Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Gloves Are Off in Bethlehem's City Council Race

Rs sit on the left
Bethlehem City Council is known throughout the Lehigh Valley for its genteel attitude and unwillingness to roll around in the gutter. But one of my readers has warned that, under the surface, Bethlehem is really just "Bangor with lace curtains." Last night's City Council debate, involving three Republican (Al Bernotas, Tom Carroll and Tony Simao) and three Democratic (Bob Donchez, Mike Recchiuti and J. Willie Reynolds) candidates, proved him right. They're fighting over three seats, two of which are already held by Donchez and Reynolds. And the gloves are off!

Most Bethlehem City Council races, which usually involve clashes of the Callahan and Schweder factions of the Democratic party, are usually snoozefests. But as Al Bernotas himself pointed out, the injection of three Republicans has livened things up quite a bit. He noted that zero-based budgeting, which is being promoted by Bob Donchez, is actually a Republican idea that Democrats are now using in a bit of triangulation, a la Bill Clinton.

Whatever is going on, there definitely seems to be a lot of local public interest in this race. Northwest Block Watch had a candidates' night on Monday, and over 80 people showed up. Last night, there were a little less, but the 50 people there would be considered a good turn out in a County-wide race.

Last night's forum, conducted at Salem Lutheran Church, was hosted by Bill Fitzpatrick's Neighbors on Watch Block Watch. Rev. Walter Long, serving as moderator, told the six candidates that their time was being carefully regulated by a timekeeper, who would show colored cards to indicate how much time is left. "Red means we take you out and shoot you," he warned.

In their opening remarks, Tom Carroll wasted no time criticizing the "shameful behavior" of the Callahan administration, which has been beset by three straight years of deficits. Tony Simao agreed, and warned that Democratic candidates would offer a plethora of "rainbows," "lollipops" and "lies."

In addition to criticizing Mayor John Callahan for spending money borrowed for an EMS Center, which forced the City to borrow again, Simao and Carroll both lashed out at Reynolds. He chairs Council's Finance committee. They slammed him over the casino host fee. Instead of being used for tax relief, the money went to pay for the impact of gambling to the City, in the form of salaries for police officers and firefighters. "He stands up there and wags his finger when the truth is, he's not telling the truth," said Carroll.

Throughout the evening, Reynolds was doing a slow burn, but finally stood up and responded forcefully. He noted that the casino host fee paid to the City is supposed to be used for the impact caused by gambling, and waved page after page of costs directly related to the casino, which did include increased salaries.

I think he wagged his fingers, too.

He added that his Finance Committee was completely unaware that Callahan was illegally dipping into federal grant money until it was revealed by an independent audit. "Not one of us knew about the illegal spending that went on until afterwards," he explained. "We reacted."

That answer was unsatisfactory to Tony Simao, who noted that not one member of City Council did a thing about the misappropriation of federal grant money, and that it took a letter from citizen Dana Grubb to get the ball rolling. Carroll added that Reynold's Finance Committee was "asleep at the switch." According to Al Bernotas, the entire Council "sits on its hands."

"We're here to clean house," claimed Bernotas.

Ds sit on the right
Bob Donchez defended Council, noting that they passed a law last year that will prevent Hizzoner from spending borrowed money for any other purpose, as he did in the past. Donchez pointed to another ordinance, sponsored by former Council member Jay Leeson, which prevents the Mayor from spending the casino host fee without authorization. In addition, Donchez has been demanding monthly reports.

Here's how the hopefuls responded to some specific issues.

Cutting the Budget

Recchiuti, grandson of a former Fire Commissioner, would hire more firefighters. Although that sounds like a budget increase, Recchiuti explained it would decrease the cost of overtime, which is expected to hit $1 million before the end of the year.

Reynolds noted that he's already voted to cut 54 positions, and would not leave them open. He'd like to reduce OT, will vote against raises for City Hall employees and will pursue energy efficiency contracts.

Simao would eliminate "hallwalkers," condense departments, reduce salaries for department heads from $90k to $70k, and would eliminate the use of city-owned cars for commuting. He estimated that the elimination of take-home cars would save the City $150,000 per year.

Donchez agreed with the suggestions offered, but noted that 85% of the City's budget is salary, so there's little room to cut.

Carroll said all these suggestions have been urged for years. "Now there's $18 million in deficits and $30 million in loans this year alone."

Martin Tower TIF

Simao, Carroll and Bernotas all oppose a TIF. Both Carroll and Simao called it "corporate welfare," and Bernotas added taxpayers are "ultimately responsible" in the event of a default.

A TIF could arguably be called corporate welfare. But as a point of clarification, I should note that the persons ultimately responsible in the event of a default are the ones who buy the bonds. That's why they get 6% interest. They take the risk. TIF bonds are not general obligation, or taxpayer-backed bonds. I was whispering this to a reporter, perhaps a bit too loudly, and threw Al Bernotas off as he was speaking.

Sorry, Al. It was your night, not mine, and I should have more quiet.

Donchez, Reynolds and Recchiuti are more willing to consider a plan. Donchez pointed out that the Martin Tower tract consists of 53 acres, but only 70% of the building is usable because of design problems, along with an asbestos problem and the lack of a sprinkler. Donchez and the others would be receptive to a plan, so long as it does not include high-density housing.

On other matters, they all oppose Callahan's idea to implement a single hauler for garbage. They all oppose closing the fire station at Dewberry Avenue. They all, to varying degrees, like the idea of requiring residency from at least some City employees. They all oppose the idea of another casino. They all like a buffer zone for the historic district.

Only Al Bernotas favors term limits.

So who won and who lost?

Most Entertaining: Al Bernotas (he was folksy and personable, which means something to people like me)

Most Knowledgeable: Bob Donchez (detailed answers for everything)

Best One-liner: Tony Simao's crack about lollipops and lies.

Best Answer: Willie Reynolds' powerful defense of host fee money. (He was downright passionate).

Most Dignified: They all looked a hell of a lot better than I. Or is it me?

Hardest Line to Believe: Recchiuti's claim that he's not a politician. Mike, this is your second try at public office. That sure seems like a politician to me.

Strangest Candidate: West Easton Borough Council candidate Tricia Mezzacappa not only attended last night's debate, but came armed with two pages of questions. Who knows, maybe a West Easton voter was there.

Best Media Panelist: Lynn Olanoff (Express Times) and Nicole Radzievich (Morning Call) are tied. They took this seriously and even sent them to me in advance so we all wouldn't be asking the same thing. The decided to ask questions that could be answered by all the candidates, so no one person would feel singled out. I was going to ask each candidate for the airspeed velocity of an unladen African swallow, but Lynn and Nicole killed that question.

Damn mainstream.

Lynn Olanoff and Nicole Radzievich have their own reports. Look for one from Daryl Nerl, too.


Anonymous said...
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Zorn said...

how long did it take them to shovel out the church? all of the bull shit was amazing. reynolds and donchez are guilty as sin of incompetence in office. the rest really have no plan. they just want their free musicmess tickets.

Anonymous said...

Zorn 6:20 AM

it was the three on the right side of the moderator, Didn't you go?

Carol said...

Morning Bernie, what's with the Bangor with Lace Curtains? Carol

Anonymous said...

There's plenty of blame to go around and cities like Bethlehem have been hit by the in the toilet economy.

Not to defend the way checks were paid to city employees but what if they had not been paid?

What solution would you offer?

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Morning Bernie, what's with the Bangor with Lace Curtains? Carol"

The way I interpret it, my reader was telling me that, under the curtain, Bethlehem is no different than any other community.

Anonymous said...

Please explain to me how you get 9.4M gaming money and are $14M in the red.

Or how the Mayor and his side kick go to Saudi Arabia. Does anyone care about Bethlehem's economic development. It ain't in the desert!

How about the money the City owes to surrounding municipalities from the EIT funds. They used others monies to play a "house of cards" financial operation.

The City is in shambles, Council believes everything Callahan shoves at them, and Callahan is clueless.

Wait till the Dewey Firehouse closes to balance the budget!!!!

Bernie O'Hare said...

8:45, The economy is bad, but that's no excuse for the illegal practice of dipping into federal grant money or EIT owed to other municipalities. It's apparent that Bethlehem must not have a large enough cash fund set aside to keep it going when cash flow gets tight. It should have 2 months of unpaid expenses set aside. That would be the best answer. If that fails, the next move would be a tax anticipation loan. That's not good either, but it's better than breaking the law.

Anonymous said...

Can you find out which employees have city-owned vehicles? I find it hard to believe that this is a necessity for any of them.

Anonymous said...

I think the City of Bethlehem has been fortunate to avoid criminal wrongdoing charges in how they've misappropriated funds. How else to describe it? They stated they would use funding for something and knowingly spent it on something else. I think they are lucky that the federal government isn't filing the suit against the City.

Why would anybody want the folks having more time to make those decisions? Why would you want to keep the people who've let Reichard keep his job?

You may not be in total love with the new candidates but there has to be an expectation that some new people on council will keep the administration being dangerous with handling money.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

3:35pm Anonymous
omg, how disgusting - that's why Reynolds shouldn't be re-elected bc he is a snot-nose, arrogant, hot-headed kid with foolish young girlfriends as shown by his actions last night. He was elected before bc of all his young friends who probably don't even pay taxes. Give him back to the hot girls and DON'T VOTE FOR HIM!

Anonymous said...

vote the three new guys in - they really care about Bethlehem and will equal the playing field. The other two Demos had their chance and messed it up by just rubber-stamping for Callahan! Take away Callahan's flunkies and we might have a chance to turn Bethlerhem around. I am not Rep or Demo - I am for what makes sense for our community and a change in power is definitely needed or we will go bankrupt!

Anonymous said...

@ 4:34 PM - go pound sand and if you think for 1 minute that by voting in 3 R's will make the difference, you're totally wrong on that platform!

Not that political party has anything to do with it...

Anonymous said...

you sound like you are simply a party person. Give it up and vote for what and who will do more for the City and the people who live in it. YOU pound sand, because your group are only digging us a big hole of debt and corruption. Instead of just saying words, what good have they done? Donchez is just a peace maker and if it wasn't for new blood in town running for office the D's wouldn't even be out campaigning right now. Can't you see how much the city needs new people and ones that care. You are a blind, tunnel-vision democratic person, right????? Wake up!!! Go to council meetings and open your eyes and ears and give our City a chance to get better!!! Rethink your answer and give some true facts about who you want but I doubt you will have any to give...... ha ha ha lol

Anonymous said...

bernie, why aren't you deleting 3:35pm

Anonymous said...

Zorn (or should I say Ken) don't you have some signs to go rip up?

Bernie O'Hare said...

9:12, Sorry. Was away from the PC for much of the day. The comment was more humorous than insulting, but I think it merited deletion.

Anonymous said...

It seems like these guys are running for Mayor. No matter what they say. No matter what they do, the City will not change. The Mayor runs the place and makes the real decisions. They get pinned down so hard by the Administration that never really have any choices. Ho Hum on this election.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bernie O'Hare said...

Please give me a break. I get the humor, and don't mind a lot, but would you want your middle school son or daughter to read that comment. Some of the readers here are middle school students.

Anonymous said...

Bethlehem overspent 2008 budget by $2.7 million

Bethlehem audit of 2009 budget shows $8.5 million shortfall

Bethlehem finishes last year with a $14.2 million deficit (2010)

The most recent:

- The 2010 draft audit details Bethlehem's tight cash flow as it put off paying bills, borrowed from accounts meant for other things and once took out a bank loan to make ends meet.

As Reichert said in a meeting, "It's not like anyone is going to jail over this!"

- The Administration took out a $1 million short term loan on September 14, 2010, without getting City Council's authorization as required by the Third Class City Code. It was then repaid within a few weeks with $3000.00 in interest costs. The loan was taken out in anticipation of the host fees from the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem of nearly $8.8 million.

Reynolds as the Chair of the Finance Committee didn't even scold the Administration when he found out about this happening on his watch.

- The Administration failed to make a $4.87 million pension payment, adding $449,000 in interest costs. The payments have since been made.

Reynolds stated that the casino money was really intended for costs such as benefits and raises. Guess he didn't read the audit.

- The Administration transferred $790,000.00 of a restricted Community Block Grant for general expenses, paying it back earlier this year.
- Charlie Dent alerts authorities about Bethlehem's federal funds misuse

- The Administration used $3.17 million in earned income tax, some of it meant for other taxing bodies such as the Bethlehem Area School District, to pay expenses. The city still owes $615,000.00 to other governments.
- Hanover Lawsuit: Give us the money

- Used $2.7 million in restricted funds from the 911 fund to pay unallowable costs.

The three Democrats want to keep the 911 center in the hands of the Mayor. Like Simao said this is just another account for the Administration to steal money out of.

Reynolds said, "We didn't know about this, when we found out we reacted. That's what government does!"

Government should not be reactive, it should always be proactive. As such you have failed in your duties as the Chair of the Finance Committee.

Callahan failed to deliver property tax reform that was supposed to come with casinos.

Reynolds said, "The casino money was always intended to go toward the impact the casino would have, not property tax reform. Police and fire got their raises with that casino money."

That's not what the residents were told over and over by the Mayor before the casino moved in. Typical Callahan yes man, making up lies and blaming the police and firemen for a broken promise.

More of the same for another 4 years? I don't think so!

Anonymous said...

Like it or not you will see the voters of Bedlam vote for the three rubber boys. It is what they do.

Did you know that willie Reynolds was a basketball star in Bedlam and has a hot girlfriend. so there!

Anonymous said...

Yes Ken,

We know that.