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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Friday, December 06, 2013

John Stoffa's 7th No Tax Hike Budget Adopted

Executive John Stoffa’s final budget as Northampton County Executive was adopted last night, with only minor changes.  His $329 million spending plan, a 3.5% drop over the previous year, was reviewed in detail by County Council during six lengthy hearings. Last night, Council considered thirty amendments that will have no real impact on the bottom line. The tax rate – 10.8 mills – will remain the same. Stoffa will now finish his two terms as Executive without a tax hike, with the exception of a ½ mill tax hike dedicated to open space that Stoffa warned voters about when first campaigning for office. “They elected me, anyway,” he often quips.

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."

Council Fires Administrator For Christmas - Not only did Camille Barlett lose her job as Mail Room Supervisor, but she was denied the opportunity to make her case to Council before they dumped her last night. That certainly appears to be a blatant violation of her due process rights.

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.

Here Comes da' Judges, Here Comes da' Judges - Between parking tickets and lawsuits, I see way too much of President Judge Stephen Baratta and District Judge Jackie Taschner. Thankfully, they were at last night's Council meeting, not to hold me in contempt, but over a Council threat to deny funding for 3 1/2 Magisterial District Judge Clerks.

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.

Coroner Ain't Got No Body. - .Though Lamont McClure has never made past from The Edge to visit the county morgue, he apparently is a big fan of C.S.I, a television show he mentioned on Wednesday. He wants a very modern morgue with the latest equipment, too. Though a coroner only needs a high school diploma, he thinks they're all medical examiners. So he bought into Coroner Zach Lysek's plea for not just an extra FT and two PT Deputy Coroners, but a major increase in salary.

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.


Anonymous said...

John Stoffa has emptied the treasury. Good Luck Mr. Brown. You are in a real shit box thanks to John Stoffa.

Anonymous said...

“They elected me, anyway,” he often quips."

Yes, you have said this a billion times. It had little to do with the election and considering the poor financial condition he has left the county in, his quip will be less than humorous for the next Admisntration.

Anonymous said...

Bullshit! The Democrats on county council really overpaid staff. They gave away the store to the coroner and the Da. They are writing checks they can't cash.

They are responsible for creating a financial crises for John Brown and the newly elected Republican county council.

This was politically motivated. I am glad we will have a Republican County Executive and a Conservative Republican county council to stop this madness.

They will not fall for the Democrats trap. The Republicans will not raise taxes and will use Lamont McClure's own words against him.

Next year will be a wake up call for all the county leeches sucking on the public teat. No more free rides.

There will be no tax increase from John Brown and no votes for a tax increase from the Republicans. Get use to it!

Anonymous said...

"Northampton County now has Wayne Grube Park, and asked for two groundskeepers and a park attendant to keep up with everything. Parks Direcoto had told Council that his staff if 13 is stretched thin ....."

No assholes. Work with what you have. Cut employees' nap times from five to four or make them actually do some labor, instead of finding places to sleep. This ain't a jobs program. Grube would've love this waste. But it's waste, nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

John Stoffa by his own admission is admitting that he single handedly is destroying the merit personnel system in the County thereby destroying morale and contributing to nonprofessionalism of our employees. Isn't it amazing that he states"the county can't afford to reclassify employees because they can't afford it" even when he admits some of them truly deserve it. He finds money for his pet projects but has a "screw the employee attitude" when it comes time to do what is right for the people in the trenches. He inherited eight years of financial bliss from Glenn Reibman but leaves the county near financial ruin. You Bernie are a shining example of ignorance is bliss when you sight his biggest accomplishment as being the preservation of some property in Bethlehem Township. Let's hope Brown brings us out of financial ruin and back to prosperity.

Anonymous said...

Next year the republicans might get a better hold on the spending but look at last nights votes and you will see Peg has a very hard time voting no.

Brown surely will look for ways to trim the budget but it may not be enough and if he is smart and I know he is., he will also raise taxes enough to get him through his term. Few will blame him as he is taking over what has been left behind.

This council well most of them said yes to 90% of what was asked of them. There is no balance. A very few request have real justification but not so with the rest.

Don't know what will happen but I think Brown will need time to sort this mess out.

At least we don't have to worry that he is a proven politician with a big ego whose decisions we have to wonder about. He will just try to do the right thing for the county.

That is worth a lot to many of us. The Brown or republican haters will not miss their chance to belittle him but it is what they do. Brown has big shoulders.

Anonymous said...

Morganelli will need more full timers in the DAs office next year, since he will be busy pulling the stings of the Donchez Administration in Bethlehem.

C said...

People worked together and got good things done. Nice job!

Anonymous said...

Peg shows all the fiscal responsibility of someone wouldn't last five minutes in the private sector. Like most teachers, she deeply despises taxpayers because her pension isn't big enough. Money grows on trees at her house and she doesn't realize that's not the case anywhere else. How incredibly heartless and irresponsible.

Anonymous said...

Hey McClure..get ready for marginalization..your time is just about up. Pout all you want and next election cycle..find somewhere else to park your butt.

Anonymous said...

John Brown has a plan. It will unfurl over the next few months. Lots of fat to trim and the at will employees better run for cover. I see at least a million dollars that is a waste of tax payer money. Hang on to your hats..

Anonymous said...

Peg does not deserve to be president of council. Seniority means squat. Pick the best person and she is not that person

Bernie O'Hare said...

The tea party Rs hate Ferraro, but they account for just one of the 9 votes on Council. She will be elected president.

As for Brown, he is a LV Partnership R, the kind who sits on the Board of RenewLV. Not exactly tea party.

But I like the threat to county workers. that's a great way to start an administration. I might be concerned but doubt you speak for Brown.

Anonymous said...

You want more money in the county--all the county needs to do is have a re-assessment of the properties. Its long over-due.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I agree, but not for the reason you state. There needs to be a re-assessment to ensure fairness in taxation, not to bring in more money.

Anonymous said...

Christmas came early for certain depts. that wanted to pad their complement. Draconian cuts and layoffs are predicted for the 2015 budget thanks to this clueless council.

Anonymous said...

Brown will be neutralized because Peg Ferraro will spend with the rest of Ds, giving fiscal irresponsibility and heartlessness toward taxpayers the solid 5-4 majority. We should buy land at four times market value for a toxic waste dump to be placed anywhere but Nazareth and to be named after Peg Ferraro. It would be the most perfectly fitting tribute to her lifetime of sticking it to taxpayers that could possibly be made. If you thought she'd already perfected wasting county money, you ain't seen nothing yet. She'll be McClure's .... uh.....you know.

Anonymous said...

Bernie, This is your most well written blog post to date. If it were a movie, it would be nominated for an Academy Award.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Where do I send the check? Thanx

Anonymous said...

I am confident the conservative Republicans elected to county council will "NOT" vote for any tax increases to bail out the spendthrift Democrats.

The Dem's like to give away the store to anyone who comes in and asks for money. Let them raise the tax.

There will be no Republican sponsored tax increase for the next four years in Northampton County! Elections have consequences.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Four Res and four Dems amended and voted for that budget. In my view, it should have included a tax hike. This will almost guarantee a major tax hike within the next two years.

Anonymous said...

The tax hike is coming! It is simple Math! A property re assessment may help but it's not the whole answer. Inflation is out of control and the COLA has not kept up in 10 years.

Wake up ppl, just because news outlets say we r in a recession is not reality. We r in a depression.

Anonymous said...

You will not guilt trip Republicans into raising taxes to fix the Stoffa mess. He inherited over $70 million dollars and millions more a year and blew it all in seven years.

Let the Demoncats fix it. Don't expect the good conservative Republicans to raise taxers. if it was so important why didn't Stoffa propose and fight for one. Oh, that's right, that would have taken leadership. Something lacking for years.

Anonymous said...

Brown will find 10 to 15 percent in budget excess the first year and take action. A sound business plan will be implemented and possibly no tax hike will be required to begin to right the ship of state. It will take the entire four years to get this thing turned around and headed in the right direction for future executives to handle in an efficient manner.

Bernie O'Hare said...

In a county that includes numerous mandated services, like the prison, and which has already tried trimming 10%, you reach a point where the only way you can avoid a tax hike is by eliminating staff. Then services deteriorate, morale is destroyed, and more workers run to the union.

If the Rs had any brains, which they obviously don't, they would have imposed a tax hike NOW. That way Brown and the new Council would not be painted in a corner. But like idiots, you allowed an even larger deficit. If the R Council and Exec impose a tax hike, Kraft and McClure will call you spendthrifts who failed to look for cuts. If you lay people off, Kraft and McClure will call you heartless bastards.

You were played like a violin with this budget.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Had you imposed the hike now, you could have blamed it on Stoffa and the 4 Rs who are departing.

Anonymous said...

The present council did this and the current executive. The incoming admin. has no say yet. The blame falls on the outgoing R's and the few conservative D's for not standing up for what is right and needed. This will not stand and it is only a best guess budget. The real heavy lifting is left on the door step for 2014 and a new look council to amend and reshape as is required. Some people got no stomach for the hard stuff.EAEvenua proportions

Anonymous said...

I do not foresee layoffs or curtailment of essential services by the incoming admin. but hiring will probably be frozen until all the departments are scrutinized top to bottom. All is not lost and the sky is not falling either. Brown will work the problems and offer solutions in a short amount of time for long range and short range measures to face county challenges.

Anonymous said...

A lot will rest on Peg. She is the swing vote now. Lots of ties will be broken by her vote up or down. I hope she can handle the pressure of being in that position. Maybe she should rethink wanting to be council president?

Anonymous said...

I think Scott Parsons would be a better choice for president over Peg. A conservative Dem. with good political instincts and nobody owns him.

Anonymous said...

Parsons has been begging to be President for years. Not gonna happen. Besides if any Republican other than Angle runs in District four in 2015, Parsons is history.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Given that Parsons has only sat on the board for two years, your statement is nonsense.

Anonymous said...

A week after getting elected he was begging for the role. With the thought of a Democrat majority coming to Council he was trying to cut deals like a maniac.

Ask around. Another person you have misjudges. Sometimes personal political ambition trumps decency.

Bernie O'Hare said...

As I said, your statement is nonsense. Parsons probably would be President if Dems had 5 members. But you claim he's wanted the position for years and he's just finished his second year. Your statement is nonsense. Whether I've misjudged him or not ha nothing to do with the fact that your claim is necessarily a lie.

Bernie O'Hare said...

1:15, a hiring freeze was in effect for two years. Stoffa has not exactly filled the place with bodies. Every employee costs $50,000 per year on average. To save just $1 million in taxes, you need to get rid of 20 workers. To avoid a 1 mill tax hike, you would have to eliminate 270 jobs. If you think you can balance a budget on the backs of county employees, you're smoking crack. That 'a the familiar refrain of the ignorant. It sounds good until you start doing the math.

Anonymous said...

The funny thing is Bernie, that both Kraft and Parson's were begging to be elected council President. They were lobbying the new Dem candidates like crazy.

The kicker is the Dem candidates if elected were not going to vote for either one of them. Check out your sources. It didn't occur due to the election but it would have been a blast!

Bernie O'Hare said...

I am well aware that both Kraft and Parsons wanted the job if Dems took control of Council. But that is not what you said. You claimed falsely that Parsons had wanted the job for years.

Anonymous said...

I know where to cut half a million right away..and not current county employee's jobs.

Anonymous said...

A half mil is peanuts but it is something.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Why don't you sign your name when advocating the end of open space, which was supported by 65% of the voters.

Anonymous said...

Wrong guess..open space is a mandate anyway.

Anonymous said...

The tax was not mandated by anyone but Stoffa. Facts please!!

Anonymous said...

So the democrats if you notice say no to nothing. Every position wanted got filled. Most of the republicans said no to most of this but did not have enough votes. So we add positions so Brown can cut them. He will be looking for savings and spending that benefits the taxpayer. Why should republicans want a tax increase. The biggest spenders should vote fpr it. Makes no sense to blame the republicans. Even if you disagree with what they did vote yes to it was little comparatively. Is Stoffa hated because he is a democrat or because he is not left enough for the left? He seems pretty balanced to me and I am on the right. Some can't see past their political party I guess. What a shame.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Stoffa is actually a liberal Democrat, for more liberal than the ones on Council. But he is very tight with the public dollar. That's why Rs tend to like him. Because Rs like him, union Dems like Kraft, Barron and McClure hate Stoffa and actually try to impede county government.

Anonymous said...

Bernie maybe they should cut some of the dead wood at the prison after all I hear that it is top heavy.