Mat Benol, a Republican, is one of ten candidates seeking five at-large seats on Northampton County Council. Some of you may remember him from his unsuccessful, but clean, primary challenge to LV Congressman Charlie Dent. Benol also served briefly as chair of the local tea party, but stepped down over its polarization. He manages a manufacturing plant in Jersey. He has two very cute daughters, coaches soccer and is the kind of guy you'd want to have as a next door neighbor.
Make no mistake, Mat's views are conservative. But what I like about him is that he is a consensus builder who actually listens to other view points.
Ron Angle has told me that Benol and Glenn Geissinger are his two favorite Republican candidates.
Below are Mat's answers to a questionnaire I prepared for all Council candidates. Because some people have been hostile to candidates, I will not permit any commentary with these questionnaires.
By way of full disclosure, I have already decided tentatively that I am supporting Jerry Seyfried, Ron Heckman, Deb Hunter and Peg Ferraro.
1. Lehigh County Commissioners and Bethlehem City council have both toyed with the idea of rejecting pass through grants based on objections to the federal deficit, money owed to China and antipathy to charter schools. Would you reject pass through grants?
ANSWER - I don’t like the concept of pass through grants therefore I would reject them. If there was enough support to reject them, I would contact our area Representatives and Senators to see if there was a better use for this money. I’d also make sure that Northampton County’s rejection wasn’t transferred to another County. If possible, Counties should unite in their efforts to reject pass through grants. If various organizations that utilize these grants truly need them, they should petition the State and/or Federal departments offering them directly.
2. Most of Council's work is done at its busy Personnel and Finance Committees, at which every member of Council is encouraged to attend. How do you feel about participation at Council Committee meetings? Will you attend?
ANSWER - Absolutely. These meetings are extremely important to the functioning of the County and its budget. Attendance at these meeting should mandatory, not optional. I do not understand how any Council person can vote on any personnel or financial matters without being an active participant in these meetings.
3. One candidate has rejected the concept of regionalism as one big mess that is harder to manage than a group of smaller messes. Do you support or oppose regionalism, and what regional projects would you endorse on Council?
ANSWER - My decision to approve or oppose regionalism would depend on the project. I do favor the concept of regionalism but I would not support any effort to have the County in charge until County can prove it is capable of handling its current affairs. Based on the County’s handling of Gracedale, HHS properties, roads and bridges, etc, the County is not ready.
If the County is going to regional a project, I would insist that the board responsible for that project be answerable to the townships involved. Ideally, the board should be made up of members from the affected municipalities. This way, the tax payers can address any issues at their municipality meetings or at the County Council meetings. The new board must not be autonomous. It must be answerable to the tax-payers.
4. During the Executive primary, one candidate made a no-tax hike pledge. Do you think it is responsible to make no tax-hike pledges? If so, are you willing to make one?
ANSWER - As much as I would like to promise not to raise taxes, it would be irresponsible to do so without knowing all of the issues facing the County for the upcoming 4 years. I can promise to do everything in my power not to raise taxes and to explore every option available instead of raising taxes. Anything more than that would be campaign rhetoric.
5. In a 2011 plebiscite, voters told Council not to sell Gracedale for 5 years. The annual County contribution is currently in the $5-7 million range, so voters effectively voted for that contribution. But what if it grows? Is there a red line at which you would agree it is necessary to sell Gracedale?
ANSWER - I do not see a scenario that would make me vote for the sale of Gracedale. I originally sided with the sale of Gracedale however when I learned more about the financial issues facing Gracedale, I realized it was not a ‘money pit’. Changes in financial contributions from the Federal and State Government hurt its revenue stream. Property neglect also caught up with the County. Drastic repairs were needed because the County has neglected to properly maintain Gracedale for decades. Gracedale was profitable for years but the Home Rule Charter does not permit separate funding for County business. Therefore the money that Gracedale made was not properly ‘reinvested’ into the property and spent on other items.
I am in favor of maintaining Gracedale as a County/tax payer owned property. As long as I know, Gracedale is being run as efficiently as possible, I am OK with paying for Gracedale. It is part of Northampton County.
6. In 2007, County Council voted to set aside 1/2 mill of real estate tax (about $3.5 million) for a pay-as-you go open space plan for preserving farmland, environmentally sensitive land and municipal parks. On Council, will you vote to continue funding open space? Do you consider this a core county function?
ANSWER - Yes to both questions. I do not believe that every square inch of property needs to be developed for the sake of development. I believe part of Northampton County’s beauty is due to its open space and vast farmland. However, I believe the land being preserved must be preserved for the good of the county, not to an individual's or municipality’s personal interests.
Maintaining the beauty and history of Northampton County serves each resident and therefore it is a function of Northampton County Government.
7. There are 11 unions county-wide. What efforts would you make, as a member of council, to encourage unions to consolidate and reduce the amount of time administrators and unions must spend in contract negotiations?
ANSWER - I am not against Unions. Being a student of history, I understand why Unions were/are necessary to protect the interests of the workers. That being stated, I am not sure why Northampton County needs to have 11 separate Unions instead of just 1 union for all the County employees. I admit that I will need to study the reasons. It also stands to reason that part of the time negotiating Union Contracts involves comparisons of 1 contract to the others. Therefore, each contract needs to be somewhat equal to the others or 1 Union will be happy while the others are not. I would push the time, money and energy devoted to each negotiation, as well as the ‘equality’ of each contract as my reasons for Union consolidation.
8. What is your position on laying off County workers? Would you support layoffs to balance the budget, or vote to increase taxes to provide the same level of services?
ANSWER - I am not in favor of laying off any workers. However, the employee base needs to be in line with the work available. I do not support laying off workers to balance the budget. Employees are essential to the County and cutting their positions does more harm than good. Increasing taxes is a lazy approach to solving the County’s debt issues. There are multiple areas of wasteful spending that have to be addressed before cuts and/or tax increases are discussed. I do not support tax increases for any reason.
9. Northampton County, like Lehigh, has privatized the management of Gracedale. But there are those who would like to return administration to the County. Where do you stand on this issue?
ANSWER - I support having Gracedale as a County/tax payer owned facility. It has been proven that Gracedale was not managed properly in the past under County Administration. No accountability means no responsibility. Who allowed Gracedale’s roof to leak for 10 years? Who allowed the facility to deteriorate for years? Who allowed the generator to remained untested until it failed during Super Storm Sandy? Unless the County Administration is going to be held as accountable as a private firm, I will support privatized management. A private firm will have records of faults and corrective actions. Private firms will also have qualified people and less of a chance of nepotism as County run facilities.
10. Some Council members would like to amend the Home Rule Charter to return to elected row officers. How do you feel about this proposal?
ANSWER - I like the concept of having an educated electorate being involved in Government decisions however, our voting history has shown the majority of eligible voters do not vote. The election of row officers could result in popularity vs. qualifications. I would also question if the best qualified would submit themselves and their families to the stress and personal attacks that go along with any campaign.
Although the HRC provides the possibility for political appointments, it still provides a better screening process than an open election. If the County Executive recommends an unfavorable candidate for a Row Office, County Council still has a chance to reject the appointment. I would recommend that a job description be made for each row office position along with minimum/preferred qualifications. Only candidates who meet those requirements could be considered.
11. Would you support a ban on guns by people using any County facilities, even off the courthouse campus, like at the new centralized Human Services Building?
ANSWER - I would only support a ban on guns at County facilities at facilities that maintain armed staffers or the use of metal detectors at the entrance ways. Gun free zones open the potential of mass shootings because the individual knows no one in the building can do anything to stop them.
12. Will you support or reject a County Property Tax Reassessment?
ANSWER - Absolutely reject it! Reassessment is just another way of saying tax increase. Council’s focus should be on government efficiency first. Proper budgeting along with an efficiently run government will prove the answer is not in increasing taxes.
13. Would you support the proposition that the Prothonotary, Clerk of Criminal Court, Clerk of Orphans Court and Register of Wills should be transferred under the Administration of the Courts instead of the County Executive (through the Director of Court Services) much like the higher courts currently administer its own clerks?
ANSWER - Yes. This also provides the opportunity to review the similarities and differences of the job descriptions for these positions. It seems logical that all Court related functions should be administered under one department. My support would also be contingent on all of the employee’s current salary, benefit and work agreements being transferred with the employees.
I would like to add another topic that I feel is important to Northampton County that was not included in your questions. Obviously it is your decision to print but it has been a topic at most of the County Council meetings for the past several months and its future may be something that the next Council gets to decide; Braden’s Airpark.
I am in support of the Council’s decision to find a way to prevent Braden’s Airpark from being sold. I do not understand how the Airport Authority which must have Braden Airport as one of its 3 core airports can sell Braden’s and remain a legitimate Authority. It would seem to violate their Charter rules. The sale would in essence, end the Airport Authority. I have and continue to coach soccer at the fields next to Braden's. There are and have been planes taking off all the time. This is an extremely active airpark which is being threatened with sale due to the Authority’s mismanagement. They are trying to sell Braden's to settle a debt that has nothing to do with Braden's. I am in support of Northampton County finding a way to either legally preventing the Authority from selling the Airpark. At the same time, I will support an effort for the County to find a way to take over the Airpark until a buyer is found who will maintain and improve Bradens.
Thank you for providing me the opportunity to answer your questions.