Friday, August 23, 2013

Deb Hunter on Northampton County Issues

Deb Hunter, a Democrat, is one of ten candidates seeking five seats on Northampton County Council this November. A teacher in the Northampton School District, I have been especially touched by her deep concern for neglected and abused children. She first ran for County Council four years ago, and nearly made it, but Democrats were swept out of office at that time. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way.

A graduate of the County's inaugural Citizen Academy,Hunter is a regular attendee at Council meetings and served on the Gaming Board. In addition to her teaching jib in Northampton, she lived in Nazareth and moved more recently to Bethlehem. This gives her more familiarity with the County than most of us.

Below are her answers to a questionnaire I prepared for all ten Council candidates. I am not trying to trick anyone. Jerry Seyfried was the first to reply. Because of some vicious personal attacks that were made, I thought he might be the last.  But I received answers from Hunter today, and Seth Vaughn is working on them.

Because some people have been hostile to candidates, I will not permit any commentary with these questionnaires.

By way of full disclosure, I have already decided tentatively that I am supporting Jerry Seyfried, Ron Heckman, Deb Hunter and Peg Ferraro.

1. Lehigh County Commissioners and Bethlehem City council have both toyed with the idea of rejecting pass through grants based on objections to the federal deficit, money owed to China and antipathy to charter schools. Would you reject pass through grants?

ANSWER - No, I would not reject them. While there may be stipulations or funding calculations within them that I do not agree with, as in the Cumberland Gardens case for Lehigh County, in general I would want to get as much funding coming into the County as is offered.

2. Most of Council's work is done at its busy Personnel and Finance Committees, at which every member of Council is encouraged to attend. How do you feel about participation at Council Committee meetings? Will you attend?

ANSWER - They are imperative to learning the intricacies behind the operations of the county and are key to formulating the County’s priorities for short and long term planning. I plan to attend as many as I possibly can.

3. One candidate has rejected the concept of regionalism as one big mess that is harder to manage than a group of smaller messes. Do you support or oppose regionalism, and what regional projects would you endorse on Council?

ANSWER - I disagree that regionalism is a mess and hard to manage. In fact, joining with other counties to find efficiencies and cost savings that benefit each other should be something we seek out when practical. I would judge each potential project on its ability to achieve those criteria.

4. During the Executive primary, one candidate made a no-tax hike pledge. Do you think it is responsible to make no tax-hike pledges? If so, are you willing to make one?

ANSWER - I think it is irresponsible to make a “no tax” pledge. To potentially hamstring the county based on political popularity is not leadership. It is up to the executive and council to try to use the public monies as efficiently and wisely as possible to fulfill the services the county provides and to maintain infrastructure. When all avenues have been explored and creative solutions exhausted, if there is still a need for funding then it is up to the executive and council to educate the public as to why these monies are needed and the ramifications if they are not received.

5. In a 2011 plebiscite, voters told Council not to sell Gracedale for 5 years.The annual County contribution is currently in the $5-7 million range, so voters effectively voted for that contribution. But what if it grows? Is there a red line at which you would agree it is necessary to sell Gracedale?

ANSWER - Any line drawn at this point would be arbitrary and carry too many assumptions. The voters have made it clear this facility is a priority for them and to play a guessing game about it would be disrespectful to all involved.

6. In 2007, County Council voted to set aside 1/2 mill of real estate tax (about $3.5 million) for a pay-as-you go open space plan for preserving farmland, environmentally sensitive land and municipal parks. On Council, will you vote to continue funding open space? Do you consider this a core county function?

ANSWER - While I think calling it a core county function is overstating things a bit, there is no doubt about the value of these programs. Again, the voters have spoken loudly and clearly about their preferences here. Agreeing to a targeted tax increase reflects their priorities.

7. There are 11 unions county-wide. What efforts would you make, as a member of council, to encourage unions to consolidate and reduce the amount of time administrators and unions must spend in contract negotiations?

ANSWER - If the unions would view this as a positive step to take, I would back the county executive if he wanted to approach them and saw this as more efficient but still fair.

8. What is your position on laying off County workers? Would you support layoffs to balance the budget, or vote to increase taxes to provide the same level of services?

ANSWER - Again, many assumptions would have to be made here. Too many variables are involved for this to be answered responsibly. This kind of issue should be beyond any ideology and based solely on the unique situation of every budget formulation.

9. Northampton County, like Lehigh, has privatized the management of Gracedale. But there are those who would like to return administration to the County. Where do you stand on this issue?

ANSWER - I think we need to give Premier a genuine opportunity to prove themselves and then assess their performance…period.

10. Some Council members would like to amend the Home Rule Charter to return to elected row officers. How do you feel about this proposal?

ANSWER - I believe this would be a mistake. As long as viable and fair hiring procedures are in place I want the most qualified person for the job, not the most politically popular.

11. Would you support a ban on guns by people using any County facilities, even off the courthouse campus, like at the new centralized Human Services Building?

ANSWER - Absolutely…and I felt like this BEFORE the Ross Township incident.

12. Will you support or reject a County Property Tax Reassesment?

ANSWER - As it would entail a large cost to the County at a particularly vulnerable time, I would say no. However, I think we need to come back to this question sooner rather than later as (as some Lehigh County businesses have found out) waiting too long can put a large financial burden on property owners.

13. Would you support the proposition that the Prothonotary, Clerk of Criminal Court, Clerk of Orphans Court and Register of Wills should be transferred under the Administration of the Courts instead of the County Executive (through the Director of Court Services) much like the higher courts currently administer its own clerks?

ANSWER - It would seem to make more administrative and organizational sense, yes.