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Friday, March 29, 2019

NorCo Now Owns Human Services Building

Human Services Building

At 2 pm yesterday, Northampton County became the owner of its Human Services building, located at 2801 Emrick Boulevard in Bethlehem Township. The county had been leasing the building for $1.05 million per year.It was also paying $190,000 per year in taxes. It purchased the building for $14.5 million, exercising an option that became available this year. For years, former Executive John Stoffa had argued for a single centralized building for 80,000 clients who often need services from several departments. His vision has become reality.

Ironically, Stoffa was unable to see the realization of his dream yesterday. He's been sidelined by a disease affecting his mobility. Though absent, he was the first person who Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure thanked.
From left to right: Ken Kraft, Jim Gentile, Lamont McClure, Ken Mohr and Tom Harp

John Stoffa
McClure also invited several other people who made this project possible. Ken Kraft, who was a member of County Council when Stoffa proposed this project, was able to whip up the votes needed to make it work. Jim Gentile was the construction manage who delivered the building on time and under budget. Ken Mohr is the consultant who visited numerous locations and determined the most optimal location for a centralized building. Tom Harp, who was Stoffa's Administrator, worked tirelessly to make Stoffa's dream a reality.

Before this acquisition, Human Services were split up at locations in Easton and Bethlehem. This meant that people who needed servoces from several departments would have to visit both locations.

Like everything else in Northampton County, this no-brainer was controversial. The Governor Wolf building,located in Easton, was plagued with all kinds of problems, including asbestos. Caseworkers complained that children who came for supervised visitation were exposed to lead-based paint and even guano. Stoffa was accused of just wanting a building named after him.

As you can see (above), the building is simply called Northampton County Human Services Building  Ken Kraft joked it should be named after him. If I were King, the building would be named after Grace Packer, the little girl who was murdered by a former NorCo caseworker and her boyfriend. She is a reminder of how the system we set up to protect our most vulnerable people can end up hurting them.

Closing, from left to right: Att'y Veronica DeAngelo Johnson,Att'y Michael Corriere,
Jim Gentile, Lamont McClure and Council President Ron Heckman
At the closing, McClure said he is mulling a child advocacy center at the Human Services Building. He also asked NorCo Council President Ron Heckman to attend because it is Council who borrowed the money to make this purchase possible, along with a forensic center and bridge project.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

McClure Serves Up Unusual State of the County, Along With Bacon and Eggs

Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure delivered two "State of the County" addresses yesterday at an early morning breakfast attended by about 120 county employees, business leaders and political rivals at Historic Hotel Bethlehem  As the smell of bacon and hot coffee wafted through the room, a relaxed McClure spent approximately 40 minutes highlighting the accomplishments of the people who work for him. In doing so, he actually was explaining what county government does. In addition to his remarks, attendees were presented with a detailed financial statement that informs the public where the county gets its money and how it is spent.

He said he come into office with a major money problem. Former Executive John Brown had committed the county to a $38 million project that would repair or replace 33 county bridges, but with no dedicated funding source. In addition, the county was was leasing a Human Services Building in Bethlehem Tp at a total cost of $28 million. Though the county could purchase the building, it would lose nearly $1 million it receives from the state every year to pay the rent. Finally, Coroner Zach Lysek was working out of an old farmhouse at Louise Moore Park and in desperate need of a forensic center. McClure credited Fiscal Affairs Director Steve Barron with solving this problem with an "incredibly innovative" plan. That plan involved borrowing the money to purchase the building. That way the county would still get its annual payment from the state. That way, funds would also be available to pay for the bridges and finally build a forensic center. The icing on the cake is that the county would actually save money by borrowing money.

He said it's little wonder that Barron is referred to as NorCo Money Man. But his highest praise was for Budget Director Doran Hammond, who will retire at the end of this year after 40 years of service. He said that Northampton County in past years was often a circus, but that Hammond made sure the county stayed on an even keel and that the clowns got paid and animals fed.

From his secretary to his top Administrator, McClure thanked everyone. He called Deputy Administrator Becky Bartlett his "eyes and ears" at meetings he is unable to attend. He credited Amy Cozze for her work on selecting new voting machines with a paper trail. Her choice just happened to be the choice of a vast majority of election judges. "I don't think the Russians will be able to get into our machines," he joked.

He praised his Public Works Director, Mike Emili, with finally getting new generators at Gracedale,a project that had languished for five years. Residents at the county-owned nursing home were without power for several days after Superstorm Sandy. He also said Emili is working on a separate entrance for admissions of new residents, who often arrive on stretchers.

For decades, the county has had no forensic center. Some have said it's unnecessary."Talk to Zach [the Coroner] about it," he suggested. "It's been. Zach's sheer force of will that murder cases haven't been thrown out because he's made sure evidence has been preserved." 

He also touched on Gracedale. At last weeks Council meeting, a bevy of nurses complained about low wages and poor staffing  Gracedale exceeds the state average standards. The staffing issues might be created by the nurses themselves. McClure noted that family and sick leave is 30% at Gracedale, more than twice what it is at 24/7 operations like 911 or the jail.  He said at that number, it's time to question whether family leave is being abused. He added that, while he believes the county has a "moral obligation" to keep Gracedale, it would be unfair to the taxpayer to run it at a $6-10 million deficit.

The RNs have rejected McClure's contact proposal, but a similar contract was accepted overwhelmingly by six other unions, including other Gracedale staff.

Nurses at Gracedale are paid an average of $77,000 per year. Four of them make more than McClure. Deborah Messinger, a registered nurse, was paid $121,000 last year

McClure also talked about increasing truck traffic, and said people have had enough. He said that the county can encourage farmland preservation and preservation of environmentally sensitive lad, but added that people want jobs, too.

His other state of the county, which details where the county gets its money and how it spends it, will be detailed tomorrow.

This event was hosted by the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. 

I sat at a large round table with plenty of room for about 1,000 people. Though I had taken my monthly shower and was wearing clean underwear, I was all by my lonesome until moments before the event started. This is what happened last year, too. My table did eventually fill up, but it was with people who had no choice.

You might think I was being shunned, but that's untrue. Fiscal Director Steve Barron, aka Norco Moneyman, walked right up to me. "I didn't think your coffin opened before 11 am," he said.

I'll deal with him after sunset.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Old Technology For Renewable Energy At Hugh Moore Park

NorCo Exec Lamont McClure yesterday announced a $1.4 million grant from the Pennsylvania Alternative Clean Energy Program for the construction of a new 520 kW zero emissions hydro facility at Hugh Moore Park in Easton. This grant was awarded to New England Hydropower, LLC (NEHC) of Beverly, MA. Northampton County Council voted to provide matching funds for the project at their July 19, 2018 meeting.

The Northampton County investment is a loan to be repaid over 10 years at current market rates. There is a possibility that NEHC will repay this loan by supplying power to the county.

“Our extensive canal and dam systems presents a great opportunity to provide renewable power to our residents,” said McClure. “This is an important step in building a green future for Northampton County.”

This hydroelectric power generator is commonly referred to as an Archimedes Screw, and has been in use for thousands of years. To generate electricity, the screw is used in reverse where water enters at the top and the weight pushes on the helical flights, causing the screw to rotate. This rotational energy can then be extracted by an electrical generator connected to the main shaft. The turbine is fish-friendly and capable of generating enough power for up to 400 homes over the next 40 years.

Archimedes screws are commonly used in Europe to produce clean power. NEHC installed the first one in America in Meriden, CT in 2017.

This project was originally referred to McClure by State Rep. Bob Freeman.

This Archimedes screw will be located right by the canal boat.

A second site is also under consideration at Ground Hog lock in Williams Tp.

The two sites combined would provide energy for 800 residences.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Zrinski a "Climate Reality" Leader

NorCo Council member Tara Zrinski chairs the "Energy, Environment and Land Use Committee," which most of us have known as the Open Space Committee. Her committee met last Thursday. Though there's video of both the Human Services Committee as well as the County Council meeting that followed, there's no video of her meeting. I will try to find out why today.

During the actual county council meeting, Zrinski sought Council's support for a resolution that protects employees of the Lehigh Valley International Airport from discrimination on the basis of "sexual orientation." That is defined to include transgender people. Aside from Zrinski, there was no support for this resolution.

Council President Ron Heckman did congratulate her, however, for being certified as a Climate Reality Leader after some conference in Georgia. Whether this Winter trip to the south was funded by the county is unknown.

Monday, March 25, 2019

McClure To Deliver SOTC Wednesday

Lamont McClure
NorCo Exec Lamont McClure will deliver a "State of the County" address on Wednesday morning, 8 am, at Historic Hotel Bethlehem. This annual event is sponsored by the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. McClure has accomplished a lot during his first year in office. He has beefed up Human Services with more caseworkers to protect our children and the elderly. He has funding for a forensic center, which will be located near the 911 center. He and Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez are working to consolidate 911 operations by July. He negotiated new contracts for most of the unions He has restored medical benefits that were eliminated by his predecessor. In the wake of a negative health inspection, he replaced Gracedale's third-party manager with someone who is in-house. He will purchase the human services center on Thursday. He's also been accessible, responding to phone calls and emails.Most importantly, at least for the taxpayer, he's held the line on taxes. The reason I consider him an excellent county executive has little to do with most of these things. The reality is that he cares very much about the county and the people he represents.

In 2005, McClure was appointed to NorCo Council after losing in two previous races. At that time,he told Council that all he cared about was the county. He had no interest in using his position as a springboard to run for something else. I thought at the time that he was laying it on, but I was wrong. Let me tell you why.

McClure is getting good grades from everyone after his first year on the job. He won the Executive race convincingly against an incumbent. He has a fairly large funding base for future elections. So when DA John Morganelli was stepping down, I was sure that McClure would run for the out the back door job. It pays a lot more than the measly $85,000 for a person administering a $400 million budget. He's a lawyer, too. He would beat any contender in a disputed race. But he passed. He believes he can do more good where he is.

This was driven home to me a few days ago,when I bumped into a retiree at the Nazareth Diner. She tried to get out the back door when she saw me, but I cut her off.

Before I could even ask, she had high praise for McClure. She told me she had a question about her retirement benefits and called in. The next day, she heard from McClure himself. He put her in touch with a person in Human Resources, and made sure her questions were answered thoroughly.

So he cares abut the county, and knows that the people who work there, both present and past, are what makes it. So when nurses from Gracedale complain about staffing, I am sure McClure heard them loud and clear. When they say they'd like more money, he'd agree but has an obligation to the taxpayer, too. I'm sure he'd like more money, too. Some of those RNs make more money than he does.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Gracedale Nurses Blast "Horrifying" Staff Shortages

A procession of nurses made Northampton County Council that they are very unhappy with the constant staffing shortages at Gracedale. They were led by Local 2599 United Steelworkers President Jerry Greene, who represents a bargaining unit consisting of RNs and social workers at the county's home. "The talks haven't been going that well,"said Greene. While agreeing that Executive Lamont McClure "inherited a mess from the last administration," he said that the facility is understaffed and employees there are underpaid.

Valerie Mikula, a RN employed at Gracedale since 2001, said that she sees the home's mission as providing the highest level of care for the Gracedale residents without causing a hardship to the taxpayers. "Why are we making $5.5 million profit?" she asked.

She indicated there are currently 18 full-time RNs, with 36 full-time RN vacancies. The home is also down 88 aides, she asserted. She added that multiple floors have no RNs, and the work is done by LPNs.

Mikula's comments were echoed by an LPN, who complained she is now alone on a floor with 32 residents. She complained that when a resident falls, he or she must often remain there for as long as 30 minutes until an RN can be located to assess the situation. She said hat's because they are often on the floor, dispensing medications because no one else is there to do it.

Another LPN (Tonya Dominico sp?) said morale is at an all-time low. It's "kind of horrifying," she said. She complained she works 62 hours per week and still gets called.

"The morale stinks!" said CNA Julie Stout. She said the constant overtime has workers at each others' throats. She herself has just finished nine days in a row of extra shifts. She added that the lack of manpower contributes to falls and bedsores.

Candida Fairchild, employed at the home since 1995, said she's unsure she'll stay She gets alerts asking her to work overtime every day. "It's exhausting," she complained. "I hit and killed a woman getting to work."

"I wish we could pay them more money," responded Executive McClure. "But we have 1100 employees who agreed to the pattern." His pattern is a 4 1/2 per cent raise in the first year, followed by two per cent raises in years two and three. He also eliminated co-insurance and gap insurance, which puts more money into the pocket of the worker.

Some nurses suggested 12-hour shifts and signing bonuses. McClure said he is open yo both ideas but they were rejected by the union.

In the meantime, Gracedale's Medicare rating remains at two stars, or "below average."

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Pa.Sentencing Comm'n: Majority of Offenders (77%) are White

Two weeks ago, NorCo Council member Tara Zrinski proposed her latest nonbinding resolution. This one is calling for the legalization, taxation and regulation of marijuana. Although it was tabled at her own request, she called it a "social justice" issue. "This is going to take thousands of people out of jail," she said, adding that many of them are black or brown. Like her, I believed that sentences in Northampton County are disproportionately visited on persons of color. But according to the 2017 annual report from the Pa. Commission on Sentencing, we're both wrong.

The 136,313 offenses sentences in 2017 represent a four percent decrease over the previous year.

More than half of the non-DUI sentences (60%) were non-incarceration sentences. In 1990, county jail and non-incarceration sentences were nearly equal, but the trend now is to find an alternative to confinement.

Despite what you might think, non-incarceration is the most likely outcome for drug offenses (67%).

Eight-three per cent of all sentences in 2017 were the result of a negotiated plea, what we commonly call a plea bargain.

Contrary to what most of us are conditioned to think, the majority of offenders (73%) are white, not black or brown. In Northampton County, 77% of those sentenced were white. In Lehigh County, which has a larger minority population, 72% of those sentenced were white.

Most offenders (76%) are male.

Of 16,360 misdemeanor drug offenses like possession of a small amount of marijuana, the most common disposition is probation (71%). Statewide, only 1,227 people were sentenced in 2017 for possession of a small amount of marijuana. Instead of "thousands" of black and brown men languishing in jail, the actual figure is a little over 100 mostly white men.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Should NorCo Board Include Someone Just Fined by State Ethics Comm'n?

Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure has proposed Judith Henckel, a former Upper Mount Bethel Tp Supervisor, for re-appointment to a two-year term on the county's Open Space Advisory Board. This is a problem.

Last year, Henckel was fined $1,000 by the state ethics commission for using her public office to steer public work her son, a landscape architect. She signed some of the checks paying him. She never disclosed this relationship. Though the state board believes she acted unintentionally, appointing her to a board that recommends public projects is a terrible idea. I have no doubt she would act ethically, but it would create a bad appearance.

NorCo Council is expected to vote on this Thursday night.

Below is the story I wrote about Henckel in 2016, when she was the county's open space chair.

NorCo's Open Space Chair Faces Conflict Allegations

Ron Angle unswayed by Judy Henckel
Judith Henckel is a well-known environmental activist who currently serves as the Chair of Northampton County's Open Space Advisory Board. Before that, she led a "save or pave" drive supporting a 2007 referendum in which Upper mt Bethel taxpayers agreed to a 0.25 tax hike dedicated to preserving open space. That year, she also won a six-year seat on the Board of Supervisors, where she pursued an environmental agenda that included the 2008 purchase of  a 300-acre quarry owned by Eastern Industries, financed with a $2 million bond. That purchase was criticized by Ron Angle, who charged that the Township was buying "barren land" that could never be developed. But Henckel countered that the move was essential to protect the "Mount Bethel Fens."

And bog turtles.

But is it really about the fens and bog turtles? Or is the green pursued by open space activists the kind they can take to the bank?

Based on a tip from Ron Angle, Upper Mount Bethel Supervisors have spent the past month looking at records of payments made to Urban Research and Development, a well-respected Bethlehem-based firm that employs prominent landscape architect Leonard Policelli. Supervisor Anthony DeFranco revealed at last night's meeting that Urban Research has been paid $360,000 in that time period for different projects, including the development of a community park spearheaded by Policelli.

According to the Pennsylvania Ethics Act, a conflict or conflict of interest exists when a public official uses the authority of her office or any confidential information received through that office for the private pecuniary benefit of herself, a member of her immediate family or a business with which she or a member of her immediate family is associated.

"If in fact her son was getting a pecuniary benefit, there could be a conflict," said Solicitor Ron Karasek. "In all due respect, I was not aware that Mr. Policelli was Judy's son."

This relationship was also a surprise to Angle until last month. "Nobody in this audience has attended more meetings than me over the past ten years," he said. "Never once was this ever brought up by her or by him [her son] that 'By the way, there could be a potential conflict and we just wanted to let you know.' They just kept doing the same-o same-o."

Angle told Supervisors that Henckel should be barred from participating in any boards that decide on grants for her projects. He added that, when she was a Supervisor, she steered the Board away from farmland preservation, in which conservation easements are purchased. "Now I figured out why she never wanted farmland preservation," said Angle. "There's no money to be paid to the guy who does the farmland preservation. You just write a check."

Chairman John Bermingham, himself an open space advocate who was elected with Henckel's help, attempted to minimize the problem. "We live in a small town," he said. "It's gonna' happen here and there." He did agree that there "could" be a conflict, but that he and DeFranco have only been on the Board since January.

"She lobbied for these things," countered Angle, "knowing that a close relative would benefit."

For her part, Henckel denied that she opposed farmland preservation, and noted that three Upper Mount Bethel farms are in the process of being preserved now. She also denied that the community park, in which her son and his firm were involved, is open space. She called it a "municipal facility" given to the Township by Reliant Energy, and before she was a Supervisor.

At that time, though, Henckel was nevertheless a public official because she served on the Township's Environmental Advisory Council. She stated that she disclosed the relationship. "A lot of people knew," she explained, though she conceded she "did not advertise it." She indicated her son had just been successful that day in getting a $20,000 grant for trees at the park.

Henckel also questioned the $360,000 figure, indicating that Urban Research had done other work for the Township aside from the community park.

In a conversation during the meeting, Henckel told me she may have voted a few times for projects that would benefit her son'e company, but just never thought about it. She also indicated that she spends untold hours working for the benefit of the Township, not expecting anything.

Where things go from here is unclear. Angle believes the District Attorney or Ethics Commission should investigate, but Supervisors took no action at this point.

The open space movement appears to have created its own industry in which "land preservation boards' or "environmental advisory councils" are formed in which members vote to preserve each other's properties at taxpayer expense.

Much more oversight is needed than currently exists. That's why watchdogs like Ron Angle in Upper Mount Bethel and Vince Foglia in Williams Township are essential.

NorCo Finally Wants a Grant Writer

This is long overdue. For years, NorCo has missed out on numerous grant opportunities because it has no grant writer. This may change soon. Executive Lamont McClure is proposing that the county hire one with an annual salary of $50,130. f Council agrees, this new position will be part of the Department of Community and Economic Development.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Forget Plastic Straws, Shit is Our Real Problem

Northampton County Council has adopted a meaningless and nonbinding plastic straw ban that does nothing to protect our environment. It is just another example of virtue-signalling. But if local officials really want to save the planet, the place to start is with our shit.

According to Governing, defective septic systems have become a nightmare. "Leaky septic tanks cause algae blooms that close beaches on New York’s Long Island. They threaten dolphins and other aquatic wildlife in Florida. One of the striking things, Flowers says, is how many of the people affected by wastewater problems are poor or belong to historically marginalized groups."

They also produce hookworms.

Now I suppose Tara Zrinski could propose a new nonbinding resolution that commands us to stop shitting, but this is an area where local and county government can make a difference. It could educate the public. It could get involved in a proposal to install swere lines along a portion of Route 611 in Upper Mount Bethel Tp. It could even start assisting residents in applying for grant funding for new septic systems. This would actually accomplish something.

Trump Spendthrift Budget

After a weekend of bizarre tweets, authoritarian Donald Trump has sent Congress a 2020 budget that hardly has the fingerprints of a conservative. He wants to add $4 trillion to the deficit. He has proposed draconian cuts (31%) in domestic spending on programs that assist the poor. At the same time, he wants to increase defense spending by five per cent. The only reason people have refrained from going nutz over this spending plan is because it will never be adopted.  It is more of a re-election gimmick than an attempt at good government.

Monday, March 18, 2019


On Friday, 50 Muslims were murdered It increasingly appears to have been a lone gunman, armed with two semi-automatics and a shotgun. He livestreamed his rampage for the world to see, including him shooting someone right after being greeted as "Brother." It was odd to watch him carefully use his turn signal as he drove to the first mosque. This atrocity occurred, not here in the US, but in faraway New Zealand. The town, ironically enough, is called Christchurch. Since this shooting, there have been attempts to blame the Internet, Donald Trump and a rise in white nationalism. What this really about is hatred, the face of evil. In this case, it was in the form of Islamaphobia. Not too long ago, here in the US, it was hatred of Jews. Eleven of them were killed in prayer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

What makes us like this?

Instead of giving you the answers the right and left will provide nonstop over the next few weeks, I want to talk about something else. It's something I've seen on the evil Internet. It's a Turkish television series called Ertugrul, which I have been binge-watching on Netflix. It's the most popular program in Turkey, but is also appreciated by Muslims in the West. For once, they are portrayed as the good guys. What I like most about the show is the decency and yes, tolerance, displayed by many of the characters.

Called a Turkish Game of Thrones, the program is set in 13th century Turkey. It involves a small tribe of nomads who are squeezed on one side by the Knights Templar and on the other by Mongols. The lead character is Ertrugrul. He would father Osman, founder of the Ottoman Empire.

It's historical fiction, but several things about the program defy the stereotypical view of Muslims. In this admittedly idealized version of history, I have been struck by their basic decency and compassion.

It includes a spiritual mentor, Ibn Arabi, a mystic who actually existed. I have sought out some of his work. He has said intolerant things like this:
Beware of confining yourself to a particular belief and denying all else, for much good would elude you - indeed, the knowledge of reality would elude you. Be in yourself a matter for all forms of belief, for God is too vast and tremendous to be restricted to one belief rather than another.
And this:
Do not praise your own faith exclusively so that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this you will miss much good. Nay, you will miss the whole truth of the matter. God, the Omniscient and the Omnipresent, cannot be confined to any one creed, for He says in the Quran, wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.
What also strikes me about the show is the deep spirituality of many of these nomads. The phrase "Inshallah" (if God wills) is repeated more than any other.

This program is a stark contrast to the common Western images of Muslims as homicidal maniacs who slice off heads the way I peel an orange. This has become ingrained in our culture.

Obviously, there are evil Muslims just as there are evil persons in any religious group. To take the actions of a few misfits, however, and brand an entire religion, is illogical.

The real problem is not Donald Trump, the Internet or whatever side of the gun debate you endorse. The real problem is us. Intolerance, whether from the right or the left, makes people ugly. We must do better.


Friday, March 15, 2019

Who's Running in NorCo?

Nomination petitions of candidates seeking municipal office in Northampton County are in, and that means petition challenges are being pondered. But if things stay the way they are now, this is what you can expect. 

Judge (Common Pleas) - DA John Morganelli is cross-filed and running unopposed. 

District Attorney - First Deputy DA Terry Houck and Chief Public Defender Nuria DiLuzio seek the Democratic nomination, while Tom Carroll is running unopposed for the GOP nod.  There had been some speculation that Judge Leonard Zito might run, but he filed no nomination petition.  

Controller- Easton Controller Tony Bassil is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination, while former County Council member Hayden Phillips has no opposition in his quest to be the Republican nominee.

County Council District One (Bethlehem) - Carpenter Kevin Lott, who was appointed to Council late last year, is running unopposed. He is a Democrat.

County Council District Two (Easton area) - Sandy O'Brien-Werner, a retired teacher and wife of incumbent Bob Werner, seeks the Democratic nomination. So does former Easton Area School Board Prez Kerry Myers. On the Republican side, 19 yo gun rights activist Andrew Oliveira is running unopposed. 

County Council District Three (Nazareth area) - Incumbent John Cusick is running unopposed for the GOP nomination. Gun control advocate Luke Verdes is running as a Democrat. 

County Council District Four (Slate Belt) - Boilermaker Dan Engle is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination, while former Nazareth business owner Tom Giovanni has no opposition on the Republican side.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

Mezzacappa Barred From Suing West Easton Without Court Approval

Following a hearing on Monday before Judge Stephen Baratta, Tricia Mezzacappa has been barred from suing West Easton without first getting approval from a judge. This ruling applies to employees and Borough Council as well. This rare remedy comes after she's dragged the tiny borough into court on numerous occasions.

Her most recent accusation is that West Easton violated a nondisparagement clause in a settlement of lawsuits she had filed. She filed this once before and was bounced out of court by Judge Craig Dally after a hearing in which she produced no evidence. This time, she claimed that the nondisparagemet clause was violated based on something that had happened several years before she and West Easton agreed to speak no ill of each other. That, on its face, is frivolous.

Mezzacappa has run for West Easton Borough Council, NorCo County Council and as a delegate to the GOP convention. She lost all those races, but managed to get herself elected recently as a Constable with 11 write-in votes. Now she stops at people's homes and leaves threatening notes of the music is too loud.

So far as I know, no judge will use her.

When John Morganelli announced he w running for judge, she posted this on Facebook on her West Easton Constable page:

Looks like she found no takers. Judge Baratta reminded her of her Facebook post on Monday. As if the post itself is unclear, she added these two comments:

West Easton Borough Constable I will spend every last nickel and breath of air making sure this ugly fucking faggot is defeated



West Easton Borough Constable Almost unlimited funding to anyone worthy of defeating this corrupted political machine dick eating asshole. PM me.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Can You Say Judge Morganelli?

It looks like Northampton County DA John Morganelli is going to be a judge. He has cross-filed on both Democratic (1,200 signatures) and Republican (850) sides of the ballot, and his petitions have been approved by the Department of State. Even more importantly, no one else has filed. So he is running unopposed to fill the vacancy created by Judge Emil Giordano's decision o step down from the bench.

As many of you know,I consider Morganelli a friend. He told me I will never have to call him judge.

"Your Honor will suffice," he said.

In  The D-Day Bank Massacre, this is what Morganelli had to say about judges:
"If anyone tries to tell you that judges are apolitical, tell them to call me. In my 26 years as a practicing lawyer, I have learned that judges are probably the most political animals in the political and legal jungle. Not all of them, of course. But many come to their positions with the same prejudices and bias that we all have from our life experience. The donning of the black robe allows them to hide behind the law while forming their own ideas of how things should be."
That's something he should remember when he ascends to the judicial heavens and sits on the clouds with eight other jurists.

Having said that, I believe John will be an excellent judge. The absence of an opponent tells me most people agree.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Gracedale Wins 2018 PACAH Innovation Award

From Northampton County: Lamont McClure and the Department of Human Services are pleased to report that the Pennsylvania Coalition of Affiliated Healthcare & Living Communities (PACAH) awarded Gracedale Nursing Home a 2018 Innovation Award for a pilot program in Mental Health and Aging. Northampton County launched the program last fall with Haven House, providing services for older individuals who reside at Gracedale and suffer with mental illness.

“We appreciate PACAH for recognizing the importance of this unique program,” says Lamont McClure. “It has the potential to deliver huge benefits to families struggling to keep their elderly relatives in safe and secure housing where they can access the care they need.”

The Mental Health/Aging Program (MH/AP) is not a twenty-four hour on-call service, but provides 1:1 counseling and support to address behavioral challenges. Seniors with mental illness can be difficult to place or can be at high risk of losing their placements. Haven House provides behavioral interventions for patients and technical assistance for care providers.

MH/AP is funded by mental health base funding and Gracedale dollars. It is not a treatment program and does not provide nursing, “severe” crisis intervention, emergency placement or transfer services. Its focus is on enhancing daily life, trouble-shooting behavioral challenges and providing support in order for targeted individuals to maintain their residency.

The program is currently being tested at Gracedale. If it is successful, it may be implemented at other facilities.

Blogger's Note: ​According to its webpage, PACAH was formed in 1951 to represent county nursing facilities. Now, PACAH represents over 143 diverse long-term living and supports providers and associated businesses, including both county, veterans, private, and non-profit nursing facilities.

Bethlehem Walkability: Dr. Wirt Answers Dr. Thode

Blogger's Note: Yesterday, I posted an essay submitted by Dr. Steve Thode, himself a former Bethlehem Planning Commissioner, about walkability in Bethlehem. It is critical of City Council member Dr. Paige Van Wirt, who has made walkability one of her campaign themes. I have received a response from her, and it is below:

Dr. Thode,

Since we have never met, it stands to reason that you are not aware of my positions about walkability and downtown development. I don’t know where you got incorrect facts.

“Since Councilperson Van Wirt is on record opposing high rise development of any kind in the urban cores of Bethlehem, good luck with that.

"I wonder how many miles Councilperson Van Wirt logs on her car each year. Where does she shop for groceries? Where does she go for medical services? Where does she shop for household items? Where does she go to see a movie, or hear a concert? Does she walk to these places? Does she take LANTA? Or, does she take private transportation?

"Stephen Thode”

I am not on the record opposing high rise development of any kind in urban cores of Bethlehem. Please, show me where I said that? I voted FOR the Benner/Parks project on West Broad Street, which went against HARB recommendations, precisely because I do believe we need increased amounts of downtown residential development. My remarks at the time of the vote reflect this belief. I am for the use of the Boyd for market rate housing. I voted FOR the vacation of 2nd avenue for the Armory project. I have never once said I oppose high rise development in Bethlehem. I have been on council for one year and my voting record is crystal clear for all to see. Please, be sure of your facts before having them published, in a blog or otherwise.

I am a physician for nursing home patients. I take care of patients at over 25 different nursing homes and ALFs in the Valley. You can bet that if they were in one walkable radius, I would be walking there. How inconvenient for my personal transportation beliefs that they are spread from Sellersville to Hometown.

I shop for groceries at the Wegmans. I would be more than happy to shop at a local food market, such as C Town, if there was one in North Bethlehem. But there is not, which is why my husband and I joined the Bethlehem Food Co-op, to help establish a market in a food desert.

I live in the heart of downtown Bethlehem, a choice my husband and I made so we could walk to as many activities as possible. The fact that you cast aspersions on how I live my life without even knowing me gives me great pause. I do not understand why you took your feelings on Bethlehem’s walkability to Bernie, without even bothering to have a conversation with me about this. You are substantively and factually incorrect in your assertions.

Dr. Thode, I am deeply surprised that an educator such as yourself would not do the research before making assertions. The sad thing is, we share the same beliefs about what would make Bethlehem better in terms of walkability. If you ever would like to sit down with me and hear my own beliefs and then come to a conclusion on their validity, I would be more than happy to make the time.

Paige Van Wirt

Monday, March 11, 2019

Thode on Walkability in Bethlehem

Last week, I told you municipalities really need to be more concerned about walkability because of the sharp increase in pedestrian deaths. Dr. Stephen F. Thode makes the mistake of sharing his thoughts with me. He recently retired as director of the Murray H. Goodman Center for Real Estate Studies at Lehigh Univesity, He was also a Bethlehem City Planning Commissioner.

In my story, I complimented Dr. Paige Van Wirt for her emphasis on walkability. But Dr. Thode wonders. Here's why.

Several factors mitigate against increased "walkability" in Bethlehem. Let's walk through them:

1) The urban cores of both the North Side and South Side have relatively low population densities (both residents as well as day visitors and workers) resulting in

2) A paucity of mass transportation AND a paucity of resident services in the urban cores, i.e., supermarkets, medical services, shopping, entertainment, etc. resulting in

3) The automobile becoming the default mode of transportation for all residents who can afford a car (or know someone who can drive them around).

Bethlehem will not become more "walkable" unless:

a) The urban cores become much more densely populated by residents as well as office, retail and shopping venues which will only occur if

b) A substantial number of high-rise apartment buildings and office buildings (with first-floor retail) are developed in the urban cores, and;

c) Mass transportation becomes frequent enough and broad enough to be a viable option for people to take to and from the urban cores.

Since Councilperson Van Wirt is on record opposing high rise development of any kind in the urban cores of Bethlehem, good luck with that.

I wonder how many miles Councilperson Van Wirt logs on her car each year. Where does she shop for groceries? Where does she go for medical services? Where does she shop for household items? Where does she go to see a movie, or hear a concert? Does she walk to these places? Does she take LANTA? Or, does she take private transportation?

Friday, March 08, 2019

Gracedale Passes State Re-Inspection

Constable James Smith  (left)
Northampton County's nursing home, Gracedale, suffered a setback in December when the state Department of Health noted 11 patient-care deficiencies during its annual inspection. Its current Medicare rating is two stars, or below average. But there are signs that things are turning around. During a revisit, the state Department of Health noted that all deficiencies have been corrected. In addition, the home was complimented by the state on its reduction in the use of psychotropic drugs.

Interim Administrator Jennifer Stewart-King told County Council at their March 7 meeting that what she needs most of all are electronic health records. She us currently reviewing three bids, and plans to have them in place within a month or two.

In response to a question from Council member John Cusick, she acknowledged that staffing the 3-11 shift has always been a problem. But she added that the shift differential being paid is reducing the number of absences. Council member Bob Werner suggested the possibility of an on-site daycare for employees's children, and the home is pursuing that option. Executive Lamont McClure added, however, that there are "hurdles."

Stewart-King said the biggest misperception about Gracedale is that "there is no quality there." She said that is completely untrue and stressed the commitment, loyalty and family atmosphere. "I love my job," she said several times. "We know we all make a difference."

Council President Ron Heckman told her that because Gracedale is a public institution, a negative inspection will get far more scrutiny and attention than at a privately-owned home. "We talk about these things openly," he observed.

Executive Lamont McClure, in an interview outside of the meeting, added that another problem is that Gracedale, unlike other nursing homes, will accept everyone. It has a higher proportion of  residents with unique issues than other homes, including public homes.

Executive's Report

In other business, Executive Lamont McClure reported on the Election Commission's decision to recommend the ExpressVoteXL voting system. Council will be asked to approve the purchase of 320 machines for $2.9 million.  He praised the Commission for affirming the choice of 81% of election workers who reviewed different systems. "We're very pleased their voices were heard," he said.

He then explained a recent decision to begin referring to the courthouse as the Government Center in any business concerning the administration. Though County Council decided in 2005 to call the building the "Northampton County Courthouse," he said this was confusing both employees and the public. The courts sometimes close because of bad weather, but other county offices remain open unless the Governor declares a state of emergency.

He also reported on the success of Teladoc, a mobile app employees can download on their smart phones to put you into near immediate contact, by video or voice call, with one of over 3,100 licensed health care professionals. It began in Northampton County in June 2018 with an email blast to all county employees. Since that time, it has saved the county $335,533 in medical claims.

Hemp and marijuana

Council member Tara Zrinski offered two resolutions concerning hemp and marijuana.

The first resolution, which forms an industrial hemp committee to encourage industrial hemp production by Lehigh Valley farmers, passed by a 7-0 vote. Industrial hemp production removed industrial hemp from regulation as a controlled substance. Zrinski is hopeful that the manufacture and processing of industrial hemp can produce jobs in Northampton County, particularly in the slate belt.

Zrinski's second resolution supports federal and state efforts to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana. Zrinski herself asked that it be tabled, stating it needed more work. She maintained, however, that the law needs to change. She noted that marijuana is lumped in with heroin as a Schedule I controlled substance, a situation that Council member John Cusick calls "patently absurd." He added that ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, and he'd hate to see Pennsylvania miss out on the tax revenue as it did for years with gambling. .

Zrinski called this movement a "social justice issue" at its core. "This is going to take thousands of people out of jail," she said, adding that many of them are black or brown.

Some of them are in Northampton County's jail.

Retiring Constable Honored

County Council also honored Constable Stan Smith, who is retiring after 26 years of dedicated service in Nazareth.

"It's not what you take when you leave it, it's what you leave behind," said Constable Smith, quoting what he said is a country song.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

NorCo Elections Comm'n Recommends New Voting System With Paper Trail

Last night, following a lengthy meeting attended by approximately 40 elections judges, Northampton County's Elections Commission voted 3-2 to recommend that County Council fund the ES&S ExpressVote XL over the Clear Ballot voting systems. The ExpressVoteXL is preferred by Executive Lamont McClure, Administrator Charles Dertinger, Finance Director Steve Barron and elections office staff. Voting Yes were Elections Commission Chair George Treisner, along with Commissioners Layton (Lee) Snover and Maudeania Hornik. Voting No were Commissioners Deb Hunter and Kathy Fox. Before the vote, Dertinger advised the Board that this new system will be in place for November's election.

Last year, Pennsylvania's Department of State directed all 67 counties to select new voting systems that include a paper record, making post-election audits more accurate. They must be in place before the 2020 primary. Though the statewide cost of his change is estimated at $125 million to $150 million, the state has yet to provide any of the funding. The federal government has provided a $342,000 grant to Northampton County.

Since last year's unfunded mandate, voting system vendors have been pitching heir products throughout the state. In February, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale determined that these salesmen lavished gifts on officials in 18 different counties. They ranged from de minimis gifts like chocolate-covered pretzels to more troubling all-expense paid trips to Las Vegas.

Both Northampton and Lehigh County have denied receiving any gifts. NorCo Exec Lamont McClure made clear yesterday that he neither sought nor received any gifts. This was echoed by Administrator Charles Dertinger and Fiscal Affairs Director Steve Barron. Dertinger said that any county employee who accepted a trip to Las Vegas would likely be fired by McClure before the plane took off.

One of the vendors, Russ Dawson of Clear Ballot, admitted that he does sometimes hand out boxes of chocolate-covered pretzels. "I do cupcakes, too," he admitted. "From Walmart."

Yesterday's meeting was suggested by Hunter as a result of a demonstration of different voting systems at Lehigh County. Tim Benyo, the Voter Registrar there, invited Northampton County elections workers. Despite predictions that no one would come to an event offering no compensation, about 40 Northampton County pollworkers participated. They came to last night's meeting as well.

These systems were rated by Northampton County poll workers. The two top choices were ExpressVoteXL (81%) and Clear Ballot (7%).

They made presentations again last night, although Clear Ballot's President wanted ExpressVote vendors to leave the room.

They were allowed to remain.

The difference between the two systems is that Clear Ballot is a voter-marked paper ballot, while ExpressVote's paper trail is established electronically.  ExpressVote would be similar to the current system. Clear Ballot would require a voter to mark his ballot in a privacy booth, after which he would scan it in a separate line "There is going to be a line at that machine," warned Allen Tp Elections Judge Sandy Pisaletto.

NorCo Deputy Administrator Amy Cozze laid out the case for ExpressVoteXL.

First, and most importantly, ExpressVoteXL has been certified by both the federal government and the state. She said the certification process for Clear Ballot was halted on January 29.This was disputed by Clear Ballot's Ingrid Giordano, who said certification is pending/

Second, the overall cost of ExpressVoteXL is cheaper when the ten-year legacy costs are included. The total cost to the county of ExpressVoteXL is $3.7 million, while the cost of Clear Ballot would be $5 million. Hunter refused to accept this cost estimate,saying it was "bloated" for Clear Ballot and underestimated for ExpressVoteXL.

Third, the Clear Ballot system raised privacy concerns. After marking ballots, voters would stand in line to scan their votes, raising the possibility that other voters could see how they voted. Hunter downplayed this concern, saying voters in Chester County are handed a folder into which they place their ballot while waiting to scan.

Fourth, Cozze is critical of Clear Ballot's logistics. She noted that the state wants ballots prepared for 110% of the voters in each district. In some districts, they would weigh as much as 80 pounds. She also noted the problems of having separate stations for marking ballots and then scanning them.

Democratic activist Joanne Messenlehner, who had earlier objected to seeing me in the room, called the decision a "no-brainer." "Taxes are necessary but I don't think we should inflate this by not doing our homework."

Agreeing with her was GOP Chair Lee Snover. "We're not a third world country," she argued. "We have technology for a reason. I don't want anyone determining the intent of my vote except for me and the machine."

Elections Comm'n Chair George Treisner objected to Clear Ballot as "going back to the old ages."

Hunter wanted to be able to review a paper system offered by ES&S, but this system failed to get any strong recommendation from NorCo poll workers. The meeting was intended to be a demonstration of ExpressVoteXL and Clear Ballot. Commissioner Maude Hornick made clear she wanted to vote that night.

And that's what happened. The two Republican Election Commissioners were joined by a Democrat to support the choice of the McClure administration.

No one offered me any chocolate covered pretzels.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Should NorCo Refuse to Do Business With Voting Machine Vendor Bearing Gifts?

Tonight, at 6pm, NorCo's Elections Commission will be holding a public workshop in the County Council meeting room (located on the 3rd floor of the Northampton County Courthouse), where they will be conducting a final review of the two voting machine systems they have narrowed down for consideration. There will be vendor representatives from both ES&S ExpressVote XL and Clear Ballot system. Elections judges have been invited. The workshop will be immediately followed by a special meeting, presumably so that the Elections Commission can recommend a system for funding to County Council. I have previously seen and really like the ExpressVote XL. A demonstration machine was here last year, and Northampton County officials seem to favor this system as well. But I have my reservations. Thanks to State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, we know that this vendor was wining and dining officials in other counties.

When Vic Mazziotti was NorCo's Finance Director, he was frequently approached by vendors who wanted to do business. He went to lunch with one of the them, and the vendor attempted to pick up the tab. Mazziotti told the vendor, "You can buy my lunch, but then you'll never do business in Northampton County."

Auditor General DePasquale has the same view.

“Even if this activity was permitted under the law, county officials who are making decisions about spending taxpayer dollars should not accept anything of value from the companies that are asking for their business,” DePasquale said. “It’s not only about the need for officials to follow the letter and the spirit of the law; it’s about preserving the integrity of their role in the democratic process.”

ES&S, which manufactures ExpressVote XL, is a big offender. Northampton and Lehigh County election officials deny being influenced, but they are not the ones who make the purchase.

Some of the gifts are de minimis. Some have real value. They include the following:

Expense-paid travel to destinations including Las Vegas;
Tickets to a wine festival and a distillery tour;
Dinners at high-end restaurants and other meals;
An open bar at a conference for elections officials;
Tickets to an amusement park; and
An assortment of treats such as chocolate-covered pretzels, snacks and coffee.

DePaquale produced letters from all 67 counties. With specific reference to ES&S, they reveal the following attempts to curry favor:

Bucks County - a buffet lunch for election personnel.
Butler County - a lunch for elections officials. A wine tour was turned down, as well as tickets to a Penn State football game.
Cameron County - a lunch and a box of chocolate covered pretzels.
Clearfield County- informational lunches and dinner at Char's Tracy Mansion in Harrisburg, as well as dinners in Pittsburgh.
Clinton County - sweet rolls, coffee mugs, boxes of chocolate covered pretzels.
Crawford County - trip to visit Nebraska warehouse declined.
Elk County- lunch at Subway
Forest County - a wine tour in Erie, followed by a dinner.
Luzerne County - two all-expenses paid trips.
Mercer County -turned down wine-tasting tour.
Northumberland County - Voter registrar treated to $37 lunch.
Somerset County - ambiguous and evasive reply.
Warren County - dinners, hospitality rooms, trips to Hershey Park, wine-tasting tour and those famous chocolate-covered pretzels. Golf was declined.
Washington County -lunch.
Westmoreland County - lunches, dinner at Monteray Bay Fish Grotto, Lake Erie Wine Festival.
York County - lunch.

What happened here demonstrates why a statewide gift ban is needed, applying to all public officials. There are just too many opportunities for mischief.

With specific reference to Lehigh and Northampton County, elections staff deny receiving gifts of any kind. Higher ranking county officials and members of County Council or Commissioners should also be asked on record whether they were offered or received anything from ES&S. If the answer is yes, ES&S should be eliminated from consideration.

Also, at the demonstration that takes place tonight, ES&S should be asked why these legal bribes are so necessary. These sleazy sales tactics tend to undermine public confidence in a fair selection system for the most important thing you need in an election - an accurate ballot.

Easton NAACP to Host Candidates' Night on Apr 8

Easton's branch of the NAACP will host a candidates' night on Monday, April 8, 7 pm at the Boys and Girls Club of Easton, located at 201 Jones Houston Highway (508 Charles St). All candidates in county and city races are being invited, regardless of party. With a contested Easton Mayoral and NorCo District Attorney races, this should be very interesting. So far as I know, one has stepped forward to challenge John Morganelli in his quest to become a judge.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Why Municipality Should Care About Walkability

I see this all the time. A developer will come in with a massive residential or commercial project that develops every square inch possible. Nothing's wrong with that, but then the developer will seek a waiver or deferral on sidewalks. They will note, and quite correctly, that none of the properties bounding them have sidewalks. That's most likely because those older developers were granted waivers or deferrals. Municipal officials almost always go along with these requests, but should think twice. That's because last year was the deadliest for pedestrians since 1990.

According to The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), there were 6,227 U.S. pedestrian deaths in 2018. Pedestrian deaths are rising while, ironically, other traffic fatalities have decreased.

Pennsylvania has the eighth highest number of pedestrian deaths among all 50 states. According to the report, most fatalities occur along local roads.

The spike is blamed on SUVs, smartphones, more people driving etc.

I would add poor walkability plans in our local communities.

So if you think that it's odd that Dr. Paige Van Wirt has made walkability an issue, think again. and this is not a "liberal" issue. Conservatives like Ron Beitler in Lower Macungie Tp are very concerned about pedestrian safety, too.

$4.8 Million Minsi Lake Improvements Underway

Have you ever visited Lake Minsi? It's a 117-acre lakein Upper Mount Bethel Tp, but it also includes woodlands, trails and 400 "vernal pools" (also known as swamps) that attract all kinds of migratory birds and other wildlife. I used to fish there daily when I first quit drinking. My AA sponsor was a great fisherman, and he was going to turn me into Jeremiah Johnson. Well, I never caught anything. That's not why I was there. I loved its pristine beauty, especially at this time of year. The solitude and cold air really helped me clear my mind.

A $4.8 million Lake Minsi improvement project is underway, and will be finished by November 2019. The PA Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) will construct a new reinforced concrete spillway, raising the crest of the dam approximately two feet. After the new spillway is complete, the lake will be refilled and restocked in time for the 2020 trout season.

During construction, which begins this week, parking will be limited to designated areas.

I liked it the way it was, but understand that the lake had some problems.

Minsi, incidentally, is wither a phratry of the Lenape people or one of the languages they spoke.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Dr. Paige Van Wirt Seeks Full Bethlehem City Council Term

Dr. Paige Elizabeth Van Wirt has announced her election bid for the Bethlehem City Council four year seat. Dr. Van Wirt was appointed to Bethlehem City Council in March 2018 after an unsuccessful write-in campaign. In her campaign statement, she claims her emphasis is accountability, transparency, a commitment to improving walkability and an approach to economic development built on a thriving small business community.

A physician, Dr. Van Wirt also has both prior experience and training in urban planning, low-income housing development, and municipal finance. She was Project Manager for the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. There she managed the selection, development, and approval of low-income housing. She also worked as a municipal bond analyst for Moody’s Investors Service.

Currently, she is co-founder of a medical practice that cares for the region’s elderly in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, including Gracedale.

She claims that before casting a vote, she asks, “Is this in the best interests of the citizens of Bethlehem?”

Since her appointment, Dr. Van Wirt has worked to develop stronger lines of communication between City Council and the citizens of Bethlehem. She regularly meets with local businesses and residents to hear concerns and increase overall engagement. For example, she solicited ideas and feedback from over 60 downtown businesses to better inform her decision around a key parking issue. Dr. Van Wirt has also developed a strong social media presence on Facebook, where she keeps her constituents informed about upcoming council meetings and decisions.

She believes Bethlehem needs to attract young people and businesses by creating a city where people want
to live and work. "There is much work to be done to fulfill this goal, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on council to get the job done," she said.

Based on my own interviews with her, I consider Dr. Van Wirt the most qualified candidate in the Lehigh Valley for municipal office.

Four Bethlehem City Council spots are up for grabs this year. Aside from Dr. Van Wirt, other Council members whose terms end this year are Michael Colón, (Gracedal Admssions Coordinator), Shawn M. Martell (Nazareth High School teacher) and J. William "Willie" Reynolds (William Allen High School teacher). Martell has decided against seeking a second term while Reynolds and Colón are seeking another term.

Retired firefighter Davd Saltzer, Easton Area High School guidance counselor Grace Crampsie Smith, motivational speaker Carol S Ritter and former Aldi Exec Bill Carpenter have also announced their candidacy.

So there are seven people running for four seats.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Some Good News About Gracedale

Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure has always been a proponent of Gracedale, the County's nursing home. When he was still on County Council, he consistently argued there was a "moral obligation" to maintain the home, irrespective of whether it made or lost money. Voters agreed. In 2011, they voted by a 3-1 margin against plans to sell it. McClure made Gracedale a central theme of his Executive race as well. He exposed plans to relocate the jail there. Though he's been good to Gracedale, the nursing home has failed to repay the favor. A negative state health inspection report, released in January, revealed 11 deficiencies in patient care. Ratings plummeted to two stars, or below average. But he finally has some good news to report, and ironically, it comes from the state Department of Health.

When voters decided to keep Gracedale, former Executive John Stoffa and County Council decided that the facility needed a private management firm like Cedarbrook in Lehigh County. Premier Health Care Management was hired at a cost of about $500,000 a year. After doing a thorough assessment, Premier began making changes. The quality of care went up. The home went for two years in a row without a deficiency during the annual inspection. The Medicare ratings went up, too. The home was briefly at four stars. Moreover, a nursing home that was losing millions every year slowly became profitable. Even if you deduct a federal grant called the IGT transfer from the home, it still was in the black.

A large part of the reason for this is D Freeman, Premier's point man at Gracedale. During his time there, he got to know everyone. For some reason, McClure and some other Democrats had issues with Premier, but they were never really quantified in any meaningful way.

That changed when Freeman left Gracedale. His replacement, though affable, lacked Freeman's enthusiasm. The home remained profitable, but the quality of care began to suffer. The home dropped from four to two stars in Medicare's rating system. It was fined when a suicidal resident who was left alone attempted to kill herself. It was also repeatedly criticized over the use of psychotropic drugs, which have been called chemical restraints.

When McClure took office, he allowed Premiere to remain in place for a year before ending the county's contract. In hindsight, he has said that was a mistake. At the end of December, while Premier was still manager, a state inspection yielded 11 deficiencies directly related to resident care.

Anonymous commenters here have blamed McClure, claiming he hates old people and other nonsense. That is political garbage.

County Council and McClure have both also learned that medical records are kept on paper instead of electronically. The former Director of Nursing, in her year-old letter to Council, has said many of the problems there are decades in the making.

So that's the bad news. The good news is that the State Department of Health, the same agency that gave Gracedake a bad rating, has complimented Gracedale on its reduction of the use of psychotropic drugs.

“The current achievement of your staff is a reflection of the facility’s ability to empower residents to reach their highest practicable well-being,” the Department of Health noted in reference to Gracedale. The Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Division of Nursing Care Facilities (Division) has joined the National Partnership with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to assist in the improvement of dementia care and reduction of antipsychotic drug use in nursing homes within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

“We appreciate the recognition from the Department of Health on this issue,” says Lamont McClure. “When it comes to the care of our most vulnerable residents, it’s important that we are in line with current recommendations and research.”

In addition, the Department of Health requested that Gracedale share the lessons learned in achieving this goal in order to assist other nursing homes in accomplishing similar results.

T make clear his is a positive development, but the recent changes and negative survey make clear that thee is a need for separate Council oversight. Lori Vargo Heffner's Human Services Committee is simply overwhelmed by the numerous other Human Services agencies. They are important, too. There shoud be a separate Gracedale committe. Ideally, the person who should run it is a former Director of Human Services. That would be Council President Ron Heckman.