operation at Broad and Stefko.

Jason Engelhardt, of Langan Engineering, submitted a development plan on August 19. And on August 25, he and Allentown Attorney James Preston asked the Zoning Hearing Board to permit the grocery store to operate in what is technically a light industrial zone.

Preston, departing from his usual terse legal arguments, enthusiastically explained how Bottom Dollar works. Most grocery stores carry numerous brands of the same product, but this full-size grocer carries only three, including its own. This allows for more aisle space, like the 13,000 square feet being planned for the Stefko site. The store will also feature fresh produce, but no butcher.

Pharmachem Specialties, which manufactured a bio-polymer, ceased operations at the proposed site last February. Engelhardt told zoners that, in addition to a 21,000 sq ft industrial plant, there are above ground storage tanks. Bore samples also reveal a lot of ash and cinders at the site, "less than ideal" for supporting a grocery store. Another engineering challenge is a 40' change in elevation from Stefko to the western boundary.

Zoner Glenn Taggart, like Planning Chair Lawrence Krauter, suggested that the grocery store be built closer to Stefko Boulevard. "We certainly will consider that," answered Engelhardt.

Zoners unanimously approved the operation of this grocery store in a light industrial area, especially since the new Zoning Ordinance will rezone this area to commercial. they also approved signage on the building and at two monuments.

"Now, can we weigh in on the three brands of bacon?" joked Zoner William Fitzpatrick.

In other business, Nick's Pizza, located at the 800 block of Main Street, was given permission to sell more Italian cuisine. Owner Nick Bozakis, represented by Bethlehem Attorney James Holzinger, told zoners he'd like to add six tables in a vacant adjoining building, which has operated as a video store, gift shop, notary and cell phone store.

Christopher Brown, a son of legendary Bethlehem public servant Charlie Brown, was given the nod for a small, 15' x13' rear yard addition to his Evergreen Place home. And Sergio DeLaHoz was allowed to relocate his check cashing business to 333 Broadway, which is just two doors away from his current location. Zoners noted he will still be 1,000' away from any other check cashing business and over 5,000' away from the casino.

Bethlehem Zoners Deny Group Home For Mentally Ill Near Moravian College

What a difference a month makes. On July 28, soft-spoken Jennifer Parry began to tremble when she learned that a group home for the mentally ill was planned right across the street from her home. She and her husband, Jonathan, decided to attend a Zoning Hearing Board meeting after receiving notice that Resources for Human Development (RHD) was seeking a variance from the off-street parking requirements at 943-945 Monocacy Street. Thinking this must have something to do with nearby Moravian College, they were shocked to learn that zoners were being asked to waive off-street parking requirements for a group home housing eight mentally ill people, along with another four day visitors.

Program Director Aaik Van Munster did a poor job reassuring her. In evasive testimony, he told Zoner Bill Fitzpatrick that someone convicted of child molestation "would not have a chance." But a half sentence later, he claimed it would be "extremely unlikely."

Parry, who has two toddlers and is pregnant, stated she was "very concerned for my children," but Van Munster insisted these "are free Americans."

Solicitor Mickey Thompson, telling Parry she had an obligation to inform herself, denied a request to continue the matter so other neighbors could come and be heard. That might "prejudice the Applicant," he ruled. But the matter was tabled so Thompson could research the Fair Housing Act.

Expecting the worst, the Parrys returned to the Zoning Hearing Board on August 25. When they left, they could breath a sigh of relief because zoners denied the application unanimously. Bill Fitzpatrick told RHD Attorney Keith Cacciatore that the ZHB decision was on the basis of a self-created hardship with the off-street parking requirements, as well as the use of the building as a lodge. He insisted their denial "was not on the basis of the group home."

The Monocacy Street site is located just one block south of Moravian College and one block west of William Penn Elementary School.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Permitgate: A-town City Council VP Signs Onto Ethics Complaint

Allentown City Council VP Michael Donovan, a Democrat, has joined the City ethics complaint filed against Mayor Edwin Pawlowski by Allentown GOP Chair Bob Romancheck.

Is Hanover Township Going Green or Color Blind?

When Hanover Township Supervisors met on August 24, Township Manager Jay Finnigan somberly distributed copies of a detailed, multi-colored spreadsheet, showing that some properties are seriously in arrears on various township bills. Officials examined this rainbow of figures, making comments about the blue and then the red columns, but Supervisor John Nagle was more than a little confused. "I'm pretty sure this one is blue," he guessed. Colleague Steve Salvesen, sitting next to Nagle, leaned over and said, "No, that one's green."

Nagle is color blind, and confessed that his daughter actually has to clip his socks together to make sure they match. "Now I'll be reading about this in the newspaper," he laughed. "Just make sure you tell everyone I'm wearing matching olive tonight."

He was.

Ironically, the entire board was accused of being color blind that night, at least when that color is green. Although the Board was considering an amendment to the Zoning Ordinance making specific provisions for solar panels, Hanover resident Bharatkumar Joshi feels they could have done more. Another, Dr. Alan Brau, recounted difficulties installing a geothermal system at his home.

Joshi wants to erect a $25,000 solar panel system at his West Macada Road home, and objects to a provision in the solar ordinance requiring conditional use approval for roof-mounted, front-facing solar panels. Since the fronts of the homes in his neighborhood all face south, that's where a solar panel would be most effective. "I don't think it's fair to us," he stated.

Denied a permit by Zoning Administrator Yvonne Kutz, Joshi claims the delay has already cost him $5,000 in grant money that PPL has already given to "another homeowner in another township, waiting in line." He is also losing state money. The state was providing $2.25 per kilowatt for his 5,000 kw project, but that figure has now dropped to $1.79/kw. Getting a conditional use approval would cost Joshi another $800 and two months of precious time. "This almost sounds like you guys don't want this to happen," he complained.

Township Manager Jay Finnigan defended the proposed ordinance, saying, "We've done unique things with this." Requiring conditional use approvals would only enhance the value of properties in the long run, according to the Manager.

Solicitor Jim Broughal gently reminded Joshi that until its August 24 meeting, there was no solar ordinance at all.

"Then how did all those solar panels get up on other properties?" asked Joshi.

Broughal answered that people desiring solar panels at the front of their homes will now need conditional use approval.

Supervisors unanimously adopted the solar panel ordinance.

Instead of using the sun, Dr. Alan Brau would like to use the earth as his energy source. He told Supervisors of a geothermal design for his home heating and cooling. Ground absorbs 47% of the sun's energy as it hits the Earth's surface, and subsurface earth loops provide central heating and cooling. Jake Kocher, of Kocher's Water Pumps, is already drilling bore holes for loops and fluids.

Although Dr. Brau's idea is brilliant, he forgot to get a permit. In the process of trying to do so, he discovered all sorts of utility easements interfering with his design.

"I'm trying to figure out why you're here," said Solicitor Jim Broughal, suggesting Dr. Brau needs to coordinate a little more with the Zoning Administrator.

In other business, Supervisors unanimously adopted an ordinance increasing the fine for brake retarder violations and gave Weis Market permission to install two monument sign at its entrances instead of pole-mounted signs. "That will be an improvement," noted Vice Chair Glenn Walbert.

Callahan Cover-Up: Those "Nonexistent" Records Suddenly Appear!

Superbowl Sunday 2007. Just after 1 AM. Dino Cantelmi, who just happens to be Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan's brother-in-law, is tooling along in his female companion's late model Volvo, driving the wrong way on a one-way street. He had been drinking earlier that night and slams right into a Bethlehem police cruiser, sending the injured officer to the hospital.

No field sobriety test. No trip to the DUI center. And most amazing of all, no story in the local papers! Details were kept under wraps for over three years, in an obvious effort to protect Hizzoner.

When I found out about this accident, police brass threw up a stone wall, so I filed a formal Right-to-Know-Law (RTKL) request on July 21. In response, City lawyers supplied information they already knew I had, like the incident report. But they ignored my request for the pictures I knew they had taken at the accident scene. They also refused to fork over cell phone records that day for Mayor John Callahan and the Police Commissioner. City lawyer Chris Cooper tells me, "The City maintains records of cell phone invoices, however individual cell phone records are not kept in the normal course of business. Therefore, the record you request does not exist and the City is not required to compile a non existing record pursuant to Pennsylvania Right to Know Law section 705."

Of course, that's bullshit. I appealed this refusal to the Office of Open Records. Appeals Officer Lucinda Glinn must have thought the City's refusal was bullshit, too. She gave them until yesterday to "clarify what efforts were undertaken to obtain the cell phone records requested from the telephone company and describe the records available as pertain to the numbers assigned to the named individuals on the stated date. Be sure to substantiate all asserted facts regarding the existence and attempts to obtain responsive records. As to the appeal of the allegedly partial incident report, please advise whether any pictures were taken as part of the incident report, and if so, explain why the pictures were not supplied."

Ruh roh.

Well, it's a miracle! It's right up there with the Immaculate Conception and Tang. On July 26, the City may have insisted those records were nonexistent and they have no obligation to produce nonexistent records, but they were just kidding. Yesterday, on the last possible day to come forward City lawyers coughed up those nonexistent records. Chris Cooper now tells me, "we continued to seek all the records you requested." He swears out an Affidavit and everything! Isn't that nice of him?

Of course, he redacts the hell out of the cell phone records, blotting out every private call. But hey, it's the thought that counts.

Callahan's cell phone record indicate he made or received no calls at all on Superbowl Sunday 2007, although there are plenty of calls before and after that date. Commissioner Miller's phone records reveal that someone left three messages for him that day. I'll be looking at them a little more closely over the next few days, but am naturally suspicious there may be even more "nonexistent" records out there. I sure hope Chris keeps looking, and in the meantime, I'll take these records to someone who understands them and can explain them to me. I'm reluctant to post cell phone numbers on this site for obvious reasons.

The pictures you see reveal this was no minor fender bender. But amazingly, Callahan's brother-in-law walked away with two summary citations, which he quickly and quietly paid.

Hanover Township Wants All Earned Income Taxes Owed By Bethlehem

Bethlehem finished 2009 with a negative cash balance of $8.5 million, thanks in large part to a $5 million deficit. In addition to painting this gloomy financial picture, independent auditor Tracey Rash has raised a number of "significant deficiencies" peculiar to Bethlehem. This includes a nasty habit of dipping into the EIT fund and spending tax money collected for other municipalities. Last year, the Christmas City "borrowed" from that account twice. It's a practice that goes all the way back to 1974.

Hanover Township would prefer to take a pass at being an involuntary Bethlehem creditor. On August 23, Hanover Manager Jay Finnigan asked Bethlehem Business Administrator Dennis Reichard to provide "an accounting of all Earned Income Tax records for funds owed to Hanover Township for 2008, 2009 and 2010 YTD." He also wants a copy of the "just released 2009 City Audit Report."

To be on the safe side, Finnigan even completed and furnished a Right-to-Know request.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Real Reason McClure Opposes Gracedale's Sale

Northampton County Council member Lamont McClure wants Gracedale to remain in County hands. In recent Express Times and Morning Call op-eds, he's claimed the County nursing home is a moneymaker, even it's lost $3.8 million over the last 22 years. Those losses will mount exponentially as census decreases and employee costs rise.

Here's the real reason McClure opposes any County sale of Gracedale:

Laborers Local, 6/29/05, $500 to McClure
IPEW, 10/12/05, $500 to McClure
Pa. union, 10/3/05, $200 to McClure
Iron Workers, 9/1/05, $400 to McClure
Steamfitters, 6/29/05, $350 to McClure
Carpenters, 10/31/05, $1,000 to McClure
Plumbers, 11/1/05, $250 to McClure
PSEA, 12/1/05, $240 to McClure
Laborers Local, 3/30/07, $500 to McClure
IUPAT, 2/6/07, $500 to McClure
UB of C & S, 5/7/07, $1,000 to McClure
Plasterers, 5/2/07, $300 to McClure
Plumbers, 8/29/07, $750 to McClure
Laborers Local, 10/18/07, $1,000 to McClure
IBEW, 10/12/07, $1,000 to McClure
Steamfitters, 8/28/07, $500 to McClure
IUPAT, 10/11/07, $250 to McClure
AFSCME, 6/29/07, $200 to McClure
Laborers Local, 2/23/09, $1,500 to McClure
Carpenters, 2/11/09, $1,000 to McClure

Cunningham Laying Groundwork For Tax Hike in Lehigh County

This can't be good.

Last week, Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham announced the elimination of 50 positions, bringing the County workforce to its lowest point since 1990. During a news conference yesterday, things got worse. Cunningham announced the elimination of several programs.

Is this his way of bracing everyone for a tax hike? That's what Morning Call reporter Jenna Portnoy asked, and although he told her she'll have to wait for her answer until he unveils his budget next week, it's clear that a tax hike is coming. The only real question is how much.

Claiming local governments are like "junkies addicted to property tax revenue," Cunningham stated that revenue has been stagnant the past three years. He's doubtful that will change anytime soon. But he's unwilling to freeze wages, noting that union workers have negotiated contracts and that it is simply impossible "to balance the budget on the backs of County employees."

In January, he asked for help. "If you have new ideas send them our way in the next 30 days…before February 4th. Democrat or Republican. Elected leader, community leader, county employee or high school student. Anyone." Aside from Commissioners, few took him up.

Cunningham's chief priority is public safety. He considers that the basis from which everything else, including economic development, flows. His budget axe is falling on the following four programs:

1. Organics Recycling Facility in Schnecksville, North Whitehall Township, located on 15 acres of county land. The facility is used by municipalities in the county to turn yard waste and natural debris into compost. The facility has operated at a financial loss to the county since a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision eliminated its funding source.

2. “More for Children” program. This has been funded by hotel tax revenue, but that has dropped 19 percent since 2007. The county has historically provided $100,000 to $150,000 a year to county school districts to support student educational visits to cultural arts and educational facilities in the county. “All of these programs have merit and benefit,” Cunningham said. “In normal economic times, these are initiatives that we would fund. When revenue levels drop, however, spending has to be focused on the things that we absolutely need to do in government.”

3. Quality of Life grants. Last year, Lehigh contributed about $200,000 to more than 20 cultural arts and community organizations. Cunningham is proposing a 13 percent reduction in funding, which will result in a cut to the Allentown Art Museum and the Mayfair festival in the city. Other organizations will receive the same funding level as this year with no increase. Pip the Mouse is safe.

4. Doe hunting license operations are being eliminated as a county function and turned back to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. “We are not required to do this and have not been doing it very well in recent years because it is not a core function,” Cunningham said.

“Everyone thinks that government only ever gets bigger,” Cunningham said. “Here in Lehigh County our government has gotten smaller. We are working to balance the impact of the necessary reductions between employees and programs. There will be shared pain in these cuts. ... Where the rubber meets the road is local government."

Cunningham plans to release additional information on the county’s financial situation this Thursday (8/26) at the Lehigh County Annual Financial Outlook Luncheon, sponsored by the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce at Allentown Symphony Hall. He will release his 2011 budget next Tuesday, Aug. 31.

RenewLV Brownbaggers to Discuss Municipal Finance

Although RenewLV hosts periodic brown-bag forums on topics of local concern, I've yet to make it to even one of them. Unless I have babysitting duties, and I never know that until the last minute, I'll be there this Friday for a discussion of municipal finance, especially as it impacts on older communities. You're supposed to bring your own lunch, plus a few cookies for me. Here are the details:

Who: Gerald Cross, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Economy League, Central Division

What: Informal brown-bag forum, free and open to the public, to discuss Pennsylvania’s current system of municipal finance and the major structural challenges that this system poses for older core communities, especially cities and boroughs. Session will include brief presentation followed by plenty of time for questions and discussion.

When: Friday, August 27, 12:00 p.m. (noon) to 1:15 p.m.

Where: Sigal Museum [New home of the Northampton County Historical & Genealogical Society], 342 Northampton St, Easton, PA.

Note: The session will be held in the 2nd Floor Conference Room at the museum. Upon checking in at the admissions desk, you will be directed upstairs. Metered street parking is available throughout Easton. A public parking garage is located on 27 South Third St.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Grucela on Gracedale: Keep the Jewel in the Crown


That's how much pension costs have risen for Gracedale employees between 2008 and 2011. That alone is reason to sell this money pit. Of course, that means nothing to AFSCME, which reached a new low last week. After scaring Gracedale residents half to death into believing they were losing their home, they then carted them off in wheelchairs to complain to County Council. Taxpayers will pay the transportation bill, too.

But there is at least one public official who isn't running for anything, yet believes the County should keep Gracedale. Even in the face of a twenty per cent tax hike. Here's what retiring State Rep. Rich Grucela, himself a former County Council President, told County Council on Thursday night:

Mr. President and members of county council I am here tonight because Wayne Grube and Gene Hartzell can't be and I would have attended your last meeting but I was in another part of the state on legislative business.

If Wayne and Gene could be here I believe they would agree wholeheartedly with what I am about to say regarding your consideration of selling or leasing Gracedale our county nursing home.

Those of you who served with Wayne and all of us who knew him well know how he felt about Gracedale. To Wayne it was the "jewel in the crown " of county government. I have received more thank yous from people Wayne helped on Gracedale issues than any others and my guess is Wayne's wife Patti has a drawer full of those thank yous as well. Wayne himself told me on more than one occasion that if he ever needed that kind of care, Gracedale is where he wanted to go. He almost made it there and I feel the same way.

Gene Hartzell taught me a lot about government in general and county government in particular. I recall one budget year when we needed a tax increase and Gracedale was part of the reason. It was also a re­election year for my council seat. Gene called me into his office and told me never to be afraid to vote for a tax increase for the right reasons. He further told me that budgets are more than numbers of dollars and cents, they're about people and that counties have a moral obligation to provide services for the elderly and the needy that they cannot provide for themselves. I voted for the tax increase and was re-elected.

I and many public officials can tell you a vote for a tax increase for the right reasons can still win re-election. My guess is the same is not true on a vote to sell or lease Gracedale.

On the whole I do not believe in the sale or privatization of government services, but there are a lot of other areas of county government you could sell or privatize rather than Gracedale. Also you don't need to hire any outside consultants to make recommendations, there is enough volunteer expertise in the county, some of it right here in this room. A few months ago I called the county executive and offered to serve on any committee to study Gracedale operations and make recommendations? I never got a callback.

Finally, I believe it is unfair to blame any county financial problems on Gracedale and doubly wrong to place that blame on the Gracedale employees. There's a reason the quality of care is excellent at Gracedale and it's the staff. Do any of you know Bellauh Young? She had a birthday yesterday! she's 110 and possibly the oldest person in Pennsylvania if not the US. She's a resident at Gracedale (been there for 5yrs) and I will be at her birthday party on Saturday and I'll ask her opinion on the issue.

Abraham Lincoln once said "The legitimate objective of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all or cannot so well do for themselves..." and a century later Hubert Humphrey said (and I paraphrase) "The true test of government is how it treats those in the dawn of life, our children, those in the twilight of life, our senior citizens and those in the shadows of life, those with special needs."

In memory of Wayne Grube and Gene Hartzell and the hundreds if not thousands of families in this county I respectfully ask you not sell or lease "The Jewel in the Crown." Thank you.

Jennings: Banks Need More Transparency & More Community Investment

LV Congressman Charlie Dent is hosting a small business financing seminar today and tomorrow. Like most of us, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, Dent recognizes that these small mom-and-pops are responsible for many of our jobs.

Another person who recognizes this is CACLV's Alan Jennings. I've told you before about his small business lending arm, the Rising Tide Community Loan Fund. Whether it's the Birdlady of Easton or Bath's Daily Grind, the Lehigh Valley's only federally-certified microlender has been there with 76 microloans for $1,447,000 (as of April), creating or helping save 142 jobs in the process. According to yesterday's Morning Call, the fund has just been replenished with a $353,514 Treasury Department grant. Private sources also contribute to this loan pool.

In addition to microlending, Jennings was in Los Angeles last week, asking federal regulatory agencies to improve Community Reinvestment Rules to make credit more accessible to our small businesses, especially in low and moderate income communities.

Alan L Jennings, Executive Director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, is a long time advocate for access to credit for low-income families and their neighborhoods. His testimony in Los Angeles will address issues like collection and disclosure of small business lending data by race and census tract, opportunities for the public to be better informed about and comment on bank plans to merge or close branches, stronger rules related to the even distribution of branches (where most small business lending is done) throughout communities, not just in upper-income census tracts, and better consistency in rule interpretation among and within the regulatory agencies.

Jennings told the suits that in the "most dysfunctional credit market in decades," regulators themselves have contributed to the credit crunch by subscribing to the notion that lending in lower-income communities is too risky when the reality is that community development lending "is safe and sound."

He also argues for more transparency in Community Reinvestment Rules:

"Public comment periods are not publicized (in our region the only branch in one of our moderate-income boroughs closed and nobody knew until the bank informed their customers, long after the regulator approved; the low-income elderly folks who don’t drive never knew what hit them.) Large bank mergers occur, affecting hundreds of communities and hundreds of thousands of people, and no public hearings are held. Not only should hearings be held, but large mergers should only occur when the surviving bank offers a community reinvestment plan that includes public input."

Noting that bank branches "remain the most visible icon of banking, for everything from deposits to mortgages to small business lending," Jennings is shocked that many branches can have "satisfactory CRA ratings despite having not a single branch in a low- or even moderate-income census tract; in some cases, they don’t have a branch in an entire city but still get away with it."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lehigh County: Cunningham Making Program Cuts

Last week, Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham announced the elimination of another 50 jobs, bringing his administration’s total to 150 jobs removed from the county payroll. The size of Lehigh County’s workforce has gotten smaller during Cunningham’s tenure. Lehigh County now employs fewer people than it did in 1990.

Apparently, it's not enough. Monday, at 1 PM, Cunningham will announce further program cuts and reductions in advance of the 2011 budget at a news conference. I'll try to be there. If you have specific questions you'd like me to ask, post them here.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Voters Should Decide Elections, Not Judges

Chris Casey has an interesting story about Carl Stevenson, an independent candidate who wanted to challenge State Rep. Doug Reichley. Apparently, Stevenson used the Manchurian candidate, Jake Towne, to circulate his nomination papers. Although Towne is a nonresident, Stevenson claims to have an email from the state elections office telling him he could use Towne anyway. If that's true, and I'd have to see the email to know for sure, it's incredible that a candidate would be thrown off the ballot for following instructions from the state elections office.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Bethlehem Planners Consider ArtsQuest, Grocery Store and Elias Farmers Market

In a marathon, four-hour, session on August 19, Bethlehem planners considered a new grocery store, the expansion of what was once a roadside stand, and increasing the size of the Zoning Hearing Board. But the project having the biggest impact on the City and entire Lehigh Valley is the long-awaited "21st Century Town Square," a venue for as many as sixty free, family-oriented, concerts every year. Located along East First Street with the now silent blast finances as a backdrop, the centerpiece of this development is the Levitt Pavilion and amphitheater lawn, with room for 2,500 music lovers.

Meet the South Side Town Square

Bethlehem consultant Gregg Feinberg told planners this Town Square not only provides for the "redevelopment and reinvigoration" of that site, but will transform "the neighborhood, City and region into an area for public performances." Unlike most plans, which are replete with buildings, this one provides for plenty of open space on the City's south side. In addition to the sprawling lawn for concerts, there are plazas, outdoor stages, tree-covered picnic groves, a playground for children, a 370-car parking lot, and a relocation of E. 1st Street. Festival Plaza will feature a farmers' market and antiques.

Even East First Street is transformed, with dark bituminous paving and a tapered, 28 feet width, to slow down traffic. Feinberg and David Ostrich, who is with WRT Architects, indicated that the street will be blocked during larger concerts.

Planners, who unanimously approved the project, quickly granted six waivers needed for items as diverse as road width to the number of trees required along the borders. Ironically, the number of trees on a former brownfield was the only bone of contention in this city-sponsored project.

Planner James Fiorentino noted that other developers who fail to show a sufficient number of trees are required plant trees elsewhere that are acceptable to the City Bureau of Forestry. "We do this to everybody else," he reminded everyone. But Solicitor Joe Kelly satisfied Fiorentino's concerns when he mentioned that the City, unlike other developers, already plants numerous trees every year.

Although this plan was unanimously approved, Bethlehem School Board has imposed a roadblock on its completion. Bethlehem plans to fund this with a TIF agreement under which a portion of casino real estate taxes will finance public infrastructure on the former brownfield. The school board maintains this plan goes beyond the TIF agreement that they, along with Northampton County and the City, signed over ten years ago.

New Grocery Store Being Planned on Stefko Boulevard

In other business, plans for a 18,279 square foot grocery store, located at the northeast corner of Stefko Boulevard and East North Street, were introduced. Located at the site of Pharmachem Specialties, the Plan will need to go to the Zoning Hearing Board for a use variance. But planners had numerous suggestions, from a widening of East North Street to traffic signalization to moving the site of the grocery store closer to Stefko Boulevard, in keeping with what Planning Chair Lawrence Krauter calls "the urban model."

Eric Gibson of DHD Partners, who made the presentation, told The Bethlehem Press that the identity of the actual grocery store is still confidential. It will be located north of the WaWa located at Broad and Stefko.

Elias Farmers Market Gives Planners 60 Day Extension

The final matter considered by planners was the expansion of Elias Farmers Market, located at 3131 Linden Street. Although a zoning appeal is still in the hands of Judge Edward Smith, nonaction on the Plan would result in a deemed approval unless partners Gus Elias and George Azar were willing to agree to an extension. "We'd like to move forward," said engineer Steve Pany, at the beginning of the hearing.

Underneath all the legal jargon, Judge Smith is weighing a busy produce market's desire to operate more efficiently and safely against Bethlehem homeowners concerned about the impact of a business in their backyard. Dring oral arguments, Judge Smith made one observation. "It seems neighbors and owners have different views of what is going on," remarked Judge Smith. He encouraged both sides to talk to each other.

That hasn't happened.

So at a planning hearing, where zoning issues are irrelevant, those issues inevitably rose to the surface again.

Johnston Drive neighbor Al Bernotas was one of six people who spoke against the plan. "They're building a factory in a residential area," he complained. Sue Fang, whose property abuts the market, stated the flat rooftop would host more lod compressors. She noted that the three-bay loading dock is just a stone's throw from her bedroom. She questioned why the plan fails to show her own home, even though it is right next to the market. Fang pointed out that a warehouse will bring more traffic. She questioned whether this could endanger children, who walk to a nearby schoo, and she and others like Bernotas wondered why there hadbeen no traffic study.

Is the expansion really a new distribution center? Are loud tractor trailers coming in and out of the loading dock at all hours of day and night? Is garbage and other debris blowing into neighbors' yards? Does the smell of rotting produce interfere with neighbors who just want to be able to enjoy their own homes? Planners heard from neighbors and from Gus Elias, who said their claims were "absolutely wrong" and that the expansion would mean less, instead of more, deliveries.

"From day one, I've said this a thousand times, we're willing to sit down with everybody," said Elias partner George Azar. But under questioning from Planning Chair Lawrence Krauter, Azar conceded that development of the site was never coordinated with neighbors, and no meetings had ever been held. Krauter urged Azar and Elias to do that and expressed his appreciation at "the civility with which everyone expressed themselves."

Although engineer Pany had indicated at the onset that he was unwilling to agree to a 60-day extension, he relented after several planners hinted things might not go Elias' way. "There's a lot to be absorbed here and I'd be extremely uncomfortable making a decision," hinted planner Stephen Thode.

Planners Recommend ZHB Expansion

In their final item on a long night, planners agreed to recommend expanding Bethlehem's Zoning hearing Board from three to five members. But lingering questions about the length of terms were left to the lawyers.

"We're done," announced a secretary, and everyone bolted for a bathroom.

Outside City Hall, Gus Elias could be seen talking to his neighbors and nobody was throwing any tomatoes.

Dietrich: "It's Time For Gracedale to Get Rid of the County"

Stuck at a marathon, four-hour, Bethlehem Planning Commission meeting, I missed all but a handful of the thirty-three speakers who addressed Northampton County Council last night. But most of them - like Ron "I'll be brief" Heckman and Charles "Don't call me Charlie" Dertinger, were repeats. One newcomer was the inflatable union rat, which stood leering outside the Courthouse.

Earlier that day, union negotiators refused to negotiate any give backs unless the County guaranteed that any new owner would be stuck with both the union and all the obscene benefits (like a 1700% increase in pension costs) that converted Gracedale into a County money pit. They actually took a step backwards. So when I saw that rat, I actually thought of them immediately.

In addition to the rat, another newcomer last night was County Controller Steve Barron. He only rarely bothers to attend Council or Finance Committee meetings, but there he was last night, dressed in his Sunday best. "I'd rather be with the people behind me than the person in front of me," he boomed. That person was County Council Prez Ron Angle. Barron has no solutions to the County's $10 million hole, but he is politically ambitious, and this was the perfect way to pander a few union votes when he runs for Executive.

Barron might want to ask Ann McHale and Charles Dertinger how that worked out for them.

Steve left last night walked out without bothering to listen to members of Council and the Administration. They had things to say, too. He certainly has the right to speak, but every right has a corollary obligation, and in this instance it's the obligation to listen. Even State Rep. Rich Grucela, who opposed the sale of Gracedale, had enough respect for Northampton County officials to stick around and listen to what they had to say.

Had Steve stuck around, he would have heard from Council member Tom Dietrich, who spent the last two weeks visiting three nursing homes sold by Dauphin (sold 3 years ago), Northumberland (8 months ago) and Lackawanna (4 months ago) Counties. He learned that the longer a nursing home has been in private hands, the better it operates. At a minimum, residents report that the level of care is the same. In many cases, they are very complimentary because there is much more therapy in privately run facilities. Two of three homes have increased employment, and many are the same people who previously had been employed by the County. All facilities had increased the number of Medicaid, i.e. indigent, residents. "They are happy to be caring for people instead of talking to politicians," said Dietrich. "The people who bought these facilities are in the business of running a nursing home. We're in the business of running a government. It's time for Gracedale to get rid of the County." Dietrich told me after the meeting that many R.N.s are collecting their County pensions while being paid as nurses in a now privater facility.

Barron also missed Fiscal Affair Director Vic Mazziotti, who told Council that the swaption buyout, which I discussed yesterday, has now risen to $18 million. Although the County did finish last year with $49 million, that number is deceptive. When the $6 million to run Gracedale is deducted, the figure drops to $43 million. When the increasing swaption is deducted, as it must be under new GASB 54 rules, the unrestricted fund drops to $23 million. And when $20 million is set aside as a stabilization, or rainy-day fund, the County is left with just $3 million. And this fund must be used to pay for salary and benefit increases being negotiated with unions.

Bruce Gilbert then introduced a resolution asking County Executive John Stoffa to seek proposals for the sale or lease of Gracedale. Gilbert told everyone that "the residents are clearly in your heart," but Council has an obligation to look at "each and every option."

"This is the vote to sell Gracedale," announced Lamont McClure. "To say otherwise is disingenuous." He then told the 150+ audinece, made up mostly of union Gracedale workers and politicians sensing an opportunity, that the Stoffa administration is sacrificing "our sick and elderly" in favor of a Bethlehem Township treatment center for "drug dealers we want to rehabilitate." His evidence? One, Stoffa wants to build a three hundred bed treatment facility in bethlehem Township. Two, the current budget has no money. Three, the sale of Gracedale will enable the funding for that "prison" in Bethlehem Township.

Even Peg Ferraro, who wants Gracedale to remain in County hands, was appalled by McClure. "Put the treatment center aside," she cautioned. "That is a problem for another day." Bruce Gilbert compared McClure's remarks to the yellow journalism practiced in the past. "Be careful when someone throws out a treatment center when we're supposed to be talking about what is best for the [Gracedale] residents. ... That's like saying a library is created by an exposion of a paper mill and ink factory. Let's refrain from being childish and let's take care of business."

Fortunately, Gilbert never mentioned the yellow journalism being practiced by bottom-feeding bloggers like me.

Gilbert's resolution passed 6 to 2, with McClure and Ferraro opposed. Vacationing Ann McHale was absent, but would likely have been opposed, too. Peg Ferraro then introduced a resolution for proposals seeking a management firm for Gracedale, but that was rejected.

After last night's lengthy meeting, Deputy Sheriffs escorted most Council members and Stoffa to their cars as the air was being let out of the inflatable rat, which was no longer grinning. But there was no escort at Tic Toc Diner, where many Gracedale advocates continued their discussions with a few Council members and Stoffa. The debate was still raging as I left, but I'm pretty sure they were all trying to stick Angle with their bill.