For Wednesday's important budget hearing, The Morning Call sent a stringer. Hello? You'd think that when the Lehigh Valley's largest city adopts or rejects its budget, a newspaper would pay a real reporter to cover the event. This is an inexcusable insult to those who rely on the paper for news and, in my view, is why less people are reading. It also insults the professionalism of its full-time staff. I learned more from a single paragraph on Channel 69's webpage than in the freelancer's account. Rather than report any of Donovan's motions or the concerns of other council members doing the spade work, she fawned over King Edwin. Maybe she thinks city council is a rubber stamp, too.
Kim, a regular at Scott Armstrong's Allentown Commentator, attended Wednesday night's meeting. She's no reporter. Not even a freelancer. But her account, though unpolished, tells a story.
I don't know how many were aware that there was discussion about increasing the water and sewer rates this year. It was advised by our controller, Mike Hoffman, that a 13.6% increase would be recommended to be prepared for a depleting water/ sewer fund. While I realize that we, as taxpayers, could not depend upon our water/sewer fund balance to last indefinitely, I was always happy to have a nice cushion. I couldn't help but ask myself how the water/sewer fund got so low so quickly. I know we lost accounts, but still it seemed odd to me. I asked these questions last night of the council - surprisingly no one on council knew. My first question was - This year we initiated a new fund called the National Security Fund which allowed us to transfer funds - (forgive me I don't remember the amount - maybe a million) out of the Water/Sewer fund and put it into this new National Security Fund for primary use to the Police and Fire Department. I asked what the use of that money was. Was there increased or concentrated patrol or security of our plant? Basically what were we getting for that money being taken from the water/sewer? No one knew or no one really cared. I don't know which.
My second question was - Back under Afflerbach we transferred money from the water/sewer fund to pay for health insurance benefits and some payroll. We did it not once but two or three times over a period of some months. This money was to be a loan to the general fund. It was to be paid off in a predetermined amount of time. Michael D'Amore, President of Council, referred my question to the Administration where Mr Pawlowski replied, "I have no idea what she is talking about!" Which I presumed was to make me appear as if I had three heads and was talking in tongues. Mr Hilliard, our finance director, then interjected yes they have been paid down quite some time ago. Okay, story over.
Then Mr. Hershman, past councilman and city controller, got up to speak and said that that 1.3 million has never been paid back. Now, I have little problem with needing to make concessions when departments are in need but I do have a problem with even the discussion of increasing fees when the council nor the administration seems equipped to manage the monies that are there. I don't blame the water/sewer department. I think they do an excellent job. I blame the administration for funneling the money from fund to fund and I blame Council for not keeping a more watchful eye on our money.
The water/sewer fund budget passed. The water/sewer rate passed without an increase... for now. But, I would hope that our council, which is generally "New" would pursue looking at the account fund balances on a regular basis - perhaps monthly. I honestly don't know that they do. If I were them I would request those sheets.
What puzzles me is how willing people are to pay more money. To keep throwing good money after bad over and over again while always thinking government knows best how to spend our hard earned dollars. It would do us all a great service if we starting demanding accountability from our governments.
Update: Michael Donovan, on his blog Inclusion, has already provided an answer to Kim's concern. "Nothing that I have seen so far suggests that there is an outstanding payment. However, I will pursue some additional avenues of information to see what else I can learn."
Update #2: I have been reliably informed that my take on the MC coverage is irresponsible because I did not take the time to check things out. The reporter normally assigned to cover the meeting had an unexpected emergency and his back-up was assigned elsewhere, I'm told. But this explanation just proves my point. As a result of deep staffing cuts, this Allentown newspaper was unable to send a full-time reporter to cover an extremely important budget meeting of the Lehigh Valley's largest city. My criticism is not directed at the reporters, but at the managers of a paper who has stripped it of its most valuable asset - journalists.