Friday, November 30, 2012

Capitolwire: Joe Brennan Given Caucus Job

Capitolwire, a paid subscription service, reports that State Rep. Joe Brennan has been given a job with the state Democratic caucus. I have no additional details.

Are Right to Know Officers Worth $102,900?

Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law is by no means complicated. If someone makes a request, an agency has five business days to reply or invoke an automatic thirty day extension. But in the People's Republic of Northampton County, time and again, the County has simply filed no answer at all. Yet the County Solicitor, Karl Longenbach, thinks his Right-to-Know Officer is worth $100,000 per year, and made that argument repeatedly during a Budget Hearing earlier this week.

This would be Jill Mancini, the County's sole full-time assistant solicitor and designated right-to-know officer. But she has treated that responsibility with benign neglect instead of transparency.

Last July, for example, a citizen who just wanted to see the budget was ignored. He had to file an appeal with the state Office of Open Records. Mancini ignored the state appeals office until after the record had closed.

This is simply outrageous. The County's budget is available online, and Mancini should have directed this citizen to it, instead of ignoring both him and the state office of open records. Her neglect resulted in a full-blown appeal and a waste of state and county resources.

This is no anomaly. I've encountered the same nonresponsiveness in several of my own requests.

This is the person Longenbach wants to reward. Why?

Mancini accompanied Longenbach when he pitched for yet another full-time assistant solicitor. Although Council was willing to go along, they are unhappy at the salary hike. That in turn made Mancini mad, and she walked out in a huff.

So Longenbach stuck around until the end of a three-hour hearing to make the pitch for her again. He argued again that one of these full-time assistant solicitors - and you can bet it will be her - should be paid $100,902. That's just for starters.HAmazingly, he stressed the right to know matters.

Longenbach stressed the "professionalism" within his office while simultaneously lamenting the inherent conflict in the divided loyalty that part-time solicitors have as a result of their own private clients. If that is so, shouldn't he be phasing out all of the part-time Solicitors? Instead, he's creating a position just so that one person can get a pay raise. That's not professionalism.

Some might call it nepositism.

What the Puck?

My invitation to yesterday's groundbreaking for Allentown's transformational hockey arena, must have been lost in the mail. After all the nice things I said about it, I thought for sure I'd be given a stick, but it's the sin bin for me.

Most of Allentown's downtown businesses are in that sin bin, too. They've been disrupted for yet another day so that the bigwigs could pat themselves on the back.

Although I was not there, I had a drone flying through the crowd, sanpping pics here and there.

Below is King Edwin with Sara Hailstone, the Ice Queen. Their hockey sticks are fortunately blocking Michael Schlossberg's face. Remember him? He's the guy who had to quit Allentown City Council early so he could spend all his time in Harrisburg, getting ready to be a State Rep.

Speaking of State Reps, below you will see a less-than-enthusiastic Jenn Mann, who I'm sure is already calculating all the dough she's gonna' make as a "consultant" for the wheeler dealers who want a piece of the NIZ pie. Standing beside her, bowing his head in what should be shame, is State Senator Pat Browne. Hus wife already has a piece of the pie as a lobbyist with the very firm representing NIZ developer J.B. Reilly.

Then we've got these two peas in a pod. Tony Iannelli is the Dude in sunglasses. His Chamber of Commerce just lost the $50,000 that LVEDC was supposed to give to him this year. Standing next to Tony, with the "What Me?" look on his face, is LVEDC bossman Don Cunningham. They'll always have hockey.

Unfortunately, this Otter came up from the Lehigh and ate Schlossberg. It was very sad. Allentown being Allentown, none of the bigshots thought it might be nice to bring a few kids to see the Hairy Otter mascot being used by this minor league hockey team. If that had happened, Schlossberg might still be alive.

Union Agent Opposes Signs at Faulkner Chevrolet Cadillac

Francis Loughney travels 26 miles to Hanover ZHB  
One of the reasons I love to cover zoning hearing boards is because it's an opportunity for an opinionated asshole like moi to be relatively innocuous. Even if I have an opinion, and I always do, I can simply tell you what happened.

Now unions have always been pretty controversial. But you rarely see them at zoning hearings. That's why Ken Kraft, a business agent with IUPAT AFLCIO AbBCDEFG, could sit on Bethlehem's Zoning Hearing Board.

But something strange happened last night in Hanover Township.

Although he lives in New Tripoli, 26-miles away, Francis Loughney was at the Hanover Township Zoning Board. He made this trip to oppose an application for four wall-mounted signs requested by Faulkner Chevrolet Cadillac at 298 Stoke Park Road.

It should have been a snoozefest. I mean, who really gives a shit about 4 wall-mounted signs saying things like "Chevrolet" or "Cadillac"?

Loughney did. Dressed neatly, he questioned every witness. He even attempted to interrogate Faulkner's attorney, Tom Maloney. Citing concerns about safety and lighting, the New Tripoli resident urged zoners to deny the appeal. But when Maloney had a few questions of his own, Loughney refused to answer him.

"Isn't it true that you've opposed this project from the beginning?" asked Maloney.

"I don't have to answer that question," snapped Loughney. "You're not a judge."

Loughney objected to Maloney's tone, but ZHB Solicitor Ted Lewis told ruled there was nothing wrong with Maloney's tone or his question.

"Aren't you a member of the Carpenters' Union?" asked Maloney.

"Proud member," corrected Loughney, who is also a business agent and organizer for the Carpenters' Union.

"Isn't that one of the reasons why you're here? asked Maloney, who wanted to know Loughney's role in an earlier union protest at the Faulkner construction site.

Loughney refused to answer Maloney, which prompted the barrister to wonder why zoners should believe anyone who won't answer questions.

Faulkner's Attorney, Tom Maloney
Sitting with Loughney was another carpenter's union member, Joseph Farrell. He actually does live in Hanover Township. Unlike Loughney, he answered Maloney's questions, and told him he had no part in picketing the site and was never opposed to the project. "I just hate all those signs," he explained in a lilting Irish brogue. "They're killing the Township."

Faulkner was eventually given a green light for three of the four wall-mounted signs requested.

Sam Borrelli, President at Faulkner Chevrolet Cadillac, was a bit puzzled by the union opposition. He claimed that both nonunion and union labor was being used at the construction site. In addition to giving work to the low bidder, Borrelli told me he's motivated to use businesses that buy his cars. "It's all about dealing with people who deal with us."

When unions picketed his site, Borrelli states he even allowed them to pitch a tent on his property. But after being leafleted by union members, some customers complained directly to the Township, which then ended the party because there was no permit.

As he was leaving, Loughney declined to respond to Borrelli's statements. But he vowed he will return.

Maloney, who is about 18 feet tall, was going out the door after Loughney, but I suggested he should wait a few minutes.

"Give them some time to slash your tires," I advised my former Constitutional law professor.

I recognized Loughney, who does seem like a decent chap despite his little tiff with Maloney. In March, Loughney was one of about thirty trade union members who asked Hanover Supervisors to withdraw a controversial lawsuit holding up a hockey arena in Allentown. They worried about all the constructions jobs, and spoke eloquently. But Supervisors were just as worried and just as eloquent about their tax dollars being diverted. The Township did drop the lawsuit, but not until that state agreed that it would no longer use township taxes to fund the arena and other projects in Allentown.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Three Wise Clerics Follow Christmas Star to ZHB

Nativity scene at Payrow Plaza
Reverend Wesley Jun. Reverend Alan Disbrow. Reverend Lilia Santiago. Like the three wise men following the Christmas Star two thousand years ago, these three clerics followed the South Mountain Star into the little town of Bethlehem on November 28. But instead of meeting Baby Jesus, they ran into Gus Loupos and the rest of the Zoning Hearing Board. Despite having no frankincense or myrrh, which would be bribery these days, two out of three clerics were successful.

Both successful clerics, Reverends Disbrow and Santiago, operate the Calvary Chapel and Iglesia Casa de Adulam inside a warehouse at 2224 Industrial Drive. Though located inside the industrial district, Cavalry Church sought and received a use variance several years before. But because the physical size of the chapel has been reduced as other businesses have moved in, zoners unanimously granted an interpretation that reduced the parking places that must be available.

They also unanimously granted Rev. Santiago a use variance for her church at the same site. She explained that hers is a church "without walls," meaning that much of her ministry is in the community, prison and juvenile detention facilities. Zoners also waived the strict parking requirements for her church.

But the third cleric, Rev. Wesley Jun, who is associated with the University Bible Fellowship at Lehigh University, was unsuccessful. He owns the former Anna Mia Restaurant, located at 114 W Fourth Street, and sought a variance that would allow him to establish a residence on the first floor, where the restaurant was located.

Zoner Bill Fitzpatrick stands for the three wise clerics.
Rev. Jun told zoners that he and his wife already live on the first floor, and the second and third floors are rented out to five people, including his two adult sons. He explained that living there gives him "easy access to students," and helps him fulfill his ministry. "Personally, I don't like the area to live, but there's a purpose," he explained.

But Rev. Jun failed to explain why he waited from July 2004, when he first moved into that first floor, until now, to seek zoning relief.  He was also very vague about whether the second and third floors are used as a boarding house or an apartment.

Zoners unanimously denied Rev. Jun relief, prompting him to ask zoners, at Christmas time, whether he could continue living there. Solicitor Mickey Thompson told Jun that zoners could give no advice.

In other business, zoners approved a dimensional variance at 754 Wood Street that will enable owner Joseph Garbush to expand a kitchen and deck exactly as he's done for the next door property at 752 Wood Street. Garbus's daughters live in both homes. He explained he wanted both to be mirror images of each other so that both of his daughters would be treated the same.

Why Your Kids Should Brush Their Teeth

John Morganelli announces no criminal charges in LSD case
Two young men from Bangor, aged 7 and 10, were a little late getting ready for school one fine morning this September. As their mom reminded them to brush their teeth, the boys decided on a short cut. Instead of the toothbrush, they grabbed a bottle of breath mint, and took a few drops each. Problem solved, right?

Wrong, their problem was just beginning. It was one that would send both of these boys to the hospital. It would involve police and Children and Youth. Their parents would themselves have to undergo drug screening for five weeks.

You see, instead of breath mints, these boys had just ingested LSD, according to Pennsylvania State Police.

At a November 28 news conference, Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli explained how it happened.

Just a few days before, these boys found the breath mint bottle on the porch outside their apartment building. They brought it in and put it in the medicine cabinet. Mom thought Dad bought it. Dad thought Mon bought it.

Running late for school, these boys finally had the excuse they needed to squeeze a few drops. After an overnight stay at Lehigh Valley Hospital, they'll probably think twice before drinking from something they find outside.

Their parents came under suspicion, too. In addition to several interviews with local police, they were subjected to a five-week investigation by Children and Youth. This included a review of the boys' medical histories and home visits, both announced and unannounced. These parents even had to undergo weekly drug and alcohol screening.

According to Morganelli, two residents in that apartment building were known drug users. But they are gone. Attempts to locate them were unsuccessful, and police were unable to lift prints from the bottle.

The good news is that both boys are fine. "Luckily, it appears there will be no long term effects," announced Morganelli. In fact, neither of them remembers what happened after taking the drops.

But their parents will remember for the rest of their lives.
DA Morganelli: No Charges in Kids' Poisoning

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What Would You Do with $500 Million?

I'm pretty sure I have the winning ticket.

Stoffa Has Great Faith in Prison Officials

On Tuesday, I told you about the latest lawsuit alleging a contraband ring at the Northampton County jail. The Morning Call has picked up on the story, and notes this suit is the fourth since 2009 that alleges brutality at the jail, and the second alleging a contraband ring. Executive John Stoffa still has "great faith" in prison officials. And cabinet members. Just not low level clerks who send naughty emails.

Hanover Tp Asked About Bethlehem's Single Hauler Plan

Glenn Walbert
Don't worry. Hanover Township plans no litigation against Allentown or Bethlehem this year. Yet. It's not in their budget. But how does mostly Republican Hanover Township feel about all the trash talk over a single hauler in mostly Democrat Bethlehem? Are the Republicans in the 'burbs laughing at the Dems in the 'hood?

Quite the opposite. To a man, Supervisors and Manager Jay Finnigan agree with Callahan in principle. So do Upper Nazareth Supervisors, who decided last month to hire a single hauler for trash removal.

"It's a no-brainer," states Township Manager Jay Finnigan, who has often been mentioned as the only Republican who could compete in a Northampton County Executive race against Callahan. "The economics are just overwhelming," adds Supervisor Steve Salvesen, who earlier that evening took a shot at President Obama. Under a single hauler, he is paying $130 per month less than he did thirty-four years ago, when he first moved into the Township.

Supervisor Glenn Walbert, who has been following the Bethlehem debate with interest, heard the same pros and cons when a single hauler was proposed in Hanover six years ago. He remembers one elderly lady who claimed she left a quarter under her garbage can. But he and Salvesen also remember that many residents had to go through a half dozen haulers before finding one who  would take what they wanted.

In January, Supervisors awarded a new five-year single hauler contract that actually reduces the monthly fee for most residents from $395 to just $245, and even lower if paid early. But Finnigan added that administrative costs for mailing and collecting bills are only between $1,800 and $3,800.

This Hanover attitude proves the maxim that there's no Democratic or Republican way to fix a pothole. Or pick up trash. Supervisors even had some good suggestions for two very legitimate concerns expressed by those who would like to keep the current system of 19 independent haulers.

First concern. What about the senior citizen on a fixed income who might have just one bag a week? Should she pay the same as everyone else? - No, answered Walbert. He pointed out that in Whitehall Township, fees are discounted or outright waived for seniors who qualify for certain state benefits.

DCED Director Joe Kelly, in Bethlehem, later said that possibility is being considered.

Second concern. Won't this put mom-and-pops out of business? - Not at all. They could form a collective and bid like everyone else.

Bethlehem's City Council considered Callahan's single-hauler proposal last night, but I was unable to get into the room and unable to hear in the hallway. Looks like Bob Donchez and Eric Evans are leaning against a single hauler. Dave DiGiacinto thinks cost could skyrocket, even though Hanover's experience is the reverse.

Oh yeah, Public Works Director Vince Milite had some advice that Bethlehem could use, too. He insists rock salt is much better than salt brine during Winter storms. Bethlehem uses salt brine.

For 6th Straight Year, Hanover Proposes No Tax Hike Budget

Steve Salvesen (L) and Public Works Director Vince Milite (R)
For the sixth year in a row, Hanover Township is considering a no-tax increase budget for next year. Despite a projected 3% drop in revenue and a last-minute increase requested by the Bethlehem Public Library, Hanover Township Manager John "Jay" Finnigan has still cobbled together a $7.2 million proposed 2013 Budget that holds the line on taxes.

It continues with the usual 3.9 mill tax rate and 0.5 mill fire tax. Under these rates, a home assessed at $50,000 will have an annual tax bill of $220.00.

Finnigan told Supervisors, at their November 27 meeting, that the Township was fortunate to have received $92,000 for its interest in 248 Broadhead Road, where the Colonial Regional Police and District Judge James Narlesky are based. "We'll be able to buy two trucks with that," he noted.

Steve Salvesen is concerned that performance-based raises for some Township workers will be negated by increases in health and dental insurance. "Contrary to what our President has said, insurance premiums are going up," observed the veteran Supervisor. Chairman John Diacogiannis lamented, "I hope this can turn around."

In addition to holding the line on taxes, Hanover Township residents have already seen their trash removal rates drop to about $230 per year with a single hauler contract. Residents in the East Sewer district have also seen a slight decrease in fees.

Supervisors will vote on the proposed 2013 Budget, which is posted on the Township's web page, at their December 18 meeting at the Municipal Building located at 3630 Jacksonville Road. That meeting, which starts at 7 PM, will be the Supervisors' only meeting in December.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Beware of Holiday Scams

Although Mayor John Callahan's single trash hauler was the main event at the West Bethlehem Block Watch on November 26, Officer Joshua Schnalzer offered some good advice as the holiday season approaches. According to Schnalzer, there were 3 vehicle break-ins and one case of vandalism in West Bethlehem in October. But he claimed that the holidays are the "busy season" for police, warning especially about scams.

One possible scam was highlighted by West Bethlehem resident Bill Scheirer. He received a recorded telephone call asking him to press "1" if his security system was inadequate. He did so and got a garbled message.  He believes it's possible that whoever called may just have been collecting data on properties that have inadequate security for a possile burglary down the road.

Callahan Pitches Single Hauler at West Bethlehem Block Watch

Joe Kelly preaches single hauler inside Church of the Manger
Over fifty people attended a West Bethlehem Block Watch meeting on November 26 to hear Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan and DCED Director Joe Kelly pitch a controversial single trash hauler system. Despite the somber venue at the Church of the Manger, it was a tough crowd that included independent hauler Andrew Prickler. City Council members Bob Donchez and Eric Evans were also in the audience.

Why is the City considering a single hauler now?

A single hauler system is nothing new or unique. Eighty-four per cent of the Lehigh Valley's municipalities already use a single trash hauler, according to Kelly. Mayor Callahan added that, aside from Altoona, Bethlehem is the only City in the state that still uses independent trash haulers. Even Altoona at least has zoned hauling. "We have the most backwards system in the entire state," noted Callahan.

Although Bethlehem has independent trash haulers, a single hauler for recycling has been used since the '90s. "Why do we treat that differently than we treat all the other trash?" asked Callahan.

Since the current recycling contract will expire in October, City officials are now pursuing the possibility of saving citizens money by bidding out both recycling and trash hauling. Kelly added that other services would be included as well, from the removal of yard waste to Christmas trees. The goal, he stated, is to leverage "the best deal we can for the most of us." Callahan added, "My job is to do the most good for the post amount of the people." He stressed that pooling the "collective purchasing power of 75,000 residents" will result in savings.

Kelly explained that, if City Council approves the proposal, a request for proposals will go out in March, and bids would come back in July. "We're not looking to do this in January," stressed Callahan.

Mayor Callahan faces a tough crowd
Will residents save money with a single hauler?

Currently, nineteen independent haulers operate in Bethlehem. The average monthly rate, according to Kelly, is $29-30 per month. That fee, combined with recycling charges, adds up to $410 per year. "We know we can beat that number," said Kelly, predicting that the average household would save about $110 per year.

That figure was disputed by some residents, who claimed to pay much less than $29-30 per month for trash removal.

"You're not going to be saving me anything," said Joan Albus. "People like us are being punished because others are not putting their garbage out."

In addition to the savings at individual households, Callahan noted that hauler payments to the City, instead of tax dollars, would be used to fund the Theis/Cornfeld Recycling Center. That facility has experienced a 40% drop in state grants over the past two years, according to the Mayor.

Will a single hauler mean a cleaner city?

In addition to savings, Kelly added that a single hauler system wold result in a cleaner city. He noted that some Bethlehem residents have no hauler, and just drop their trash along city streets, particularly Central Boulevard. Last year, the City fielded over 1,000 complaints about trash. Kelly told the Block Watch that he has 250-275 photos showing that some people don't do the right thing. "That affects the quality of life in Bethlehem," said Kelly.

Matt Miller asks what will happen to independent haulers
Will this put independent haulers out of business?

Block Watch co-chair Matt Miller asked Callahan about the impact on the City's nineteen private haulers. Callahan claimed he has no animosity or vendetta against private haulers, and acknowledged a "tough impact" on "smaller haulers." But he added, "I don't get paid to protect the private interests of independent haulers."

Callahan added that his proposal will still allow independent haulers for commercial and industrial business, as well as apartment buildings with more than five people.

One of those independent haulers, Andrew Prickler, insisted this proposal won't save anyone any money. He recommended that everyone attend City Council meetings to learn "the truth", and walked out.

Does Bethlehem Want a Single Hauler?

Both Kelly and Callahan referred to a citizen satisfaction survey that Dr. Chris Borick, of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, sent to 5,000 households. He received 1,573 responses. Fifty-six per cent of those surveyed felt that improvements are needed to the City's trash collection. Sixty-five per cent would support a single hauler if it resulted in savings and increased services.

Dr. Borick's survey claims a margin of error of only 3 per cent, but not a single member of the audience was polled. Bill Scheier, a retired statistical economist (econometrist), stated that the return rate on the survey was good. But he told Callahan that an effort should have been made to get opinions from those who failed to respond to the survey.

Callahan is unwilling to let the voters decide this issue as a ballot initiative.

"The public will have no input is what you are saying," noted an audience member.

"Well, you will at the next election," answered the Mayor.

Moderator Gus Loupos informed the audience that there was a petition in the back of the room for those who would like to keep the current system in place. Fourteen of more than fifty people in the audience signed it.

One of them, feisty 85 year-old Kathryn Contrino, told Callahan she only pays $20 per month and doesn't drink soda. Next to her signature, she wrote, "We will remember."

What if Callahan's proposal fails?

Callahan answered that if City Council fails to adopt a single hauler ordinance, it will be their job to find $500,000 in revenue or cuts. He's already reduced the City workforce by 69 people over the past three years. Of those remaining, fifty-two percent are employed in public safety positions.

"If you don't like this plan, you're going to have to think about what the alternative is going to be," he cautioned. "This is a really tough budget."

A Real Expert Weighs in on Bethlehem Survey

Bill Scheirer
Blogger Jonathan Geeting, from his perch atop some rooftop in Brooklyn, squawks that Bethlehem's City Council President is dumb for refusing to accept, in its entirety, a citizen satisfaction survey conducted last year. You see, in addition to being a linguistics major, he's also an expert on statistics and ... well ... everything else. Geeting goes on to accuse me of "statistics fail blogging," and likens himself to Nate Silver of 538 fame. But last night, at a Block Watch meeting in West Bethlehem, a real expert outlined some of the shortcomings of that survey.

The expert is question is city watchdog Bill Scheirer, who was a statistical economist (econometrist) before he retired. Scheirer studied at Princeton, the London School of Economics and MIT.

The survey in question was mailed to 5,000 households at random. There were 1,477 responses, as well as an additional 96 surveys completed in the City webpage. Dr. Chris Borick, from the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, stated that the margin of error was +/- 3%. He has a 95% level of confidence in the report.

Scheirer last night told Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan that the response rate was"not bad for a mail survey." He also stated that Dr. Borick has a "very good reputation." But he cautioned that, in a survey of this type, "the important thing is the nonresponses." He indicated that a random sample of the nonrespondents should be aggressively pursued, and that if those results differ from those who responded, the survey could be flawed.

So while I believe the citizen satisfaction survey has great value, and blogged about it two weeks ago, I wouldn't bet the ranch on it. City Council President Eric Evans, who hears from residents every day, would be foolish to ignore them. It appears that a real expert, as opposed to some know-it-all who majored i n linguistics, agrees.

Federal Suit Alleges Contraband Ring at NorCo Jail

In January, 2011, Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli was investigating a black market at Northampton County jail, in which guards and inmates would smuggle in anything and everything for the right price. Unfortunately, that investigation was ruined when the Morning Call, on January 27, 2011, published a story based on a sealed search warrant, which tipped off the suspected corrections officers and inmates. This was bad news for Matthew Farrell. Just a few months later, according to a Complaint filed in federal court last week, those same corrections officers and inmates seriously injured him after he threatened their operation.

Matthew Farrell, a minor drug offender, claims he was ostracized by guards like Ryan Kelly because he refused to participate in their contraband operations. On Easter Sunday 2011, when Kelly was supposed to be protecting Farrell, he instead was seen having a conversation with another inmate, convicted murderer Paul Serrano. Soon after that, Kelly triggered Farrell's cell door to open and then disappeared. Serrano lunged at Farrell with a filed off brush handle, stabbing away until two other inmates pulled him away. No guards could be located until about 5-10 minutes after what certainly appears to have been an attempted murder.

In addition to this assault, Farrell was regularly taunted and intimidated by Ryan. He and another guard, Daniel Piccone, told Farrell they could "make him disappear." Farrell has since been transferred to Bucks County's jail for his own protection, apparently at the request of a federal judge.

Ryan and Piccone are both currently employed at the jail.

This chilling federal complaint, filed by Attorneys Colin Monahan and Joe Welsh, is the latest in several recent prison abuse actions filed against the County. In September, the County paid $200,000 to settle a slashing case brought by an inmate who claims he was assaulted by this very same black market ring. Just last week, the County was sued over a slashing incident involving razors that the jail was providing to inmates. And two weeks ago, a federal complaint was filed over yet another MRSA infection.

Northampton County Executive John Stoffa likes to remind everyone that "[t]hese are not Sunday school students in the prison."

But Ron Angle, when he was a member of Council, questioned whether Stoffa was discussing the inmates or the people running the jail.

In the wake of a glowing report from state inspectors noting no deficiencies at the jail, Stoffa recently named insider Arnie Matos as his Director of Corrections. He started his career as a corrections officer.

I have not spoken to prison officials or County administrators about this lawsuit, assuming that they are unable to discuss it. I would caution readers that this federal complaint's allegations of a contraband ring are as of now unproven.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Water Privatization Foes: Let the Voters Decide

Water Privatization Campaign to Deliver Petitions to City Clerk

WHAT: The petitioners' committee to amend Allentown’s home rule charter will be submitting over 3600 signatures to Allentown’s City Clerk as part of an initiative that, if approved, could give Allentown citizens the opportunity to vote for or against the privatization of Allentown’s water and sewer system.

A press conference will be held at City Hall outside council chambers prior to delivering the petitions.

WHO: The petitioners’ committee consists of Dan Poresky, Glenn L. Hunsicker, Glenn S. Hunsicker, William Hoffman, and Michael Donovan.

WHEN: 1:00 PM Wednesday, November 28, 2012

WHERE: Allentown City Hall, City Clerk’s Office.

Three thousand valid signatures are needed to give voters a direct say in the privatization of Allentown's water and sewer.

Updated 9:16 PM: My sentence above is inaccurate. Around 2,000 signatures are needed to get the question on the ballot. It appears that around 3,600 signatures have been obtained. My apologies.

County Appeals Naughty Email Ruling

Welcome to the People's Republic of Northampton County! Here, in complete violation of the County's nepotism policy, we have a cabinet level official engaged in a relationship with a direct subordinate. We might have a smuggling ring at the prison involving guards, according to a case that Northampton County settled in September for $200,000. But we'll have no naughty emails. Especially from Clerks.

While writing that $200,000 check over that little contraband ring, County officials canned two NorCo Register of Wills employees who were admittedly sending naughty emails to each other, as well as their boyfriends.

While asleep at the switch about a frickin' smuggling ring, one County official was quietly conducting a two-year investigation into the email dalliances of these women. Director of Court Services Archie (Inspector Gadget) D'Isidore was on the case. To make sure they weren't tipped off, he even gave them positive evaluations while perusing their private emails.

Creepy.

When he finally sprung the trap, these single mothers were summarily fired. A union grievance was denied, and the County refused to pay unemployment.

In addition to filing for arbitration, both employees asked for an unemployment hearing. One case has been heard, and a Referee has ruled in the employee's favor. Since the County allowed this practice to continue for two years without taking any corrective action, it's in no position to claim there's been any misconduct at all, ruled Referee Gary Wardecki.

Game over.

Anyone with any sense could see that this reasoning is a basis for reinstatement, with back pay.

Anyone with any sense could see that the second of these fired County workers, whose case will be heard by the same referee on the same exact issue, is going to get unemployment.

Anyone with any sense could see that both workers, who are both represented by Easton Attorneys Brian and Colin Monahan, are not going gently into that good night.

But this is the People's Republic of Northampton County, where smuggling drugs into the can is OK, but naughty emails are horrible.

Instead of cutting its losses on a case it will surely lose, the County has just appealed the Referee's unemployment compensation ruling.

One of Referee Wardecki's conclusions is that D'Isidore lacked credibility. That's the kind of finding that kills an appeal. There is no way he will be reversed on that finding.

Instead of hammering single mothers with the ultimate sanction for an admitted mistake, Executive John Stoffa should be looking a little more closely at his own cabinet. And the jail.

Should Bethlehem Go With a Single Trash Hauler?

Is Bethlehem City Council President Eric Evans "dumb"? That's what blogger Jonathan Geeting, from his roost somewhere in NYC, has clucked. Why? Because Evans thinks that, notwithstanding a recent survey, Bethlehemites may very well be opposed to Mayor John Callahan's proposal to replace 19 private trash haulers with just one. How can Evans be so foolish? Doesn't he know that surveys are sacrosanct?

Regardless of the merits of this proposal, Bethlehem's City Council president likely has a better feel for his constituency than some snotnose based in New York City. Geeting's shrill name-calling is no way to win an argument, although it does give me an excuse to call him a snotnose.

In an excellent Morning Call article, reporter Nicole Radzievich makes it pretty clear that the notion of a single trash hauler in Bethlehem is very controversial. I've seen it myself.

But is it the right thing for Bethlehem?

Tonight, Bethlehem's DCED Director, Joe Kelly, will make the case for a single hauler at West Bethlehem's monthly Block Watch meeting. It's at the Church of the Manger, located at 1401 Greenview Drive. It starts at 7 PM.

Although my ass is still sore from the lightning bolts that went up it the last time I was in a church, I'll be there, and will try to give you the pros and cons without calling Eric Evans dumb.

Zoners Say No to Teen D&A Facility By Becahi

Abe Atiyeh
Despite some last-minute changes addressing concerns expressed by numerous neighbors, Bethlehem zoners have denied a proposed 28-bed drug and alcohol residential rehab center at 2110 Center Street, located a stone's throw from Bethlehem Catholic High School. They did so following a November 27 hearing in which developer Abe Atiyeh testified that this rehab would be dedicated to the treatment of girls between ages 12 and 17. It was originally proposed as an adult facility.

Atiyeh had hoped that a facility for teen-aged girls would be more acceptable. "I listened to the neighbors," he argued. "I learned from them." But they remained opposed. "The last thing I want aside of Beca is a drug and alcohol program," declaimed Mary Karabin.

So ends the latest chapter in Atiyeh's seemingly quixotic quest for drug and alcohol treatment centers in Bethlehem. His bid for a 70-bed voluntary inpatient substance abuse center, located at the vacant Cavalry Baptist Church on Dewberry Avenue, was unanimously denied in March. Plans for a drug, alcohol and psychiatric hospital, at a five-acre site across the street, are in litigation. Yet another proposed rehab, located at the former Moose & Bug Florist at 2349 Linden St, is hotly contested.

Even Atiyeh's one success, a proposed rehab center at the old Synthetic Thread Mill near Rte. 378, has been abandoned by the developer himself. At the November 27 hearing, he called the industrial site "too depressing."

Attorney Mark Malkames, representing Atiyeh, argued that zoners had no choice but to grant the request for a "special exception." He explained that zoners must approve special exception uses so long as it is the type of permitted use one would expect under ordinary circumstances. He likened it to a gas station. If a gas station is a permitted use that can be approved by special exception, Malkames reasoned that complaints about the fumes or traffic would have to be rejected because those would be the ordinary consequences of a gas station.

Since a rehab is a permitted use, Malkames argued that opponents would need to show consequences beyond what could be seen at a typical rehab. "There has to be direct consequences, not speculation," he added.

But Attorney Jay Leeson, representing Bethlehem Catholic High School, asked, "Haven't we fought this battle before? Isn't this deja vu?" While calling Abe Atiyeh is a "good man," Leeson argued that a rehab so close to a high school is not in the best interests of Bethlehem, or in the public welfare.

Before zoners required to deliberate, Leeson asked the audience of 25 or so people to raise their hands if opposed to the project. Aside from reporters and participants, every hand went up.

Zoners came back with their unanimous decision, denying a special exception, after about thirty minutes of deliberation. They were represented by Attorney Erich Schock.

Attorney Steve Goudsouzian represented a group of neighbors who have opposed the Atiyeh rehabs near Becahi. Attorney Chris Spadoni represented Bethlehem City Council, which intervened and also was opposed to the project.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bethlehem 'Canes Win Thanksgiving Tip-Off Tournament

Bethlehem's 7th grade 'Canes team is pretty amazing. Undefeated as 6th graders last year in both tournament and regular season play, the boys got used to winning by thirty or more points.

But that was then.

During this weekend's Thanksgiving Tip Off Tournament, sponsored by Allentown's East Side Youth Center, they struggled. They were actually behind in two different games, but still found a way to come back and win after a long weekend of basketball. They defeated a very tough ... and very tall ... team from Schnecksville to win the championship on Sunday at Dieruff High School.

By two points.

The 'Canes, unlike most basketball teams, are relatively short. But they have explosive speed, ball handling skill and can shoot. And they have Coach Craig Golden, who has led them to a 74-1 record over the last three years. He thought he retired from coaching last year. But his players thought otherwise, and begged him to return.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Poet President & The Radical

Vonnegut called him our Poet President. To me, he is mankind's greatest achievement after Jesus Christ. I refer, of course, to Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President. Everyone who came after him would agree he's a tough act to follow. Yet now more than ever, the people in our federal and state legislatures would do well to follow his lead. Since it's pretty obvious that few of them actually read books, I'd recommend they take a break between fundraising dinners to see Speilberg's Lincoln, which was released last week. I'd also recommend it to the numerous lever pullers and partisans, left and right, who think they know everything. They might learn they don't.

Spielberg's Lincoln is supposed to be based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. Her title refers to Lincoln's cabinet, most of whose members considered his election a colossal mistake. Some of them, like Secretary of War Stanton, snubbed him as a lawyer many years before, laughing at his tattered clothing. They called him an ape, a gorilla. But these same cabinet members slowly realized that Lincoln was just the man our fractured country needed. When our Poet President was cut down by a gunshot wound, it is Stanton who announced, "Now he belongs to the ages."

Even as President, Lincoln was snubbed. He once paid a late-night visit to General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, to discuss strategy. McClellan was out, so Lincoln waited, stovepipe hat in hand. When McClellan returned home, Lincoln waited another half hour until a porter came to tell him that the General had retired for the evening.

Lincoln took no disciplinary action. He was used to being snubbed. His was a life of hardship, what he himself would call the "short and simple annals of the poor." In his youth, he lost his mother and sister to illness. As a young man, his first love died as a result of illness as well, nearly driving him to suicide. And as a father, he saw two sons die.

In the movie, you see little of Lincoln's interesting and evolving relationship with his cabinet. You only see glimpses of the deep depressions he often suffered. You see little of the abuse he endured from his mentally unstable wife, who did love him. What you do see in detail is his relationship with a divided House. Just the year before, its members refused to adopt a Constitutional Amendment to abolish slavery. But Lincoln considered that crucial, and he wanted bi-partisan support.

The House's biggest proponent for abolition of slavery was Thaddeus Stevens, a Pennsylvanian from Lancaster. He was an unbending radical, a man ahead of his times. It is Stevens who, here in Pennsylvania, successfully defended a law providing for public education when it was certain to fail. It is Stevens who believed our differences are a cause for celebration, not intolerance.

But Stevens, like most draped in self-righteousness, was also very divisive. Lincoln was worried that this great orator might inflame some House Democrats who would otherwise support abolition.

Lincoln and Stevens discuss this, at least in the movie. Stevens assures Lincoln that a compass will always point true north. Lincoln agrees but tells Stevens that a compass won't tell you about the swamps between you and north.

If you don't avoid the swamps, what's the use of knowing true north, asks the President.

Stevens took Lincoln's warning to heart and moderated his commentary in the House debate that followed, to the chagrin of Democrats attempting to bait him.

Lincoln eventually got his bi-partisan support. The House adopted a Constitutional Amendment to abolish slavery. Black men are free.

Because it's not enough to know true north.

This is a lesson that both President Obama and House Republicans should take to heart. It's a lesson for us all.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A NorCo Naughty Email Update

Back in September, two NorCo Register of Wills employees were canned following a two-year investigation by Director of Court Services Archie (Inspector Gadget) D'Isidore. They were busted for violating the County's "electronic resource policy," which is a fancy way of saying they were sending naughty emails. Playing hardball, the County denied a union grievance and even refused to pay unemployment.

Now one of the two fired workers had her hearing earlier this month, and was awarded benefits. She was represented by Attorney Brian Monahan, who argued that the County was in no position to claim there was any misconduct because it allowed these employees to exchange emails for two years without taking any remedial action. In fact, D'Isidore gave them positive performance evaluations while secretly looking through emails to boyfriends.

An Unemployment Compensation hearing has now been scheduled for the second fired worker, who is also represented by Monahan and will be appearing before the same Referee who has already ruled against the County.

In addition, an arbitration request has been filed.

While one cabinet-level official gets his jollies by going through what really are private emails, Executive John Stoffa has allowed another cabinet level official to conduct an affair with a direct subordinate, in violation of the County's nepotism policy. I guess that's OK.

Different strokes for different folks.

Bethlehem Township to Settle Litigation Against Financial Advisers Who Recommended Streetlight Scam

Bethlehem Township Commissioners have settled litigation against a financial advice firm that recommended a streetlight purchase deal gone awry. At their November 18 meeting, Commissioners unanimously authorized the settlement, although details are under wraps until both sides have signed off.

In 2007, Bethlehem Township financial adviser, Reading-based Concord Public Finance, recommended that the Township buy its street lights from PPL through another firm, Municipal Energy Management, Inc. This firm would then shop around for the lowest electricity rates. Through Concord, the Township borrowed $1.2 million, and paid MEM $832,460 for a "fast track purchase."

But after two years of stonewalling from MEM, the Bethlehem law firm of Broughal and DeVito was hired as the Township's new Solicitors. That firm learned from PPL that the Township borrowed over one million dollars for a project that would only cost $271,180.

Bethlehem Township sued MEM in 2010. Through the discovery process, Township lawyers learned that MEM principals Robert J. Kearns and Patrick J. "PJ" McLaine spent most of the money to support their own lavish lifestyles. The matter was turned over to District Attorney John Morganelli.

In February, a grand jury indictment charged Kearns and McLaine with felony theft, misapplication of entrusted property and felony conspiracy. Their trial is scheduled for January.

Township officials also sued Concord for giving bad financial advice. In addition to the $832,460 paid to MEM, the Township paid $15,000 to Concord following a presentation by Christopher Gibbons, an employee and part-owner of Concord. According to the Township complaint, Concord never verified the financial information provided by MEM and did nothing to ensure that the $832,460 entrusted to MEM would only be used for its intended purpose.

In addition to being Bethlehem Township's financial adviser, Concord's website indicates that it has had numerous local municipal clients, including Bethlehem, Easton, Whitehall, North Whitehall, South Whitehall, Upper Saucon and Bethlehem Parking Authority.

Concord is the firm that recommended Northampton County enter into a swaption scheme that ended up costing $25 million. Concord also recommended Easton to re-finance $24 million in pension bonds, According to Mayor Sal Panto, they are non-callable bonds. "So now the city is stuck paying back these bonds at better than 7% when we can be borrowing money today at 3% and less," complains Panto.

In addition to dispensing financial advice, Concord's Christopher Gibbons is known for dispensing campaign cash to candidates seeking office. According to the state campaign finance website, he's handed out $22,060 over the past 12 years to office seekers, including Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan and former Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham.

Thanks to Pensions, Allentown School District Facing $40 Million Deficit

Allentown School Director Scott Armstrong, a conservative, never shies away from controversy. But liberal or conservative, we all need to pay attention to him when he rings the alarm about the pension crisis in the Allentown School District.

"What has happened to public education? Why has providing a basic education become so expensive? This is the question facing the Allentown School district as it moves toward the finalization of its budget for the next school year.

"Budget projections indicate in that five short years, with an annual 4% school property tax increase, the district will face a $40 million dollar deficit on a budget of approximately $275 million. What exactly is causing this becomes clear when one studies the numbers. While the district's operating and debt service expenses rise at a rate that roughly matches inflation, the cost of personnel skyrockets. Although a portion of this is due to the escalating costs of health care, the real culprit lies in the retirement benefits paid by the school district on behalf of its covered employees. The reason this increase is so great is because the retirement benefits are in the form of a defined benefit program.

"Defined benefit plans are the most expensive type of retirement program there is. The amount of the retirement benefit remains constant once the employee has retired and is based on payment options and the expected life of the employee at retirement. At one time the standard of pension plans, defined benefit plans are becoming obsolete because of the inherent high cost of the guaranteed payout.

"Much more common today are defined contribution plans. This is a once and done contribution and does not lock the employer in to guaranteeing income after retirement. The standard of the Public Schools Employee Retirement System is the defined benefit program. While this type of benefit is very rare in almost every other economic sector it remains the standard in the public school system? Why?

"Our state and local elected officials are clearly the guilty parties, as they have mandated these benefits not only for themselves but also for the teachers working in the Pennsylvania public school system. The current crisis, which results from their largesse, is a matter that must be dealt with quickly and directly. In the ASD, no reasonable amount of tax increases and staffing cuts can bridge the yawning gap between revenue and expenditures that the fixed pension benefit is imposing on the school district.

"Clearly the state needs to take action. The governor’s office and house and senate leaders need to provide legislative relief from the threat posed to the state’s public school system by defined benefit programs. In addition, public school employees need to become realistic about their expectations for retirement in the current financially challenged and tumultuous economic environment, which experts agree could last into the foreseeable future."

Abe Atiyeh: I Am Not An Animal

Abe Atiyeh 
Developer Abe Atiyeh just missed on his 547,839th attempt to persuade Bethlehem's zoners to allow a drug rehab center tonight. Yes, the vote was 5-0 against him, but it took them a half hour. I'll have a story tomorrow with all the details, although The Express Times's Zach Lindsey has already beaten me.

But before I get into my own rendition, I want to share a little kerfuffle between Atiyeh and City Council Solicitor Chris Spadoni. The Bethlehem Barister was peppering Atiyeh, and Abe finally blew up.

"I am not an animal. If you want to talk to me like an animal, I'll talk to you like an animal."

So nobody talked like an animal.
Chris Spadoni

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Now That's Dedication!

Although Bethlehem Zoning Hearing Board member Michael Santanasto is usually attired in dress shirt and tie, he was a bit more casual for the November 20 meeting. He even brought a pillow! But instead of resting his head on it, it was his arm. Earlier that day, he went through a tendon replacement. Even though his arm was in a sling, he still showed up.

He's either very dedicated or hates missing out on that $25 appearance fee.

Callahan Discussing Proposed Budget With Express Times Live Blog

Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan is in the bunker with Express Times editors, defending his proposed 2013 budget. The sitdown is being liveblogged.

Municipal Pensions - The Mother of All Budget Busters

Callahan gets some financial tips from his  younger constituents
When Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan proposed an 8.5% tax hike for next year's $72 million budget, the first thing I did was scratch my head and ask, Isn't that what the casino host fee is designed to prevent? Some of my readers have asked that question, too. They've also asked Callahan. "If I could get a dime for every person who asked me that question, I wouldn't need a tax increase," Callahan told me in an interview last week.

But it's a fair question. The casino host fee was heralded as the Holy Grail of municipal budgets, a cure that would eventually end tax increases and cure malaria, to boot. At that time, nobody was aware that the mother of all budget busters was on the horizon.

The looming municipal pension crisis.

Pennsylvania has over 3,200 local government pension plans, and in 66 of the Commonwealth's 67 counties, at least one municipality is having trouble keeping it funded. Over 1/3 of Pennsylvanians live in a municipality with a distressed pension.

In Easton, Mayor Sal Panto has been forced to impose a commuter tax that he hates himself, and admits that the revenue generated still won't be enough for his 69%-funded pension. In Allentown, a commuter tax was imposed two years ago. But Mayor Edwin Pawlowski still needs more money for the minimum annual payment (MMO) on his 64%-funded pension. So he's selling or leasing everything that isn't nailed down, including the City's water and sewer systems. In Easton and Allentown, the pensions are considered "moderately distressed."

Things are much worse in cities like Harrisburg and Scranton.

Unlike Allentown or Easton, Bethlehem has no authority under state law to impose a commuter tax. Its pension fund just isn't sick enough. It's funded at 78%, which makes it only "minimally distressed." But even if he could do so, Callahan told me last week that he has his doubts. "How am I going to get a new company to move here with a commuter tax?" he asked.

Still, making that annual minimal payment (MMO) is a drain on City finances. In 2004, when Callahan thought he could eventually cut taxes, that annual payment was just $1.5 million. By 2007, it had risen to $7.1 million. And next year, the City will have to come up with $11,129,609. That's a whopping 55.5% increase over the payment made just the year before.

How About That Casino Host Fee?

So let's just use the casino host fee. Problem solved, right? Wrong. The casino host fee, which could have been used to pay the salary of 95 police officers, will instead be gobbled up by pension costs.

In 2009, when the casino first became operational in Bethlehem for a few months, the City pulled in a $1.6 million host fee. That rose to $7.2 million in 2010, after a full year of operation. With the advent of table games in 2011, it shot up to $9.2 million. This year, the money pile is $9,375,000. As good as that is, it's not even enough to pay the $11.1 million needed for the pension.

Can't We Just Change the Pensions?

Another argument I often hear is that city officials in Allentown, Easton or Bethlehem should just wave their magic wands and change the pensions. It does not work that way. You can't mess with a defined benefit pension without violating the constitution, basic contract law and a host of labor laws. Most of these pensions, incidentally, were negotiated before any of the municipal officials we like to blame, including Callahan or Panto, were in office.

What can they do?

One thing Callahan has done in Bethlehem is change the pensions for new hires.

Under the current system, your basic municipal employee will get 70% of his "legacy" after 25 years of service. That includes his final base salary PLUS longevity PLUS differential PLUS overtime that year PLUS holiday pay PLUS Holidays worked last 12 months PLUS roster duty PLUS Sick Bonus PLUS Education Bonus.

That's a lot of PLUSes.

So an employee whose base pay is $68,133 will manage to retire at 70% of his total compensation with $61,754 per year for the rest of his life. Not bad.

Almost as good as the lottery.

But that same employee, under the new system negotiated by Callahan and public sector unions, might actually have to work another job. Instead of 70%, he'll only be getting 50% under the new formula. That's the highest cut Callahan could make under state law. And that same worker will walk away with base pay PLUS Longevity PLUS ... nothing else. That's it. So a worker with a base pay of $68,133 and 25 years of service will see a $36,317 annual pension instead of $61,754.

This is a major change in pensions, and it will help Bethlehem;s bottom line. But down the road, not now.

Can't the City Just Make Cuts?

The Lehigh County Commissioner approach to this problem would be to take out a budget axe and swing away and away, eliminating personnel..That also seems to be The Express Times approach. That newspaper pooh poohs every revenue enhancement proposal, even the no-brainers like an events tax or the PILOT, both of which are designed to lighten the load on the rest of us. But it fails to offer one responsible suggestion.

Cutting with a buzzsaw, suggested by the rocket scientists at a newspaper that is itself financially distressed, is irresponsible. Bethlehem, like Lehigh County, is already a lean machine. Over the last three years, Callahan has cut 69 positions, 10% of his workforce. He's down to 617 employees, which is "by far and away the smallest workforce" he can recall in his years as a Council member or Mayor.

In his proposed budget, he's eliminated anther five positions.

The Express Times financial wizards, who can't seem to keep their own paper in the black, think Callahan should cut even more. But he feels he's at the absolute minimum before city services begin to suffer. "I don't have less streets to plow," he tells me. And a recent citizen satisfaction survey tags the Mayor on that point. He is proud that "we still have one of the largest police forces in the state." Of the City's 617-person workforce, 141 of are police officers.

Perhaps the Express Times would like to see some police officers or firefighters laid off. From their perches, editors declaim, "Taxpayers deserve a look at what the city would have to do to live within its means, starting with no tax hike."

I can already tell you what the City would look like.

Allentown.

So you can see why it just might bother Bethlehem officials, who are already dealing with the largest brownfield in the country, to see a $1.1 billion-endowed university occupying 20% of the City's land mass without contributing so much as a dime.

The Express Times want us to feel sorry for Lehigh and the "real consequences" of being asked to pony up and pay for the frickin' 220 fire calls to which Bethlehem firefighters had to respond at that noble institution last year.

To say nothing of the cost of cleaning puke off uniforms.

But what about that terrible events tax? Why the single hauler proposal? Is the City still robbing Peter to pay Paul? I'll weigh in on each of these questions in the coming days.

In the meantime, if you can come up with responsible suggestions for $72 million in revenue, I'm all ears.

Sometimes, you just have to raise taxes. You can play games and deplete reserves like Jane Baker and Glenn Reibman did, and like John Stoffa is doing now, but you eventually end up with a 70% tax hike.

Bethlehem Township's New Budget Holds Line on Taxes

Andrew Freda
At their November 18 meeting, Bethlehem Township Commissioners unanimously authorized Finance Director Andrew Freda to advertise a no-tax increase budget for 2013. At $16.2 million, the budget retains a 5.99 millage rate, under which a home assessed at $75,000 would be taxed $449.25.

After a thirty-day public inspection period, Commissioners will vote on the budget at their December 17 meeting.

In other business, resident Matt Vrabel complained about "poor stewardship of the canal," referring to the Lehigh Canal towpath, which extends from Allentown to Easton. He took public works to task for failing to maintain the towpath. stating it "should be a showcase instead of a dump." He was particularly irked that, after Hurricane Sandy, some trees were removed from the path and thrown into the canal instead of being cut up.

Township Manager Howard Kutzler reminded Vrabel that there are just 13 people in public works to maintain 14.7 square miles, and "they do a great job." President Paul Weiss added that they worked round the clock during the hurricane. Vrabel was told that public works moved trees that were tangled with power lines so that ambulances and firetrucks could get through.

Township Commissioners will meet again on Monday, December 3, at 7 PM, at the Municipal Building located at 4225 Easton Avenue.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Deely Finally Concedes to Simmons

In a news release, State Rep. Justine Simmons announces that he was called today by challenger Kevin Deely. The Easton High School teacher finally conceded defeat in the race for the 131st legislative district. As of last Wednesday, Simmons was up by 448 votes, with his margin of victory largest in Lower Saucon Township.

State Theatre Wants $35k Increase in Hotel Tax Revenue

State Theatre artist?
At the November 15 meeting of Northampton County Council, Easton's State Theatre asked that its annual allocation of hotel tax money be increased from $25,000 to $60,000. CEO Shelley Browne explained that the explosion of events centers in the Lehigh Valley has made it more difficult for the nonprofit to book acts. "We can't pay what other venues can pay," she stated.

Browne told Council that the State Theatre helps drive Easton's economy, especially the "wonderful explosion" of downtown restaurants, to the tune of $8 million per year. But under questioning by Tom Dietrich, she indicated that Easton has made no financial contributions to the State.

Of course, that's because Easton collects no hotel tax. These are not real estate tax dollars but hotel tax proceeds, which are to be directed to programs that will promote tourism.

Browne and her development director took pains to point out that the State Theatre is a nonprofit, a "dicey financial model."

"I'm concerned that, year after year, we're going to have to contribute more and more of our hotel tax to your bottom line, stated Council member Lamont McClure. Council member Bob Werner told the State that the National Endowment for the Arts has $150 million available for grants.

The average artist's fee is around $50,000, with another $50,000 to produce the show.

From the peanut gallery later in the meeting, the Northampton County Bulldog, Ron Angle, criticized Council for failing to ask one very important question. "None of you asked the two people standing here what their pay was. It may be a not-for-profit, but what do the people working in the not-for-profit make? It may interest you to know it's the low to mid 6 figures for both of them. But again, what's another little handout from the tax money?"

The most recent 990 for the State Theatre on file reveals that, as of May 31, 2011, CEO Shelley Browne was being paid a salary and benefits package of $155,503. It's about $2,000 less than she was paid the preceding year. She is the only employee with a 6-figure income.

I don't like the idea of hotel tax money being used to promote tourism when we have overflowing homeless shelters, but until state law changes, this does seem like a good investment with lots of returns for Easton.

Bethlehem Safest Among 3rd Class Cities Over 30,000

George and Raven make a new friend
Six out of ten Bethlehem residents feel safe, according to a recent survey. That's their perception. But is it accurate? If Pennsylvania State Police Crime Statistics are any indication, that perception is reality. Over the last five years, Bethlehem has been the safest of eleven third class cities in Pa. whose population exceeds 30,000. Of them all, the Christmas City has had the lowest incidence of murder, rape, robbery or aggravated assault. In fact, its violent crime rate is below the state average.

Now in Allentown, Mayor Edwin Pawlowski has insisted for years that the Queen City is really safe. Naysayers like Michael Molovinsky and I are derided as misguided misanthropes who create a false perception. But as you can see in the chart below, which covers a five-year time span, you are twice as likely to get mugged, murdered or raped in Allentown than elsewhere in the state. You're more than twice as safe in Bethlehem.

The most dangerous third class city is Chester, whose residents and visitors are nearly six times more likely to be victimized by violent crime than in the rest of the state.

Why the difference between Bethlehem and Allentown, which are right next to each other?

Bethlehem mounted police have good will ambassadors like George and Raven. Allentown has no police horses, but to be fair, its Mayor has often been likened to at least part of a horse's anatomy.

Both Bethlehem and Allentown have approximately the same police officer to resident ratio. So it's hard to blame the incidence of violent crime on an officer shortage. It might be that Allentown's population is much more transient, uneducated and poorer.

You don't solve that problem with a Johnny Manana's.

Or a hockey arena for the out-of-towners.

Violent Crime Index For Pa. 3rd Class Cities Over 30,000
city county 2010 census 5 year
average
per 100,000  
population
ratio to state 5
year average
pennsylvania    all counties      12,702,379    38,455    309.1 1.00
chester delaware 33,972 561 1651.4 5.68
harrisburg dauphin 59,528 692 1397.2 4.80
york york 43,718 476 1088.8 3.74
reading berks 88,082 714 810.6 2.79
lancaster lancaster 59,322 416 701.3 2.41
allentown lehigh 118,032 708 599.8 2.06
erie erie 101,786 458 450.0 1.55
wilkes-barre luzerne 41,498 161 388.0 1.33
scranton lackawanna 76,089 204 268.1 0.92
bethlehem norco/lehco 74,982 170 226.7 0.78

LV Cities Shortchanged by Colleges & Hospitals

Callahan with LU's Women's Basketball Team Last Week
In Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan's budget proposal, he's including a revenue item that's highly unusual in the Lehigh Valley. It's called a Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, under which exempt organizations like colleges and hospitals make a financial or in-kind contribution in recognition of the services provided by that municipality. Although the Lehigh Valley sees little revenue from exempt organizations, the chart below shows that it's a common practice in the rest of the state.


PILOT Contributions to Cities Throughout Pennsylvania


2011 pilot
contribution        
2011 gf
revenue            
% of revenues
lancaster $1,675,000 $46,189,083 3.63%
erie $930,000 $60,466,724 1.54%
york $584,400 $43,839,026 1.33%
altoona $308,114 $26,707,569 1.15%
wilkes-barre $489,466 $43,848,830 1.12%
chester $347,199 $41,631,586 0.83%
harrisburg $401,522 $55,993,156 0.72%
scranton $198,000 $74,991,268 0.26%
bethlehem $58,670 $67,822,462 0.09%
allentown $50,000 $88,082,868 0.06%
easton $0 $28,270,465 0.00%
average $476,522 $52,661,812 1.00%
median $347,199 $46,289,083 0.83%
rank
bethlehem
ranked 10 of 12
beth at ave. $678,969
beth. at median $565,626

According to a study done by Public Financial Management, Inc., most colleges recognize a moral, if not legal, obligation to support their municipalities. Franklin and Marshall, for example, contributes 0.35% of its assessed value annually to Lancaster. In addition, it maintains for Buchanan Park. Alvernia, Albright, Kings and Wilkes University all make annual contributions on a voluntary basis, ranging from 0.05% to 0.28%. Widener University pays Chester annually for the cost of two police officers.

But Lehigh University, which has an assessed value in Northampton County estimated at over $204 million, pays nothing.

While making no contributions,tax exempt entities like Lehigh have benefited from City Services, as indicated by the fire calls made in 2011.

exempt entity           fire calls      service
costs     
lehigh 220 $283,800
moravian 107 $138,030
lv muhlenberg 31 $39,990
st. luke's 0 $0
bethlehem housing
authority
84 $108,360
total: 442 $570,180

In addition to fire calls, there are other services provided, from street cleaning to police protection.

For nothing.

Maybe Lehigh should be billed for municipal services, a la carte. After all, it sits on a $1.1 billion endowment. At the same time, senior citizens on fixed incomes struggle to pay real estate tax dollars into the City so that Bethlehem firefighters can respond to the university's false alarms.

Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan thinks it's time for that to change.

Moravian and Northampton Community College, with much smaller endowments than Lehigh University, have informally expressed a willingness to help. So have medical institutions, in the form of in-kind services. But while benefiting from the revitalization of the City's south side, Lehigh University has dragged its feet for the past 6 years on voluntary participation in any PILOT program.

Although acknowledging he lacks the power to force Lehigh to make any contribution, Callahan believes he can persuade them. "I'm going to shame them into it," he stated, noting that it is ridiculous for an entity that takes up 20% of the City's land mass to provide nothing, while smaller schools like Moravian and Northampton Community College are stepping up to the plate despite their own financial troubles.

Like Bethlehem, both Easton and Allentown have received next to nothing from the colleges and exempt institutions inside their borders.