Friday, October 28, 2011

Gracedale, Tax Hike Dominate County Council Debate

Bob Werner, Mike Dowd
Despite cold rains and slippery roads, at least eighty people attended a County Council debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, at the Northampton County Courthouse on October 27. It was moderated by Lafayette College's David Kincaid, who peppered candidates with questions ranging from their views on Gracedale to reassessment. But it was the LWV's who explained the purpose of the forum in just two word. "Please vote," she pleaded.

Voters will decide four District seats on November 8.

In District 1, which includes Bethlehem, Hanover and Hellertown, trade unions business rep Ken Kraft is squaring off against physician's assistant Seth Vaughn, over the seat being vacated by Ann McHale at the end of this year.

In District 2, which includes the Easton area, three-term incumbent Mike Dowd, an Easton Pastor and VP at the Greater LV Chamber of Commerce, is facing political newcomer Bob Werner, a retired teacher.

In far-flung District 3, which extends from Bethlehem Township to Northampton, asbestos attorney Lamont McClure is being challenged by race car driver and real estate investor Matt Connolly.

District 4, known as the Northern Tier or Slate Belt, pits three-term incumbent Ron Angle, a real estate investor, against Wind Gap Borough Council President Scott Parsons, who works in a Pen Argyl quarry.

Kraft, Werner, McClure and Parsons are Democrats. Vaughn, Dowd, Connolly and Angle are Republicans.

Seth Vaughn, Ken Kraft
Special skills and priorities

Werner stated he has personality, will research issues and is a lifelong LV resident. His top two priorities are preserving Gracedale and establishing a Bi-County Health department. Dowd stated he is known as the "voice of reason" on Council, and believes that continued economic development and human services are what drive him.

Vaughn stressed his health care background, which he argued would be helpful to Council in dealing with Gracedale issues. He added that he has government contracting experience that he acquired when he served with the Marines in Iraq. Finally, he noted that he would refuse any contributions from "special interests." Kraft cited his 20 years of experience in government, which started with efforts to preserve Monacacy Creek. He serves on the County's workforce investment board, Bethlehem's Zoning Hearing Board, and chaired the Elections Commission through stormy Gracedale waters. As a business agent, he has experience in mediating contracts and buying health care products.

Parsons pointed to his experience on Wind Gap Borough Council for 8 years. His top two priorities are restoring civility and respect for other people. Angle pointed to his 38 years of experience serving on school boards, township offices, a borough council as well as County Council. He pointed to a deal he negotiated a few weeks ago with landfill owner Charles Chrin, for $2 million in farmland preservation, as well as a re-negotiated TIF with Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, which will result in more money for County and school district coffers. Admitting he is tough, he noted that "[c]ivility means twenty minute meetings."

McClure stated he is "battle-tested" and has been "in the middle" of numerous Council issues. His top two priorities are Gracedale, "an issue that will continue to be debated going forward" and "open space," which is "more than farmland preservation."

"My name is Matt Connolly and I'm not a lawyer," said McClure's challenger, describing himself as a "fresh face" who could keep Council free from "intramural fighting."


Calling newly-hired private manager Premier Health Care a "welcome breath of fresh air," Dowd stated Council should oversee admissions, fiscal responsibility and quality of care. After that, "we should get out of the way." Werner complained about the legal fees spent by the County when it was attempting to sell Gracedale, and argued there should be a "legacy fund," something the Council has already unanimously approved by resolution.

Vaughn stressed that the County has an "obligation" to keep Gracedale, but also noted that "[o]ur revenues are not keeping up with our expenditures." He added that the census there continues to decline, and that union concessions are needed. Kraft stated new management needs to make a "concerted effort to let people know Gracedale is open" He noted that the Executive, and not Council, has the responsibility to negotiate union givebacks.

Although admitting that private management is "a good idea," Parsons complained that Council "should have listened and we would not need management." He added unions will make concessions because "[p]eople want to work." Angle, who promoted Gracedale's sale, pointed to declining reimbursements, which make Gracedale less profitable than private nursing homes. He also noted that 68 cents for every dollar in salary is paid to union workers, and doubted it can ever be profitable. "It won't happen," he predicted.

McClure argued that Gracedale could actually "add millions to our budget." and has only lost money in recent years. He added unions are already willing to make concessions. Calling Gracedale the "crown jewel," Connolly noted that there's been more competition and that privatized nursing care can be less expensive. He also noted that the workforce has remained the same, even though the census has declined.

Lamont McClure, Matt Connolly

Only Seth Vaughn is willing to support John Stoffa's proposed tax hike. "We have to accept a tax hike," stated Vaughn, adding that the County should reduce overtime and attempt to create jobs. Noting that "[p]eople are losing their homes," Kraft opposes a tax hike. He claimed "Gracedale will fix itself" if the census is increased.

"I'm not afraid of raise taxes," claimed Parsons, but since he has no vote on next year's budget, he declined to say what he would do. Noting he has never supported a tax hike, Angle explained there are other ways to produce a budget. He pointed to last year's budget, which originally called for an increase until he revised it. He challenged candidates to "think outside the box," and suggested that a tax on car rentals, instead of a real estate tax hike, could supply the needed revenue. He noted there is a 25% difference between revenue and expenses.

Instead of a tax hike, McClure claimed the County could opt against funding a West Easton treatment center next year, or defer a new archives building. "It's ridiculous to raise taxes," he claimed, pointing to the County's $60 million fund balance, which McClure called a "budget surplus." Connolly claimed the County has no revenue problem, but a spending problem. To cure Gracedale's deficit, he'd put the burden on the nursing home itself. Otherwise, "[i]t's going to bleed us forever."

Werner believes a tax hike can be avoided by improving PR at Gracedale. "It will be profitable," he insisted. But Dowd, while opposed to a tax increase, stated "[i]t is disingenuous to suggest we can wave a wand and turn a $6 million deficit into a surplus." He claimed Gracedale could be more efficient, but will still lose money. "We need to find six or seven million. That's not so easy to do," he noted.

Chrin's Route 33 TIF

Although all candidates applaud the Route 33 TIF recently approved by Council for an interchange providing access to an industrial park in Palmer Township, two candidates complained about the role Angle played in negotiating a $2 million giveback with Charlie Chrin for farmland preservation. According to Werner, the Angle deal lacked "transparency." And Parsons complained that there are nine members on Council, yet Angle was taking credit.

But Angle was defended by Dowd, who noted that Council asked Angle to negotiate the deal, and it was discussed during a public meeting two weeks before the agreement was executed. Angle added that the decision to send him to Chrin was unanimous and is another example of "thinking outside the box. If you would come to a meeting, you would know how we do business," he told Parsons.

Ron Angle, Scott Parsons
Open Space Funding

All candidates support open space funding. Angle particularly likes the pay-as-you go approach adopted by Executive Stoffa, instead of floating a bond for $37 million authorized by taxpayers in a 2004 referendum. "In seven years, we fulfilled 52% of our commitment, far ahead of what we would have done with a bond. And there's no interest." Dowd agreed, noting that Stoffa's "struck the right mark."

Kraft suggested that more money should be spent to preserve environmentally sensitive lands along the Monacacy Creek to "stop the development there."

Parsons added that "farms, county parks and Gracedale are two things people are going to use."

Bi-County Health Department

Two candidates - Werner and Parsons - support the formation of a Bi-County health department now. Parsons noted that at a recent Wind Gap Borough Council meeting, a mother brought a child who was covered from "head to toe" with bed bugs and there was nothing that could be done. Werner claimed that with a Bi-County health department, the County would no longer have spend $200,000 per year for vector control, and it would make the area look better to businesses.

One candidate - Ron Angle - is opposed. Although conceding that the idea is "wonderful," he derided another layer of government. "Somebody's got to pay for it," he argued. "We need people to work in real jobs, not government programs."

The rest of the candidates are more equivocal. McClure states he has gone from "unalterably opposed" to "skeptical," but is now re-evaluating his position after the most recent presentation, which impressed him.

Dowd struck the chord adopted my most candidates. Noting that he has advocated public health for many years, he is concerned about a half million dollar contribution for funding at the same time that the County is considering a 9.3% tax hike. "Let's keep it in place and come back in a year," he suggested. Connolly, Kraft and Vaughn agreed.


All candidates are opposed to re-assessment, projected to cost as much as $12 million. "If you could wave a wand, it could be a good thing," stated Angle, conceding "there is a lot of unfairness" in present assessments. But the cost bothers him.

McClure pointed out that right now, the "real estate market is all over the place," and needs to stabilize before re-assessment. Even then, he worries that it "will fall hardest on the folks in their homes the longest and who are no longer working."


How much time is needed for a part-time County Council position? According to Kraft, it is an "all-consuming job," but he's ready. "I haven't had a sick day from work in 20 years," he boasted. "I have the time that this job takes," Kraft stated, noting the numerous committees.

Angle pointed out that Parsons, in a previous debate, acknowledged that Angle has the time for the position that he lacks. "I thank him for the compliment," chided Angle. But Parsons claimed Council's job is "to oversee the job done by the Executive. ... I will be here when needed."

Connolly blasted McClure over his attendance record. "My opponent has an indefensible attendance record, one committee meeting in four years," he noted. He added that, although McClure chairs the Legal and Judicial Committee, he has failed to convene a single meeting in the last three years. "You have to be there to make a difference," he argued.

McClure responded dismissively, "I'm glad Mr. Connolly spent so much time talking about me. I like to hear stuff about myself." 

(I will be posting transcribed and unedited videos of each closing statement over the weekend.)

Updated Friday, 7:15 PM: Morning Call Columnist Bill White Grades Debaters! - Here's how Bill rates the debaters.
District 1: Kraft (B+); Vaughn (B)
District 2: Dowd (A-); Werner (B)
District 3: McClure (B+); Connolly (C-)
District 4: Angle (A-); Parsons (C-)  


Anonymous said...

Gosh Bernie, If only you got paid by the word.
Think a Matt Connelly (can be wrong here) comment was read by none other than Bill O'Reilly on his TV show the other night. It was definitely a Matt someone from Bethlehem.

Anonymous said...

What happened to Lamont? He's gotten very large.

Anonymous said...

Two candidates - Werner and Parsons - support the formation of a Bi-County health department now. "Parsons noted that at a recent Wind Gap Borough Council meeting, a mother brought a child who was covered from "head to toe" with bed bugs and there was nothing that could be done. Werner claimed that with a Bi-County health department, the County would no longer have spend $200,000 per year for vector control, and it would make the area look better to businesses."

I'll vote for Angle because of his position on the waste of money Health Department. Maybe that lady with the so called bed bugs ought to call an exterminator and take her kid to the Doctor!! Imagine that!!

Zorn said...

anon 6:52,

the poor excuse of a mother wants someone else to pay and take responsibility for her lack of parenting skills. fumigate the house, take the kid to the doctor, quit asking for government handouts, pull yourself up by the boot straps and take care of your own responsibilities. And for God's and the country's sake DO NOT BREED AGAIN!!!!!

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Gosh Bernie, If only you got paid by the word"

I wish i could be briefer, and actually removed two paragraphs. But I thought I should provide a faithful rendition from each candidate, since this is the only time they will all be together.

Anonymous said...

Zorn, really? I thought Democrats had compassion..but then again you are a "conservative Democrat" that the same thing as a liberal Republican?

Anonymous said...

Did that mother come from what I think might be a "section 8 project" in Wind Gap ?
I am not positive however there might be public housing in that town. A left off Broadway at a street which takes you along the Mountain and the units are on the left a couple blocks West. At the very least the residents appear to not have alot of money for all those "luxuries" in life like doctors and exterminators. Like the rest of us "upper crust".
I say, could you pass the Grey Poupon?

Anonymous said...


Only Seth Vaughn is willing to support John Stoffa's proposed tax hike. "We have to accept a tax hike," stated Vaughn

Anonymous said...

Mr. Vaughn is right. WE do have to accept it, this year. Since before Mr. Vaughn could take office, next year if elected, the current council will have already voted on it, this year. Nothing can be done by him, this year.

Oh, if you don't like it, then where were you, last year, when angle's 2011 budget ate up reserves from the fund balance?

Anonymous said...

Angle's budget deal with Stoffa worked because they were counting on a sold Gracedale and millions in extra revenue to play with. it was never a realistic budget.

Just as the Bethlehem TIF was written by Bethlehem solicitors who let Angle take credit so they could get the thing done. It is what you do when dealing with a two year old.

Interesting notes. Dowd the "voice of councils jelly fish" fawning all over Angle, claims he is uncommitted on the Health Department yet he has been the main supporter on county council. Gotta call bullshit. He works for the Chamber of Commerce and they are pushing it big time.

Frankly, it was your typical local office debate. The "new" Republicans gave the canned Fox Chat speech about job creators that has little to do with county government and the incumbents Democrats and Republicans alike brag about their experience and blame all the bad things that happened on evil spirits.

Dr. Sanity

Anonymous said...

McClueless is an arrogant fool.

Anonymous said...

hey was the lady that had bed bugs was a rentor of ron's? because he is nothing but a bed bug himself!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Ahhh, such civility.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Just as the Bethlehem TIF was written by Bethlehem solicitors who let Angle take credit"

This is wishful thinking. Bethlehem solicitors did not suddenly sit down and decide to give NC more money on a 10 year old TIF. What happened is that Angle had several meetings with Callahan, after which Callahan agreed to the concession. He was running for Congress and did not want to look like a bad guy. Angle took advantage of the situation and got some money for NC as well as the schools.

Zorn said...

anon 9:22,

neither d or r. not a lever puller like most blind idiots, just honest. the broad wants everything given to her by the government. she is a poster child for sterilization.

Anonymous said...

It does not matter where that mother and child lives . There are people out there that are down and out through no fault of their own.Some try to do the best they can but some time's that is not good enough, and need out side help. It is ashame that some people can not understand that.Is it that hard to lend a helping hand? No wonder this country is in the shape we are in.
Give and you shall receive.

Anonymous said...

Dump the dump Gracedale crowd!

Anonymous said...

Why do you keep saying that someone is going to dump Gracedale? Considering all the actions taken by council and Stoffa, looks to me like there are big plans to keep it and make it work. Have a little faith. Things couldn't keep going the way they were. Things had to change and it seems to me they are.

Zorn said...

anon 8:42

give and you shall receive. yeah that's right - you'll receive yet another hand in your pocket

Anonymous said...

Right, Angle and Stoffa [purposely sabotage Gracedale in order to make the case to sell it. They wanted a quick buck to bail out their crappy county management.

Now no one believes anything these guys say. We are sure they will drag their feet as they already have. Stoffa said on a TV interview after he lost the court case he would shut the place down.

We are dealing with some seriously screwed up leadership and Gracedale will not be safe until they are out of office.

Reality Speaks!

Anonymous said...

Yo, Reality! The reality is that Glenn Riebman and his little cronies ran this county into the ground. Take the Gracedale people and go picket him in his cushy house with all of his pensions and cushy positions. Now, that's the REALITY!

Anonymous said...

The greatest losses in the history of Gracedale occurred in the time John Stoffa was County Executive or Human Services Director.

Check the facts instead of changing the past.