Monday, December 06, 2021

LV Covid Cases at Highest Point Since January

Steve Thode has been tracking the Covid numbers for us since the beginning of the pandemic. He reports that new cases are at their highest level here in the Lehigh Valley since January.  His report is based on numbers supplied by the counties. 

As of today (December 5). Lehigh County has reported 1,771 new COVID cases the last seven days; Northampton County has reported 1,684 new COVID cases the last seven days; and, combined, Lehigh and Northampton counties have reported 3,455 new COVID cases the last seven days.

That's the highest 7-day total for Lehigh County since January 19; the highest 7-day total for Northampton County since January 13; and, the highest combined 7-day total for Lehigh and Northampton counties since January 15.

In the past week, the 7-day new case rate has jumped almost 49% in Northampton County, and more than 35% in Lehigh County.

In the last three days alone, Northampton County has reported 1,066 new cases while Lehigh County has reported 904 new cases.

What's happening in the LV is consistent with what we are seeing nationwide, where there are now 100,000 daily new cases. 

Friday, December 03, 2021

NorCo Council Decides on New District Configuration


Every ten years, following the census, Northampton County Council is required to establish four Council districts. Following discussion, Northampton County Council voted 6-3 to establish new Council districts configuration. Voting in favor were Council members John Cusick, Bill McGee, Tara Zrinski, Lori Vargo-Heffner, Kevin Lott and, after some hesitation, Kerry Myers. Voting No were Tom Giovanni, Peg Ferraro and Ron Heckman.

"If it's not broke, don't fix it," said Ron Heckman. 

District One currently consists of Bethlehem, Hellertown, Freemansburg and Hanover Tp. It is represented by Kevin Lott. Under the new District, it will consist of Bethlehem, Hellertown, Lower Saucon and Williams Tps. 

District Two currently consists of Easton, Forks, Glendon, Palmer. Stockertown, Tatamy, West Easton and Wilson. It is represented by Kerry Myers. The new District will remain unchanged. 

District Three currently consists of Nazareth, Bethlehem Tp, E Allen, Lower Nazareth, Lower Saucon, Northampton, North Catasauqua and Williams Tp. It is represented by John Cusick. The new District consists of Freemansburg, Nazareth, Allen, Bethlehem Tp, E Allen, Lower Nazareth, Northampton, North Catasauqua and Hanover.

District Four currently consists of Bath, Bangor, Bushkill, Chapman, E Bangor, Lehigh, Lower Mt Bethel, Moore, Pen Argyl, Plainfield, Portland, Roseto, U Mt Bethel, U Nazareth, Walnutport, Wind Gap and Washington. It is represented by Tom Giovanni. The new District remains unchanged.

Updated 14/4/21 at 9:10 pm: From time to time, I completely blow a story. This is one of those times. In my original report, I thought County Council had voted to retain the old boundaries. I was dead wrong. I had to re-write. Then I blew how Council members voted. This necessitated another correction. Finally, I incorrectly placed Lower Saucon in two districts, making yet another correction necessary. I'm terribly sorry for my mistakes.

McClure's Tax-Cut Budget Passed by NorCo Council

Northampton County Council voted 7-2 last night to approve a $528 million spending plan for next year. The sole No votes came from Tara Zrinski and John Cusick. Zrinski was still upset about the payraises in the elections office and a contingency fund increase that will give County Council control over $450,000. She supported both of them just the day before, and even said at one point that she just wanted there to be a discussion. John Cusick voted No to the budget because the budget for Gracedale is based on a census of 575. "If it were a novel, you'd have to put it in the fiction section," he complained. 

In addition to approving the budget, County Council also voted, 8-1, to cut taxes by one mill ($8.6 million) for all county taxpayers, from 11.8 to 10.8 mills. 

Peg Ferraro opposed the tax rate decrease because she said there are "so many other needs" in the County. She said the money could be spent on county employees to work at Gracedale. Ron Heckman said that, historically, tax reductions have resulted in a need to raise them the following year. He added, however, that the county's cash reserves are very healthy. 

A home assessed at $75,000 will receive a tax bill next year that drops from $885 to $810. The budget is also balanced. 

This budget was reviewed by County Council in a series of five budget hearings. Council basically accepted the budget as proposed, but included amendments regarding salaries and its contingency fund.  In an oddity of the county's home rule charter, a thumbs down would mean the spending plan as proposed would go into effect automatically. 

Budget highlights:

1. One Mill Tax Cut ($8.6 million in savings to all Northampton County Taxpayers)
2. Fund Balance:  Emergency Stabilization $17.4 Million (9.3% of General Fund) & $21.4 Million Unassigned for a total of approximately $39 million in reserve.
3. $12.2 Million in Operational Cuts or a (12.8% reduction in spending identified through improved management countywide).
4. A one step increase for all nonunion county employees (4.5%)
5. Fully funding pension, unemployment and OPEB obligations.
6. Meeting all matching requirements from the state and federal government for pass through funding for COVID relief and Human Services provided by Northampton County.

McClure's spending plan continues a continued commitment to fund open space preservation at $3 million every year. This is accomplished by purchasing conservation easements under which farmers agree to never develop their land. In addition, the county purchases environmentally sensitive land and both creates and maintains parks. In his budget message, McClure states his object is to both preserve green space and limit warehouse proliferation. 

McClure stated his budget will continue the pandemic relief and assistance to county residents. This includes $25 million in relief to small businesses. 

NorCo Council Approves Payraise For Exec, Controller and County Council

By a 7-2 vote, with one pass, Northampton County Council voted last sight to raise the salaries of the county executive, county controller and county council. Under the proposed ordinance, which was amended to increase the original proposal, the county's elected officials will be compensated as follows:

County Executive will be paid $125,000 (up from $85,000) per annum, effective January 1, 2026;

County Controller will be paid $85,000 (up from $75,000) per annum, effective January 1, 2024; and 

County Council members will be paid $12,500 (up from $9,500) per annum, effective January 1, 2024.

The County Council president will receive $500 in addition to the $12,500 annual salary.

The sole dissenting vote was cast by Tara Zrinski. She felt during the discussion that the salary for the Exec, in particular, is still too low. Bill McGee passed during the vote, and the Clerk failed to come back to him after polling the rest of County Council. 

In the last Exec race, the only Republican to run for Exec was a personal trainer.. John Cucick said that if the ordinance "encourages better candidates to to run, it will be worth it." He opposed a suggestion that the salary be tied to the CPI, arguing that is not "good government."  

For County Council and the Executive, this would be its first wage increase since 2010. 

The Northampton County Home Rule Charter prevents Council from giving themselves raises. They can set salaries for the next term of an elected official, but not the current one. Here's what it says.

"The County Council shall have the power by ordinance to set the salary of each elected official. No ordinance shall increase or decrease the salary of an elected official during his term of office. No ordinance which increases or decreases the salary of an elected official shall take effect less than one (1) year after its date of enactment."

When Lehigh and Northampton County adopted Home Rule Charters in 1978, they set initial salaries for their execs and legislators. The full-time county execs were paid $30,000 (Lehigh) and $35,000 (Northampton) while part-time legislators were paid $2,500 (Lehigh) and $4,000 (Northampton).

If these 1978 salaries were adjusted just for cost of living, our local county officials would be bringing home a lot more bacon today. Northampton County Exec McClure would be paid $154,889.84. Northampton County Council members would receive $17,701.70 salaries instead of the current $9,500.

"Everybody sitting here knows damn well he's going to veto it," said Kerry Myers of Executive Lamont McClure. 

Thursday, December 02, 2021

NorCo Council To Beef Up Contingency Fund for Pay Study, Gracedale Operating Study and IT Review

At its final budget hearing on Wednesday, Northampton County Council voted 8-0 to beef up its contingency fund to a whopping $400,000 in next year's budget. The money will come from the stabilization fund and by reducing funding for IT. 

Council member Peg Ferraro was absent. 

Historically, Council's contingency fund is little more than huge slush fund from which it hands out money at the end of the year to make itself look good. Not this time. Council member Lori Vargo Heffner, who drafted a budget amendment increasing the contingency fund from $150,000 to $400,000, wants to do so to study three things. First, she'd like to get a long overdue pay study for the county workforce. Second, Council is concerned about whether its time for its own internal IT department. Third, she'd like to study what the hell is going on at Gracedale. 

Council members Tara Zrinski and Kevin Lott amazingly expressed doubt whether Council has the authority to study Gracedale. "I don't know whether it's our job on Council to be studying Gracedale," worried Lott. "I just went down there the other day," said Zrinski. They should read the Home Rule Charter. Council is the governing body and has all residual powers. Gracedale administrators appear before Council once every month to discuss the nursing home for precisely that reason.

The rest of Council disagreed sharply. Kerry Myers stated, "Sometimes you have to spend a loittle bit to learn a little bit." A Gracedale presentation a few months ago was dismissed by Council member Ron Heckman as "popsickles and lollipops." "Smiling faces aren't always telling the truth," agreed Myers. He reminded everyone that, just a few weeks ago, a dark picture of the home was painted by some former employees.   

Council member John Cusick said his main concerns at Gracedale are financial and its level of care. He pointed out that, even at the height of the pandemic, four residents were crammed into one room. He also noted that Administrator Jennifer Stewart-King has only ever worked at one nursing home, and might benefit from an independent study.

Zrinski eventually backtracked, stating her main concern was that the contingency fund would be a source of walking around money. She  was satisfied by the explanations of intended use. 

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Reibman Rules Undated and Misdated Mail-in Ballots Count in Lehigh County Judicial Race

In a decision that undoubtedly will make its way to Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, Lehigh County Judge Edward Reibman has ruled that 261 undated and misdated mail-in ballots must be counted in the final tally of November 2's Lehigh County election. You can read his 18-page Opinion below.  At the moment, Republican David Ritter leads Democrat Zac Cohen by 74 votes in a contest for Lehigh County judge. Since these ballots are largely Democratic, they could affect that and other races.

At issue are 257 mail-in ballots with no date on the return envelope, along with 4 ballots in which the date is on the wrong line. 

After brushing aside some procedural concerns, Reibman pointed out the statutory language mandating that a mail-in voter "shall" sign and date the declaration on the outer envelope. Distilling his 18-pages to one sentence, Reibman concludes that "shall" means "should" for a minor irregularity like a date, so long as the ballots are received timely.

I agree with Judge Reibman's interpretation of the law, but he will almost certainly be reversed. Five Supreme Court justices have already signaled that "shall" means "shall."

Reibman Opinion by BernieOHare

NorCo Council Poised to Give Top Elections Officials A Two-Step Raise

In the budget proposed for next year by Executive Lamont McClure, all career service employees will be getting a one-step increase in their base salaries. This is about a 4.5% raise. But in a budget amendment crafted by Lori Vargo-Heffner, one additional stop will be awarded to Elections Registrar Amy Cozze and her Chief Deputy, Amy Hess. This amounts to $3,300 for Cozze and $2,700 for Hess in addition to the one-step increase already proposed. After lengthy discussion, the amendment passed by a vote of 8-0 during a budget amendment hearing last night. Council member Peg Ferraro was absent. 

Council member John Cusick advocated the increase because, as he pointed out, the two Amys actually run three elections: one by mail-in ballot; a second by in-person voting at the polls; and a third through early voting at the elections office. He agreed a two-step increase is "extraordinary," but "these two individuals have been extraordinary and we can't afford to lose them." He added that half of the state's elections officials have quit over the many changes made by the state legislature. 

In that vein, I have copies of a torrent of written abuse heaped upon both Amys during last year's Presidential race. In the most recent election, sore loser Steve Lynch actually called them "corrupt" and "liars." 

In sharp contrast to Cusick, Council member Tara Zrinski warned that Council would be setting a "precedent" by actually paying two county workers what they are worth. She noted career service workers at Gracedale and the jail could march in and demand and extra step, too. 

"We are opening the door," she cautioned.

"The door is always open," retorted Council member Ron Heckman.

He said Zrinski, if she is concerned about paying people fairly, should support a pay study. Zrinski has previously resisted this suggestion, but agrees now that she might support one. 

Heckman also dismissed the notion that Council is setting a precedent. "The only precedent in county government is that there are no precedents." He observed that Council is not simply a reactive body, but has the express authority to set salaries.  

Lori Vargo-Heffner wants to pay for this increase by reducing the proposed overtime budget at the jail. Council member Kevin Lott worried that the County could run out of overtime money, but Heckman assured him that overtime budgets are always padded.  

In addition to being the right thing to do for two people who deserve the raise, Council was demonstrating that it is an independent branch of government with this payhike. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Daily Newspapers Slammed on Business Matters

Over the years, I've been invited to be a guest many times on Tony Iannelli's Business Matters program. I've also been disinvited just as often. Once a guest hears that I've been asked to come on, they advise program directors that they will refuse to participate if I'm there. That's happened on shows scheduled with Mike Fleck, disgraced Allentown Mayor "Fed Ed" Pawlowski and a few others. So I was surprised no one disinvited me to a program about our local news coverage, which is pretty much nonexistent. I'm even more surprised the show aired, as it did last night. Our local news purveyors did themselves no favors. 

Unlike the rest of them, I really hate to wear a suit and tie unless it's for a wedding, funeral or I'm a criminal defendant charged with a felony.  I'm with the Israelis when it comes to business attire. 

The dailies attempted to defend their failure to cover municipal meetings by stating their "metrics" tell them people are not reading those stories. They apparently think they exist to entertain rather than inform. "Your obligation is to give people not what they want, but what they need," was my response to Morning Call editor Mike Miorelli. "That's why you guys keep sinking further and further down. That's why every so many months, you let off more reporters. You're not thinking things through. You need to do your jobs. You need to tell people what's going on... ."

I provided an example. I received a news release from businessman Nat Hyman about his donation for an Allentown police substation. After confirming the story was accurate, I published it while simultaneously and very accurately observing that Hyman is possibly the worst Hearts player in the world. The Morning Call refused to publish the story at first because I had run it. Miorelli attempted to deny this but I have his words in black and white. 

This simply kills me. He views a puny blog as a competitor even though this one-man operation exists only to complement local news coverage, not compete with it. He talked about "winning" and getting beat, which is ridiculous. 

Nobody really gives a shit if you're first so long as you're actually doing your job and informing the public. The dailies are failing. The county governments are half billion dollar operations getting zero scrutiny, except from WFMZ and WLVR. 

Incredibly, Miorelli indicated his paper is shying away from stories like Coronavirus pandemic because people are tired of them. 

I guess stories about your favorite hamburger joint are preferable. 

DeSales Mens Basketball Team Rated #25 By D3 Hoops

On Monday, I was chided for failing to note that Kutztown University's D2 football squad is also playing in the NCAA tournament on its level. "Stick to basketball," I was told. In that vein, I am pleased  to inform you that the 6-0 DeSales Bulldogs are now rated by D3Hoops as the 25th top Mens Basketball Team in the nation. This weekly rating is based on voting by a panel of 25 coaches, sports information directors and media members across the country.

In pre-season polling, DeSales was nowhere to be found. Yeshiva is ranked #1, and is an amazing team to watch in action. 

DeSales MBB includes several standouts from LV high schools. These include point guard Matt Kachelreis (Emmaus - 37 assists), shooting guard Jordan Holmquist (Moravian Academy - 20 trays), shooting guard Ryan Boylan (Easton Area High School - 33 rebounds) and shooting guard Dat Lambert (Allentown Central Catholic - 79 points). 

In addition to all this local talent, the team relies heavily on Mason Barnes (Pottsville Area - 14 steals), Will Pollick (Kingsway Regional), Christian Guldin (Pennridge), Mike Bealer (Souderton - 11 trays), Elijah Eberly (Elizabethtown - 47 rebounds and 8 blocks), Keba Mitchell (Berks Catholic - 14 rebounds and one shattered backboard on a dunk) and Will Bowen (Lower Dauphin).

Timmy Edwards (Trinity), who led the team in scoring last year, is expected to rejoin the squad in December after recovering from an injury. 

They are coached by former Whitehall phenom Scott Coval, who is in his 29th year at the helm. His son Nick is following in his father's footsteps, but at Parkland, 

The team will be hosted by an always tough Wilkes on Wednesday night. 

I go to every game I can and wear a uniform under my street clothes. I have asked Coach Coval several times to put me in because I have about 70 years of eligibility.

"I don't know, Bernie. Can you shoot a 3?"

I can shoot a 4. 

Kutztown Football in D2 Final 8

On Monday, I told you that Muhlenberg College is inarguably one of the top D3 football programs in the country. It has advanced to the final eight in the NCAA D3 playoffs. I was taken to task by a reader who noted that the 11-1 Kutztown Bears, a D2 squad, "are by far the best team in the area." 

I never considered KU because it is outside of the Lehigh Valley. But that's my bad because so many local residents are alumni. 

Kutztown, like Muhlenberg, is also playing in this year's NCAA tournament, but on the D2 level. Both teams are in the final eight of their respective levels. Kutztown will be hosting Sherpherd University (W Va.) on Saturday at noon. 

The other six contenders are Valdosta State (Ga.), Bowie State (Md), Ferris State (Mi). Northwest Mo. State, Colorado School of Mines and Angelo State. 

The national championship will be played December 18.  

Monday, November 29, 2021

Pa Department of Health Continues to Misinform

Hours after being made Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was brutally honest. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” This inspired people instead of discouraging them. He would admit his mistakes along the way as well. After the successful evacuation of most of the British Army at Dunkirk, he warned, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Churchill, unlike many of today's leaders, understood that honesty is the best policy in the face of any public crisis. In the case of a pandemic, it's also important to be accurate. Pennsylvania's Department of Health (DoH) has really failed on that count. 

Steve Thode, who has assumed the unenviable burden of monitoring its missives, points out the DoH's most recent misinformation. 

Thode observes, "DoH data personnel continue to demonstrate their inability to master 3rd grade arithmetic. On Tuesday, they reported 73.7% of Pennsylvanians 18+ were fully vaccinated. On Wednesday, that percentage shrank to 68.8%. How does someone become unvaccinated? No one at DoH seems the least bit curious."

Be Nice to School Bus Drivers

The Nazareth Times, a self-described hyper-local and digital publication on Facebook, invites all members to post on topics related to Nazareth. One of them, Rob Cruz, posted a lengthy essay about the difficulties he faces in his job. He's a school bus driver. You may have noticed we have a driver shortage, and Cruz' story, along with numerous comments from other drivers, help explain why.  You might think it's the money, but it appears to be more about respect.

According to Cruz, "My job is to transport your child from point A to point B safely. That is all. What do I mean when I say safely? Let me explain. Safely means I pre trip my bus to ensure it is running properly and that it hasn’t been tampered with. Safely means my eyes are constantly scanning all 7 mirrors, blind spots, and the road in front of me. I’m NOT a babysitter. I’m NOT a mediator. Im a BUS DRIVER."

Cruz and several bus drivers who added their own two cents not that kids this year might be a tad more unruly after sitting inside their house for a year. But it goes beyond that. Cruz adds that there are parents "hulking" at bus stops who yell, scream and curse at drivers. "[P]lease understand you have now added to the problem[.] [Y]ou may think you are just protecting your little baby but really you’ve just shown your children, AND the remaining children on the bus that you can speak and act however you want to WITHOUT major consequences."

I decided to call a friend who drives a school bus for special needs children. He confirmed everything Cruz said, although he noted that most of the students he drives are younger and well-behaved. 

My friend (I forgot to ask if I could use his name) indicated some parents might be upset at the school district and take it out on the driver. In most instances, parents are angry because they have to wait. 

In addition to parents, my friend is routinely flipped off and cursed at by other drivers who have while he helps to get a differently-abled student on the bus. 

School bus drivers deliver very precious cargo. I think we all could make more of an effort to be civil to them. 

Muhlenberg Football Makes NCAA D3 Final 8

After blanking Delaware Valley 14-0 during a defensive game in Doylestown on Saturday afternoon, the 11-1 Muhlenberg Mules are now among the final eight teams vying for the national D3 NCAA football championship on December 17.  

Saturday's contest, broadcast on Youtube, was a game in which both offenses struggled. DelVal came away with no points despite being in the red zone three times. What appears to have made the difference was an aggressive Muhlenberg defense that garnered nine sacks during the game. 

"Anytime you beat Delaware Valley, it's an accomplishment," said Muhlenberg coach Nate Milne. He also spoke about the GPAs of his athletes, something that is rarely heard on the D1 level. 

Muhlenberg, now inarguably one of the top eight D3 football squads in the nation, will face 4th-ranked University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio at noon on December 4. At 12-0, Mount Union is undefeated.

The remaining D3 football squads are University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Central College (Ia), North Central College (Ill), Rennselaer Polytech (NY), Mary Hardin-Baylor (Tx) and Linfield U (Ore). 

It was nice to see this team finally get noticed by The Morning Call, thanks to their excellent sports reporter, Keith Groller.

Friday, November 26, 2021

NorCo Council Poised to Give Itself and Exec an Overdue Payraise

In the last Exec race, the only Republican who ran for Exec was a personal trainer. Many argued that the low salary ($85,000) paid to someone who manages a $500 million operation is an impediment to top tier candidates.  Northampton County Council is finally poised to give itself, the Executive and the Controller an overdue pay increase. At its November 18 meeting, an ordinance summarized as "Salaries for Elected Officials" was introduced, with a vote set for December 2. It will raise the salaries of elected officials as follows: Council members will receive on annual salary of $10,000 (up from $9,500), effective January 1, 2024; the Executive will get $100,000 a year (up from $85,000), effective January 1, 2026; and the Controller will receive $80,000 a year (up from $75,000), effective January 1, 2024.

For County Council and the Executive, this would be its first wage increase since 2010. 

The Northampton County Home Rule Charter prevents Council from giving themselves raises. They can set salaries for the next term of an elected official, but not the current one. Here's what it says.

"The County Council shall have the power by ordinance to set the salary of each elected official. No ordinance shall increase or decrease the salary of an elected official during his term of office. No ordinance which increases or decreases the salary of an elected official shall take effect less than one (1) year after its date of enactment."

Arguably, they could give themselves a raise on December 2, to take effect next year.  But that would look sneaky.  

When Lehigh and Northampton County adopted Home Rule Charters in 1978, they set initial salaries for their execs and legislators. The full-time county execs were paid $30,000 (Lehigh) and $35,000 (Northampton) while part-time legislators were paid $2,500 (Lehigh) and $4,000 (Northampton).

If these 1978 salaries were adjusted just for cost of living, our local county officials would be bringing home a lot more bacon today. Northampton County Exec McClure would be paid $154,889.84. Northampton County Council members would receive $17,701.70 salaries instead of the current $9,500.

Local leaders may tell you they're here to serve, but a glance at their campaign expense reports makes you wonder just who is the master. Let's face it. Our current salary structure is designed to attract political hacks looking to advance themselves, or zillionaires who've lost touch with the common man. I've heard many very qualified private businessmen, state legislators, and others simply state they could not afford to live on the meager wages paid to local elected officials.

It's simple. If you want good people, you have to pay them. It makes no difference whether it is a CNA or a County Exec, 

The Ordinance, as drafted, sets salaries that are simply too low. This is out of fear of the political backlash that will no doubt ensue. But if acting in the best interests of the County, the salary should be adjusted. The Executive should be paid at least as much as one of the nine judges - $186,000 per year. Council members should be compensated at $17,701.70.  Moreover, the salary should be tied to the CPI index so that this issue never has to be visited again.