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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Monday, August 31, 2009

A LV Tour de Blog

Here's a glimpse at just some of the fascinating stories floating around the local blogosphere. Apparently, we should not drink water (fish piss in it). We must also stop eating or our testicles will fall off. But if we're lucky like Don Cunningham, we can move into a nice house in Easton and retrieve some news articles about our parents and grandparents who served in WWII.

Wanna' Move to Easton? - I've told you before about Noel Jones' Neighbors of Easton, a great hyper-local blog whose focus is Shadtown's West Ward. She's reporting that Alan Jenning's CACLV intends to buy, refurbish and then sell five homes to low-income families. If you're interested, call West Ward Neighborhood Partnership at 610.217.6510, and ask for Sophia.

Ken Petrini (Allentown Fiscal Responsibility Examiner) continues excellent Lehigh County analysis. - Ken reports that LC Exec candidate Scott Ott has responded to Don Cunningham's budget forecast with a bit of a snark.
“The Morning Call gave Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham the headline he wanted after his vague preview Thursday of his 2010 budget...
No tax increase for Lehigh County
But the career politician, and failed gubernatorial candidate, is likely less excited about the subheading...
Cunningham, running for re-election, will use predecessor's relief fund to avoid a hike
That perfectly encapsulates Don Cunningham's tenure as County Executive -- political ambition, deficit spending and the good fortune to inherit a huge tax hike from his predecessor.”
Ken disputes the notion that Cunningham is a "failed" anything, and like me, resents the charge that Cunningham is just one lucky guy. "If Cunningham were truly lucky, he would have seen this downturn and not transferred $12 million from the Taxpayer Relief Fund to the Green Futures Fund."

Shhh! Northampton County's Best Kept Secret? - Northampton County Controller Steve Barron is a local history buff whose quirky Roadside Americana and Modern Ruins gets him in trouble with his better half. But she must forgive him his blogging after a great post about Northampton County veterans. In file drawers located inside the cavernous Governor Wolf building, there are records of every Northampton County resident who served in WWII. For each man and woman who served, a separate envelope details name, branch of the service, dates of service, unit, and if they have died (either post war or as a casualty of war). These envelopes also contain old newspaper clippings.

Does he find Sarah Palin Disgusting? You betcha'. - This is the unabashedly liberal View Beyond Bethlehem. So far, he's had four separate reactions to the death of Teddy Kennedy, the Liberal Lion. He mostly focuses on national issues, but did publish a blog about the upcoming rumble between Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan and LV Congressman Charlie Dent. "I don't know John Callahan's position on all the things I care about but I am willing to guess that they will be closer to my vision of America than Charlie Dent's."

Molovisky: Don't Drink the Water! - Blogger Michael Molovinsky is scaring the shit out of me. He's posting a series of reports contending that the Little Lehigh Creek is purposely being drained to benefit bottling plants in Fogelsville. I've asked Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham to explain what is happening.

LVCI: Forget About Eating, too! Now that Molovinsky has me rationing water, LVCI has me convinced the only thing I can safely eat is grass. In addition to condemning the chemicals poured into our food, LVCI wags his finger at high fructose corn syrup. Apparently, it causes anemia, high cholesterol, heart hypertrophy and delayed testicular development in rats. Now I know what's wrong with me!

Speaking of Food, The Pork Stops here! - Ironpigpen continues the best minor league baseball coverage I've ever read anywhere. Period.

Morning Call blogs have a merger. - Instead of having separate blogs for each of the Lehigh Valley's three cities, Valley 610 will do it all, with twelve reporters. Pam Lehman has a touching account of the evening a boisterous Teddy Kennedy served her hors d’oeuvres. I'm guessing she found her own way home.

Alfonso Todd - Disciple of Satan. - As some of you are undoubtedly aware, Angie and Bill Villa are my publicists. Since August 9th, their blog has been exclusively (and lovingly) devoted to me. Five separate blogs nail me as the anti-Christ. I've been looking for that tell-tale "666" birthmark, but it must be on my ass. I really can't see that as well as you. They've also been emailing virtually anyone they can find, warning them about me and getting nasty when people ask to be left alone. It's their civic duty.

They've also discovered I have 690 Facebook friends. They've already listed a number of you by name, claiming that unless you renounce the Great Satan, you'll be called out for endorsing Evil. One of the persons they found is Alfonso Todd, whom they call a "shameless publicity whore." I've never even met Alfonso and only know him from his writing.

Alfonso's offended by the implication that he is one of Lucifer's disciples. "Their blog supposedly champions the injustices of the poor, women, and minorities but they spit out about as much hate as the KKK. This blog is full of loathing, gossip, and pettiness."
"PUBLICITY WHORE", I will wear it like a badge of honor because it seems Bill Villa singled me out purposely; like he did at the last CHEN ARTS SHOW on 6/7/09 at the ALLENTOWN MUSEUM where he ran me down on my way out and asked me to say negative things about his "so-called" enemies in my e-newsletter, Lehigh Valley Flavor, www.lehighvalleyflavor.piczo.com, because, apparently, his wife's blog doesn't have enough credibility, and I guess because "misery loves company." He, also, asked me to boycott the City's newspaper, the Morning Call, because of the racist comments that often appear on their blogosphere. (I often battle this by going on line and going head to head with the ANONYMOUS bloggers themselves; GOOGLE: Alfonso Todd and see some of my fearless exploits) I told him no and and I guess that may be where the HATERISM started.
Alfonso also notes that Allentown's Chen Arts group is a collective effort that, due to the Villas' need for attention, seems to have lost as many supporters as it has gained.

I won't have Chris Casey to kick around anymore. - LVPoliblogger Chris Casey has "retired" from blogging for the 17,654th time. This time, he claims blogs "have quickly evolved to become somewhat irrelevant overall" and ... oh yeah, he has a life, unlike people like me. I'm apparently a permanent resident of Blogistan who "gets down on my knees and serve [politicians] like a third world whore." Nice guy, huh? Nothing weird there. About a year ago, Casey published a "fantasy blog novel" in which he portrays me as the victim of a grisly murder.

Informative. Entertaining. Crazy. We got it all, baby.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Cunningham's "Luck"

Have you ever noticed that good-looking women are often trashed in the workplace? They're often portrayed as sluts or superficial bimbos, especially by their female co-workers. Although less noticeable, I think this happens to men, too. In fact, I think that's what Morning Call columnist and blogger Bill White just did to Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham.

I know what it's like to be exceptionally good-looking. I cry myself to sleep nearly every night, asking "Why, why do I have to be so handsome? I wish I could be ugly for just one day. What's it like, Bill?"

Cunningham, Lehigh Valley Congressman Charlie Dent and Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan all have the advantage and curse of being like me - youthful and relatively handsome. These qualities undoubtedly enhance their voter appeal, but it hurts them in other corners, especially among jealous columnists. Charlie Dent, for example, is often portrayed as an "empty suit." Yet it would be no easy task to find anyone in this area as knowledgeable about national issues and foreign policy. Cunningham and Callahan are similarly dismissed as lightweights who just rely on their good looks and pearly white smiles. It happens to me, too. You have no idea how many women I turn down daily. It's not easy.

As he does every year, Cunningham yesterday delivered a speech outlining Lehigh County's finances next year. (Full text here). That sounds like pretty dull stuff, but it was perhaps the best address I've ever heard from a local official, a beacon of light to people who've lost jobs and homes. Well over two hundred people listened to Don, a distinguished audience that included most of our community leaders.

I may have missed him because I was surrounded by women, but one person I did not see was Morning Call columnist and blogger Bill White. Come to think of it, I've never seen him at a Lehigh County Commissioners' meeting. Yet in his daily blog, White quotes from Cunningham's speech, repeating a pledge that there will be no tax increase next year. Then he goes on to claim that Cunningham is just one lucky guy. He's able to use a tax relief fund set up for specifically that purpose. This is Bill's polite way of saying that Cunningham is just sliding by, relying on his good looks and charm.

Cunningham is just lucky? Let's talk a little about his luck.

His mom died when he was 14. When he was Bethlehem's mayor, Bethlehem Steel pulled out and the city lost 20% of its tax base in one year. The country goes into recession when he is LC County Exec, drying up the tax base there. That's the luck of the Irish, Bill. It's why most of us left Ireland and moved here.

In reality, Cunningham is an exceptional public servant whose youth and charm belie a steely resolve. He has made his own luck. Yes, he draws on a tax relief fund specifically established by a Republican County Executive for that purpose. White neglects to mention that Cunningham actually put money into that relief fund when times were good. Now that times are tough, he is drawing down, which is exactly what a responsible leader is supposed to do. Is he supposed to impose a tax increase during a recession just so that he does not deplete the tax relief fund set up for that reason?

Cunningham does not touch another, $20 million, tax stabilization fund, set aside for rainy days. White predicts that fund is next.

White neglects to mention that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recently ordered the State to fund court operations, which translates to $26 million in Lehigh County. When that money comes in, the county will be able to replenish the tax relief fund.

White also neglects to mention that Cunningham has limited government growth to just 1.03% per year during his first 4 years. That's well below the rate of inflation.

In addition to controlling growth, Cunningham has scrimped on the one item that really makes a difference in a county budget - personnel. Did you know that employment in LC is at its lowest level since 1990? Name one other local government that can match that. He has accomplished this without laying off anyone. He's relied instead on attrition and what he calls a "hiring frost," carefully scrutinizing whether each new hire is necessary.

The key to Cunningham's success is fiscal discipline, not luck. Dismissing his accomplishments as the product of mere chance, is inaccurate and reflects a bias against someone simply because he happens to be charming.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cunningham: No Tax Hike Next Year

You had to be there. In a rousing speech before approximately two hundred people at Coca Cola Park, Lehigh County Executive delivered an uplifting speech to those of us facing hard times. Drawing on his own personal experiences to find silver linings in dark clouds, Cunningham promises his 2010 budget will include no new tax increases. Nor will he raid the $20 million tax stabilization fund set aside for a rainy day.

Casting off accusations that he has been a tax and spend liberal, Cunningham points to an average county growth of just 1.03% during his four years as Executive. Employment at Lehigh County is also at its lowest level since 1990, proof that Cunningham has found a way to do more with less.

Don was gracious enough to sit down with me after his speech, and I'll have more about that tomorrow. The full text of his speech is below.

I want to thank all of you for being here this morning. Many of you have listened to me often give these updates and status reports in various forums on finances, the economy and state of governments at the city, the county and state level.

During that time, I’ve been fortunate enough to serve as a councilman and mayor in Bethlehem, a state cabinet secretary and now your county executive. And, all of you here – and many elsewhere – have been partners in the impressive growth and transformation of our Lehigh Valley during those last 15 years.

We join together today at a time when the daily drumbeat of news and commentary tells us this is the worst national economy of most of our lifetimes. We hear of diminished hope for average Americans. That our governments are out of control and we need to rise in anger at something, anything, someone.

There is no doubt these are difficult times. I’m not a national economic historian. I can’t tell you if these are the worst of times in our nation. But, I can tell you that I’ve seen worse here. I remember as a teenager in Bethlehem the “black Fridays” at Bethlehem Steel in the early 1980s where tens of thousands of my dad’s fellow steelworkers – along with Mack Truck workers – lost their jobs and unemployment was in the double digits. I remember as a young mayor in 1998 when the steel company closed and our city lost nearly 20 percent of its tax base within a year – where we muscled our way through budgets with less operating reserves than many of you this room have in your bank accounts. And, look at Bethlehem today.

I saw how the people of Bethlehem, Lehigh County and the Lehigh Valley responded during those times. How they weathered the storm. I saw how the leadership responded with plans for action, efforts for new economic development and a vision for a Lehigh Valley that would be better and stronger.

And, that is what we have today a better and stronger Lehigh Valley and Lehigh County.

I was not here for the Great Depression or World War II but the resolve of those who lived then was even tougher and unwavering. In much more difficult times, Roosevelt told us we had nothing to fear but fear itself. I think today that we have nothing to fear but making anger, whining and complaint our national - or local - policy.

There will always be challenging times. Budgets will not always be easy to balance. Things will not always go perfectly in life. I learned that at 14 when my mom died. It’s not what happens to you in life that determines whether you succeed or fail; it’s how you respond to it.

What we need today is sound leadership – across all sectors. Solid plans. A continued focus on tightening the belt, doing more with less, being good fiscal stewards while we find ways to grow our economy and improve our quality of life.

We are on a good course in Lehigh County. We remain strong – and, I believe, the future will be brighter. Times are a little tougher so it’s a time for stronger leadership not louder whining. It’s also not the time to raise taxes or dismantle the solid, responsible foundation of limited but effective government that has been built over decades in this county by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Four years ago, I laid out a few simple principals that our Administration has lived by.

First and foremost, we need to give people a government that focuses on getting the basics done – doing it well – and at a good price. Our most sacred obligation is to manage your money.

Second, we need to invest in our public infrastructure and fix what is broken in an efficient and cost-effective way.

Third, we need to form partnerships to ensure positive economic growth and development while we protect our quality of life, farmlands and open spaces.

Equally important, is the critical role of county governments to protect our at-risk children, our senior citizens and those among us struggling with mental challenges while at the same time operating courts, corrections, probation, parole and public safety operations to ensure a safe community that protects the law-abiding and punishes and rehabilitates those who don’t.

County government is wide-ranging but the mission can be pretty simple and clear. Let me quickly review what we’ve done and where we are going.

I will present my fourth budget next week as your county executive. This year’s budget in total was $405 million. As most of you know, more than half of that is state, or federal money or budgets for the Cedarbrook nursing home that do not represent the spending of Lehigh County taxpayer dollars.

During the last four years, the county general fund spending to support our operations has grown by an annual average of just 1.02 percent. That’s local spending growth of just a tick over one percent – for four years. And with the exception of a mandatory pension fund contribution outside our control and a quirky pay period issue – which I will explain in a moment – that includes the 2010 budget. One percent growth is well below the rate of inflation, yet I’ve heard some say Lehigh County has a spending problem. If this is a problem; it’s a good one – and an unusual one – to have. My guess is that one would be hard pressed to find another county that for four years has averaged local spending growth of just one percent.

When I present my proposed 2010 budget next week, it will contain the smallest number of employees that this county has had since 1990. With the help of our judges, the district attorney, the sheriff, the clerk of judicial operations, the controller, the coroner all our administrative department heads and our labor unions, this county will have less employees than it had 20 years ago – yes, 20 years ago. I’m not sure that there’s another government in the Lehigh Valley that can equal that statistic.

What that means is that all of our operations collectively – courts, corrections, human services, our nursing homes and elsewhere – have found ways to do more with less; increase productivity and deliver more services with less people. This has occurred despite a large increase in population during those 20 years, an increase in crime and lawsuits, murder investigations, an increase in people needing human services and an expanded role of county governments.

This was not done with across the board cuts to all departments but strategic realignments that shifted positions from where they could be eliminated to where they are needed. It also came from saying no to a lot of requests for growth and adding positions.

And, all but a few of the reductions we’ve made during the last four years have come through attrition without affecting an active employee. We’ve been in a permanent state of what Tom Muller, our great county director of administration, likes to call a hiring “frost” not a freeze, where every position that opens up is fully reviewed for need before it is filled. The credit for this rests solely with our sound fiscal managers and all of our employees, who are a dedicated group of public servants.

The 2010 budget I present next week, for my fourth straight year, will contain no tax increase. We don’t need one and now is not the time to reach deeper into the pockets of businesses and residents who are working hard to re-establish their financial footing. Nor will the budget touch our cash reserves. In accordance with sound public finance principals, we will retain our full $20 million stabilization fund, which is our only reserve or rainy day fund. This is a healthy level for a county our size. The budget will use the Tax Relief Fund that was created solely for the purpose of using tax dollars already collected to relieve us from raising taxes during challenging times. Just like we use our office supply fund to buy office supplies. This seems to bother some people – and while I don’t know why – I pledge to you that I will veto any proposed tax increase while we already have your tax dollars sitting in a fund designed to avoid raising taxes. I did not create this fund. It was created under former Executive Jane Ervin and the previous Commissioners. We did, however, add dollars to it when times were good.

The 2010 budget I present next week, however, will be more challenging for those entities affected or helped by county government because it contains no net growth. As revenue growth has disappeared because of slowed economic development, losses in the market and declining interest rates, we’ve had to tighten the belt. With the exception of needing a large pension fund payment to make up for stock market losses and a strange Haley’s comet-like employee pay cycle that comes around every 11 years, the 2010 budget will actually be smaller than this year’s $405 million budget. Employee raises not dictated by contract will be lower than years past and contributions to health care will increase. We will maintain but not increase our quality of life funding. We will reduce some operating funds set aside for the Green Future fund and there will be either no increases or cuts to important entities that we support like LANTA, the Planning Commission and the Conservation District. It’s my hope that all of this is temporary but future budgets will depend upon future revenues and available resources.

Aside from limiting growth to one percent and utilizing our Tax Relief Fund, there are two major successes that allow us to manage increased labor, energy and general operating costs without raising taxes: a $41 million avoidance of health care costs -- realized through aggressive and creative management -- and working to increase our state human services funding by $35 million. That’s a net positive of $76 million.

There are some who are confused about the county’s role in Human Services funding. The county administers programs that primarily are of the making and funding of the state and federal governments. For example, about $170 million of our total budget is dedicated to Human Services, but only $7.1 million of that comes from local tax dollars. The rest are pass-through dollars from the state and federal governments. We have aggressively held the line for four years on the amount of local tax dollars used to fund these programs. These programs should remain state funded.

The $7.1 million we have devoted to Human Services is actually $100,000 less than what the previous administration had budgeted but yet we’ve increased total state subsidies for the department by 25 percent or $35 million. That money has gone to good use, increasing child care subsidies for low income families, improving the quality of day care facilities and expanding programs for the mentally ill.

If the state changes funding significantly, services may have to be cut to very needy clients in our county. We don’t expect this to happen. We have based our 2010 budget on last year’s funding. I have, however, asked Tom Muller and Lynn Kovich, our director of Human Services, to develop contingency plans to handle a variety of potential actions by the state. This is one of the challenges of having the earliest budget cycle of any county or municipal government in Pennsylvania when our state elected leaders don’t get their job done on time -- a luxury we don’t have at the local level.

On a positive note in the area of state funding – and one that could have huge financial implications for years to come – the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently ruled that the state is required to fund its obligation for county court operations. If the state complies, that translates to $26 million for Lehigh County, costs that are currently borne by local taxpayers. That could preserve our Tax Relief Fund well into the future.

The reality is that on average 70 cents of every dollar that we spend of county taxpayer money goes to what we call Law and Order – the operations of the Courts, the District Attorney, the Coroner, our jails and juvenile detention centers and our anti-crime and anti-recidivism efforts. Unfortunately, this is also a growth business. It is by far the biggest cost in our budget. But, I believe it’s the core function of every government to keep our communities safe.

That’s why we’ve worked so closely with District Attorney Jim Martin and the police chiefs from 17 departments on new initiatives. That’s why we created a Safe Streets Program and awarded $1 million in matching grants to seven municipalities to hire 10 additional police officers to patrol high crime areas on foot or bicycle. We are the only county in Pennsylvania to do this – and it’s helping our local governments to draw people to our downtowns and make our neighborhoods safer. Not only are we providing money to beef up police patrols we’re helping officers be more effective at their jobs.

At the behest of DA Martin, we created a Central Booking Facility to process all bookings in Lehigh County at no cost to municipalities. This allows police officers to get back on the street quickly instead of spending hours mired in paperwork.

We’ve granted money to our local police departments to create a common records management system that will allow for a Regional Crime Data Center, the first of its kind in Pennsylvania -- where crime data will be analyzed in real time across all police departments, creating a virtual county-wide crime information operation.

It’s also why we built a brand new state of the art 9-1-1 Communications Center to dispatch emergency responders across the county. I believe that the county needs to be a partner in centralized public safety initiatives that lend a helping hand to local governments in combating crime and creating safer communities.

Obviously, no one foresaw the economic slowdown that started in 2008 but it was very fortuitous that we moved so quickly to do so much starting in 2006. As the farmers say, we made a lot of hay while the sun was shining. We’ve reaped the benefits of prudent planning and being aggressive.

The Lehigh County Courthouse is a great example. For forty years it leaked. Within this Administration’s four years it will be fixed and expanded. We shaved more than $20 million dollars from the inherited project while still maintaining a design befitting the solemnity of a courthouse and giving employees and visitors a proper working space. The project is on budget and ahead of schedule.

And, roughly $12 million of savings realized through the courthouse project has been redirected to replace or repair 22 of the county’s aging bridges. This is a significant capital investment into infrastructure that allowed us to open four bridges that were sitting closed four years ago. In December, we will open the Linden Street Bridge here in Allentown, a main thoroughfare into the heart of Allentown. And, by using our resources, we will have done it at least three years faster than if we had waited for the state.

We may be in a recession now but during the last four years, 30 new large employers have moved into the Lehigh County, creating thousands of new jobs and $1.5 billion in investments. In addition, 20 companies expanded operations. Unfortunately, it’s usually the cuts and closings that grab the headlines. Next year’s budget shows a small sign of economic growth over this year. We expect about $1 million in real estate tax growth, a small amount, but much better than this year’s no-growth.

On the recreation front, we built this -- Coca-Cola Park -- home to our Triple-A Iron Pigs baseball team – and it was done without using real estate tax dollars. Instead, money generated from the county’s hotel tax and state grants paid for its construction.

We’ve invested millions of dollars to preserve open space and farms from development in our rural townships. By the beginning of next year we will have preserved 20,000 acres of farmland. Today, Lehigh is the third ranked county in our state for preserved farms. We’ve expanded the Trexler Nature Preserve to include miles of new trails for hikers, bikes and horse back riders. This is the same property that holds the Lehigh Valley Zoo, an educational gem that attracted a record number of visitors this summer. In jeopardy of closing, the county stepped in with small annual grants to keep the zoo from closing, just as previous leaders had made commitments to the world famous Trexlertown Velodrome.

We remain committed to the county’s tradition of contributing a small amount of quality of life funds to cultural institutions, assisting our arts and cultural facilities and supporting the improvement of our downtowns and main streets.

We’re also helping families with children who are autistic and directed $1.7 million in state funding for an Autism Research Community Hub, the first county to do so in Pennsylvania.

We’ve also invested to make our facilities more energy efficient, conserving energy and dollars. By the end of the second phase, all our facilities will have been overhauled; replacing windows, light fixtures, upgrading cooling and heating systems and making other improvements that are expected to slash energy consumption by 20 percent, which would avoid $1 million in energy spending. In addition, we are using federal stimulus funds to install solar panels on the roof of the government center and new courthouse addition, which will provide more than 10 percent of the energy for those buildings at no cost to county taxpayers.

We’ve done this all – and much more -- while creating a government workforce that is the same size that it was in 1990 – and holding the average growth of general county operating spending the last four years to just over one percent per year. I would say by any measure that we are getting more for less and keeping the belt tight. And, we certainly have to. Losses in the market have tripled our contribution to the pension fund in two years – going from $4 in 2008 to $12 million in 2010. In the last two years, the slowdown in the real estate market has caused a loss of $4 million in increased tax revenues and recording fees. And the slippage of interest rates caused a loss of $3 million in investment earnings for 2010.

That’s why keeping government tight and utilizing the tax relief fund has been vital to weather this economic recession. I remain optimistic about the future. We don’t know what future years will bring. As we look ahead to 2011 and beyond we know our one-time cost of $4.3 million for the extra pay will disappear. The stock market has improved 20 percent since January – any continued growth will reduce our unusually high pension fund contribution of next year. Any positive turn in the real estate and development market, leads to a reduction of the losses we’ve seen in tax growth. A rebound in interest rates to the traditional 4 percent level restores our earnings on investment income.

And, of course, if the state complies with the Supreme Court order and meets its obligation to fund some court operations, we will be able to restore the Tax Relief Fund.

We know not what tomorrow holds but we are managing well today. The state of our county government is very sound – probably more sound than most of the other 66 counties in this state – and I believe that just as we’ve weathered other economic challenges in the Lehigh Valley we will do so again. There is a bright tomorrow on the horizon.

History has shown us time and again that Americans are galvanized during upheaval. But we can’t whine and complain our way out of it. We must lead our way to a brighter tomorrow, as we have done before. Our finest moments as a nation have always sprung from our most difficult times, just as they have here in the Lehigh Valley.

State Budget Impasse: Should We Throw the Bums Out?

Only two states are operating without a budget - Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Here in the Keystone state, our school districts are owed $1.3 billion statewide. In addition, non-profits providing human services are waiting for $114 million. It has even chased the Devil to Canada. (M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, Devil, has moved from Pennsylvania to Canada.)

So do we throw the bums out? It's it time for another clean sweep of state legislators. That's a questions I asked LC Comm'r candidates Bob Smith, Percy Dougherty and Mike Welsh on Tuesday. You can see their answers here.

Three candidates had three different answers. If there's no budget by Election Day, Smith would support removing everyone in Harrisburg. Welsh would prefer to judge each legislator on his or her own merits. Dougherty believes caucus leaders in both parties should be dumped.

Historic Northampton County Courtroom Gets Face Lift

Northampton County Courtroom Number One.

It's what most of us think of when we imagine a courtroom, a beautiful and spacious room with high ceilings and magnificent, custom-made, windows. It's where I first saw my Dad in action when he took me with him to work one day.

First put in operation right after the Civil War, it was supposed to be converted to a "ceremonial" courtroom. But it is just too useful. It's large, easily capable of holding hundreds of people. The acoustics are remarkable and the huge well in front of the bench provides the judges both security and dignity.

As a young lawyer, I used to watch President Judge Palmer race through a list of cases every month, pressuring lawyers to settle or scheduling trials. One day, the name he called out belonged to a poorly-dressed fellow sitting in the back. He had no lawyer, and had been charged with a minor offense I no longer recall.

"Guilty, your honor."

Palmer, in a hurry to get rid of the case, called the defendant forward and went through a thirty second guilty plea with the guy, during which he learned that this fellow had deliberately committed a crime so he could stay somewhere warm during the winter.

Palmer, PJ: "How about thirty days?"

Defendant: "Could you make it 90, your Honor?"

Palmer, PJ: "If you don't shut up, I'll give you probation."

Unfortunately, falling patches of plaster and peeling lead paint forced Exec John Stoffa to issue an emergency executive order in July for $140 thousand in repairs. For the last month, contractors have worked feverishly, and I snuck inside on Monday to film this beautiful room.

Next week, Pennsylvania's Superior Court, which includes Northampton County Judges Jack Panella and Robert Freedberg, will be hearing cases in Courtroom Number One.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why the State Budget Impasse Matters to Allentown School District

Allentown School Board President Bob Smith announced yesterday that the State budget impasse will likely force the school district to borrow money. "At the end of September, the Allentown School District will have to borrow money to start paying the regular bills. We have 'till the end of September. We have a good solid fund balance, but still, we get a lot of moey from the State. We have a lot of grant money. By the end of September, we'll have to start borrowing money. We are in the process of doing that. We are in the process of making $2.8 million in cuts. We are not laying off anyone and we are not raising taxes, but we will have to borrow money. These are just the facts of life."

Do you think Allentown School District is the only one that will be forced to borrow?

Why the State Budget Impasse Matters to Counties

I was very late for yesterday's news conference featuring Lehigh County Commissioner candidates Percy Dougherty, Bob Smith and Mike Welsh. But I arrived in time to learn what's bothering them - the state's failure to adopt a budget. They blame both parties.

"The politicians in Harrisburg from both political parties are putting partisan politics and special interests before the interests of the people they are supposed to represent," said District 4 Commissioner candidate Mike Welsh. "It needs to stop and it needs to stop now."

District 3 Commissioner candidate Bob Smith, who also serves on the Allentown School Board, added that "what may have started out as a legitimate battle of ideas on how to move our Commonwealth forward has turned into a sad sideshow that underscores why people don't like and don't trust politicians."

Why does this matter in county government?

Percy Dougherty, who chairs the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners, answers that question.
"The bottom line is that Lehigh County's budget of $400 million has less than $100 million raised by property taxes. The rest is State pass through money, which is now frozen. Many of the services that people expect, especially human services, are not paid for by the County but are only administered by the County. We have not been reimbursed for anything since the new budget year on July 1st.

"It is only a matter of time before services to children and youth, mental health and mental retardation, area agency on aging, drug and alcohol, and other critical programs cease to be funded because the County does not have the cash to fund these programs on its own. Some of those programs are mandated and the County has to pay for them even though we do not have the money. A total of $190 million is passed through the Sate to fund our human services budget, only $7 million is provided by the County."

Dougherty points out that even before the budget impasse, the State has been short-changing county government.

"We are tired of the State treating us as second class citizens. The County is already being shorted by the State even before the budget crisis. The State Supreme Court has ordered the legislature to take over court funding, it has not happened. The State gave the DAs a pay increase, but is not reimbursing us. The State is also shorting the funding of the Conservation District, and it has made a mess of the Children and Youth reimbursements under Title IV, which is resulting in counties being stuck with a large bill. Now they are asking us to pay their bills while they argue over the budget."

I have a video excerpt of some of their comments, which you can view here.

MSM a No Show LC Comm'r Candidates' News Conference

Last time I was at Allentown's Scottish Rite Center for a news conference with Republican Lehigh County Commissioner candidates, Dean Browning met me at the door and ushered me into the GOP's sanctum sanctorum. Once the blindfold came off, there were Primo hoagies and bottled water. I stuffed the ones I could not eat into my pockets and laptop case, and sold them later that day to Pawlowski headquarters, making a tidy profit of $3.25.

Naturally, when I received an invitation to another news conference yesterday, I immediately accepted. But yesterday was a bad day. Thanks to bridgework along the Seventh Street exit, Route 22 was clogged like my arteries, all the way from Airport Road. To make matters worse, once I arrived at the Scottish Rite Center, the damn door was locked. Now there was an intercom next to the door, but everytime I punched in a number, all I heard was a voice as garbled as a McDonald's drive-thru.


"Mrrph. Hmmnn tee dooor. Hmmmnn tee dooor, OK?"

I had exchanges like that for a good half hour. Finally, I whipped out my cell phone, called the Scottish Rite Cathedral and told them I was the frickin' Pope. But I forgot Scots hate the pope. "You'll never get in, you bloody papist!" Fortunately, I saw a code inspector driving by and told him the place had old smoke detectors. City officials quickly broke the door down.

Unfortunately, I arrived just as Percy Dougherty, Bob Smith and Mike Welsh were finishing their remarks. Fortunately, they had a nice folder containing their remarks. But I still felt pretty bad. You see, aside from me, the only person covering this event for the media was Ken Petrini.

Percy Dougherty is the Chairman of Lehigh County's Board of Commissioners. Bob Smith is President of Allentown's School Board. Mike Welsh is a successful businessman who just waged a courageous state house campaign against popular Jennifer Mann. Whether you vote for them or not, these are three very interesting leaders whose voices should be heard. One of them chairs the largest legislative body in the Lehigh Valley. Yet, neither The Morning Call nor Channel 69 covered this conference. They missed Percy Dougherty's claim that he's been kept in the dark about the budget to be unveiled on Thursday, something that Ken covered extensively in his report. They missed Bob Smith's announcement that Allentown School District is going to have to borrow money in September, something I'll be noting later. They missed how these candidates feel about the Lehigh Valley's state legislators, and the possibility of yet another clean sweep movement.

I know these reporters are stretched very thin right now, are working double beats in many cases, and have to prioritize what they cover. But what good is a democracy when we don't know how candidates come down on specific issues? That's the inevitable consequence of the demise of our newspaper industry. Doesn't this benign neglect encourage apathy?

Do You Have a Question For LC Exec Don Cunningham?

On Thursday, at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m., Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham will preview the financial outlook for next year. He must be expecting a crowd because it's at Coca-Cola Park. Wachovia Bank is going to spring for breakfast. Funnel cake and Bud.

During a news conference today, Dr. Percy Dougherty - he chairs the LC Comm'rs - told Ken Petrini and me that he's worried. He thinks this year's deficit could easily top $18 million. But nobody really knows except Cunningham and his staff. Cunningham is playing his cards close to the vest this year.

Over in Northampton County, I know we're in trouble. Exec John Stoffa and even DA John Morganelli are running through the halls, flipping off light switches, trying to save nickels and dimes. What complicates things even more is the state budget impasse. Petrini has an excellent analysis of all the traps and pitfalls that really await both county executives.

After he's finished his financial outlook, Don has agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions. Why would the Lehigh Valley's most popular elected official subject himself to a hate blogger like me? Simple. I stole his car keys. Unless he answers a few questions, Dean Browning and I will do some joyriding.

But why should I have all the fun? If you have a question you'd like answered, feel free to pose it in the comments.

Dent to Honor Fifty Local WWII Merchant Mariners

When England defiantly stood alone, a tiny and fading light against Nazi hegemony in Europe, it needed U.S. supplies desperately. Winston Churchill told Parliament in 1940 he needed a minimum of 20 ships docking daily, each carrying 120,000 tons of food and fuel oil. And so the Battle of the Atlantic raged, as merchant ship after merchant ship was sunk by U-Boats. Wolf packs prowled the Mid-Atlantic, outside the reach of long-range aircraft. Despite these dangers, enough U.S. Merchant Marine convoys eluded these German patrols to feed and fuel Britain. They did so without firing a shot. To a man, they were all volunteers. No less an authority than FDR himself remarked, “They delivered the goods when and where needed in the most difficult and dangerous job ever undertaken.”

They paid a price. One out of every twenty-six merchant mariners was killed in action, a higher percentage than any other branch of service. But loose lips sink ships. That information was classified, to keep Germans from knowing the extent of their success.

On Thursday, at 1 PM, LV Congressman Charlie Dent will finally present fifty WWII Merchant Mariners with long-overdue honors for their service. This follows Congressional action earlier this year, recognizing the important wartime contributions of the U.S. Merchant Marine. He will recognize these heroes at Alumni Hall - Room 130A, Northampton Community College, Gates Center, 3835 Green Pond Road, Bethlehem, PA.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bucks County Dems To Rally for Single Payer Healthcare

Bucks County Dems will rally tomorrow night for a single payer solution to our healthcare crisis. They will meet at 6 PM in downtown Quakertown, right across the street from the Upper Bucks Community Democratic Office at 328 West Broad Street. This gathering will coincide with a healthcare forum scheduled for 7:00 PM at the Quakertown Public Library, sponsored by Penn Action and Bucks County Voices for Health Reform.

These local Democrats recently adopted a resolution demanding Congress to adopt House Bill 676, although I think they mean HR 676, the single-payer option. Deputy Chair Bruce Whitesell adds, "Congress must act when they return from their summer recess. It is critical that Upper Bucks residents who support reform make their voices heard. The alternative is to continue with an expensive failing system that excludes too many for financial and existing condition reasons.”

Meet Northampton County's Tom Harp

From time to time, Deputy Northampton County Administrator Tom Harp is attacked on this blog as a John Stoffa crony, a do-nothing administrator who is only here because of his friendship with the county executive. These complaints are always posted anonymously. But they sound suspiciosuly like the rants I've already heard from a bitter former Reibman administrator, Bob Daday.

Daday hates Stoffa. On election night, he submitted a resignation letter to then Exec Glenn Reibman, claiming his "principles, values and ethics" would be incompatible with someone like Stoffa. But guess what? If he quit, he'd be ineligible for unemployment. So right before Stoffa came on board, Daday persuaded Reibman to "fire" him. When Stoffa discovered Daday's letter, he challenged the unemployment.

Daday had a radio show at the time, and was already lashing out regularly at Stoffa, Ron Angle, and for reasons that still elude me, Morning Call columnist Bill White. When the unemployment flap hit the papers, Daday quickly left his radio show, claiming he would be spending all his time at Attorney John Karoly's office. He was embarrassed.

But the rants have continued here. Always anonymous. Always mean-spirited. Often blatant fabrications. For all I know, these slams could be the work of someone else. But I find it hard to believe more than one person could be that goofy. A target of these ill-tempered arrows is Tom Harp. I owe it to him to set the record straight.

He's a grandfather, a very proud one, too. When I walked into his office yesterday, the first thing he did was show me two pictures of his 8 year-old grandson, a heavy hitter in Catty, who is missing one of his front teeth. That makes him look even tougher. Tom throws little plastic golf balls at his grandson, which this slugger nails with a fierce-looking, orange-colored bat. He's playing Fall ball this year.

Tom grew up in Bethlehem, graduating from Liberty ('67) and Moravian ('71). After that, he started a long and distinguished career in human services. He began by working with the developmentally disabled in White Haven. During his 8 years there, he picked up a Master's degree in Counseling from the University of Scranton.

Tom returned to the Lehigh Valley as a counselor in Allentown's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, helping people with disabilities find work. He was promoted to Supervisor and eventually became the District Administrator, overseeing a staff of 35 people in four different counties. He ended his 35 years in human services as the state's bureau director.

Over this time, Tom got to know Stoffa, who then headed Human Services in both Northampton and Lehigh County. Stoffa recruited him to join the Allentown Kiwanis, which does a lot of work for downtown Allebntown kids with youth soccer, the Boys and Girls Club, Salvation Army and some arts groups. Once retired, Tom intensified his work with the Kiwanis and even joined the board at the LV Center for Independent Living.

Stoffa, who had avoided filling the Deputy Director of Administration position in an effort to save the county some money, soon found that he and his staff were overwhelmed. So he ended up recruiting Tom again, but this time to work for Northampton County. Tom accepted a rather low-paying job to help a friend, and this is how he describes Stoffa. "He has the qualities an elected official should have. He's honest. He's a straight shooter. He cares about people. He's very level-headed. He thinks things out. You are attracted to people you can respect."

So just what does Tom do at his do-nothing job?

* He's the county's risk loss coordinator. That eats up half of his time, and the county gets a $8000 annual reduction in its liability policy as a result. He also helps prepare the Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for all fourteen insurance policies.

* He's the county's point man for safety, methodically attacking health and safety priorities. He is currently engineering a program to get county workers certified in CPR and the use of a defibrillator. He's also formulating an EMS emergency action plan.

* He writes the county newsletter, which is only distributed internally for now. He tells me a newsletter may soon be made available for the general public, published on the county's web page.

* He is the county's liaison with its thirty-eight municipalities and four Councils of Government (COG). He attends all the COG meetings, which are conducted after hours.

* He is the county's Act 32 coordinator, and is currently setting up the initial meeting for the appointment of a single tax collector.

* He is the county's conduit on the Bachmann Publick House, the county's oldest building. Currently, he is coordinating a transfer of this treasure to the Northampton County Historical Society and Lafayette College.

* Naturally, with his background, he's the county's disability specialist, and is working on a way to make it easier for the disabled to access the courthouse.

* He drafts and researches the issues for county proclamations.

* He initiated and administers the county's prescription drug program.

* He prepared and regularly updates a Directory of County Services.

* He fills in for Stoffa at meetings the Executive is unable to attend.

One thing Tom is not is political. "I don't want to be part of that," he tells me. Clearly, the County is getting its money worth from this guy, described by John Stoffa as a "joy" to be around. If this is an example of cronyism, we could use a few more just like him. He's somebody's grandfather. He's here to help. He works hard. The anonymous shots Tom gets here are totally out of line.

Are You Ready for Some Football?

Last time I bragged about my grandson Dat, he had just bumped into three-time Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez. This hurler not only posed for a picture with Dat, but had lots of very good baseball advice. Unfortunately, it was all in Spanish.

That seems like ages ago. It's now football season, baby, and I goofed off a few hours tonight to watch The Bethlehem Steelers in action. Insects swarmed around my legs and locusts bellowed in nearby trees, answering the football whistles blowing everywhere. Parents in lawn chairs expectantly watched their pups. I watched, too, as the offensive squad continually screwed up a punting play. Every time they messed up, they all had to drop and do ten push ups.

They did a lot of push ups. In fact, the offense was so bad that even the defense had to do pushups. Even the kids on the sidelines had to drop. I bolted right before those goofy coaches ordered the parents to drop. This team may lose every game, but they'll all be experts at push ups.

I've included a picture of Dat during a water break, after about 80 push ups. Notice that this hot dog sports different color wrist bands. Already stylin' and profilin'. That should be worth another twenty or thirty push ups.

Get this. They actually have a preseason game this Saturday, the first annual John Fenstermacher Bowl, named after a legendary Bethlehem football and wrestling coach who was unfortunately stricken with ALS.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Allentown Gets a Little Tacky

The deepest, darkest day in my lifetime is 9/11/. Nearly three thousand people died, almost all of them civilians, and many more were injured. We lost our sense of security that day, despite two vast oceans that separate us from our enemies. The nation's two largest skyscrapers collapsed before our eyes. It's had a lasting impact. It's why we take our shoes off at airports.

On the fifth anniversary of that somber occasion, the Guv' and politicos like former exec Glenn Reibman celebrated with a ribbon cutting ceremony for Bethlehem's Riverport project. That baby was seeded with county and state money, and everyone was slapping each other on the back. Mayor John Callahan joined in the fun, too.

Now it's Allentown's turn to be tacky. According to a breathless report from DCED Director Joyce Marin at puff blog Allentown Good News, Allentown will mark the death of three thousand people just nine years ago with a bicycle race. She's instructing everyone to take time off and even goes so far as to tell them to eat at a King Edwin-favored restaurant. She does mention NYC, but only to note how the people there support the marathon runners.

Bethlehemites Proudly Fight for Their Wieners

So a Buddhist monk walks up to Bethlehem hot dog man Edwin Padilla and says, “Make me one with everything.”

That's certainly what Bethlehem is trying to do these days - make everyone happy - over a controversy it pretty much created itself. In a bad economy, laid off Edwin Padilla rolls out a humble hot dog cart to support his family. He gets all the necessary permits from Bethlehem, which take several months. Then he opens for business. That's the American way, right?

Not anymore. Some south side businesses are angry about the competition, and they pay taxes and make campaign contributions. So Bethlehem officials comb through their ordinances until they find just the right one to stop this horrible hot dog menace. No right-of-way permit.

Things take an even stranger twist when this Padilla gets nailed by a hit-and-run driver. No one can provide a complete description, but one eyewitness thought the driver looked a lot like Emeril Lagasse and is sure he shouted "Bam!" just as he rolled over the hot dog dude's foot.

Naturally, most of us tend to sympathize with the little guy, so people have worked themselves into a lather over "arrogant" city officials and businesses. "Save the Bethlehem Hot Dog Man!" is created on Facebook, and has picked up 2,614 members and 419 wall posts

The latest resolution is a proposed ordinance that will actually auction off five permits every three years to the highest bidder. Lauded by an assistant city solicitor as the "fairest" thing to do, it's probably the opposite. It completely ignores a lottery or some other selection process that would be less dependent on the size of someone's bank account.

Bethlehem Mayor and Congressional wannabe John Callahan, who has yet to share his views about medical care reform, is only a little more forthcoming about the hot dog dude. He's walking the tightrope. He likes sausages as much as the next guy, but does not want to offend some Bethlehem businesses. So he thinks carts "need to be in the appropriate location" and has his lawyers making sure that the Christmas City is not overrun by wieners. You see, a hot dog cart draws working stiffs looking for a quick lunch, and that's probably out of whack with a casino nearby.

In the hot dog joke I started this post with, the Buddhist monk is told he'll get no change. "Change must come from within." I have to wonder whether these hot dog wars and apparent disregard for a little guy, coupled with a glitzy casino, are a sign that Bethlehem is changing from within, and in a bad way.

Northampton County Council: The Video

It's no easy task filming Northampton County Council. They are farther removed from the public than most elected officials, and they often forget to turn on their microphones. But I have some video excerpts of Thursday night's meeting, and have posted links below.

* Joe Capozzolo was the sole dissenter to Mary Ensslin's appointment to the newly reconstituted Drug & Alcohol Advisory Board. More astute readers will recognize Ensslin as the council member who resigned to become John Stoffa's Director of Court Services. But she didn't last long there either, jumping ship right after an embezzlement was discovered for a better-paying job at Lehigh Valley Hospital. Some council members noted that Ensslin was the driving force behind the health bureau, but Capozzolo noted her political appointments with Toomey and Santorum. He felt someone more qualified should be appointed. A video link is here.

* Locking in a Power Rate: When PPL rates go up in January, Northampton County will have a rate that is already locked in, thanks to its participation with Lancaster County in a cooperative. Some of the intial discussion is linked here. Jerry Seyfried told Stoffa he should have had someone from the cooperative to explain things to Council. Lamont McClure, who insisted he does not oppose progressive solutions, just progressive solutions that come from Stoffa. McClure, McHale and Dertinger apparently want to run a giant extension cord from Gracedale instead of locking in PPL's electricity rate.

* We Can't Afford Anything: McClure claimed we can't afford a new treatment center in Bethlehem Township or a child advocacy center that is mostly funded by federal grants. He's got a point. Kids and prisoners can't vote. But as Easton Blogger Noel Jones observes, "At some point our City and County have got to realize that the enforcement-only model is outdated and not working. We need a rehab center to reduce the number of addicts buying drugs on our streets."

* Angle: Bi-County health Department Supporters are Gutless: I posted Angle's actual video on Friday, and it was well-received, but he's wrong. I support a bicounty health department and have one of the largest guts in the world.

* Cusick: Allegheny County Has Good Livestreaming program: John Cusick describes a decent livestreaming program in Allegheny County that might be less expensive than the proposal being considered in Northampton County.

Mea Culpa: Contrary to what I reported here, Lamont McClure did join Joe Cap in voting against Mary Ensslin.

A Kinder, Gentler Scott Ott Interview

Last week, during lunch with Lehigh County Exec candidate Scott Ott, he told me a little bit about his campaign. Now just because I was wearing a Don Cunningham wet T-shirt and had "I love Don" signs plastered all over my jeep, there are some among you who feel I was unfair, especially when I suggested there was no way he could win.

Hey, I'm a broadcast journalist, damn it.

Fortunately for you, there's a kinder, gentler and more detailed Scott Ott interview at Ken Petrini's Allentown Fiscal Responsibility Examiner. In Part 1, Ken claims Ott can win if Cunningham is caught in bed with three nuns. In Part 2, he adds they must also be unwilling.

Scott has apparently decided to tell his story himself, and his op-ed was published by The Morning Call yesterday.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Is Bi-County Health Bureau in the Morgue?

I'm beginning to think Lamont McClure is a fiscal conservative. At the end of last night's Northampton County Council meeting, Ron Angle had two suggestions on how to save money. He recommended dumping Gracedale, the county nursing home, and privatizing the county jail. McClure, while he disagreed with those two suggestions had a few of his own.

"The bi-county health bureau, let's not pretend we can afford that. The new treatment center, out in Bethlehem Township, that will be between 3 and 5 million dollars a year. Let's not pretend we can afford that going forward. I understand there is talk of creating a new organization within county government called a child advocacy center. I don't know that we'll be able to afford that. Let's focus on our core functions of government as opposed to continually expanding what our obligations are when we have no opportunity to fund them."

This, of course, was music to Ron Angle's ears, who revealed that two Lehigh County Commissioners have privately assured him . "I would like to add something to that. I detest gutless people, so I like Mr. McClure. He and I have been clear from square one about the health bureau. We didn't buy into it, we've been honest about it and said no, and took the beating from the public cuz' ya' said no. That's where we're at.

"I've gotta' tell you, I have talked to no less than two Lehigh County Commissioners, for obvious reasons I can't mention names, who both said to me they're not going to support this in the end, either. And I said to them, 'Why did you push this thing ahead?' They said because we don't want to make the public mad. So we are not prepared to pay millions of dollars for a health department in Lehigh County at this point in time because we're broke.

"This is what I mean about gutless people. You people who went along with this bi-county health agency - this la la land, pipe dream craziness - you didn't want to hurt the people in the audience.

"Stop to think a minute. I have set here and made it clear from square one. This will never pass and it won't. And you people setting here won't ever admit it, but you knew it would never pass either, but you went along to git along. The problem with all that is, is that you've got a group of people now meeting on that health board, who I think finally woke up by the way, because they talked to a few people now who have said honestly - behind the scenes they told 'em - it isn't going to fly.

"I will give anyone here who wants to bet me money five to one odds - I'll cover whatever you wanna' bet - there never will be a bi-county health agency.

"Now what have you people done? You've led some people to believe there was, you put a board together, ... and in the end you're going to shoot it down for the reasons Mr. McClure just said. We can't afford to do this."

I've posted a video of Angle's remarks above.

Billy Givens Watches Riverwalk Sink

Easton's controversial Riverwalk project has finally taken a hike, but not before $1.2 million in public funding has been flushed down the toilet and into the Delaware. Originally conceived as seven stories of condominiums, a bus terminal, retail shops and a parking deck, it remains a parking lot located in a flood zone.

Last night, Northampton County Council introduced an ordinance to reacquire that sinkhole-infested parking lot for the $595 thousand it received when former County Exec Glenn Reibman decided to sell it. It made no difference to him that the parking lot was being used by county workers at the adjacent Governor Wolf building.

Amazingly, this parking lot was also in a KOZ, and that was enough to draw the Lehigh Valley's original blogger, Billy Givens, out of retirement. He wanted to see for himself what was happening.

Before Billy discovered the Internet, he regularly regaled passers by in the Easton circle with a bullhorn his daughter gave him as a birthday gift. He littered offices everywhere with daily editions of his Billy Bytes newsletter, using a mimeograph machine from some office downtown. He hated our local newspapers, which he called The Excess Times and Morning Call Girl. They were mouthpieces and whores for local business bigwigs. Naturally, he was rewarded by being named a Bill White Hall of Famer. But he was brash. I once had to pull him out of the street during an antiwar demonstration when he got into a name-calling contest with a motorcycle gang member. Mayor Sal Panto had to persuade a police captain from locking him up. He's spent years taking "chunks out of those who hold themselves up as models of probity." That includes me.

Two years ago, after I deleted a few of his off-topic rants, he sent me an email entitled "Bernie O'Hare, Please Stay Off Your Bicycle, Even If Your Ass Is As Wide As You Are Tall." He then unloaded on me and, just for the hell of it, included Easton's college hill elite.
I know you're running away from me, but you're not going to be able to hide forever.

Up here in Easton's silk-stocking neighborhood of College Hill, where I live with my blue-blooded, Brahmin neighbors like Phil Mitman, Danny Cohen, and Sandy Woodring, they have their noses stuck so far up the ass of Lafayette College that if it made an abrupt left or right turn without signaling it would break their noses.

I'm from Alabama, the home of former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, who used to say of his opponents in the ring: "You can get on your bicycle and run, but you can't hide."
Get the idea? Billy received a warm reception from Northampton County Council last night, which more than once had a deputy sheriff escort him from the podium. .

During an executive session, he posed for this picture with moi, and as you can see, we both know the bloggers' salute.

Two miserable bastards.

Northampton County Scrambles to Minimize Electricity Rate Hike

Northampton County's electricity needs are met by two major utilities, Met Ed and PPL. Next year, when the cap is lifted on PPL, it is expected to increase rates between 37 1/2% and 40%. That translates to about $200 thousand out of the county coffers in the middle of a recession. So last night, Deputy Purchasing manager Terry Beidelman proposed purchasing energy through the Lancaster County Consortium, locking in a rate now for services next year. As Beidelman explained, "We are trying to take the initiative to do something rather than hide our heads in the sand."

Council Prez McHale worried that "There's really been no discussion at all," and Lamont McClure suggested that the price may go down after we lock in a rate. Charles Dertinger, who last night claimed to be an expert on electricity, suggested we use some other cooperative for some reason. And they all wanted to know why Lehigh County has opted out of this consortium.

"That's because PPL is right up the street from them," posited John Cusick.

Council voted to authorize County Executive John Stoffa to lock in the electricity rate. McHale, McClure and Dertinger voted against the notion. I think they want to run a giant extension cord from Nazareth.

Northampton County Budget: No Tax Hike Expected, But Bad Moon Arisin'

Northampton County's budget administrator, Doran Hamann, is predicting there will be no tax increase next year. In fact, despite the state's gridlock over its own budget and inability ti reimburse the county for human services, the county has continued pay all vendors. But don''t get the idea things are peachy. Hamann sees a bad moon arisin'.

If the county is able to avoid a tax increase, it will be the result of a combination of cutting office expenses by ten percent as well as raiding the budgetary reserve for $10 million. The one ray of hope is that real estate tax revenue is showing a 1% growth.

Councilman Lamont McClure noted that Westmoreland County may soon terminate contracts with dozens of human service providers and agencies that care for children or mentally ill or retarded clients. It simply has no money. But as Hamann noted, that's why Northampton County's two month budgetary reserve is a good thing. "Up to this point, we have continued to pay all vendors." Northampton County Executive John Stoffa bristles at the suggestion that we stop honoring human services contracts. "Why would we cut those contracts? They help our most vulnerable people."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stoffa's Voluntary Furlough Program Already Saving Money

In the few weeks that Northampton County John Stoffa's voluntary furlough has been in operation, it has already saved taxpayers $8,550. That's according to a brief report he made to county council's personnel committee this evening. Fifteen workers have already taken advantage of the program. Asked by Council Prez Ann McHale about child support and IRS deductions, Human Relations Director Connie Sutton Falf explained this furlough can only be taken for up to one week at a time. Since workers are paid biweekly, the deductions can still be made.

Ken Petrini Has Lowdown on Lehigh County Comm'r Race

Ken Petrini, like me, is an ex-lawyer. Like me, he's become a fixture at local government meetings. I usually stay east of Route 33, while he covers the wild west. A freelancer with East Penn Press, Ken also has a blog called The Allentown Fiscal Responsibility Examiner.

He's published the beginning of a continuing series about the 2009 Lehigh County races. Did you know that Republicans have controlled the Board of Commissioners since the inception of Home Rule over 32 years ago? Or that they also controlled the Executive office until Don Cunningham ran for the seat? This November, there is a very real possibility that the Board of Commissioners will also turn blue.

Here's a summary of Ken's initial analysis.

Executive race: "Now that Cunningham has decided not to run for governor next year and with John Callahan announcing his candidacy for Congress (quieting the Cunning is running for Congress rumors), it seems a certainty that he will be re-elected. Scott Ott faces an uphill battle to say the least and Cunningham has $750,000 in the bank."

Democrats Strong in District 3 (David Jones v. Bob Smith) and District 4 (Dan McCarthy v. Mike Welsh). "Both districts have Democratic registration advantages and incumbent Democrats. "

Percy Dougherty is the strongest Republican incumbent. His District 2 opponent is Marc Basist.

District 1, the seat being vacated by lovable Sterling Raber. "Lynn Township Supervisor Tom Creighton will carry the GOP standard against Jeanne McNeil of Whitehall. The district has a Democratic registration edge but a Republican history. That race may turn on turnout, with the GOP favored in a ho-hum response."

District 5 is the key. "District 5 has been a swing district and Glenn Eckhart, the Republican, won a narrow victory 4 years ago. His race against Hillary Kwiatek may determine control of the Board of Commissioners and at least force Cunningham into some tough decisions in the use of his veto. It is unlikely the Democrats will win control is that can’t win in District 5."

ScrappleFace is No Joke!

He calls himself a member of the "new media." I like that. I think I'm in that club, too.

I'm talking about Scott Ott, who is running against Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham this Fall. If you know anything about Scott at all, you most likely know him as "ScrappleFace," where he takes a satirical look at national news. He also blogs, a little more seriously, at Townhall and even has a column with The Washington Examiner.

I met Scott and Bob Romancheck for lunch at Stahleys, a great sportsbar built with no public money or tax breaks. I love their cheesesteaks, but my grandson is partial to the clams. At age 8, he's already wolfed down 8 dozen in one sitting. Once Bob uttered the magic word "Stahleys," everything else became a jumble in my aging mind. He did mention Scott, but I thought he was talking about Allentown pundit Scott Armstrong, bane of liberals everywhere. Armstrong is actually quite the refined guy in person, no doubt the result of a liberal and refined French wife. He listens to classical music and everything! So I figured we would get together and discuss Plato.

Instead of seeing Scott Armstrong, Romancheck introduced me to the very well-dressed Scott Ott, who was sitting at a table looking very much like a patient about to undergo root canal. He knows I'm a big Cunningham cheerleader.

What struck me right away were the similarities between Ott and Cunningham. Both are charming in person, obviously good-hearted people who actually listen to you. Both have a background in journalism and public relations. Both have great radio voices. But that's where the similarities end. For one thing, Cunningham's warchest is in the vicinity of $700 thousand, while the ScrappleFace web page reveals just $671 as of last night.

"You know you can't win," I told him, perhaps a bit too cavalierly. For a moment, just a heartbeat, he took on a steely look, then relaxed. It dawned on me then that Ott, despite his humor and satire, is in this race to win. He's never held elected office, has no money, is challenging the Lehigh Valley's most formidable politician, and is nevertheless convinced he can win. Or perhaps he believes that the issues matter more than the final victor.

I think the main difference between these candidates is that, while Cunningham believes government exists to help people unable to fend for themselves, Ott believes government's primary role is to "protect people from being oppressed by other people." He refused to classify himself, noting that if he told me was a Republican, I would know nothing more about him than I did before.

Doesn't that sound just like a Republican?

If elected, he told me he would focus on balancing the budget and reducing Lehigh County government, which he claims has grown from $345 million in 2006 to $405 million in 2009. Most of this, he acknowledges, is state pass through money, but he questions this reliance on state funding. "We are essentially helpless to do so many things because we are so dependent on the state."

As far as balancing the budget is concerned, he and I had some disagreements. He notes that Lehigh County spends more money than it takes in annually, and that's certainly true. But he fails to consider that Lehigh County has a tax relief fund established by Republicans for the specific purpose of balancing the budget. Why shouldn't Cunningham use that fund when revenues become meager? Ott disputes that, but it's called a tax relief fund for a reason. There's also a tax stabilization fund, a $20 million rainy day fund that Cunningham has left untouched.

Although the budget has grown, largely as a result of state pass through grants, Cunningham has actually reduced the size. He has fewer people working for the county now than at any time since 1995.

Ott stated he would support the elimination of offices that serve no vital roles, anything to be a "good fiscal steward."

Community policing grants? No.

State tree grants? No. "The whole thing is a shell game."

Noting that Cunningham will soon be proposing a new budget, Ott claims at the current rate, a major tax increase is only a matter of time. He worries how this will impact seniors on fixed incomes. "They can't rip a piece of siding off and roll it into the county when taxes go up. We owe it to these people to treat every single penny as though it was precious."

As our lunch went by and Ott's hamburger began to kick in, he grew more passionate. I admire his willingness to give voters an alternative, a debate that I'm sure Cunningham himself will enjoy. As Ott put it himself, and this is no joke, "I really hope people start paying attention to county government. Four hundred and five million dollars will blow through the county this year and most people don't even know we have a county executive."

Did he make the sale? No. I still prefer Don's less ideological approach to local government, and have never seen a county executive make a difficult job look so easy. But if you advocate limited government, Scott is the man for you. He promises a few surprises as his campaign progresses. I hope none of them involves farm animals.

Memorial Fund for Former ET Reporter Killed in Afghanistan

Chances are that if you read this blog, you also check out Josh Drobnyk's Pennsylvania Avenue, an insider's guide to Washington politics. Thanks to Josh, we know that a memorial fund has been established for former Express Times reporter Bill Cahir. Every penny donated will go to his family, which includes a pregnant wife expecting twins. Times are tough, but if you can scrape a few dollars together to help Cahir's widow, you'll know it goes to a good cause.

A Marine reservist, Cahir was recently killed during combat operations in Afghanistan. Drobnyk reports that Cahir will be posthumously awarded the Purple Cross.

Although rivals of a sort, covering the same beat for different newspapers, Drobnyk's reports about Cahir are a testament to him and his profession.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Easton Mayor Sal Panto: "No One is Trying to Hide Things From the Public"

On Monday, I published an email that's been widely circulating over the past several weeks, reporting that LA's Hoover Crips street gang has invaded Easton. I was unaware that Neighbors of Easton blogger Noel Jones had circulated her own email warning about gang activity. Amazingly, Easton's coppers told her to mind her own business. "[T]his type of misinformation hinders our law enforcement efforts dramatically because it causes paranoia within the residents."

Translation - telling the truth is bad for business.

I was surprised to learn That Easton Mayor Sal Panto had previously warned Jones about the email I published. "The [email] circulating from the Courthouse was scaring people."

Translation - telling the truth is bad for business.

We now know, thanks to Express Times reporter Michael Buck, that the email is generally accurate. Mayor Panto also clarifies his objections in a comment posted at Noel's blog.

"First and foremost no one is trying to hide things from the public. The email that Bernie O'Hare placed here was the email I referred to, saying it was alarmist. It was meant to encourage her fellow employees to be conscious of the activity if and when they left the juvenile center after hours. It went beyond that in that it did name a very fine business in the West Ward, one of the pioneers so to speak who built their business and rehabbed properties when no one was moving to the West Ward. It was untrue and it hurt their business to be associated with this gang."

Basically, Hizzoner is saying the email is bad for a specific business, which I redacted in my own post. He then goes on to try and contradict what the Easton police themselves confirm in the story written by Express Times reporter Michael Buck.

Mayor Panto, unlike his Allentown counterpart, has always been up front about Shadtown's crime problem. He's dealt with it honestly and proactively. His willingness to participate in blog discussions is refreshing. But it's a mistake to suppress information warning about a new gang in town. It led to an ET story that provides a little more perspective. It resulted in the mayor's own clarifying comment. Third, and most importantly, it informed the public.

Something wrong with that?