Friday, December 06, 2013
John Stoffa's 7th No Tax Hike Budget Adopted
The only Council member to vote against the budget were Tom Dietrich and Barb Thierry, whose term expire at the end of the year.
Stoffa’s final spending plan spares the taxpayer, but it leaves the cupboard bare. Doran J. Hamann, Acting Director of Fiscal Affairs, warned Council that the County’s fund balance at the end of this year will have dropped approximately $10 million from the $42 million at which it started in January. Of this $32 million, $16 million is committed to the 2014 budget. This means there will be just $16 million left in the County’s stabilization fund, which is sometimes called the rainy day fund.
The County’s independent auditor has cautioned that this stabilization fund should have four months of expenses, or $32 million. The County’s own funding formula calls for one to two months of expenses, which would be between $8 and $16 million.
The County’s biweekly payroll, by itself, is $3.2 million.
"That's cutting it close, isn't it?" President John Cusick told Hamann. But Council member Bob Werner countered that "[u]nder the circumstances, we did extremely well. I don't see anything wrong with this."
Personnel costs account for 44.9% of proposed spending. They’ve increased by approximately $8 million (5.7%).
Here are some of the matters considered last night.
Council Tells LVIA Airport to Take Off! – The Airport wanted a $250,000 subsidy for its struggling operations. President Cusick had proposed offering $125,000, so long as the grant was matched by Lehigh County. But he made that proposal knowing that it is unlikely Lehigh County would agree to a dime. The grant failed unanimously.
Scott Parsons suggested, "It is their job to run the airport. If they can't do it, let them find people to do it. Echoing Parsons, Bob Werner said "[t]hey should stand on their own feet."
Technically, Council has no authority to hire or fire Administration positions. But they do have the right to defund a job, and that's exactly what happened last night. Unanimously, too.
While denying that this was personal, Ken Kraft was miffed that Barlett may have sought proposals for a phone system after Council had already made the call. He claimed at a budget hearing that her position is "redundant" and the County already has "too many chiefs."
When the issue came up last night, Barlett rose to defend herself, but Cusick denied her the opportunity, claiming the matter had been reviewed in detail the day before. Barlett had spoken the previous day, but only to some members of Council. She was essentially denied the right to address the full board on her livelihood.
This is a matter that could have and should have waited. Council members should satay out of personnel matters. Also, the question whether her job really is "redundant" should be explored more thoroughly. But Council members were apparently in a hurry to get ready for Christmas, and thought nothing of ruining the Christmas of someone else.
It was a lousy thing to do.
Judge Taschner actually came in a wheelchair, having an injury to her leg. A Deputy wheeled her in, banging her into about fifteen people in the process.
"Now you broke her other leg," I told him.
Worst of all, he seated poor Judge Taschner next to me.
"So, do you come here often?"
"Shut up, Bernie."
Judge Baratta sat next to her and tried to pretend he didn't see me, even though I was wearing my bumblebee shirt.
Judge Baratta told Council that though there's a plan to consolidate two District Judge offices, the workload has actually increased. He contradicted a Cusick assertion that the downtown Easton court is vacant. "That office is not vacant. Judge Elwell's office is a very busy office."
Judge Taschner added that the caseload handled by the typical clerk is well above the recommended level set by the state Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. She pointed out that District Judges, the front line of our judicial system, act as a collection agent for both state and county revenue. She reasoned the county would realize more revenue with a few more clerks.
As a regular visitor to District Judges throughout the County, I can back up what Judge Taschner says. My parking tickets alone are probably responsible for at least one District Judge. So I offered to speak up for Judge Taschner.
"Please don't," she pleaded.
County Council gave the judges the positions they requested, with only Council President John Cusick dissenting.
Don't get a ticket, John.
As the judges were leaving, Baratta suddenly spun around and said, "I just want all of you to know I have nothing against breast feeding. Honest!"
Morganelli Continues to Professionalize District Attorney's Office. - John Morganelli comes from the world of South side Bethlehem politics, and knows all about patronage. But over his years as District Attorney, he has slowly transfigured that office from a world of politically appointed assistant DAs to professional prosecutors. This coming year, he will be replacing a PT Assistant, usually someone who also has a private practice, with another FT career prosecutor. He will also get someone to supervise his 11 clerks. His secretarial staff has only grown by 2 persons since 1991. “I need to use my resources wisely,” he told Council on Wednesday. “Every request you’ve ever made is necessary,” agreed Council President John Cusick.
His Budget request was adopted unanimously with no discussion.
In fact, earlier that night, Bethlehem Zoning Hearing Board member Bill Fitzpatrick, the victim of an attempted homicide, told Council how much he appreciated the "professionalism" and "compassion" that Morganelli's office displayed as the case made its way through the courts. He especially singled out Tatum Wilson, one of those career prosecutors.
Nobody was available to speak for the bad guys.
Affordable Care Act Not So Affordable to the County – Human Resources Director Pat Siemiontkowski told Council that the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, has placed an immense strain on her office. That law requires medical benefits to be offered to PT employees who work over 30 hours per week. She requested an additional clerk to keep track of who needs to be offered medical benefits and the numerous notices that will be required under this new and controversial law. Her request passed unanimously.
"This is a federal mandate," she told Council. "The County could be facing severe penalties under the law."
Currently, Siemiontkowski has a staff of 12 people to deal with 2,100 County employees, negotiate 11 union contracts and also deal with career service or nonunion issues.
Here request was approved 7-2. Only Council members Peg Ferraro and Tom Dietrich voted against this request.
Bruce Haines Might Make Northampton County a Habit. - Historic Hotel Bethlehem's Bruce Haines is a regular at Bethlehem City Council meetings. Sometimes they give him what he wants. Sometimes they say no. But he's batting 1,000 at Northampton County Council. By a 6-3 vote, Council agreed to increase the funding for the Historic Bethlehem Partnership from $20,000 to $65,000. The purpose of this grant, which comes from hotel tax money and not real estate tax revenues, is to attract people who can spread the message of the three centuries of history known as Bethlehem. This extends beyond Main Street, where Hotel Bethlehem is located. It also includes places like the Burnside Plantation and the Kemmerer Museum.
I offered to speak against the project, assuring Haines that it would get him unanimous support. "I got this," he answered.
Only Bruce Gilbert, barb Thierry and Tom Dietrich opposed the request.
Conservation District Gets a Secretary! – A little known aspect of County government is the Conservation District, established in 1961 to promote conservation and prevent soil erosion. Anyone planning to build on more than an acre must provide an Erosion and Sediment Pollution Control Plan. In a sign of an improving economy, District Manager Bruce Pysher has noted that requests have increased. But ut's hard to get out in the fiield when answering the pone. So he asked that a PT secretary be made full time. recommended an additional person to review those plans. His proposal was adopted unanimously.
What Number is 911? – Emergency management Director Bob Mateff has 35 people to answer 911 calls, 24/7. If someone is ill or unable to make it, the post must be still manned by a team of four people. These leads to voluntary and, sometimes, mandatory overtime. That is turn leads to burnout and a high turnover in a job So Mateff sought and got permission to hire two full-time and two part-time 911 dispatchers, as well as a shift supervisor. Mateff that will reduce both stress and OT.
"Public safety is something we shouldn't mess with," noted John Cusick, before a unanimous vote approving the request.
Human Resources Director Pat Siemiontkowski told Council she really should do a desk audit first, so her office could provide a more appropriate job description. But McClure dismissed her plea as "bureaucratic intransigence."
Executive Stoffa was asked why he had never reclassified the position.
"There are probably 100 people who need to be re-classified," responded Stoffa. "We cannot afford it."
By a 6-3 vote, County Council reclassified the positions on their own. Bruce Gilbert, Barb Thierry and John Cusick were the no votes.
I'm all for giving Zach whatever he wants so liong as he promises not to describe what he does.
A Walk in the Park! - Northampton County now has Wayne Grube Park, and asked for two groundskeepers and a park attendant to keep up with everything. Parks Director Gortie Heller had told Council that his staff of 13 is stretched thin because they do the maintenance on four county parks, county grounds, and assorted pocket parks like Fry's Run and Doe Hollow.
Marcellus Shale and Open Space? - John Cusick did persuade four members of Council, including self-proclaimed open space advocate Lamont McClure, to reduce the funding next year for environmentally sensitive land because of funds the County will be receiving for that purpose from the Marcellus Shale funds.
"What I am suggesting is that we replace money we get from our taxpayers with money that we get from the gas companies," explained Cusick.
Open Space Czarina Maria Bentzoni was frustrated by Cusick's proposal because Marcellus Shale funds are restricted and she is unable to commingle them with other funds or leverage the money for additional grants.