|Rs sit on the left|
Most Bethlehem City Council races, which usually involve clashes of the Callahan and Schweder factions of the Democratic party, are usually snoozefests. But as Al Bernotas himself pointed out, the injection of three Republicans has livened things up quite a bit. He noted that zero-based budgeting, which is being promoted by Bob Donchez, is actually a Republican idea that Democrats are now using in a bit of triangulation, a la Bill Clinton.
Whatever is going on, there definitely seems to be a lot of local public interest in this race. Northwest Block Watch had a candidates' night on Monday, and over 80 people showed up. Last night, there were a little less, but the 50 people there would be considered a good turn out in a County-wide race.
Last night's forum, conducted at Salem Lutheran Church, was hosted by Bill Fitzpatrick's Neighbors on Watch Block Watch. Rev. Walter Long, serving as moderator, told the six candidates that their time was being carefully regulated by a timekeeper, who would show colored cards to indicate how much time is left. "Red means we take you out and shoot you," he warned.
In their opening remarks, Tom Carroll wasted no time criticizing the "shameful behavior" of the Callahan administration, which has been beset by three straight years of deficits. Tony Simao agreed, and warned that Democratic candidates would offer a plethora of "rainbows," "lollipops" and "lies."
In addition to criticizing Mayor John Callahan for spending money borrowed for an EMS Center, which forced the City to borrow again, Simao and Carroll both lashed out at Reynolds. He chairs Council's Finance committee. They slammed him over the casino host fee. Instead of being used for tax relief, the money went to pay for the impact of gambling to the City, in the form of salaries for police officers and firefighters. "He stands up there and wags his finger when the truth is, he's not telling the truth," said Carroll.
I think he wagged his fingers, too.
He added that his Finance Committee was completely unaware that Callahan was illegally dipping into federal grant money until it was revealed by an independent audit. "Not one of us knew about the illegal spending that went on until afterwards," he explained. "We reacted."
That answer was unsatisfactory to Tony Simao, who noted that not one member of City Council did a thing about the misappropriation of federal grant money, and that it took a letter from citizen Dana Grubb to get the ball rolling. Carroll added that Reynold's Finance Committee was "asleep at the switch." According to Al Bernotas, the entire Council "sits on its hands."
"We're here to clean house," claimed Bernotas.
|Ds sit on the right|
Here's how the hopefuls responded to some specific issues.
Cutting the Budget
Recchiuti, grandson of a former Fire Commissioner, would hire more firefighters. Although that sounds like a budget increase, Recchiuti explained it would decrease the cost of overtime, which is expected to hit $1 million before the end of the year.
Reynolds noted that he's already voted to cut 54 positions, and would not leave them open. He'd like to reduce OT, will vote against raises for City Hall employees and will pursue energy efficiency contracts.
Simao would eliminate "hallwalkers," condense departments, reduce salaries for department heads from $90k to $70k, and would eliminate the use of city-owned cars for commuting. He estimated that the elimination of take-home cars would save the City $150,000 per year.
Donchez agreed with the suggestions offered, but noted that 85% of the City's budget is salary, so there's little room to cut.
Carroll said all these suggestions have been urged for years. "Now there's $18 million in deficits and $30 million in loans this year alone."
Martin Tower TIF
Simao, Carroll and Bernotas all oppose a TIF. Both Carroll and Simao called it "corporate welfare," and Bernotas added taxpayers are "ultimately responsible" in the event of a default.
A TIF could arguably be called corporate welfare. But as a point of clarification, I should note that the persons ultimately responsible in the event of a default are the ones who buy the bonds. That's why they get 6% interest. They take the risk. TIF bonds are not general obligation, or taxpayer-backed bonds. I was whispering this to a reporter, perhaps a bit too loudly, and threw Al Bernotas off as he was speaking.
Sorry, Al. It was your night, not mine, and I should have more quiet.
Donchez, Reynolds and Recchiuti are more willing to consider a plan. Donchez pointed out that the Martin Tower tract consists of 53 acres, but only 70% of the building is usable because of design problems, along with an asbestos problem and the lack of a sprinkler. Donchez and the others would be receptive to a plan, so long as it does not include high-density housing.
On other matters, they all oppose Callahan's idea to implement a single hauler for garbage. They all oppose closing the fire station at Dewberry Avenue. They all, to varying degrees, like the idea of requiring residency from at least some City employees. They all oppose the idea of another casino. They all like a buffer zone for the historic district.
Only Al Bernotas favors term limits.
So who won and who lost?
Most Entertaining: Al Bernotas (he was folksy and personable, which means something to people like me)
Most Knowledgeable: Bob Donchez (detailed answers for everything)
Best One-liner: Tony Simao's crack about lollipops and lies.
Best Answer: Willie Reynolds' powerful defense of host fee money. (He was downright passionate).
Most Dignified: They all looked a hell of a lot better than I. Or is it me?
Hardest Line to Believe: Recchiuti's claim that he's not a politician. Mike, this is your second try at public office. That sure seems like a politician to me.
Strangest Candidate: West Easton Borough Council candidate Tricia Mezzacappa not only attended last night's debate, but came armed with two pages of questions. Who knows, maybe a West Easton voter was there.
Best Media Panelist: Lynn Olanoff (Express Times) and Nicole Radzievich (Morning Call) are tied. They took this seriously and even sent them to me in advance so we all wouldn't be asking the same thing. The decided to ask questions that could be answered by all the candidates, so no one person would feel singled out. I was going to ask each candidate for the airspeed velocity of an unladen African swallow, but Lynn and Nicole killed that question.
Lynn Olanoff and Nicole Radzievich have their own reports. Look for one from Daryl Nerl, too.