Late last year, Tom Dietrich, who happens to be a volunteer fireman and an EMT, wanted to spend $50,000 for five chest compression devices at Bethlehem Township's Volunteer Fire Company. Worthy cause or not, it's no sudden emergency. At the time, I questioned whether Dietrich was just trying to ingratiate himself with his EMT pals. His proposal failed 6-3, with only Lamont McClure and Ann McHale joining him.
This failure is the exception. More often than not, Council members use this fund to show off with your money. The most egregious abuse of this fund occurred in 2008, when Ann McHale proposed giving Easton's State Theatre more than the $25,000 requested for a marquee. Eyeing a bid for County Exec, McHale was trying to ingratiate herself with the high rollers and country-club types who fund this rich man's charity.
There's never any sudden push to give the money to the Salvation Army.
Last year, when Angle cobbled together a budget, he trimmed the contingency fund from its usual $250-500k to just $100,000. That should make Council members think twice about raiding this cookie jar, right? Also, the new Republicans on Council were going to end this foolishness, right?
Wrong. In December, it was Dietrich, the candidate who promised the League of Women Voters he'd end "corporate welfare with taxpayers’ dollars, and political paybacks, etc."
Now it's Bruce Gilbert's turn. In December, like Dietrich, Gilbert wanted $50,000 from the contingency fund for The Butterfly House, a new transitional living center in Easton for female jail inmates. "You give them their life back," argued Gilbert, noting this would reduce recidivism and save money.
He's right, too. But is this some sudden emergency?
This proposal might have passed anyway, but was tabled because Council members had concerns about founder Anne Houston's previous public statement that the center would run independent of taxpayer dollars. There were also some zoning concerns.
Last week, Houston was back, and this time, they gave her $25,000 in seed money, with another $25,000 to come down the road. It passed 7 to 1, with Ron Angle being the sole No vote and VP Peg Ferraro off on vacation somewhere. Asked about zoning, Houston assured everyone that she already had a certificate of occupancy.
Here's what was discovered the following day.
1) Houston does have a certificate of occupancy, but it's for two apartments. She does not have zoning approval for a treatment center, and some neighbors are understandably concerned.
2) Houston is using the money to pay her salary and other operating expenses, not for improvements to the property.
3) Houston is daughter to the late Charles Spaziani, a distinguished and politically connected attorney.
4) Houston is married to a tipstaff at the Courthouse.
5) The Houstons and Gilberts are apparently on very friendly terms, and those terms are probably more friendly now.
I bashed Dietrich before and am bashing Gilbert now. But I have to add myself to the mix. I was irritated with Wayne Grube when he opposed the use of contingency funds for Nazareth's skate park but he was right. A contingency fund, to the extent it exists at all, should be limited to real emergencies.
Northampton County Council just gave $25,000 to a woman who has no real interest in the property, but who has the right connections.