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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Monday, February 28, 2011

Is Judge Baratta Trying to Discourage Gracedale Appeal?

On February 16, I appealed Judge Baratta's denial of my Election Code challenge to the Gracedale Initiative Petition. As expected, the Commonwealth Court is fast tracking the matter. I've been excused from assembling a record, and both sides have been told to get their briefs in by March 15.

What puzzles me are two Orders of Court from Baratta on February 17, the day after my appeal. One of them orders me to supply him with a "concise statement of the matters complained of on appeal," and by March 10. I am ominously warned that "failure to comply" could be considered a waiver of all complaints on appeal.

Now this might make sense in an ordinary appeal, especially if there was no opinion from Judge Baratta. His opinion could address my concerns. But here, it's just a hoop to jump through. For one thing, Judge Baratta has already issued his opinion. On top of that, the Commonwealth Court has ordered him to transmit the entire record, including his opinion, by March 7, three days before my "concise statement" to him is due. So basically, he has directed me to file something that won't help him or the Commonwealth Court a bit, but could hurt me if I forget.

The second February 17 Order of Court that puzzles me is one scheduling a Friday hearing on Larry Otter's claim for $24,000 in attorney's fees. I'm not even sure that Judge Baratta has jurisdiction at this point. If he does, isn't it a tad premature to decide attorney's fees on a matter under appeal? On the merits, I am certain that Baratta knows as well as I do that Otter's motion is frivolous. But of course, the time I spend researching and briefing that matter is time I won't be spending researching and briefing my appeal to Commonwealth Court.

Judge Baratta must have known that he would be appealed. But the two Orders he filed on February 17 certainly seem designed to discourage me from moving forward. If that was the plan, it failed.

Lil' Canes Undefeated in LV Knee High Basketball

Warning! Grandfather bragging time! Continue reading at your own risk! Around Thanksgiving, Liberty's 5th grade "Hurricane" travelling team, where my grandson Dat plays, won a tune-up tournament at In the Zone, looking just a tad scary in the process. Their coach warned them things would get much tougher during their regular season with the Lehigh Valley Knee High Basketball League, where they'd be playing sixth-graders.

They finished the season 13-0. They won their closest game by 19 points, and just won their first playoff game by 40 points. Maybe they should have been playing seventh-graders.

Their coach, a gentleman named Craig, actually got each of the boys a basketball and a T-shirt, with their name and number emblazoned, for Christmas. Throughout the season, he played each of these boys about the same amount of time, whether they started or not. As a result, there's really not much difference between them. They're all pretty good.

Dat's had some pretty good basketball coaches, from UConn's coaches to Judge Emil Giordano (his boys are undefeated again, too!) to Rodney Robinson, a Channel 69 news dude who spends all his free time consumed by basketball.

But he's also stuck with me. Last Saturday, I managed to hit two parked cars in a pizza shop parking lot while telling him he needs to be more elusive.

'Canes will have their semi-final Thursday night against Salisbury at Nitschman. I am seriously considering blowing off County Council to be there. The 'ship will be decided March 5 in a game at Whitehall High School.

Who's More Evil, Developers or Bloggers?

In 2006 and 2007, the Zawarskis poured $13,350 into Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski's campaign coffers, and King Edwin smoothed the way for the "The Townes at Trexler Square," a KOZ project that makes these properties virtually tax free. So when I heard that Martin Zawarski is running against incumbent Arthur Murphy for Bethlehem Township Commissioner, I couldn't resist asking whether he was now trying to cut out the middleman and buy his office directly. Instead of jumping down my throat, as I fully expected, Zawarski and I exchanged 9 emails on Friday and Saturday. He must be pretty evil because I ended up liking him.

I won't get into his defense of the KOZ. He thinks my view is one-sided, and maybe it is, but we can save that debate for another day. But why is he running? He told me it's to make Bethlehem Township
"... a friendlier municipality. One that serves the people. I walk into Forks Township or Palmer Township or the City of Bethlehem and can walk into anyone’s office and have a cup of coffee and they will smile and shake my hand. Bethlehem Township – I nor other people get that feeling. But there are so many issues that BT [Bethlehem Township] needs to correct and work on. And we do need change. And we need business people on the Board of Commissioners that know how to run a business in tough times. I like Arthur- he works for Steve Selvaggio, and at one time Steve did a lot of work for my home building company. But it isn’t about Arthur and his position. It is about what I can do to make Bethlehem Township a better place to live and work."
He admits that "developers have been labeled the bad guys," although bottom-feeding bloggers like me are much worse. But Zawarski asks who "is better prepared to take on this job? I am someone who has been through the toughest economic times in our lives and survived through these times. Who has the vast experience on the board that I have?"

Zawarski, married to Cheryl, is a LU grad and his daughter is expected to earn her degree there this Spring. Unfortunately, despite his prayers to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, his son Zachary became a lawyer.

Zawarski and Murphy are both Republicans. I'd like to know how both stand on contributions to Bethlehem's library. Murphy seems to think libraries have outgrown their usefulness.

Browning & The Canine Vote

Did you think Ron Angle is the only public official who thinks he can hold two offices at one time? Well, don't tell DA John Morganelli, but LC Commissioners' Chair Dean Browning is running to keep his Lehigh County job AND for Treasurer of the German Shorthaired Pointer Club of America.

Browning has held that office before, when funds were down to $2,700, and it now has a net worth and cash position in excess of $100,000.

Dean's opponent, Jocko von Stolzhafen, two-time GSP National Champ, derisively said, "Woof, woof."

I had no idea German Shorthaired Pointers were so rich, or that they even voted.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Benol Forced Out as Chair of LV Tea Party

Below is an anonymous email I rec'd late last night. I have confirmed that Mat Benol has, in fact resigned as the Chair of the LV Tea Party. He was, in fact, forced out by a cabal who could never get over his support of LV Congressman Charlie Dent last year.

Apparently, all the huddles Joe Hilliard is having with Wayne Woodman and Scott Ott at the Lehigh County GOP are just wonderful.

"I am writing you from an annonymous account. I am requesting that you please keep my identity a secret.

"I am writing to let you know that Mat Benol has resigned as chair from the tea party, leaving the vice chair in charge. The vice chair is Kim Schmidtner.

"Please watch on 3/4 (our next meeting) as Kim makes the announcement that Mat resigned. She will tell you that it was for personal reasons or some other bullshit line.

"I will tell you, that the real reason Mat left is that he was forced out. He was forced out by Kim and Joe Hilliard. Ever since Mat took over as chair, and endorsed Charlie Dent, they have accused Mat of working 'for the NRC' and having 'met behind closed doors' with members of the party. Mat fully admits to this. However, he was meeting these people as a private citizen and not as 'chair of the tea party' or even as a representive of the tea party. Both these individuals made it impossible to govern the tea party group let alone accomplish anything during his short tenure.

"If you don't agree with these two personalities then you get a huge target on your back. They make your life miserable, which is what they did to Mat as soon as he endorsed Charlie Dent. They hammered him daily either he wasn't following the bylaws, or he shouldn't be doing A, or why did you do it that way? Kim would not give Mat the information/contacts that he needed in order to work with other groups, or with other leaders in the state. Truly- she has become the 'queen of the tea party'.

"I know for a fact, that some people stood up for Mat, and asked/begged him not to resign. Because these people stood up for what they believe in- they are now targeted. One is being totally ignored by these individuals and the other is being threatend to be ejected from the tea party for 'threatining joe' by pointing his finger at him and telling him he deserves a roberts rules enema.

"I send to you Mat's resignation letter (please do not publish it) in the hopes that you bring to light the wrongdoing of these two individuals. You can see by Mat's own hand the reasons why he resigned.

"Thank you for your time and attention in this matter

Does Mother Know Best About Bi-County Health?

Marge Peterson has a great story about Lehigh County Comm'r candidate Norma Cusick, a Republican, at Salisbury Patch. It takes real guts for a Republican to claim she supports a bi-county health department, especially right before a primary. Although I would never vote for or against a candidate based on a single issue, and actually oppose bi-county health as formulated, Norma's honesty would get my vote.

Interestingly, her son John, the President of Northampton County Council, has steadfastly voted against all bi-county health proposals so far.

Will she send John to his room?

Commonwealth Court Fast Tracking Gracedale Appeal

As expected, Commonwealth Court is fast tracking my appeal of Judge Barratta's validation of signatures in the Gracedale initiative. In a per curiam Order filed yesterday, I've been excused from filing a reproduced record, which will save me quite a bit of money. My brief is due by March 15. I'd expect a ruling very quickly thereafter.

Friday, February 25, 2011

McClure Op-Ed Misrepresents $60 Million Fund Balance

In his Express Times Op-Ed, Lamont McClure betrays a basic lack of knowledge about Northampton County's $60 million fund balance. During Council meetings, he's called it a "slush fund." He misrepresents it as a "gentlemen's agreement" between Executive John Stoffa and Council member Ron Angle, or as two months of the County's entire $300 million budget. Both claims are incorrect.

According to McClure, instead of $60 million, "The more fiscally appropriate amount of money to have set aside in a fund balance or surplus is about $19 million. For five years, Northampton County has been keeping a surplus three times larger than was necessary."

Let me give you the facts.

Northampton County's fund balance is $60,093,120. It's going in the wrong direction. It's $1.5 million less than it was in 2009, and $4.5 million less than it was in 2008.

It's no "gentlemen's agreement," but the product of an accounting standard called GASB 54. Last year, Northampton County Council formally adopted it by a 7 to 0 vote. McClure may be confused about all this because he was absent that night, and also missed all the Committee meetings during which the importance of this accounting standard was discussed.

A product of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, its purpose is to prevent exactly what is happening in Bethlehem, where money set aside for one purpose is spent on something else. Fiscal Affairs Director Vic Mazziotti tells me that failure to adopt GASB 54 would result in a "qualified financial statement" from outside auditors, and that would affect Northampton County's favorable A/A2 bond rating.

Contrary to what McClure seems to think in his Op-Ed, most of that $60 million is already committed. Here's how it breaks down.

* $13.8 million is set aside to pay the cost of a swaption agreement coming due next year. Gracedale proponents will tell you that the nursing home is being sold to pay this bill, but the funding has already been set aside. Their claims are disinformation.

* $25 million is set aside as a stabilization fund against emergencies like a collapsed roof or a bridge that needs immediate repair or cost over runs on a parking deck. Would McClure really advocate eliminating the rainy day fund?

* $463,000 is set aside to pay for purchase orders. Should we follow McClure, adopt Bethlehem's accounting style and delay paying our bills?

* $5.9 million is set aside to plug the hole in the 2011 budget so it is a balanced budget. Should we spend this money anyway and end 2011 in the red?

* $15 million is unassigned. This pays the bills when people are slow paying their property taxes. If I read McClure's op-ed correctly, this sum should actually be $19 million, which would make the fund balance $64 million.

McClure seems to think that the County can find $7 million to fund Gracedale next year, as well as another $10 million for capital projects. He claims there's no "fiscal necessity" to raise taxes. But as you can see, he is misinforming you. I don't believe it's intentional, but it's what happens when a Council member has a 60% attendance record. IHe should attend a few more meetings and listen to Controller Steve Barron a little less.

McClure Op-Ed Ignores Alarming Trends in Nursing Home Industry

In a guest op-ed at The Express Times, Lamont McClure makes this claim: "Now that the books of Northampton County have closed for the fiscal year 2010, it is important to understand that over the last 20 years, Gracedale has returned to the county treasury nearly $8 million. Over the last five years, the worst for local governments since the Great Depression, Gracedale has managed to add nearly $2 million to our surplus."

What are the facts? I spoke with Fiscal Affairs Director Vic Mazziotti, who provided me with the profits and losses at Gracedale since 1990.
20102,900,000 loss
20094,614,628 loss
2008953,502 profit
20075,427,871 profit
20062,565,721 profit
2005514,733 profit
20043,683,083 loss
20033,999,576 loss
2002461,735 profit
20013,105,879 profit
20002,315,682 profit
19993,403,803 profit
19985,661,596 profit
19974,878,670 profit
19961,435,795 profit
1995709,643 loss
19941,634,323 loss
19932,410,551 loss
19921,748,329 loss
1991160,712 loss
19901,637,386 loss
Over the past 5 years, Gracedale has returned $1,433,446 to the County coffers, less than the sum stated by McClure. Since 1990, it's a $7 million profit.

So when McClure claims that Gracedale has made money since 1990, he is correct. But that's only part of the story, McClure fails to point out disturbing trends that include a declining census, declining reimbursements, a saturated market, high personnel costs and the capital demands of an aging facility. Even a wheeler-dealer like Abe Atiyeh has been forced to try to convert a proposed assisted living facility in Bethlehem to an apartment building.

Northampton County is only one of seven Pa. counties currently considering a sale of their nursing home. Twenty-one counties in Pennsylvania have already sold their nursing homes. Thirty-eight of Pennsylvania's sixty-seven counties have no county-owned nursing home.

Commercial real estate appraiser Joseph Genay, who has conducted 130 appraisals of assisted living living facilities during A 35-year career, has stated there is a "major structural shift" in the way people view assisted living, and the current trend is for people to "stay in place." He indicated that, to be viable, assisted living facilities need an 85% occupancy rate, but the total occupancy rate in Northampton County is only 62.7%.

Genay's comments were directed at assisted living facilities, but the same reasoning would apply to nursing homes. It's a disturbing trend, and one that McClure completely ignores.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

If You Build It, Will Bethlehem Zoners Approve?

An Emmaus stonemason learned the hard way on February 23 that, before started a building project in Bethlehem, it's best to have the appropriate clearances. Stavros Kiprizlis told Bethlehem zoners he was "frustrated" after waiting two years for a zoning officer to review blueprints for an addition that would create a two-family home at 612 Cherokee Street. He actually had to replace plans after they were lost. So he decided to take matters into his own hands and just build it.

Five Cherokee Street neighbors, including civil rights activist Esther Lee, spoke strongly against any variances. "The proper credentials were never secured," she complained. "It looks horrendous. And I suggest that it come down."

Lee also blamed the City. "I heard drilling and sawing and I don't know what else. If I could see it, I don't know why others couldn't have aborted what you were doing."

Echoing Lee's concerns, Cherokee Street resident Francis Martinez argued that a favorable decision would mean that "any contractor in the City can do anything they want, come here, and you people say 'OK, this is fine, we're going to let it go.'"

Representing Kiprizlis, Bethlehem Attorney Jim Holzinger eloquently argued, "We're trying to resolve this in a way that is not going to be too damaging to the neighbors. ... This construction went on without a permit for an extended period of time. Two wrongs don't make a right."

But in response to questions from ZHB member Kenneth Kraft, Kiprizlis acknowledged that in his 30 years as a masonry contractor, he's pulled many permits and is familiar with the process. Zoners quickly, and unanimously, rejected his application for approval of a two-family dwelling.

In other business, zoners approved an attached carport for Joan Johns at 1540 Siegried Street after hearing testimony that there are already thirty carports in the neighborhood.

They also gave the green light for Adam Hazan to construct a parking lot for a three-family dwelling at 1512 E. Sixth Street, even though the lot will be only 7', instead of the required 15', away from another home. Next door neighbor Carl Postupack complained that gas fumes already enter his home at night when he listens to "Coast to Coast" on talk radio, even when the windows are shut. He also presented a lengthy, hand-written narrative complaining that prior owners had as many as 35 people living at the property at one time.

Although zoners ruled for Hazan, member Bill Fitzpatrick suggested that appropriate buffering be placed around the parking lot to mitigate any fumes.

Yetter Should Drop Judicial Race for Quoits

Let me explain something about comments on this blog. Nearly 100% of the time, you can post a comment, it will appear and I am automatically sent an email notification. But sometimes, although I still get an email notification, a comment goes right into blogspot's spam folder. It's rare, but it happens, especially when I'm getting lots of comments or somebody comments on a post that is several days old. It happened last night in a comment about the Wilson Borough mini-judge race, and sheds light on some disturbing and intemperate characteristics of one of the candidates.

So far, this contest stars Rhonda Elias, Shana Restucci and Richard "I'm a lawyer" Yetter. On my left sidebar, I have links for each of these candidates. Who knows? There may be more candidates in the days to come.

This one has been one nasty judicial race. Before Shana Restucci ever even announced, Yetter was threatening her with defamation. Then, when I posted about her candidacy, the attacks became so vicious I had to suspend comments.

On Monday, after telling you about Elias' candidacy, the anonymous slurs began again. One of the landed gentry attacks Elias because she owns no real estate. Both Elias and Restucci are snarked because they lack law degrees.

Last night, Donna "I'm married to a lawyer" Yetter decided to post a comment (read it here) claiming her husband, a lawyer, is the only qualified candidate. I got the usual email notification, but was on my way to a Bethlehem ZHB meeting and never checked the blog.

I was writing up my posts for the next day when, at 11:29 PM, I got this "anonymous" comment: "So what's up Bernie? If someone actually posts their name and an informative response to people's questions you take their post off? I don't get it. Are you only interested in stirring up trouble, or do you actually want people to know the truth?"

I checked my blogspot spam folder and, sure enough, Donna Yetter's remark was there. It had never appeared on my blog. I published it immediately, noting what had happened. But it bothers me that one of the Yetters had obviously commented anonymously. Is this kind of deception appropriate in a judicial campaign? Also, I was prejudged. Instead of waiting for the facts about the spam comment problem, as a good judge would do, I was accused and convicted of deleting a Yetter comment.

After all this, Richard "I really am a lawyer" Yetter decided to pop on this blog and claim that a comment identified by blogspot as spam had really, really, really appeared on my blog and then mysteriously ended up in my spam folder (read it here). "Before I left home for my quoit match tonight, her post did appear here on your blog."

Who the hell plays quoits in the Winter?

Well, Richard may be an attorney, but he's wrong. If blogspot recognizes a comment as spam, it goes into a spam folder without ever having been published. There is no way that he or his wife ever saw that comment.

By the way, Yetter's own comment went right into blogspot's spam folder. It failed to appear on my blog. I had to go to my folder and order it published.

As someone who has a law degree, I can tell you that most attorneys make lousy district judges. We have no common sense, a characteristic demanded in the minor judiciary. The best magistrates I've seen have always been nonlawyers.

What Yetter has displayed, over and over, is poor judicial temperament. He switched houses with his mom so he could claim residency. He threatened a candidate with defamation before she even announced. Another gets slammed because, in addition to being a nonlawyer, she is not a member of the landed gentry. He idiotically sent out a campaign mailer telling potential contributors their donations were tax deductible. And now, he or his wife attacks me anonymously for deleting a comment that was actually detected as spam.

Maybe he should consider becoming a professional quoit player, but he lacks the temperament to be a judge on any level.

And Richard, if you want to threaten me with defamation, there's a long line in front of you.

Portnoy's Complaint

Let me tell you a little secret. It was by no means a foregone conclusion that Northampton County Exec John Stoffa would ever appeal Judge Baratta's logically flawed decision about Gracedale. Baratta ruled that although the nursing home certainly impacts the public purse, an initiative concerning its sale somehow does not "extend" to the budget. I appealed Barratta on the signatures without batting an eye, but Stoffa agonized for days, even to the point where he was losing sleep.

What bothers him is that even if I am right and there really are only about 13,000 legitimate signatures for an initiative on Gracedale's fate, that's still a lot of people. He's also very reluctant to challenge the wisdom of Northampton County's bench.

He did appeal, not because he wanted to, but because he felt he had no choice. As the highest elected official in Northampton County, he has a duty to protect and defend the Home Rule Charter, and the logical result of Judge Baratta's ruling would bring County government to its knees. In the finest statement I've ever heard him make, he declared, "We can't have 23,000 county executives making a decision and have a representative government."

Stoffa made this comment at a news conference attended by The Express Times, WFMZ, Easton Patch, and one bottom-feeding blogger. Morning Call reporter Jenna Portnoy, the beat reporter assigned to Northampton County government, was absent.

She did speak to Stoffa later that day, and wrote about it. In a lead-in sentence that is more editorial than story, Portnoy misrepresents Stoffa completely. "Northampton County Executive John Stoffa is so determined to keep county voters from weighing in on the sale of Gracedale nursing home that he's taking the fight to Commonwealth Court," she "reports." As I've already indicated, Stoffa appealed in spite of a strong conviction that the voters should have a say.

I have no idea what Jenna was thinking.

The mainstream media prides itself on objectivity, and for the most part, they succeed. I'll add that Jenna Portnoy is an excellent reporter and has written countless balanced and factual accounts. As a disreputable blogger, I won't even try. I might ruin my reputation.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Schism in Lehigh County's GOP

When Wayne Woodman was first elected party boss to Lehigh County's GOP, he said he'd be concentrating on school board races. That's, after all, where most of the tax increases are concentrated. But instead of doing that, this relative unknown is instead focused on the Commissioners' races, where Chairman Dean Browning, a fellow Republican, is seeking a second term. Woodman wants to knock him off.

Last year, Woodman wanted to embarrass Cunningham by sending the budget back for a do-over, and set up an issue for next year's municipal races. But Browning, who had been warning about this tax increase since before he was in office, had to be snapped in line. For days, he was besieged by phone calls and emails. Threats of retaliation came not just from the tea party crowd, but some mainstream and very well respected bluebloods in the GOP. "Vote with us, or your career is over," was the sentiment.

Browning's career may very well be over. Instead of playing Woodman's political games, Browning voted his conscience. And for that, he is being punished.

Publicly, Woodman is pretending he's Switzerland in this primary. But he's selected the team that best reflects his views, and is about to push Lehigh County as far to the right as he can. He's going after the biggest dog he thinks he can take down, and right now, that's Browning.

His own wife, Lisa Scheller, is running. She's got the financial resources to buy her seat, too. Candidate Scott Ott is a person Woodman calls one of his best friends, and one he paid $40,000 per year as the goofy "Executive Director" of the Republicans. Ott and Woodman have attempted to recruit Dave Najarian and Vic Mazziotti, too.

Ott, who delights in making fun of Muslims and undocumented workers, is unlikely to be content as a mere County Commissioner or Executive for very long. This is a guy who in 2007 announced he was running for President. This guy has his sights set on bigger things.

How long before Woodman and Ott decide that Pat Browne is not conservative enough? Or Charlie Dent?

Party bosses should never be an issue. That was a problem with Joe Long when he tried to rule the Democrats in Northampton County. It is increasingly clear that Wayne Woodman is Joe Long on steroids.

Plow Perils in Hanover Township

It might seem innocuous, but driving a snow plow for Hanover Township might soon qualify as one of America's ten most dangerous jobs. On February 2, a sinkhole, caused by a water line break, swallowed a Hanover Township plow/salt truck being driven by Hanover Township Public Works Director Vince Milite on Brentwood Avenue. On February 21, it nearly happened again.

Milite and Township Manager Jay Finnigan were driving two plows on a different section of Brentwood Avenue, and no sooner had they passed than another sinkhole opened up. Milite told Supervisors at their February 22 meeting that this second depression, larger than the first, was caused by a cavern created by the original water line break. "This one was under the cartway, bigger than the one the truck went in," declared Finnigan, who stated he put the "pedal to the metal" to make it through without being swallowed into an abyss. Milite added that it even extended partially into a resident's driveway. "Hopefully, we capped it well enough, but only time will tell," he said.

Bethlehem had already tried filling the sinkhole twice, but because February 21 was the Presidents' Day holiday in Bethlehem, Milite filed the hole himself with ten tons of material and 30,000 gallons of water.

In other business, Supervisors voiced skepticism about a request from Hanover residents Robert W. & Gayle McLaughlin for an aluminum fence at their Monocacy Drive property, which will extend into the Township Swale. Gayle McLaughlin, seeking a hold harmless indemnification agreement, argued that the fence would be no obstruction because it would be the 2" above the ground. Because it's an aluminum fence, water would run through and cause no flooding, they claimed.

Township Solicitor Jim Broughal advised Supervisors that he can put anything in a hold harmless agreement, but "it's not going to stop you from getting sued." He reminded them of a similar situation in Stafore Estates, where the Township was dragged into litigation.

When the McLaughlins presented pictures of other properties with fences that appear to be in the Township Swale, Township Manager Jay Finnigan promised to look into the matter.

Supervisors also agreed to a 10' x 10' x 26' cooler for the 7,200 sq ft PJ Whelihan's coming to 3395 Highpoint Blvd. This popular restaurant will provide 45 jobs at the site of the old Bennigan's, and can handle 210 hungry customers. Because of the weather, a March opening has been delayed.

Hanover Supervisors will next meet on March 8, 7 PM, at its municipal building at 3660 Jacksonville Rd.

Steve Salvesen To Challenge Barron in Norco Controller Race

Regular readers of this blog know that I at one time admired Northampton County Controller Steve Barron. But when he began popping up at every political event in a 50-mile radius, while leaving the grunt work to his staff, a number of County officials became concerned that he was needlessly politicizing what should be an independent office. I spoke to Steve, and he promised to tone it down. Right after that, he blasted Ron Angle at a Council meeting over Gracedale, with an alphabet soup of unions behind him. "I'd rather stand with the people behind me than the person in front of me," he pandered.

That summer, Barron also tried to inject himself in a union attempt to get inside the door at T-Mobile's LV Call Center, which employs 1,400 workers. He and Allentown City Council Prez Michael D'Amore, another pro-union official, were filmed marching with union brothers and sisters onto the Roble Road property, demanding to see some VP without an appointment. When a befuddled security guard turned them away, Barron gave him this message: "Please remind him [T-Mobile VP Brueckman] that if he needs anything from Northampton or Lehigh County, we're going to remember this day and we'll make sure that it will be part of the negotiations." (You can see it all on YouTube).

This threat of official government retaliation was quickly denounced. Executive John Stoffa fired off a letter apologizing to T-Mobile, stating that Barron "does not represent the Executive Branch of Northampton County government. ... Please accept my apologies for any undue concern or misrepresentation that this visit may have caused." For its part, Northampton County Council adopted a resolution that "condemns and repudiates" Barron's behavior.

To this day, Barron has refused to apologize for what really amounts to extortion. Instead, he's actually expecting you to re-elect him.

Thankfully, you have a choice. Long-time Hanover Township Supervisor Steve Salvesen is running to restore the Controller's office as an independent financial watch dog, not an extension of any political party or union. Below is his curriculum vitae

√ Married, wife Helen. One (1) son, Andrew.

√ Resides in Hanover Township.

√ B.S. in Marketing, Minor in Engineering, Pace University, NYC.

√ M.B.A.&P. Masters in Business Administration & Policy from, C.C.N.Y., Baruch College (City College Of New York).

√ Completed all credits necessary for PhD, except oral dissertation, in Economics.

√ Retired from Ingersoll-Rand.

√ Served four (4) years as Trustee in Bloomingdale, Illinois. Trustee is similar to supervisor.

√ Completing twenty eighth (28) year of service on the Board of Hanover Township. Served seventeen (17) years as Chairman.

√ Served as Executive Director of the Bethlehem Authority.

√ Served as Township Manager in Upper Nazareth Township.

√ Director of the Moravian Historical Society, Finance Committee.

√ Trustee, Advent Moravian Church, Budget Committee.

√ Director, Silver Creek Country Club, Secretary & Chairman of Long Range Planning & Finance.

√ Member of LVIP Board of Directors.

√ Served on the Hanover Township Planning Commission.

√ Served as Slatington's Borough Manager.

Contributions can be made to: Friends to Elect Stephen Salvesen, P.O. Box 20904, Lehigh Valley, PA 18002-0904.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Stoffa: We Cannot Have 23,000 County Executives

A somber County Executive John Stoffa today told reporters he's instructed his Solicitor, Karl Longenbach, to appeal Judge Stephen Baratta's decision letting voters to decide whether the County can sell Gracedale, the County's nursing home. "We can't have 23,000 county executives making a decision and have a representative government," he reasoned. Stoffa's remarks are below.
Stoffa to Appeal Gracedale Decision

The Express Times has more here.

Updated 4:36 PM: Easton Patch has weighed in, too.

Bethlehem Township To Pay Workers on Active Military Duty

In the lobby outside the meeting room at Bethlehem Township's municipal building, there's all kinds of historical arrowheads and tools once used by native Americans. They're all under glass, but on the coffee table, there are numerous copies of something else. Comic books. "The New Avengers," with Marvel characters like Captain America, Thor and Iron Man, saluting the "real heroes, the men and women of the US military."

"Take one" offered Manager Howard Kutzler, explaining that a township employee who does double duty as a Reservist, brings in things like that for the kids.

At their February 21 meeting, Commissioners said thanks to this Reservist by unanimously adopting a resolution, sponsored by Jerry Batcha, to compensate Township employees activated by the military. Commissioners will pay the difference between a worker's military pay and what he or she would have received from the Township, for twelve months.

A similar resolution was in place for eight years for the now ended "Operation Iraqi Freedom," but Batch noted "we still have several Township employees who are in the military, and at any given time, can be activated."

After the motion passed, everyone resisted the temptation to shout, "Avengers assemble!"

In other business, Manager Kutzler reported that, with a recent $8,729.42 expenditure for road salt, Bethlehem Township has now exhausted its budget on that line item for the year. He will use liquid fuel tax proceeds for additional purchases if bad weather continues.

Commissioners ended their meeting with a discussion of a 55-acre property, west of Route 191, devised by the late Janet Johnston Housenick to Bethlehem Township for use as a public park in 2005. A mansion on this property was built by her grandfather, Archibald Johnston, a president of Bethlehem Iron Works and Bethlehem's first Mayor.

Although the park is unlikely to open officially until later this year or perhaps even next, Commissioner Michael Hudak reported that many people are already using it to walk their dogs and even build campfires. "It's turning into a dog park," he complained, asking for signs to be placed at the entrance.

Right next to this park is another 36-acre tract that Housenick donated to Northampton County as a park in 1986. Township officials have asked Solicitor James Broughal to continue his efforts to acquire that tract. "I have not received any indication they will not consider this," he reported, but cautioned that a property transfer would have to be approved by County Council.

Sal Panto's Kick-Off Speech: Clean & Safe

In his "State of the County" address last week, Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham stressed the importance of public safety. "Public safety is the prerequisite to all other activities. You cannot have a healthy community, create jobs or improve the quality of life unless people are safe and justice prevails." No matter how many tax incentives you give to lure a restaurant to Allentown, it's wasted money if people are still getting shot a block away.

When Sal Panto ran for Mayor four years ago, he kept it simple - Clean & Safe. After his election, he followed through by increasing the size of the police force from 52 to 63, starting a city-wide street cleaning program and adding code enforcement officers. Easton's crime rate dropped nearly 8 per cent last year, while Bethlehem saw crime go up 6 per cent.

Last Thursday, Panto kicked off his re-election campaign at the Grand Eastonian. He's seeking a second term because "there is still so much to do." I thought he might run unopposed, but Easton fire fighter Mike Krill, a Republican, is circulating petitions.

Below is Sal's Kick-Off Speech.
Sal Panto's Kick-Off Speech

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dent Gives Early Endorsement to Bernotas, Carroll and Simao

Although it's by no means unusual for LV Congressman Charlie Dent to endorse a candidate for local office, he had to take some personal satisfaction in seeing a full slate of Republicans - Al Bernotas, Tom Carroll and Tony Simao - willing to take on "one party rule" in Bethlehem. Dent left Washington, D.C. at 5:30 AM Saturday just so he could publicly give them his good government stamp of approval following a Lincoln Day breakfast at Hotel Bethlehem.

Dent, who became intimately familiar with Bethlehem's mismanaged city government during his most recent Congressional race against Mayor John Callahan, stated Bethlehem "deserves better that what it's getting right now from the current administration." Noting that Bethlehem's bond rating has been downgraded, Dent said it's time for some "meaningful oversight." He called on City Council to be "watchdogs for this administration, not lapdogs."

"You will have better City government because of these guys," he said.

Dent did recognize some "voices in the wilderness," people like Jean Belinski, Mike Schweder and Dave DiGiacinto.

Below are excerpts from the candidates.

Al Bernotas on YouTube: "I'm not waiting until we get elected to City Council. We've already started to make a difference by going out for the past year and a half, two years, just listening in. We're going to do a few Right-to-Knows, we're not going to allow only City Council to see the budget, P&L and what's going on. I'd like to see the check register posted to a website. A little bit of sunshine never hurt anyone. ... I know how to balance my checkbook and take out loans and pay them back. I'd like to help the City administration learn to do that, and I'd like to make sure that City Council watches everything that's going on, and communicates with the people."

Tom Carroll on YouTube: "The City is already $300 million in debt. That means that for every adult over 18 in the City of Bethlehem, we all owe, just for the debt of this City, $5,000 a person. ... The administration says, 'We have a revenue problem. They do not. They have had a 150% increase in revenue since 2000. They do not have a revenue problem. They do not have a tax problem. They have a spending problem and they have a borrowing problem."

Tony Simao on YouTube: "There comes a point in time when the tough choices have to be made. ... Ron Angle comes to mind, the Northampton County Bulldog, as he's known in some circles. I believe that that's my type of character as well. I don't like incompetence. I don't like waste. It seems like there is a lot of it going on in the City of Bethlehem to the point where now, at a national level, Wall Street is taking notice and lowering bond ratings."

On the Democrats' side of the ticket, City Council Prez Bob Donchez and J. Willie Reynolds are seeking reelection. Mike Recchiuti, a lawyer and member of the City's Parking Authority, is also seeking your approval.

(Blogger's Note: I was unable to attend this endorsement due to a family commitment.)

Vic Mazziotti: A Man For All Seasons

She had been after him for weeks to have lunch together, and he finally agreed. When the bill came, she grabbed it, insisting she was going to pay.

"You can pay the bill if you never want to do business in Northampton County."

That's how John Stoffa's amiable Finance Director, Vic Mazziotti, handles lunch with prospective County vendors. He's proud to be a member of what Morning Call columnist Bill White has called Stoffa's "meatloaf" cabinet. "Meatloaf is pretty good stuff," he confides. But after 42 years of full-time employment in both the public and private sector, Vic is stepping down as Director of Fiscal Affairs in March, telling me he'd like to get up one day and go fishing, or just take his grandsons to a game.

A portrait of St. Thomas More, incidentally, adorns one of the walls in his office. Patron saint of politicians and lawyers, More lost his head - literally - when he refused to join Henry VIII's quarrel with the Catholic Church. His final words. "The king's good servant, but God's first."

"I hope it never has to go that far here," deadpans Mazziotti, noting "I've got a couple more Council meetings."

Based on his outstanding performance as Stoffa's money maven, Vic has nothing to worry about. His initiatives have saved taxpayers $10.1 million annually. In the past five years, he's changed health care administrators ($7 million per year); made telephone services changes ($250,000 per year); negotiated a new IT contract ($800,000 per year plus 12 additional employees); replaced the County's Payroll/HR system ($250,000 per year); reorganized Assessment Division procedures ($1 million per year); implemented remote deposit capabilities in the Revenue Division; established an OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) Trust to reduce the required annual contribution for retiree health care by over $500,000 per year; and implemented a new recording fee ($300,000 per year).

That's nearly 1 1/2 mills in property tax that Mazziotti quietly managed to save Northampton County residents.

Mazziotti stressed that "I'm not going away mad." He called John Stoffa "the best public servant in the Lehigh Valley." And Northampton County workers "as good if not better than anyone I've ever worked with."

What's in store for Mazziotti? Although he refuses to discuss future plans, Lehigh County Commissioner nomination petitions are currently being circulated on his behalf.

Wilson District Judge Race Picks Up A Third Candidate

Wilson Borough's District Judge race just got a bit more interesting, as Rhonda Elias enters the fray. As an "active member of Our Lady of Lebanon Church," a point she makes on her webpage, she is certain to attract a heavy Lebanese vote in Wilson, West Easton and Easton's west ward.

A Republican who works at General Supply, she's 30 years old and has always lived in the Wilson Magisterial District. Other candidates in the race include Shana Restucci, a legal secretary, and Rich Yetter, an attorney.

Andy Roman to Challenge Sheriff Ron Rossi in Lehigh County

Lehigh County's top vote-getter is usually either DA Jim Martin, a Republican, or Sheriff Ron Rossi, a Democrat. Both always do very well in a community that likes law-enforcement types.

Why would Democrat Ed Koren, who in 2007 was actually a Republican candidate for Whitehall Township Executive, run against Martin? Some Democrat politicos worry that all Koren will do is drive up Republican turn out for the popular DA, ensuring their defeat in Commissioner and judgeship races.

Even more inexplicable is Andy Roman's run at Rossi. Roman has made no official announcement, but is circulating petitions.

Last year, Roman launched a major investigation over Rossi's concealed permit fees. At that time, the common wisdom was that this was Andy's way of saying he'd like to be Sheriff himself.

Northampton County is the only Pennsylvania County whose Sheriff is appointed. When Luzerne County's new Home Rule Charter goes into effect, it will join Northampton in appointing

Norco's Campaign Finance Reports To Go Online?

That's what Voting Registrar Dee Rumsey claims, possibly as soon as this week. According to her, there will be online links to every campaign finance report filed in her office for the numerous municipal offices up for grabs this year.

I'm unsure exactly how this has happened. Executive John Stoffa has been considering this move for several years, but I'm unaware he's actually issued any orders. According to Rumsey, she got her instructions from her solicitor, Chris Spadoni.

Northampton County Council actually killed all thoughts of campaign finance reform in 2008. Then Council member Charles Dertinger worried that some "little citizen group" might actually get together and challenge campaign finances, keeping a candidate in court instead of letting him campaign. "This is over the top," he concluded.

Lehigh County Commissioners decided, in May '09, to post campaign finance reports online. (They can be viewed here).

$3.89 Million For 60 New Lehigh County Jobs?

One of my first jobs was at Baker Chemical Company, where I managed to blow up the lab on three separate occasions. The bosses were very happy to see me go to law school.

It's called Avantor these days, and, according to a news release, corporate headquarters are moving to Upper Saucon's Stabler Center, in Lehigh County, safely away from the occasional ka-boom. Its new location will be twice the size of its old facility.

Existing HQ staffers, and there's about 140 of them, will work from this new location. Over the next three years, Avantor will hire an additional 60 people.

"Anytime a large corporation like Avantor decides to relocate to our county we would welcome them. In light of the economic climate of the last three years it's extra special to have Avantor relocate its corporate headquarters here and support a workforce of 200 full-time employees in Upper Saucon Township,” said Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham. “The Stabler Center is emerging as a magnet for corporate relocations and job growth for our region. We are grateful to Governor Corbett and the state for realizing the importance of this and supporting job creation in Lehigh County and Pennsylvania."

Avantor manufactures and markets high-performance chemistries and materials around the world under the brand names J.T.Baker® and MacronTM (formerly Mallinckrodt® Chemicals). The products are used in biotechnology and pharmaceutical production; in the manufacturing of semiconductors, flat panel displays and photovoltaic cells; and in research, academic and quality control laboratories.

Lehigh County and the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation helped the company obtain a $3.89 million funding offer for the project from DCED, including a $200,000 opportunity grant, a $3 million grant from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, $90,000 in job training assistance, and $600,000 in job creation tax credits.

“A corporate relocation project of this size and importance comes along once or twice a decade,” said Philip B. Mitman, LVEDC president and CEO. “In this challenging economic climate, the commonwealth, the Lehigh Valley and the Lehigh County leadership team continue to work together to bring jobs to our region. This cooperative leadership embodies the spirit of free enterprise.”

Oh, I don't know. That's $64,833 in state subsidies for every new job, attracting from far away Phillipsburg N.J. Nothing about that seems like "free enterprise" to me.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Easton Neighbors: Is It Time to End Collective Bargaining in Public Sector?

Noel Jones has an excellent post about the goings on in Cheese Head country. She's asking what you think. I'm disabling comments here, but recommend that you post your thoughts there. Haven't public sector unions enslaved us? Isn't it time to end this drain on our economy?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Meltdown at Northampton County Courthouse

Three judges - Steve Baratta, Kim McFadden and Lenny Zito - convened an "emergency" hearing today to complain about a litany of problems caused by Executive John Stoffa's hiring freeze. As a Court Reporter dutifully took down every word uttered, judges complained primarily about vacancies and high turnover in the Criminal Division, according to reports in The Express Times and Morning Call.

At last night's Council meeting, Stoffa told Council he's approved filling every vacancy in both Criminal and Civil Divisions. Councilman Ron Angle today stated that the Criminal Division is down only one FT and one PT staffer. Personnel in the Criminal Division have been embroiled in office squabbles since the arrest of a Deputy for embezzlement, several years ago.

Interestingly, at 2:30 PM today, only one judge's car was still in the parking lot.

Who Is This?

Kathy Frederick and Bill White both have an interesting "What is This?" feature, where they ask readers to identify some mysterious object. It's all very light-hearted and fun. No controversy.

I'd love to do something like that myself, but as most of you know, I'm a bottom-feeding blogger. Being noncontroversial would be bad for my image. I've just reached a milestone where one of my readers sends me pictures of dead Nazis. Not everyone can claim that status.

So instead of "What is This?", this occasional column will be called "Who is This?"

If you look at the picture I have posted, I want to know the identity of the bald guy, not the dude eating his own finger. I'll give you a few hints.

* He's there almost every night for several hours.

* He sits at the same barstool every night, and his asschecks have actually now molded into the wood.

* He's a politician.

* He's not Reverend Mike Dowd.

I'll give you an answer sometime soon. Class dismissed.

LC Comm'r Race Getting Crowded

Last year, when Wayne Woodman was elected Lehigh County GOP Boss, he immediately began to interject himself in Lehigh County's budget. First he led a charge to eliminate some programs, which amounted to about $300,000. Then he seized on a never-used provision of the Home Rule Charter to try and send the budget back to LC Exec Don Cunningham, with a demand to return with a zero-tax increase financial plan. Dean Browning refused to go along, and Woodman's effort failed.

Browning, one of four at-large Commissioners whose terms expire this year, was told by many of his fellow Republicans that his political career is over. Well, Browning is running for re-election anyway, along with Democrat Gloria Hamm.

It's becoming a very crowded Republican field that includes Scott Ott, the recently-resigned Executive Director of the LC GOP; Salisbury Township Commissioner Norma Cusick, mother of Norco Council President John Cusick; Mike Welsh, who ran a strong but losing campaign against Jennifer Mann two years ago; and Brad Obsborne, a South Whitehall Township Commissioner. Dave Najarian, a prominent local attorney, is considering a run. Vic Mazziotti refuses to state his intentions, but petitions are being circulated on his behalf.

You can also add businesswoman Lisa Scheller to the mix. She just happens to be Boss Woodman's wife. Although Woodman apparently decided to skip me in his distribution of Lisa's announcement, I found out anyway. She's president and CEO of Silberline Manufacturing Co. Inc. in Tamaqua, and could easily outspend any candidate.

If Andy Roman decides to seek re-election (and that's by no means clear), that will mean that 8 Republicans are n the hunt for four seats, including two seats already held by Republicans.

On the Democrat side, I only know of incumbent Gloria Hamm, a nurse, and Geoff Brace, a business revitalization expert.

That's 10 people looking for 4 seats.

The post office will need to hire seasonal help for all the mailers.

Will CACLV Funding Be Cut in Half?

In a moving essay, Alan Jennings appears stunned by President Obama's proposed reductions in CDBG funding, which will affect nearly half of his funding at CACLV. As Jeff Pooley observes, "This will hurt poor people all over the country, but it will hit hardest here in the Valley, where CACLV is far and away the most important advocate for the poor."

Although LV Congressman Charlie Dent has previously stated there are no "sacred cows," his office reports that he and two other Congressmen were expected to propose a measure to preserve funding for valued and effective programs in 15th District, including Assistant for Firefighters Grants (AFG), Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), Community Services Block Grants (CSBG), hydrogen and fuel cell technology programs, Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants, the Weed and Seed program, and more.

When I get more detail, I'll share it.

Don Cunningham & Groucho

On a balmy day reminding us that Winter will end, LC Exec Don Cunningham reminded over 200 people at Coca Cola Park that their dark days will soon be over, too. In his annual "State of the County" address, Cunningham again displayed his prowess as the most effective public speaker in the Lehigh Valley.

Most people start off speeches with quotes from Lincoln or Gandhi, but Don chose another famous thinker - Groucho Marx. In fact, he took one quote from Groucho and made it the thme of his entire speech.

Two Lehigh County judges, Sheriff Ron Rossi, Controller Tom Slonaker, Coroner Scott Grim and Superclerk Andrea Naugle were there, along with Commissioners Dean Browning and Gloria Hamm. Cunningham also brought some of his department heads, explaining that he though he might need to fill the room.

No need.

You night think Greater LV Chamber of Commerce CEO Tony Iannelli was blowing smoke when he called Don a "Superstar," but the atmosphere in the room did change once Cunningham arrived.

Northampton County Exec John Stoffa and his Director of Administration, John Conklin, were both mesmerized. The Northampton County Bulldog, Ron Angle, refused to leave Coca Cola Park after Don's speech, saying he wanted to stay in Lehigh County.

So did I. There was plenty of food and cookies. Angle and I loaded my jacket and a few brief cases and we'll be having a bake sale tomorrow.

It's more than flowery oratory. It's really a blue print for his pragmatic style of government, one that avoids ideological labels. It's realism, a trait Cunningham shares with people like Charlie Dent.

I filmed Cunningham's speech in its entirety and will load clips of it over the weekend. But for now, let me share it with you.

Near the end of last year, I was asked by The Morning Call to write an opinion column with my outlook for 2011 in Lehigh County. I began the column by quoting Groucho Marx.

Groucho once defined politics as: “the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” This would be funnier to me if it weren’t so true lately.

In this age of anger and discontent, we’ve become quite good at looking for trouble and finding it everywhere and, I would argue, at times, diagnosing it incorrectly. Maybe that is just benign politics. It becomes malignant, however, when the wrong remedies are applied.

I closed that column with a definition of wisdom. Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad. In the end, it’s about what you do.

We’ve been through a rough three years as a nation and across the Lehigh Valley. Times have been a little tougher for most of us and downright rotten for some of us. Too many of us have lost a job or a home or are struggling to keep pace with increasing costs. Big business and Wall Street have let us down and government has disappointed and angered us. The sins and stupidity of some have inflicted a painful penance on many, causing some of that anger and discontent. But some of it is just us. In recent decades, we’ve come to expect constant progress, regular economic growth and increased comfort. We look for a pill to heal all that ails us as we eat more and exercise less. It can’t always work that way.

There will always be tough times. This country and this Valley have seen worse times. And, as a people, we overcame those challenges with a rigid backbone, a strong work ethic and the ability to sacrifice to improve our own condition and that of our community and our country.

As a government, it’s critical that while we refocus our efforts to pare away all that we don’t need or can’t afford that we don’t weaken the foundation that has made us so strong and unique here in the Lehigh Valley. We are on the right course. We just need to stay that course, work a littler harder, complain a little less, keep pushing back the storm clouds and not pursue the wrong remedies. The sun is rising again over South Mountain.

There is much concern in America today about government being too large. There is no reason for that concern in Lehigh County.

Our workforce is smaller this year than it was in 1990, more than 20 years ago.

The majority of our employees pay 20 percent of the cost of their medical benefits, more than ever before. This county stopped providing full health care for retirees in 1987.

Our budget this year is $22 million less than it was last year. We maintain a healthy $21 million reserve fund. Our employee pension fund, unlike so many other governments, is fully funded by any relevant measure. Our Cedarbrook nursing homes have a four-star quality rating and are a positive on our balance sheet, proving quality public nursing care at no net cost to our taxpayers.

The county bond rating has recently been upgraded to an Aa1 rating. Our debt burden is low, just $15.6 million a year on a budget of $391 million. And, that’s after completing the borrowing for the most productive capital project and maintenance program in the county’s history, which among other things included renovating and expanding our Courthouse, building Coca-Cola Park, a new state of the art 9-1-1 Communications Center, a new Community Corrections Facility and repairing or replacing more than 20 bridges. Our buildings and infrastructure are new, energy efficient and sound.

Yes, this year, unfortunately, we had to roll back the tax cut that was put in place in 2005, which was paid for in part with a “tax relief fund” until the money ran out last year. Despite job cuts, the closing of our organic recycling center and a total of $7 million in position and program cuts on our general fund, we could no longer sustain that tax reduction. Despite the rate going up this year, it is still lower than it was in 2003. And, I must pause here for a brief political note -- because this is an election season -- to remind my Republican friends that President Ronald Reagan did the same thing when the federal budget could no longer sustain his tax cuts of 1981 during the middle of a recession. He rolled a portion of them back in 1982 because fiscal responsibility called for it.

Most importantly, however, we have a tax rate this year that is lower than it was eight years ago despite coming through three years of recession, a recession that took its toll on revenue. Last year was the first time in the county’s history that real estate tax revenues went down. New tax base, which comes from residential, commercial or industrial growth, was 50 percent less than it had been in 2009. We lost $1 million from property owners challenging their assessments. We saw more than 700 assessment appeals filed. To put that in perspective, during standard years the county hears about 150 to 200 appeals.

Reassessment has been happening in a de facto way on a property-by-property basis for the past several years in an unfair and selective way. If you’ve had someone to advise you and have had the money to pay the professionals, chances are you have a lower assessment than your neighbors. We are rectifying that this year. The county last squared up on the value of property in a comprehensive way in 1991. A lot has changed in the real estate market in 20 years. We have started in an in-house, low-cost reassessment process that will take affect in 2013. And we are putting in place the systems and technology so that we never again need to go 20 years between property assessments.

By any measure this is a fiscally lean and sound government. Our foundation is solid. Fiscal responsibility is balancing the services, costs, debt, reserve funds, and legacy costs in the short and long term. It means more than just tax rates. Fiscal responsibility is good management of people’s money for today and for tomorrow.

That is precisely what County Executive David Bausch did in 1987 when he had the foresight to end full medical benefits for life for county employees. Despite that action, today we have a total legacy cost of $141.7 million to provide health care for eligible retirees and the current employees hired prior to 1987 that are entitled. For Lehigh County, however, it is not a looming crisis. That is a fixed and finite number that does and will continue to go down every year. It is, however, a burden on our budgets. This year, we will pay $5.5 million to fund current costs.

The same can be said of pension costs. In this year’s budget, we will make a $10.6 million payment to the pension fund. We could do what other governments have done and not meet our obligation. It hasn’t been easy. Our obligation has tripled since 2007 but we have met it every year and, hence, we have a pension fund that is fully funded by any relevant measure. In addition, despite strong political pressure, my administration has consistently denied requests for increased pension benefits. We are funding what we owe and not passing along new legacy costs to future office holders.

This is a critical part of fiscal responsibility, as is controlling the size of the workforce and keeping a check on employee compensation. As we benefitted from the foresight of Mr. Bausch, future leaders will benefit from us imposing requirements for county employees to pay for 20 percent of the cost of their health care, which is a critical part of negotiations with a few remaining employee unions. We are pursuing similar actions to balance costs between taxpayers and employees on other wage and compensation issues in negotiations with four labor unions this year. We will continue to work with our leaders on the Board of Commissioner on this. Chairman Dean Browning led the effort to freeze salary increases this year for the two management bargaining units.

We will continue to find ways to do more with less and to reduce costs in our operations. There is no doubt that cuts at the federal and state level will find their way to our county budget. There is little chance that we will make up those cuts with local dollars. I am equally committed, however, to not arbitrarily cut back on our core responsibilities because it is politically popular. We will not apply the “wrong remedies” of Groucho’s observation, such as arbitrarily gutting $19 million from our budget.

As you’ve heard me explain before, on average about 70 cents of every tax dollar we collect in Lehigh County is applied to the area of law and order, the courts, corrections, probation, prosecuting crime, investigating deaths, emergency response and dispatch, the sheriff’s operations. This is the core of what county government does. And there is nothing more important that any government can do then to provide a safe community rooted in justice. Public safety is the prerequisite to all other activities. You cannot have a healthy community, create jobs or improve the quality of life unless people are safe and justice prevails.

When people tell you that we need to cut county government, ask them which part of this 70 cents of spending they will cut. If they tell you it will come from the other 30 cents, tell them this: of what remains, 14 cents is for debt service, about seven cents goes to run all our buildings, facilities, maintenance of bridges, parks and ball fields, about six cents for our local portion of human service programs, three cents to continue maintaining and improving our existing facilities and about three cents for administration, law and other overhead. That’s how your local tax dollar is spent in Lehigh County. This is not “big government.”

We have, however, spent wisely. Since 70 cents of our tax dollar goes for law and order, we’ve shifted a greater portion of it to working to combat crime, stop it before it occurs and to be creative about corrections to hold back the national trend of growth in incarceration spending. To accomplish this, we’ve worked across party lines and across the jurisdictions of independently elected officials: the judiciary, District Attorney Jim Martin, Sheriff Ron Rossi, Coroner Scott Grim and Clerk of Judicial Records Andrea Naugle. We have found the support of enough of our Board of Commissioners. Some of us are Democrats, some are Republicans. But we all have believed that in local government it’s about serving your community before playing politics.

This process of bi-partisan cooperation has delivered results. A cost-effective new courthouse, a state of the art 911 communications center, a central booking facility to allow municipal officers to get back on the street while we handle bookings in a uniformed way. It’s led to the Safe Streets program that has resulted in more police officers on the street. We have coordinated the purchase of compatible records management systems at all 17 of our local police departments so this year we can launch a Crime Data Center that will regionalize crime data, creating a virtual county-wide police department. For the first time, every police department in the county will share crime data in real time with county crime analysts to help coordinate it.

For more than 20 years, this county has had a community corrections facility. A concept that not only makes sense but it saves money. Non-violent offenders are kept separate from the main prison population, saving costly prison space. They are taught life skills and work habits in an effort to rehabilitate them to become productive members of society. This year, that deteriorating facility will be upgraded and expanded, increasing its capacity from 300 to 400 inmates and merging male and female into one facility with separate wings. This progressive community corrections approach has saved county taxpayers tens of millions of dollars during the last several decades. The use of this facility, a reduction in crime and the cooperative attitude of our judges in sentencing hardened offenders to state prison have resulted in our county having the same prison population in our main jail today as we did in 2001. This allows us to actually rent space in the jail to other governments, offsetting costs.

All of this must be working as crime rates are dropping and our prison population is being held in check.

The simplest way to save money and reduce the size of county government is for more people to obey the law and settle their disputes without going to court. We can’t dictate good citizenship but we do have an obligation to manage the cost of bad citizenship and to be creative and progressive about combating crime.

This year will see the launch of two major initiatives that we have worked together with District Attorney Jim Martin to put in place. Along with the crime data center I mentioned, the county has partnered with DeSales University to provide a much needed computer forensics and crime unit available to police agencies across the county. There is hardly a crime today that doesn’t involve the investigation of electronic records from computers to cell phones to bank cards or GPS systems. Our local police departments don’t have those readily available capabilities. Aside from solving crimes, the facility also will allow us to proactively combat vile offenses such as child pornography and sexual predators. Both facilities will give us the ability to identify and track gang members and the associated crimes they commit. We need to give our police the tools to combat criminals in cyberspace as well as on the street. Again, it would be cheaper if everyone just did the right thing and followed the laws but short of that we need to pay for safety and for justice.

It does cost us less as a collective community if we do these things regionally, which leads me to my final topic. Along with fiscal responsibility and public safety our third priority for my last three years as county executive is to improve regional approaches. We need to stop talking about regionalization as a grand academic theory and get it done at the functional level to improve services and opportunities -- and save costs -- across county and municipal government lines. We’ve been working hard at this within our county. Through the insights of our local government leaders organized into a unique Congress of Government, or COG, which has the support of all 25 of our municipalities, we’ve been able to launch these regional public safety initiatives, along with other cost sharing and joint planning initiatives. There is so much more, however, that we can and must do.

Just as our approach to public health would be better served by a Lehigh Valley wide effort, the crime data center would be much more effective if it went beyond Lehigh County and included neighboring counties. Crime knows no borders and the more we expand the reach of our shared data and information the more effective we will be at combating it. We are talking with Berks County and remain ever-hopeful that Northampton County will some day see the benefit of these shared efforts. Every county has different priorities and political and financial realities but at our core we share the same issues. We can work together to be more effective. We do that everyday in the Lehigh Valley with our airport, transit authority, marketing for economic development and tourism, our chamber of commerce. There is no practical reason we couldn’t do it with our prisons and community corrections facilities or our nursing homes. Northampton is still looking to site a community corrections facility and it’s become unknown now if the county will be allowed to sell its Gracedale nursing home. We remain willing to explore joint operations in both areas. Our Cedarbrook nursing home is run by a private company that specializes in nursing home operations. We own it. County employees staff it and, yes, we have unionized nurses and employees. We also have a four star rating and finish ahead every year on the books, with no net cost to our taxpayers. Imagine what we could save if we shared back office operations like laundry, food service, administration across county lines. The same can be said in the area of corrections. Northampton is pursuing the right solution in developing a community corrections facility. It’s a concept that works. Imagine if we did that together.

Functional regionalism can do more than just save operating dollars. It can make our region more attractive, create jobs and improve quality of life and the environment. Two quick examples:

We need to find regional solutions to provide water and wastewater infrastructure to protect our environment, manage our watersheds and create jobs. Two years ago, the Lehigh County Authority and Allentown struck a deal for the county to buy six million gallons of water a day from the city instead of drilling more wells in the ground. It was the right thing to do and a tremendous regional success. Today, we need to reach a similar agreement on the management and discharge of wastewater.

Development interest that will create jobs and expand our tax base has returned in Lehigh County. There are major companies looking at locating in the southern and western part of the county that will go a long way to improving the economy but the county authority has little to no existing wastewater capacity. We need to strike a mutually beneficial regional agreement with Allentown and other neighboring communities to move forward and create jobs and opportunity and lessen impact on our environment and watershed. Fortunately, we have an excellent committee of private sector leaders along with Renew Lehigh Valley and the Lehigh Valley Partnership working on this issue. For the benefit of the environment, cost control and economic growth, the solution will need to be regional, just as it is with our airport.

Northampton County Executive John Stoffa and I have long believed that our airport is an underutilized asset. It is a vital component of economic development and improving the quality of life in the region. A regional approach and a new, aggressive board of directors is breathing new life into the airport. Efforts are being made to meet with our business leaders to find way to increase the number of airlines and destinations, to make fares more competitive and to increase passenger traffic. Positive steps are being made. Last year, passenger traffic grew by 12 percent while the board has been proactive in resolving financial liabilities, getting its fiscal operations in order and improving the facility. Much remains to be done but it will continue to take a regional approach, supported by our private sector leaders, to have our airport realize its full potential. The opportunities are there as the New York City/Northern Jersey and Philadelphia regions struggle with congestion at their large metropolitan airports.

The quality of life and economic growth of an area is tied to its infrastructure, facilities, safety and some intangibles that make people want to live here, visit here and be proud their home, their community. That’s why we built Coca Cola Park, improved the walking trails and accessibility of the splendid Trexler Nature Preserve. Last year we added an extraordinary Environmental Center that has been winning design and environmental awards. That is why we are investing, along with the Trexler Trust, in the creation of the Jordan Greenway that will link the City of Allentown to the Trexler Nature Preserve with a passive walking trail along the Jordan Creek. That’s why we put our money where our complaints were and contributed $500,000 to the multi-million state project to finally repair the long-neglected Leaser Lake in the northern part of the county and restore that beautiful natural resource to its past usage as a fishing and recreation facility. It is scheduled to be completed this fall. That’s why we’ve preserved more than 20,000 acres of farmland, making us the third leading county in Pennsylvania in the number of preserved parks. And, finally, that’s why we will continue to fix our bridges, maintain our infrastructure and care for our parks.

We inherited a beautiful county from the generations that have come before us. We’ve also inherited a rich and bi-partisan tradition of managing it in a fiscally responsible way to provide a safe, growing community with an attractive quality of life. This remains a great place to raise a family and enjoy life. The state of our county is good. We just need to stay the course and not look for trouble to apply the wrong remedies.

Next year we celebrate our 200th anniversary, our Bicentennial as a county. We were created on March 6, 1812 at the dawn of the War of 1812 when our young nation didn’t know if it would survive into its fifth decade. We will honor our heritage and celebrate our founding appropriately. A committee is already working on some cool things, including a new written history and the creation of a Lehigh County Hall of Fame to recognize those born here or who have lived here that has contributed to this nation’s advancement in a range of fields from athletics to entertainment to business. We also will launch a legacy project to preserve and protect a piece of our history in recognition of our Bicentennial.

The people of this county had the resolve and optimism to create a new county, a new government, despite the hardships of war. During an uncertain time in this nation’s history, our county gave birth to its future. We owe it to those who gave us our foundation to work together to weather another kind of storm of a different day to provide for our future. Thank you for always supporting us as part of that effort.