|The New Generation: John Callahan v. John Brown|
Northampton County Executive candidates John Callahan, Bethlehem's Democratic Mayor, and John Brown, Bangor's Republican Mayor, squared off in a well-attended debate at Northampton Community College on October 22. The Express Times and League of Women Voters grilled the hopefuls before an audience of over 120 people. In addition to the usual camp followers, there were many newer and fresher faces in the crowd. College students, some of whom will be casting their first vote in November, were in the house. This seemed to thrill LWV spokesperson Beverly Hernandez. In addition to thanking the candidates and the media for their interest, she thanked the audience. "This election is about you," she stated. "Please vote."
In addition to new voters, Callahan and Brown are themselves new to County government, unlike most previous Executives. Callahan stated that it's time for a "new generation of leadership" in Northampton County.
Both candidates seem to be on the same page on most County issues. There were no serious differences until the end of the debate, when they were able to question each other's records.
Is it Time For a Tax Hike?
|ET Editor Jim Deegan|
Callahan noted that Northampton County's fund balance was at one time $60 million, but could be as low as $14 million in next year's budget. "We can't keep kicking that can down the road," he said. But a tax hike is a last resort. He would first focus on creating efficiencies through a program called Continuous Improvement, in which employees find ways to provide the same service at a lower cost. Callahan claims this saved $14 million in Bethlehem's $75 million budget. "Imagine what it could do with a $340 million budget?" he asked.
Brown echoed many of Callahan's remarks, saying he'd manage more efficiently, line item by line item. He has identified some departments where cuts can be made. Like Callahan, he would partner with the County workforce to find cuts.
Selling Braden Airpark
Brown believes it's important to "keep airports vibrant," and would "support a subsidy on a short-term basis" to keep Braden Airpark afloat. He is opposed to selling the Airpark to help pay off a judgment incurred by the Airport Authority, but believes the Authority board needs to be reviewed.
Callahan said the Airport Authority's financial malaise is a "complicated issue" with many moving parts, from a decrease in air traffic after 9/11 to airline consolidation, and added that Northampton County only appoints six of the 13 board members. Although he doesn't believe a decision on Braden should be made "in a vacuum," he noted that the Airpark was able to work before Moyer Aviation was forced out. He said he would want to partner with local pilots an community leaders on the best course of action.
The County's Crumbling Infrastructure, From Bridges to Its Own Buildings
|LWV Beverly Henrandez|
"I think it's terrible what's going on with County facilities," noted Callahan, who claimed to have invested millions into Bethlehem's City buildings. He criticized a lack of political will, as well as poor planning. Brown agreed, noting that the County's infrastructure "just has not been a priority." He said the County needs a five year and 10-year plan. "The challenge is how do we pay for it," he asked.
The County's Cadillac Health Plan Could Prove Costly to Taxpayers
Brown would reach out to the employees and "come up with a solution that is a win win." Callahan stated that the notion of sticking County workers with increased health care costs was both "ill advised" and "jumping the gun." Noting that experts are still divided on the impact of Obamacare, he said it is "too early" to make big changes. He criticized executive John Stoffa's decision to increase healthcare costs to County workers, stating that "you just don't drop a bomb like that on the employees.
Stoffa did reverse himself, so this will be next Executive's problem.
Neither candidate favors selling Gracedale, the County-owned nursing home. Noting that he signed a pledge to keep Gracedale in County hands on the day he announced his campaign, Callahan suggested that County Council needs to listen more to the recommendations made by Premier, the nursing home's administrator. "We may never break even," he conceded, but said Gracedale is "an obligation we have to the seniors of the County." Calling the nursing home a "vibrant facility," Brown noted that the home has changed markedly from what it was like many years ago, but the County needs to do a better job of "getting the message out".
Reassessment Not Done Since '95
"Now is not the time," stated Brown, noting the cost would be $8-10 million. Callahan stated it's overdue, but "more stability" is needed in the housing market before taking on a process that will create winners and losers.
|NCC President Mark Erickson|
"We have not pursued it," complained Brown. "We have to get away from Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, and focus on the rest of the community," argued the Bangor Mayor.
Unlike many County officials, Callahan believes that the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation "is headed in the right direction under Don Cunningham." But the County is not. Noting that the economic development office is located "in the bowels of Northampton County," next to the jail's bullpen, he wondered how that is supposed to attract investment.
He pointed to his own record of economic development in Bethlehem, stating there has been $2 billion invested, resulting in 5,500 jobs.
Do We Need a $6 Million Morgue?
Callahan complained that, no sooner was the ink dry on the bond documents for bridges, that the Coroner announced he needed a $6 million morgue. "It's a case of not having a five year plan," he complained. But he cautioned that a "Taj Mahal of a morgue" may not be needed. Brown called the current morgue "abysmal" and "completely inadequate." He agreed with Callahan that the County needs to have more vision, but stated that it's important to have an appropriate setting for what is "one of the most painful and critical times" for surviving family members.
Callahan supports regionalism, from bi-county health to work release. He called the possibility of sharing work release facilities with Lehigh County a "missed opportunity." Concerning regional public health, Callahan stated that "disease doesn't know municipal boundaries." Brown supports looking at a bi-county health department, but notes that the health industry has changed and there are clinics everywhere.
Candidates Grill Each Other
After fielding questions from the panel, the leashes were removed and candidates could go after each other.
And they did.
Brown tagged Callahan for ignoring Bethlehem's 12,000 seniors and raising taxes in Bethlehem while giving himself a payraise. Callahan retorted that he made Bethlehem the safest City in the state, produced a surplus for two years in a row and erased the deficit while reducing the City's debt by $100 million.
Brown claimed that Callahan borrowed $17.8 million from the Sewer Authority, forcing people outside Bethlehem to pay for the City's poor fiscal leadership. But Callahan answered that under his fiscal leadership, the City's credit rating has gone from "neutral" to "positive."
Finally, Brown slammed Callahan over his decision to settle a civil rights case for $7.89 million, but Callahan said it was necessary because the case had become a "huge distraction to our police department" during a "very dark period of time in our history." Noting that Bethlehem is the safest City in the state and one of the top 100 places to live, he argued that "time has shown the wisdom of that decision."
Then Callahan fired back.
Brown was taken to task for allowing a 79-acre brownfield, to be sold to an out-of-state developer, who did a stint in jail for illegal dumping. Brown claimed he opposed the developer.
The Bangor Mayor was also taken to task for accepting $7,650, seven times his annual salary, for a "junket" to Notre Dame "to become a better mayor at a job you never intended to keep." Brown responded that he learned ethics and leadership at the training seminar, and was grateful to Bangor Borough Council for sending him there.
Finally, Callahan hit Brown for public safety failures. Brown fired the police chief in Bangor, never replaced him, and Bangor was excluded from a regional force in the slate belt, according to Callahan. Brown responded that the police department needed a makeover, and the officers there are much happier now and have every other weekend off.