As much as I criticize NorCo Executive John Brown, he does have a tough job that forces him to make unpleasant choices. It's too bad he never got the chance to see Marty Bechtel or Gene Hartzell, our first two Executives, in action. It was a simpler time, but they still made it look easy. Brown, in contrast, has managed to piss off his most loyal supporters in the northwestern tier of Northampton County in a way that makes him look like a grinch who is insensitive to public safety. Amazingly, it's over the paltry sum of $17,680. He's right, but could have used one of Amy Trapp's staff development courses so that he could explain things better.
Before I tell you what happened, I want to explain a little more about Gene Hartzell. When he was concerned about tardiness, it never crossed his mind to install punch clocks. He instead would occasionally stand at the courthouse entrance and look at his watch as a tardy staffer came in. That took care of the problem. If you needed something and went to see him, he'd say No and give you 1,000 reasons why what you were seeking is impossible. Then in the next day or two, you'd see a news account telling you he was doing exactly what you had suggested. He knew how to listen and how to be flexible.
Northampton County now has a streamlined centralized booking center right outside the jail. Brown is right to be very proud of it. When a person is arrested and charged with a serious offense, he is taken to a central booking station, located next to the jail. Arresting officers at one time had to wait as the accused was processed, which usually took between two and four hours. With 2,000* bookings per year, this was roughly 4,000-8,000 man hours. This is an incredible drain on smaller departments. It often meant that there'd be no police coverage. The changes that Brown and Corrections Director Dan Keen made early last year put those police officers back on the street within 30 minutes.
In addition to the central booking station at the jail, there are two others. One of them is in Bethlehem, and that at one time was the sole booking center. The third and newest one was built in Lehigh Township with grant funds provided by the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association and Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. In addition to Lehigh Township, it serves the police departments in Walnutport, Northampton ,North Catty and Moore Township. It includes a Livescan Fingerprint Computer System, Commonwealth Photo Imaging Network (CPIN) and Videoconferencing Closed Circuit TV Network. It's a 24/7 operation that serves the same purpose as the other two booking centers - getting police officers back on patrol. But the grant commitment only funded operations temporarily, and language in the agreement made that clear.
Somewhere along the line, Lehigh Township got the impression that Northampton County would continue funding operations. Two weeks ago, John Brown made clear they were wrong at a Council meeting attended by Supervisor Cindy Miller, Chief Scott Fogel, Manager Alice Rehrig and Magisterial District Judge Robert Hawke. They wee also lathered up that the County had moved a polling station out of Lehigh Township and into Moore Township.
Brown's attitude was that, if these municipalities want their officers back on the road quickly, they should pay for it. Their position is that the county should pay for it out of funds assessed to defendants when they are processed. Brown made his remarks after Lehigh Township officials had already left, but when they heard about it, they vowed they'd be back.
In the meantime, Council President John Cusick asked Controller Steve Barron to "audit" the Lehigh Township center. All Barron could really do is point out the competing arguments made by both sides.
Yesterday afternoon, Cindy Miller was back before Council's Finance committee. She claimed that Northampton County's central booking unit was a "mess" before her Chief came down to Northampton County and assisted them in streamlining it. She asked why the County would refuse to pay for Lehigh Township but pay for Bethlehem.
Brown previously stated that he agreed to pay an additional year for Bethlehem because of the 911 merger, but it's only for one year.
He told Council that the central booking unit actually operates at a loss. In 2016, it collected $274,578 in fees but spent $418,443 in expenses. He was unwilling to bear the $17,680 bill for Lehigh.
Council President John Cusick put things in perspective. "This is $17,000 for public safety," he observed. "We spent $50,000 for a fish tank at the bottom of the hill," he added, referring to the proposed DaVinci Center.
Gene Hartzell, if he were still Executive, would call Cindy Miller into his office and explain in detail why he's unable to pay that bill, much as he'd like to help. Then he'd send her a check and tell her it's the last time.
The northwestern quadrant of Northampton County is heavily Republican. Why on earth would John Brown want to alienate them in an election year, especially since he already suppressed the vote by moving a precinct that would have voted for him into another township? He may be a good bean counter, but he's a lousy politician who is arguing over a minor matter.
After the meeting, Miller went to Brown's office. Hopefully, the spirit of Gene Hartzell possessed him.