Thursday, January 07, 2016
How the Urban Growth Regime Has Failed the Lehigh Valley
In discussions on this blog yesterday, understandable attempts were made to place all the blame for the Allentown pay-to-play scandal on Democrats. It is, after all, a one-party town lacking some of the checks and balances that would otherwise exist. But this argument assumes that Democrats actually govern in Allentown. They don't, and haven't for some time.
I've written before that democracy is oh so passé in Allentown. It's been replaced by what some of us call an urban growth regime in which crony capitalists (mostly Republican) call the shots through their pay-to-play puppets in local government (mostly Democrat). Fed Ed might run for Governor or the U.S. Senate, but NIZ Kings J.B. Reilly and Joe Topper are the de facto government. Efforts to extend that reach Valley wide, through an unelected group of aristocrats calling themselves The Lehigh Valley Partnership, have been less successful.
You won't find a website for this gang, once known as the Big Eight. They took it down as soon as people like me became suspicious They prefer the shadows. Before Reilly, they undoubtedly were the most powerful special interest group in the Lehigh Valley.
Formed as a nonprofit in 1985, The Lehigh Valley Partnership has had a hand in nearly all of local government's major spending plans and decision for the past three decades.
According to its last IRS report, filed in 2010, its members included L Charles Marcon, L Anderson Daub, jan Heller, Bert Daday, Robert Black, Joseph Brake, Greg Butz, Michael Caruso, Robert DeSalvio, Jeffrey Feather, Steve Follett and Dr. Alice Gast. Not listed in this report are the publishers of both dailies, which have traditionally been considered ex officio members. Its purpose is "to provide resources to the community, in partnership with the public sector, for initiatives which improve the quality of life and economic prospects of the Lehigh Valley area." Sounds pretty good, eh?
This "public-private partnership," of course, is complete nonsense. A public official's fidelity belongs to the public, not to enriching Abe Atiyeh by purchasing land from him at nearly three times its value. And someone like J.B Reilly has absolutely no duty to make life better for anyone in Allentown other than himself. The whole notion of government and business working together for the greater good is a myth.
But most of the resources provided to the community come from their "partners" in the public sector. The more these resources are spent, the richer this group gets. That seems to be their real goal.
Though the Lehigh Valley Partnership hosted a County Executive debate in 2013, there is no online record of its tax returns since 2010. It's possible that JB Reilly has assumed complete control, or that the group has set up another nonprofit.
Behind closed doors, the Lehigh Valley Partnership has been a driving force behind the following:
(1) Revitalizing Allentown. - Long before Fed Ed arrived on the scene, the Lehigh Valley Partnership decided that the key to a healthy Lehigh Valley is a healthy Allentown. It funded a Brookings Institution "Back to Prosperity" Study to tell it exactly what it wanted to hear, which was then accepted as Gospel by the media and mouthpieces like Alan Jennings, who has always sung well for his CACLV Supper. This would become the philosophical basis for the NIZ, gentrification and other city tax incentives.
(1) The $29 million in economic development incentives, i.e. corporate welfare, in Northampton County's controversial $111 million 2001 megabond.
(2) The 2000 Hotel Tax, including a formula that requires that a good chunk of the dough help fund The Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation.
(3) The Open Space Referenda in Northampton and Lehigh County, feel good legislation that would create small islands of green amidst seas of sprawl, without any meaningful attempt at land use regulation.
(4) Widening Route 22. Former Lehigh Valley Planning Commission Exec Director Mike Kaiser was an ex officio member of the LVP, and they wanted that highway widened ... now.
(6) Attempts to Control MSM. Publishers at both local papers were members of the LVP board.
Traditionally, the Lehigh Valley Partnership has been the puppeteer pulling the strings at CACLV (Alan Jennings), LVEDC (Don Cunningham), NMIH (Donches), RenewLV (Joyce Marin), Greater LV Chamber of Commerce (Tony Iannelli) and LVPC (Bradley). Much of its work and ideas have been good. But these people are unelected and their allegiance is to themselves or their stockholders.
This urban growth regime, accompanied by the death of democracy in Allentown, created the perfect atmosphere for people like Fed Ed and Miked Fleck to hold their hand out and demand a taste. It created a perfect climate for the NIZ.
It is ludicrous to believe anyone in government came up with the idea. It was born in the mind of JB Reilly (possibly with the aid of Joe Topper, Lee Butz and Mark Jaindl). JB co-opted Pat Browne, Fed Ed and state government to get the NIZ legislation passed. He was thinking long-term. Government was focused on the short-term (the next election, union construction jobs, favorable publicity) to the detriment of the long-term consequences of the NIZ. Aided and abetted by the Morning Call and shills like Alan Jennings, JB maneuvered government into an "us versus them" campaign, characterizing the "suburbs" and the developers there as the rapists of Allentown. The NIZ was simply payback for the raping and plundering done by those evil suburban developers. This was ridiculously easy for JB to do. Even more ridiculous since most of his previous development activity was not in Allentown, but in those evil suburbs.
So, the "co-opting" has been virtually a one-way street. JB, Topper, the Butzes, and Mark Jaindl will reap hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars - all done quite legally - while Democratic politicians and a few hapless developers will go to jail. Most of Allentown will continue to suffer in poverty. In the meantime, those rapists - not just in the suburbs, but also in Bethlehem and Easton - will suffer substantial losses of business (and those cities and municipalities lose tax revenues as a result).
So what is The Urban Growth Regime's next trick? The CRIZ. But that was, unlike the NIZ, a government-inspired idea and hence doomed to failure.
The federal investigation into Allentown pay-to-play certainly dealing with a symptom. But the disease is the death of democracy, made possible by people who buy politicians and elections without really breaking any laws at all. That's what needs to change. And that, my friends, is a bi-partisan failure.