Friday, December 31, 2021

No COLA for NorCo Retirees in 2022

Thanks to inflation, social security recipients can expect to see a 5.9% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in 2022. That's only fair. But NorCo retirees are getting nothing. That's amazingly unfair. Their buying power has gone down, yet a Democratic retirement board is ignoring them. I am even told that a COLA was promised at a recent retiree luncheon.   

NorCo Expands Hours at COVID-19 Testing Site

From Northampton County: With the increased demand for COVID-19 tests, the drive-through site located at Coordinated Health, 3100 Emrick Blvd, Bethlehem, PA is expanding its hours. The site will be open on Friday, December 31st and Saturday, January 1st from 8:00AM – 12 Noon. On January 3 – 7, testing will be available Monday/Wednesday/Friday from 8:00AM – 4:00PM and on Tuesday/Thursday from 10:00AM – 6:00PM. Appointments are not required for COVID-19 tests.

 
Vaccinations with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots are available by appointment during the site’s regular hours: Monday/Wednesday/Friday from 10:00AM – 2:00PM and Tuesday/Thursday from 3:00PM – 6:00PM.
 
“Cases, and the need for testing, has risen due to the Omicron variant and the holidays,” says Lamont McClure. “We are expanding our hours next week to meet demand and will adjust them accordingly as we move forward.”
 
To make an appointment for a vaccine at the COVID-19 testing site use one of the following options:
 
  1. Schedule at the LVHN website at LVHN.org/appointments.
  2. Schedule on the MyLVHN patient portal, at MyLVHN.org.
  3. Call 833-584-6283 (833-LVHN-CVD). The COVID-19 Vaccine Hotline is open Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
A Physician’s order is not required for a COVID-19 test. The drive-through site is open to everyone, but only residents of Northampton County will have the cost of testing covered by the County if they do not have health coverage. All testing will be through HNL Lab Medicine unless insurance requires an alternate laboratory. Participants should bring a photo ID and their insurance card, if they have one, with them to the testing site. 
 
The drive-through vaccination/testing center is a collaboration between the Northampton County Department of Community and Economic Development, Emergency Management Services and Lehigh Valley Hospital-Coordinated Health Allentown Hospital (LVH-CHA).

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Lynch Wants All 22,000 Mail-in Ballots

As anyone who follows Northampton County politics knows, Executive Lamont McClure has been elected to a second term.  On November 2, he attracted 38,477 votes while challenger Steve Lynch attracted 29,984. This was by no means a landslide, but the margin of victory was an endorsement of centrist government over the extremism that Lynch represents. "We the People" went with McClure. But it should come as no surprise that Lynch is unwilling to go gentle into that good night. He's raging and raging against the dying of the spotlight. He liked the attention he got, especially when he threatened to bring 20 strong men to go after Northampton Area School Board directors. He's hoping it continues, and what better way than by descending upon the elections office to inspect and copy mail-in ballots? 

In a recent Facebook Filibuster (I am blocked, but you might be able to see it here), Lynch claims to have a lawyer who has told him he has the right to inspect and copy the 22,000 mail-in ballots cast.  He's calling on all Lynch Lackeys to meet him at the courthouse today at 9 am. They are to bring portable copy machines or scanners so he can make copies of the 22,000 mail-in ballots. He insists they show all kinds of fraud. He adds that McClure, Administrator Charles Dertinger, and Voter Registrar Amy Cozze are in some sort of cabal of corruption. Never mind that McClure actually tried to kill a well-deserved pay raise for Cozze.

What Lynch knows, and what he failed to tell his myrmidons, us that he has no right to inspect or copy mail-in ballots. Solicitor Rich Santee stated this at an Elections Commission meeting attended by Lynch. Maybe Lynch was wearing his mask over his ears. But Lynch has also been told this in person by several elections officials on several occasions. 

What he is entitled to is a list of those voters who requested ballots, those who received them and those who returned them. That list has been available since election day. 

What sore loser Lynch is really trying to do is draw attention to himself. 

It;s one thing for him to broadcast Facebook Live videos while careening along Route 22. It's quite another for him to interfere with county operations. If he tries to play bully at the courthouse, things will end badly for him.   

Just like they did on January 6. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Thode: LV Sets New Case COVID-19 Record, But It Might Be Less Deadly

Steve Thode, who has been keeping track of the COVID-19 data here in the Lehigh Valley, reports that the latest virus variant - Omicron - is particularly virulent. We've set yet another new case record. But unlike previous mutations, Omicron might be less deadly  

Lehigh and NorCo have smashed various COVID case records as of today. The following are some of the new records set:


1) Lehigh has reported a total of 4,739 new cases the past 14 days;

2) NorCo has reported a total of 4,671 new cases the past 14 days;

3) Lehigh has reported a total of 2,831 new cases the past 7 days;

4) NorCo has reported a total of 2,660 new cases the past 7 days;

5) Lehigh reported a total of 695 new cases on December 28;

6) NorCo reported a total of 628 new cases on December 28;

7) Lehigh/Norco combined have reported a total of 5,491 new cases the past 7 days;

8) Lehigh/NorCo combined have reported a total of 17,030 new cases for the month of December. That's the most in any month since the pandemic began with four days left to be reported.

Here's a chart of the 7-Day Total New Case Rate for Lehigh/Norco as of December 28:



I do not have up-to-date death data for Lehigh/NorCo. However, here is a chart from the CDC with US results as of December 26. The red line is the US total 7-day moving average of new cases which stood at an average of 205,677 new cases per day for the seven days ended on December 26 (about 1.44 million new cases for the seven days). The orange line is the 7-day moving average number of COVID deaths per 100,000 population.  It is striking that, with the Delta variant (July to early December), deaths and new cases tended to move in tandem with deaths lagging a rise or fall in new cases by 2-3 weeks. However, under the Omicron variant (since early December), the death rate per 100,000 population has stayed almost constant although new cases have skyrocketed. Still too early to say for sure, but it appears Omicron is substantially less fatal than Delta.





Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Beware of Fake Sheriff Scamming You

 From Northampton County: The Northampton County Sheriff’s Department has received reports about an individual contacting residents and claiming to be Lieutenant Rich Johnson. Said individual then states there is a warrant out for the resident’s arrest and that they need to pay via a bank check or a money order otherwise they will be immediately arrested.

This is a scam intended to defraud our residents. The Sheriff’s Department does not call residents and solicit money in lieu of arrest.

Please report any suspicious solicitations to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office at 800-441-2555 or email them at scams@attorneygeneral.gov.

Blogger's Note: Northampton County's Sheriff is Richard Johnston, so this scammer has done some homework. 

Is Biden Losing It?

I had Christmas dinner with a bunch of bad-ass Republicans. I had to laugh when our outstanding chef showed me a Biden t-shirt in which he says, "Impeach me! I won't even remember."  But later, someone replayed a Christmas Eve video in which  Joe Biden purportedly said, "I agree" in response to a fan with a "Let's go Brandon!" cheer. I thought this might be one of those deepfake videos, but that's what our President said.  It makes me wonder whether that T-shirt is closer to the truth than I would have guessed. 

Now it could be Biden is unaware this us a right-wing jab. If so, that would mean he's out of touch. It could also be that he misheard it, although I have some trouble with that explanation. It could be that Biden was agreeing with the caller who claimed he was joking, though I never find it funny when someone tells me to go f--- myself. '

Is Biden's response an indication he's losing it?  I voted for the guy, so I have no desire to see him fail.  

Monday, December 27, 2021

This is Reform?

Below is a list of government reforms proposed, way back in 2016, by Lower Macungie Commissioner Ron Beitler, myself and a few readers. These were sent to Governor Tom Wolf and the Lehigh Valley delegation to the state house and senate. I never received a reply.  

These are neither Republican nor Democratic proposals. You either believe in good government or you don't. 

1. Term limits now and tweak the terms. Three four-year terms for State Reps. Two six-year terms for State Senators. A two-year term for State Reps is too short, They have to start campaigning for the next election virtually the day after they win.

2. Reduce the size of PA government so state rep districts have 85,000 people within. This is small enough to maintain constituent services at the current level, but large enough to eliminate 52 positions entirely.

3. Eliminate pensions for elected officials. Salaries for a full-time state legislator should be adjusted to be the median for the district represented. It is a full time job, but not a career. Pensions are for career positions.

4. Enact Resign-to-run rules that would apply to any full time elected position that draws a taxpayer funded salary.  Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley should not be able to use the perks of his office as a springboard to the state senate. Nor should the myriad of other elected officials, including three NorCo Council members, whowant to run for something else. The only exception to this rule I can see is if the candidate is in the final year of his term.  

5. End gerrymandering by establishing independent commissions to do the redistricting. (The current commission is appointed by incumbents to help them keep their jobs.  

6. Require all candidates for statewide office to file campaign finance reports electronically so the people know immediately how the campaign is being funded. Too many candidates refuse to file electronically, and the state elections office is neverin a hurry to get reports online.  

7. Ban the use of campaign funds for criminal defense.

8. Increase penalties for noncompliance with state campaign finance laws, and continue the requirement that a candidate pay for violations out of his own personal funds.

9. All local governments should be required to provide an Internet broadcast of every meeting. If it is too expensive, the government should be dissolved.

10. Ban gifts of any kind, on a state and local level.

12. Require receipts for per diem payments.

13. Allow independent voters to participate in Primary Elections.

14. Ban local governments and school districts from attaching risky derivatives/"swaps" to their debt.

15. Ban candidates or elected officials from using campaign funds to make contributions to any other PAC or candidate committee to prevent the money laundering.

16. Limit campaign expenses to year of election requiring forfeiture of unspent monies. Eliminate rolling campaign accounts and expenditures in non election years. I believe district magistrates must spend it or lose it and cannot accumulate funds when they are unopposed. Similar rules for everybody.

17. LIST candidates on the ballot (per office) in random order with no party affiliation attached.

18. Rather than term limits, place "None of the Above" on the ballot for every elective office. If "None of the Above" wins a majority or plurality of the votes, the other candidates are disqualified and a new slate of candidates (including "None of the Above") must be drawn for a new election. Lather, rinse and repeat until someone other than "None of the Above" receives a majority of the votes.

Friday, December 24, 2021

A Christmas Present From Kurt Vonnegut

A biographer has asked me for information concerning the friendship between my father and author Kurt Vonnegut. My brother, a pack rat, produced a letter that Vonnegut wrote to his own family, not long after he and my dad were released from a POW camp at the end of WWII. In many ways, this three-page letter is his first draft of Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut sent my family a copy of that letter, apparently as a Christmas present, in 1996.

Bewildered that he has somehow survived, the young Vonnegut tells his folks, "I've too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait." Fortunately for us, he got around to it.

This letter is too important to sit in a dusty attic, so I'm sharing it with you. If you'd like to see a pdf copy, just click this link.

Dear people:

I'm told that you were probably never informed that I was any­thing other than "missing in action." Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the letters I wrote from Germany. That leaves me a lot of explaining to do - in precis: I've been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler's last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges' First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren't much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight - so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Mont­gomery for it, I'm told, but I'll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren't wounded. For that much thank God.

Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, un-heated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations - the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn't room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year's Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn't.

Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical atten­tion and clothing: We wore given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: - one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden - possibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to [...] the Checkoslovakian border. There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39's) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.

Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way-through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy about Americans. The Russians picked us up in Dresden. We rode from there to the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We've since been flown to Le Havre.

I'm writing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repat­riation Camp. I'm being wonderfully well fed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I'll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I'll be given twenty-one days recuperation at Atterbury, about $600 back pay and - get this - sixty (60) days furlough!

I've too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait. I can't receive mail here so don't write. May 29, 1945


First published 12/10/07.

O'Hare's WWII Diary: A Final Glimpse at a Time When We Were "Prima"

These are the final entries from my dad's brief writing career, a diary which he started almost immediately after being released as a German POW. My father was a complicated man, and I considered him a cold bastard much of the time. These diaries, and some other letters he wrote to his own "mommy and daddy," opened my eyes in many ways.

I wish I had been a better son.

In addition to the personal impact, these diaries provide a brief glimpse into that greatest generation. Like my father, most WWII vets share very little about the sacrifices they made when the entire world needed them. Sadly, a thousand of them die daily, and with them the memory of a time when Americans were considered "prima."

5/23/45

My lazy senses responded sluggishly to the blare of a bugle that had commenced blowing about 5:30 this morning. Some character dramatically announced that it would be appreciated if everyone fell out. A true count was needed due to the fact that today had been chosen as 'the day' by the powers that be. I did not fall out. Soon after we drew rations and packed. At 11:30 we fell out, were issued cigarettes and were given cigars by the Russkies. Then, after waiting for the usual period, we marched to the exchange lot. As is usual in all these matters nothing went as scheduled. We waited in the exchange lot for almost three hours during which it rained most of the time. The trucks finally arrived and we loaded and were off.

Vonnegut, Dannine and I were lucky enough to get a civilian bus instead of a G.I. truck. Kruse, Jones, Coyle, Watson and Burns also piled into a civilian bus but unfortunately not the same one. After three hours rolled around we arrived in Halle. According to the authorities we will be here three days at the most waiting to be flown via C-47 to LeHavre, France.

I have just digested my first Army food in 6 months - '5 in one' rations consisting of ham and sweet spuds, cheese, crackers, pineapple, rice pudding cigarettes and chocolate. How amazed the limeys were when we told them that the above was for one meal and not one day! We got separated from Jones, Kruse, Coyle, Watson and Burns.

5/24/45

Awoke, washed and drew more '5 in 1' rations of the same unsurpassed American caliber. Before much of the day had passed we moved to a new area of camp. They are separating the English and Americans. I wish they had done that six months ago. Spent the rest of the day on my lazy back reading.

5/25/45

Routine day. I showered, deloused, read, ate and am about to turn in. Red Cross Clubmobile presented itself and I basked in about six doughnuts and a cup of real coffee. Prima.


Blogger's Note: First published 12/17/07.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

O'Hare Describes WWII Firing Squad: "German Justice Taking Its Usual Course . . ."

As time marches on, we are slowly forgetting what military historian Charles B. MacDonald has called "the greatest battle ever fought by the United States Army." The soldiers who fought in it are dying at the rate of 1,000 per day, and with them their history.

Unlike the talkative baby boomers in my generation - with our cell phones, the Internet and blogs - the soldiers of that Greatest Generation are strangely quiet and modest. They managed to save the world from a real Axis of Evil in spite of being caught late and off guard, and then went to work to make our own lives easy.

Although our memory is dimming, Blue Coyote tells us that in some portions of Europe, Americans are still considered "prima." The people of Bastogne still remember.

In his diary, my father never discussed what had actually happened during his captivity as a POW. Below you will find the only instance in which he speaks about the war. It's a letter he sent to the War Department in 1947, responding to an inquiry about one of his fellow POWs who never came home.

In reply to your letter of the 14th inst., I beg to express my regrets that you were required to make two inquiries concerning the above-noted matter. The receipt of your first letter was never called to my attention or you would most certainly have received a more prompt response.

Pfc. Michael Palaia and myself were sent with a detachment of American soldier-prisoners from Stalag IV-B to Dresden, Germany. After Dresden was bombed (about Feb. 14th, 1945), it became necessary for our captors to remove us to a new section of the City which, although not quite, was practically in the suburbs. It required climbing a rather steep hill to reach this place, from the summit of which it was possible to see practically the whole city. At the base of the hill was a moderate-sized street car barn and also a building in which German prisoners were hospitalized. I mention all of this as it may be necessary for you to fix the location of this place, and it is the only way I have of describing it, never having known the name of the section. Dresden is divided by the Elbe River and the section to which I have reference was on the eastern side thereof.

Our work after the bombing consisted wholly of cleaning cellars of their casualties and streets of their refuse. Our food ration per day was very low and survival made it necessary to pilfer food from cellars in which it was found from time to time. Unfortunately, Pfc. Palaia was discovered while doing this and at the time of the discovery one jar of string beans was found on his person. His number (prisoner number) was taken by the guard. The very next day when we had lined up ready to march to work, Pfc. Palaia was taken from our ranks by the German in charge - his official title being to the best of my recollection "Feldwabel." When we returned from work that night we learned that he was on trial for his life. Naturally, German justice taking its usual course, he was found guilty and four days after his apprehension he was killed by a firing squad. Four of our fellow-prisoners had witnessed this shooting, identified his body, dug his grave and buried him.

The shooting took place at some German military installation which, from the witnesses' reports was from five to seven miles from the location of our barracks. It must have been in a general westerly direction therefrom as I recall their stating that on their way they had crossed the river Elbe. I am not positive in my recollection of this, but I believe they also stated that they had constructed a cross for his grave to which they attached his dog tag.

The Month of his death was march, I am certain, and March the l6th, I believe. One of the witnesses was a Frank Terterici from Boston, Mass. I have a record somewhere of at least one of the other witnesses and his address. I will forward this information yo you as soon as I am able to locate same.

I hope the above account will be of some aid to you. Please have no hesitation in making further inquiry if you deem it feasible.

Asking your pardon for not having replied sooner, I am

Very truly yours,

B.V. O'Hare, Jr.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Is State Redistricting Yet Another Gerrymander?

Pennsylvania's Reapportionment Commission has proposed a preliminary plan for the redistricting of state house and senate seats. In contrast to what happened the last time, there's a lot of transparency this time. The plan is posted here, and even includes maps. Moreover, you can submit your own exceptions to either the house or senate plans. The plan is opposed by Lisa Boscola, a Democratic State Senator, and Dean Browning, a well-known Lehigh County Republican. This might be a good thing.

Boscola has shared her views with Lehigh Valley Live. In essence, she complains that the lines are drawn in a way to protect each party's power. She adds that the commission members are from western Pa of Philly and have no understanding of the Lehigh Valley's unique needs.

Browning has made his views known to the Commission. He's more nuanced. Here's what he says: 

First, let me say that I'm very active in the local Lehigh County Republican Committee. However, I do believe that we are best served when our representatives are elected from districts that are relatively compact and where municipalities/townships are kept intact.

On that last point, it has always irritated me that the township where I live (South Whitehall) is split between three (3) different State Representatives, none of whom have South Whitehall Township as their top priority. For example, Ryan Makenzie has Lower Mac as his locus, Zach Mako has Northampton County as his locus and Mike Schlossberg (even though he recently moved to South Whitehall) has Allentown as his locus. While the newly released State Rep map corrects that and puts all of South Whitehall in one district, it does so by splitting other municipalities/townships across Lehigh County.

Some examples are as follows:

Allentown would be covered by three (3) Reps. instead of two (2). While this might make sense given Allentown's size (68,000 voters), it doesn't make sense that a much smaller Salisbury Township and School District (9,800 voters) is also split between three (3) Reps.

Upper Macungie goes from one (1) Rep to two (2) Reps; one of whom still would have Allentown as their locus.

North Whitehall is split and residents in North Whitehall 4 (a suburban/rural area) would be represented by someone who has West Bethlehem (commercial/city) as part of their district.

Lynn Township (a rural, farming community in the northwest part of Lehigh County) would be lumped in with Lower Macungie commercial/suburban).

Residents in the southwestern part of Lehigh County would have a Rep who would also be representing parts of Northampton and parts of Berks County.

It is easy to see why this map passed 3-2 along party lines as it is still gerrymandered but just in the other direction.

If the goal is compact districts that minimize splitting municipalities/townships (which was one of the main stated objectives for the redistricting commission) then the maps should reflect that!

Otherwise, gerrymandering is gerrymandering is gerrymandering.

My own take is that, for the most part, this is more of an incumbent protection than a reapportionment plan. This is clear in Lehigh County. where Pat Browne's district looks like Pacman the way it goes into Berks County. Clearly the Senate maps in Berks and Lehigh County were drawn to make it easier for Browne and Republican Judy Schwank o win re-election.  In Lehigh County. Senator Pat Browne went from a district that was 53% D / 45% R to one that is the reverse - 45% D / 53% R.  Meanwhile Senator Judy Schwank in Berks just got a little safer as her district went from 52% D / 45% R to 54% D / 43% R.

There are some exceptions to this incumbent protection plan. 

Jean McNeill's (133) seat has become more competitive. She loses Fountain Hill and the Democratic portions of Salisbury Tp while gaining the Republican parts of Whitehall and South Whitehall.

Peter Schweyer (22) is in trouble. Fountain Hill and part of Salisbury have been added to his district. If a Latino runs, he loses. If two Latinos run, he wins. Jose Rosado lives in Fountain Hill.   

O'Hare's WWII Diary: Still No Word About Dresden Firebombing

This is the second in a series of entries from my father's recently-discovered dairy. He kept it about a week after his release from a German POW camp. This second post, like the first, is strictly present tense. Yet just three months before, my dad and writer Kurt Vonnegut had ringside seats, as POWs, to the American and RAF firebombing of Dresden - Florence of the Elbe.

POWs hid in meat lockers underneath a slaughterhouse during this incineration. One POW blurted out, "I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight." I can't help but think that was my dad. That was his humor.

In a public radio interview, Vonnegut speaks of a conversation he had with my father, some twenty years later.

"What did you learn?" Vonnegut asks.

"I will never believe my government again."

Churchill, who had advocated the firebombing, was knighted.

5/18/45

We moved over to the other compound today. That seems to be the chief benefit accruing to those who have been deloused. The rooms here are much cleaner and better equipped. We eat three times per day restaurant style and the shilly (chile?) is both good and thick - a happy set of circumstances not found readily in Germany. We spent most of the day getting our loot in order and this afternoon learned to our gratification that we were scheduled to move out. About an hour later a sergeant from the 1st Rangers division put in an appearance and announced that trucks were on their way to bring us either to Riesa or Leipzig where there are concentrations of former P.O.W.'s. I had no idea the sight of a G.I. would be so sensational. Needless to say, the limeys hogged him before any of his own countrymen had a chance to learn much from him concerning the good old U.S.A. Well, the trucks finally arrived and after the normal red tape we piled into them and took off. Approximately two hours later we found ourselves in Riesa. Temporary quarters were provided for us in some Jerry barracks. We are supposed to move in the morning to some other place in town where there are more G.I.'s. Our present barracks aren't at all bad except for the lack of anything soft upon which to lay our weary bones. There are some limeys here who have been waiting to get out for almost a month. It seems that Stalag W-B was liberated by the Russians on April 23.

Blogger's Note: This was originally published on 12/12/07.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Pepper's Sailing Adventure With My Dad and Vonnegut

Richard Huntington Pepper, Esq.
Richard Huntington Pepper, Esq., is a lawyer who once represented royalty - a young lady who claimed she was Princess Hope, daughter of an African King. She was jailed when she refused to pay a hotel bill. Pepper tried to get her out of the can on the basis of diplomatic immunity. He was doing pretty well, too, until Her Highness told then Judge Jim Hogan that "Mr. Pepper has the biggest cock I've ever seen!"

Judge Hogan, who had also sailed with Pepper, took judicial notice that the object mentioned was, in fact, considerably smaller than represented. That unfortunately provided a basis for discounting the rest of Princess Hope's testimony, as compelling as it might be.

Before President Judge Al Williams issued a Court Order banning all NorCo lawyers from sailing, Pepper was also a frequent recruit on my father's many maritime adventures. He sent me this email about one of them.

Bernardo,

Your recent blog referencing your old man and Vonnegut brought back memories of sailing with Captain O’Hare and one band or another of pirates and shellbacks.

Having become somewhat used to being reported “lost at sea”, which seemed to occur far more frequently than one might expect; sailing trips with your dad were always an adventure of epic proportion, filled with equal measures of uncertainty, dread and amazement. Often spending a several weeks at a time, a few hundred miles offshore, more or less alone and trapped on a 35’ ill-equipped sailboat; I would like to think affords you a fair opportunity to assess the measure of a man. Such it was with Captain O’Hare.

My customary first watch of the day when sailing with your dad was usually the morning watch from 0400 to 0800, when he would relieve me at the helm. While he enjoyed his first cigarette and coffee of the morning as he tried to figure out how far off course I had placed us, he sometimes talked haltingly about WWII, Vonnegut, the Battle of the Bulge and Dresden. For the most part in the early days of sailing with your dad, I took these tales as more fanciful than factual as often happens among ancient mariners while at sea. Now knowing how much bigger than life your dad actually was, I should have known better.

On a given Friday a few years later, your dad called me and instructed that I pack a day bag for sailing on Saturday around New York with a day passenger. I had, apparently, been shanghaied. As I made the boat ready and pretended to know what I was doing, your father’s day passenger arrived. It was Vonnegut. Not any old Vonnegut; THE Vonnegut. For the better part of a long day, I sailed in circles listening to these two old warriors talk about their youth, the war, their capture and imprisonment, and a long-forgotten German girl that kept them alive. Vonnegut confirmed every word of your dad’s memories of those horrible times, even attributing their survival during capture to your father’s less than artful use of the German language. He was quite a guy. “So it goes.”

Pepper

Addendum: During the Battle of the Bulge, my father and Vonnegut were intelligence scouts, selected for their understanding of foreign languages. Naturally, neither knew a word of German. Looking through a phrase book, my father screams, "Nein Scheissen," thinking he's asking them not to shoot him.

He was actually saying, "Don't shit."

The Germans started laughing.They laughed more when they learned my Dad's last name is O'Hare. "Herr O'hare," they laughed. 

It was around this time that both were either being marched or were inside the cattle car of a POW train rumbling its way deep into the bowels of the Third Reich. 

(Originally published in 2016)

Thode: New LV Covid Slightly Below Last Week

Steve Thode has been faithfully following and reporting on the Covid-19 data since the pandemic's inception. Here's his latest:

As of Monday, December 20, Lehigh/NorCo have reported a total of 3,859 new COVID cases the past seven days.

The record peak for 7-day cases occurred last Thursday when Lehigh/Norco reported a total of 4,573 new cases.

Here's how things have gone for the month of December:

Monday, December 20, 2021

O'Hare's WWII Diary: "We are Being Looked After Like Pet Children by the Russians"

Writer Kurt Vonnegut's letter home, written soon after his release from a POW camp, was published here yesterday*. Believe it or not, my dad was the real writer back then - he even kept a diary for an entire week.

Unlike Vonnegut, he sheds no light on what had actually happened to him as a POW. He provides no explanation about his weight going from 150 lbs. before the war to 80 lbs. as Adolph's guest. Mum's the word. He'd stay like that the rest of his life. Vonnegut's three-page letter tells me more about my dad's POW experience than he himself ever shared.

He just drank. A lot. Especially at Christmas time. That didn't kill him. Neither did the Germans. The cigarettes did.

But for one week, my father chronicled his post-release experiences in amazing detail. Just twenty-two at the time, he was a pretty good writer himself. Occasionally, he mentions Vonnegut, who was just a "minor being" at the time. For the next few days, I'll share my dad's thoughts with you, day by day.

5/17/45

Our mangy but well-fed crew left DiHille's at noon today. We proceeded over the Elbe to Russian headquarters in the city and after much confusion - due to our ignorance of the Russian language and vice versa - we were directed to the Hitler Caserne on Konigsbage Strasse. Here we find ourselves confronted with the perpetual situation of no one knowing anything about anything. However, we are being looked after like pet children by the Russians. We have been here only four hours at the most and have already been fed twice, showered, de-loused and billeted. As near as we can gather from speaking to the limeys and G.I.'s here, we are to stay put until our troops come seeking us. Except for the anxiety that we all have concerning our parents and families, we don't give a damn how long it takes them to root us out.

I heard my first radio program since I was captured. Dannine and I went across the compound and fell in with a few Tommies who have a wireless set in their flat. We heard an A.M.G. broadcast from Hamburg. That American music certainly sounded good. The Tommies surprised us before the evening was over with a meal of spuds, meat and beans. We rejoined our crew with a full stomach and a highly satisfied mien. I don't believe I'll ever get up out of bed again. Goot nacht.

*) Vonnegut's letter home will be published here on Christmas Eve, 

Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Includes Funding for Hyperloop Transportation

When most of us think of alternate transportation, we thing of electric cars, bicycles and the bus.  Although electric cars are coming down in price, they may consume more energy than they save. I love bicycles, but they are out at this time of year for candy-asses like myself. A bus is great, but only if you live close to the route. If you have to transfer a few times to make your destination, you might as well drive. Fortunately, there's funding for a new kind of alternate transportation in the recently passed infrastructure bill.  No, it's  not a Jetsons' car. It's called the hyperloop.   

I think it's ridiculous to throw money at an inefficient and outdated Amtrak. It's equally stupid to pour more funds into widening highways to create even more carbon emissions while exacerbating existing gridlock. 

A hyperloop is a new form of passenger and freight transportation that would carry people and cargo in pods through low-pressure tunnels very much like the one you might have used at your bank's drive-thru. It could be above or below ground and could reach speeds of up to 700 mph while using about 1/10th the energy.

According to the Department of Energy, a system like this would be most useful in areas where demand would be high and in which there already is a high traffic volume. For example, a trip from Allentown to NYC or Philly could work, but not with multiple stops along the way.  

The only question I have is why isn't this in place already?  

Friday, December 17, 2021

Gracedale's One--Star Rating Due to IT Failure, Not Staff Shortage

On Monday, I told you that Gracedale is currently rated by Medicare and Medicaid at just one star out of five. Staffing there is also rated at one star out of five. This means the home is "much below average," which is in start contrast to 18 other nursing homes within a 10-mile radius.  I concluded this poor grade was the result of the staffing crisis. I learned yesterday that I am wrong. The poor rating is actually the result of a failure by the county's IT provider to transmit the data federal officials need to provide a rating. Without this information, Medicare and Medicaid just assumed the worst and gave the facility a one-star rating.  

I spoke yesterday with Gracedale Administrator Jennifer Stewart-King and several other county officials about the rating, I was advised that the county was using a software system called to transmit personnel data, but the software is flawed. The county decided to implement a separate system called CHRONOS, This was supposed to be operational last July, but the county's IT department filed to get it up and running as promised. As a result, no data was supplied in a timely manner. 

What Stewart-King told me is corroborated by the federal website.  Instead of noting the number of hours per resident per day provided by nursing staff, it contains this notation: "Not available." Without the data, the rating defaults to one star. 

Gracedale administrators have worked manually and with existing software to provide the data necessary for the next rating, which will be on January 19 or 20. Stewart-King is hoping for two or three stars. 

In the meantime, the county did hire a consultant to work on improving its rating for resident care. That is expected to go up as well. 

I told Stewart-King that a one-star rating will discourage families from sending loved ones to the home. She responded that she has a 60-person waiting list from other homes and hospitals. 

Though Gracedale is licensed for 688 beds, the current census is just 468. This is intentional. Stewart-King told me the census will remain low until staffing is ramped up.

Stewart-King also denied there's any effort to hide problems. She noted that the state Department of Health (DOH) has been at the home 29 times this year. On Sunday, there was a visit to investigate two anonymous complaints, both of which were determined to be unfounded, 

"Nothing happens at Gracedale that the DOH doesn't know about," said Stewart-King. "If we had the space, we'd give them an office," added Human Services Director Sue Wandalowski.   

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Governing: The Disconnect Between The Elected and Unwashed Masses Concerning Crime

Governing does an annual survey among city Mayors called the Menino Survey of Mayors. They reflect the views of the elected on topics like the pandemic, homelessness and affordable housing. But they note a growing disconnect when it comes to crime. "Just 26 percent of mayors considered rising crime a long-term concern. But 2020’s spate of violence hasn’t so far proved to be an aberration. Homicides jumped by nearly 30 percent last year, an incredible surge, and this year at least a dozen major cities have set all-time homicide records. Residents are clearly concerned: Our Manhattan Institute poll found six in 10 saying crime was increasing in their area, and nationwide the share that agree is nearing a 25-year high."

Rumor: Three NorCo Council Members Pondering State House Bid

I've been informed that three NorCo Council members are pondering a state house bid next year. I decline to name them until I've had a chance to speak with them. All three are Democrats. 

Anyone has the right to run for anything. But when three candidates from the same governing body run for another job at the same time, County government is bound to suffer, 

We've got some serious problems. Staffing at Gracedale is below state standards.  The nursing home has an inexcusable one-star rating. Employees have actually lost ground, thanks to inflation and an unwillingness to use the step system as contemplated by the merit personnel system established in the Home Rule Charter.  Council members should forget their own ambitions for now, and do what they were elected to do - serve the people. 

With a county in crisis, I think any Republican opponent could quickly attack Democratic candidates for failing their constituents. Besides, next year looks pretty bad for Democrats.    

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Jimmy's Gift

At this time of year, try as I might, it's simply too cold for me to get on a bicycle. But it's never too cold for a brisk walk or run. I do most of it in town, but love the Tatamy Bike Trail when I'm a little sore or want to inject some speed into my workout. It's flat, blocks the wind and the asphalt surface is gentler than a concrete sidewalk. That's where I was on Tuesday when I ran into this:


Thanks, Jimmy!

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Gracedale is NorCo's Biggest Problem

When I was growing up, we used to visit my grandparents regularly. On one visit, my NaNa, as we called her, asked if we'd like a cup of tea. She brought out the kettle, and it was just lukewarm water. It was on that day that my mom decided they were moving in with us. She converted a patio into a studio apartment so they'd have at least some privacy in a house full of kids, dogs, cats, parakeets, a guinea pig and even a myna bird my Dad taught to curse. My mother had her hands full raising five holy terrors, but adding her own parents to her burden made her more at ease. She was an R.N, too, so my grandparents got excellent care in their final years. That was then. These days, it's nearly impossible for many families to care for themselves, let alone their aging parents. Their only option is a nursing home. I doubt many families seriously consider Gracedale. 

Let's say you have the unenviable task of finding a nursing home for a loved one. There are 18 nursing homes within a 10-mile radius of Nazareth. Only one of them has a one-star rating, and it's Gracedale. 

Nursing homes are rated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid from one to five stars, based on a review of health inspections, staffing and the quality of resident care. A rating of one star means that the nursing home is "much below average." Gracedale has this rating primarily because it is failing to meet what Executive Lamont McClure has often called a "moral obligation" to care for our elderly. Itys rating for staffing and quality of resident care are at just one star. 

Early in McClure's first term, Gracedale had climbed to three stars ("average.") At the time, McClure said he was aiming for a five-star rating. “Gracedale is striving to meet our moral obligation of taking care of those who can no longer care for themselves while balancing the interests of the taxpayers who pay the bills ... .” he said at the time.

This is an unmitigated failure, and McClure owns it. 

On Election Eve, there was a political rally outside the home, complaining about conditions. Although I covered this event, I was skeptical of many of the claims because most of them came from disgruntled ex-employees and an Executive candidate. 

The election's over. Since then, I now know that the state Department of Health recently visited Gracedale and made this finding:

Observations:

Based on a review of nursing time schedules and staff interview, it was determined that the facility failed to provide a minimum of 2.7 hours of direct care for each resident for 13 of 21 days reviewed.

Findings include:

A review of nursing time schedules from October 3, 2021 through October 23, 2021, revealed that the facility failed to provide a minimum of 2.7 hours of direct care for each resident on October 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 19, 21, and 23, 2021, for a total of 13 days out of 21 days reviewed, In an interview on October 24, 2021, at 1:30 p.m., the Administrator stated that the facility did not meet the minimum of 2.7 hours of direct care for each resident on the aforementioned days.

Administrator Jennifer Stewart King has conceded that staffing levels are below the minimum state standards, but has told County Council this measure is based on a full census of 688. She said she expected the nursing home to have higher levels of nursing care per resident once the reduced census is recognized. 

What she represent to Council appears to be untrue. Actually, that's untrue. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the poor staffing is based on a census of 512. 

While the County has made an effort to hire more people, it could do much more. It could seek help from county workers who might be willing to put in a few hours at Gracedale to supplement their meager wages. It could pay people more. And McClure needs to reconsider whether he made the right choice when he replaced an outside administrator so he could save a few bucks. 

County Council has set aside money for several studies. Gracedale should be at the top of the list.    

Monday, December 13, 2021

LV 7-Day New COVID Cases Top 4,000; NorCo Sets 7-Day Record

Steve Thode has been performing a true public service by keeping track of the LV's COVID-19 numbers. Here's his latest report. In a word, depressing. 

As of Sunday, December 12, Lehigh and Northampton County combined have reported 4,094 new COVID cases the past 7 days; and, NorCo set a new 7-Day record with 1,959 cases.

The DoH doesn't report statewide cases on weekends, so I don't have an update on the statewide rate.

NorCo Council Overrides McClure Vetoes Regarding Budget and Salaries of Elected Officials

At their December 2 meeting, Northampton County Council adopted a budget for next year. In doing so, Council amended the budget to increase its own funding to $400,000 so it could pay for a study of IT, Gracedale and salaries. It also increased the salaries of both the Elections Registrar and her Deputy. Separately, Council approved a payraise for future elected officials. On December 9, Executive Lamont McClure vetoed both Council's budget amendments as well as the payhike for future elected officials. The very next day, at their final meeting of the year, County Council voted to override McClure's vetoes. 

County Council beefed up its own spending fund by taking $100,000 from the IT budget as well as $150,000 from the County's stabilization fund. 

In his veto message, McClure argued that reducing the IT budget by $100,000 "leaves us vulnerable to cyberattacks" and limits the county's ability to get computer components in the midst of a pandemic that has caused supply chain issues. He also argues that the County Council lacks the authority to conduct its own IT study.  He adds that Council is violating its own ordinance by "raiding" its own financial stabilization fund. 

He argues against increasing the Registrar's salary as well. He notes that she was hired at $67,593 precisely because of the increased responsibilities brought about by changes to the Election Code. After three years of county employment, her salary will be $76,028. He believes this is unfair to the Clerk of Civil, who is paid $72,461 with 33 years of service. He adds it ia also unfair to the Clerk of Criminal, who is paid $69,340 after 30 years of service. 

In addition to his budget-related vetoes, McClure also returned the ordinance raising the salary of future elected officials. He argues that "[p]ublic service implies some sacrifice." He noted that his $85,000 salary is higher than the $81,000 median family income in Pa. He adds that, once Execs attain age 60, they can collect a $2,500 monthly pension.   

Interestingly, McClure waited until right before the meeting to deliver his veto. This prompted Administrator Charles Dertinger to inform Council that any action on the veto would have to be advertised 24 hours in advance under recent changes to the Sunshine Act.

What Dertinger failed to tell Council is that they may still consider matters that was only brought to their attention within 24 hours of the meeting.  

County Council Solicitor Chris Spadoni informed County Council that they had the authority to vote to override the Executive veto. "I could not be more clear," he said in responses to objections by Dertinger and Council member Tara Zrinski, neither of whom attended law school. 

County Council voted to override McClure's veto by a 8-1 vote. Tara Zrinski was the sole Council member who voted against overriding the veto. 

Friday, December 10, 2021

How Do You Feel About a 4-day Work Week?

About 100 members of the US House's Progressive Caucus are supporting the "32 Hour Workweek Act."  It would require that employers pay overtime after 32 hours. In other countries with shorter work weeks, there's been no decline in productivity and happier workers. Would it work here?

This does present problems for businesses and governments usually open five days a week. Frankly, there's nothing sacrosanct about requiring an office to be open 40 hours per week. What's your take?   

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Lehigh County Planning a Sneak Plastic Bag Fee

Last night, I was in Hoboken, N.J., watching DeSales Bulldogs Men's Basketball Team go 9-0 for the first time since 2009 during a game in which 13 different DeSales players put points on the board against Stevens Institute of Technology. I am sure that many of you are attending parties, Christmas dinners or shopping at this time of year. While we're living our lives, Lehigh County's Board of Commissioners is planning a Christmas present of its own. Last night, lameduck Percy Dougherty introduced an ordinance that will require most retail merchants impose a $0.10 fee for every purchase that requires a plastic bad. In 18 months, the fee shoots up to $0.15. Merchant will be required to forward the collected fees to county coffers every four months. SNAP beneficiaries are exempt, but merchants have no discretion to waive the fee for anyone else. Merchants who fail to collect this fee can be fined $300 and sent to the county hoosegaw for up to 90 days. 

Usually, there's a two-week interval between the time an ordinance is introduced and adopted. But because of the holidays, Lehigh's Board is going to ram this through on December 15, hoping no one notices.  

During a time in which most small businesses have been struggling to stay afloat, this fee is a slap across their face.

I have serious reservations about the legality of this proposed ordinance. It notes that the HRC gives the county the right to adopt ordinances. It also notes that the Pa Constitution guarantees he right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment

. But it fails to state precisely howa plastic bag fee effectuates this right. Lehigh County has no health department and really has no police power. That is the province of the cities, townships and boroughs.

During a time in which people are fed up with face mask and vaccine mandates, this latest government intrusion appears to be an over-reach that really will have no effect on the harms it desires to prevent.

By the time I learned of this measure, it was too late for me to tune into the meeting to find out what, if anything, happened. But I thought you should know. 

When I recently said that newspapers do us a disservice by failing to cover the Lehigh Valley's largest governments, this is exactly what I meant. 

UPDATED 8 AM: I have just been informed that this proposed ordinance was tabled lastnight. That's hardly reassuring. It is now old business and any member can now ask that it be untabled.

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

What Drives Vaccine Hesitancy?

Vaccine hesitancy in this country might very well be a reflection of the widening political divide between Democrats and Republicans. According to a recent PBS poll (if polls still have any credibility), 41% of Republicans have no plans to get the jab, compared to just 4% of Democrats. But vaccine hesitancy is a global, not national, problem. The Atlantic observes that in Russia, for example, only 40% of the population is vaccinated. Those opposed include Communists, anti-Putin activists and Orthodox. Distrust in government, whether it is Joe Biden or Vladimir Putin, is cited as a factor. But something else is at play. I know numerous Republicans who've been vaccinated. I know numerous liberal Democrats who have shied away.  I believe there are other factors in this refusal called omission bias and . 

Omission bias was discussed Monday by Dr, Gretchen Chapman on Here and Now. Long before COVID-19 reared its ugly, spike-protein head. she conducted a study in which participants were presented a hypothetical about a fictitious disease called nauseosis. They were told they had a 10% chance of contracting the disease. They were also told that there was a vaccine, but a small number of those who took it might contract the disease itself. 

The rational thing to do is take the vaccine, as it presents a smaller risk iof getting infected than doing nothing at all. But as Dr. Chapman, explained, people feel more regret if they contract a disease after taking precautions than if they do nothing at all. They feel this regret is because the harm they suffered was caused by an action they took. They feel less regret if they just let nature take its course. This is omission bias. 

Her study finds, not surprisingly, that those who declined the nauseosis vaccine would also decline the flu vaccine in the real world. 

This is pretty much consistent with my own life history. I once had a very bad experience with a flu vaccine. Thereafter, I refused to get the jab even though  I contracted the flu nearly every year. I felt less regret in getting the flu than I did when getting sick just once over an affirmative action I took.  

Another bias at play is a naturalness bias, a preference for herbal treatments over synthetic products. We see that with the anti-vaxers who tout Vitamin D.  

Neither of these biases is rooted in any particular political ideology. But they are biases and irrational. 

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Pedestrians are People, Too!

I hate to admit this, but I'm a fair weather cyclist. One the temperature drops into the low 50s, I no longer enjoy the bike. I hit the gym, where I love the arc trainer. I can get some high intensity workouts there, although I miss being outside. I often walk to the gym and back and walk instead of driving for groceries. But I have to tell you that walking is a lot more dangerous than riding a bike. 

The data support me. Nearly 6,000 walkers were killed in traffic accidents in 2017, compared to 777 cyclists

Part of the reason for this is poor infrastructure.  My walk to the grocery store takes me along a road with no sidewalks. I've had some close calls with distracted drivers who are paying more attention to their cellphone than the road. 

Another problem is at crosswalks. On Sunday, I was returning from the grocery store with a knapsack full of coffee. I stepped into a crosswalk. An entitled middle-aged woman with a DAR bumper sticker was moving like a bat out of hell even though she had a stop sign. She missed my knees by about an inch.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" I shouted, none too happy at almost being bowled over. She said nothing, then turned alongside me, and shouted, "You're supposed to stop for cars.!" She then tore off. 

I realize I'm a 70 yo bottom-feeding blogger, and none too popular. But there are also lots of kids who walk the streets of Nazareth as well as mothers pushing baby carts. 

So just as I suggested we should be nice to school bus drivers, we should also be nice to and look out for pedestrians. 

Remembering Grace Packer

Northampton County's former Human Services Director, Allison Frantz, had nothing but high praise for foster parents. "They do the work of angels," she told County Council in 2017. Incredibly, she made these remarks after a 15-year old girl named Grace Packer was raped, murdered and mutilated by a foster parent who adopted her. 

Sara Packer was Grace's foster and adoptive mother. She worked in NorCo's Children, Youth and Families (CYF) between 2003 and 2007. She was actually the adoption supervisor at the time of her termination in 2007. She fostered over 30 children, including a child from NorCo. She's currently serving life and then some for the rape and murder of her adopted daughter. 

Northampton County Council and then Exec John Brown stonewalled the press when they had questions about Sara Packer's role with the county. 

We now have a different Exec and different County Council. 

Council member Ron Heckman, who spent eight years  as NorCo's Director of Human Services, intends to introduce a resolution memorializing "a child who only wanted what all children want - love, security, and a sense of permanence. Instead, she had a life of abandonment, suffering, humiliation and death. All at the hands of those who promised to love but only gave pain ... ."

He is proposing a remembrance tree and a contemplation bench at the Human Services Building. If the Human Services Building is ever given a name, he suggests it be named after her. 

Monday, December 06, 2021

LV Covid Cases at Highest Point Since January

Steve Thode has been tracking the Covid numbers for us since the beginning of the pandemic. He reports that new cases are at their highest level here in the Lehigh Valley since January.  His report is based on numbers supplied by the counties. 

As of today (December 5). Lehigh County has reported 1,771 new COVID cases the last seven days; Northampton County has reported 1,684 new COVID cases the last seven days; and, combined, Lehigh and Northampton counties have reported 3,455 new COVID cases the last seven days.

That's the highest 7-day total for Lehigh County since January 19; the highest 7-day total for Northampton County since January 13; and, the highest combined 7-day total for Lehigh and Northampton counties since January 15.

In the past week, the 7-day new case rate has jumped almost 49% in Northampton County, and more than 35% in Lehigh County.

In the last three days alone, Northampton County has reported 1,066 new cases while Lehigh County has reported 904 new cases.

What's happening in the LV is consistent with what we are seeing nationwide, where there are now 100,000 daily new cases. 

Friday, December 03, 2021

NorCo Council Decides on New District Configuration


 

Every ten years, following the census, Northampton County Council is required to establish four Council districts. Following discussion, Northampton County Council voted 6-3 to establish new Council districts configuration. Voting in favor were Council members John Cusick, Bill McGee, Tara Zrinski, Lori Vargo-Heffner, Kevin Lott and, after some hesitation, Kerry Myers. Voting No were Tom Giovanni, Peg Ferraro and Ron Heckman.

"If it's not broke, don't fix it," said Ron Heckman. 

District One currently consists of Bethlehem, Hellertown, Freemansburg and Hanover Tp. It is represented by Kevin Lott. Under the new District, it will consist of Bethlehem, Hellertown, Lower Saucon and Williams Tps. 

District Two currently consists of Easton, Forks, Glendon, Palmer. Stockertown, Tatamy, West Easton and Wilson. It is represented by Kerry Myers. The new District will remain unchanged. 

District Three currently consists of Nazareth, Bethlehem Tp, E Allen, Lower Nazareth, Lower Saucon, Northampton, North Catasauqua and Williams Tp. It is represented by John Cusick. The new District consists of Freemansburg, Nazareth, Allen, Bethlehem Tp, E Allen, Lower Nazareth, Northampton, North Catasauqua and Hanover.

District Four currently consists of Bath, Bangor, Bushkill, Chapman, E Bangor, Lehigh, Lower Mt Bethel, Moore, Pen Argyl, Plainfield, Portland, Roseto, U Mt Bethel, U Nazareth, Walnutport, Wind Gap and Washington. It is represented by Tom Giovanni. The new District remains unchanged.

Updated 14/4/21 at 9:10 pm: From time to time, I completely blow a story. This is one of those times. In my original report, I thought County Council had voted to retain the old boundaries. I was dead wrong. I had to re-write. Then I blew how Council members voted. This necessitated another correction. Finally, I incorrectly placed Lower Saucon in two districts, making yet another correction necessary. I'm terribly sorry for my mistakes.

McClure's Tax-Cut Budget Passed by NorCo Council

Northampton County Council voted 7-2 last night to approve a $528 million spending plan for next year. The sole No votes came from Tara Zrinski and John Cusick. Zrinski was still upset about the payraises in the elections office and a contingency fund increase that will give County Council control over $450,000. She supported both of them just the day before, and even said at one point that she just wanted there to be a discussion. John Cusick voted No to the budget because the budget for Gracedale is based on a census of 575. "If it were a novel, you'd have to put it in the fiction section," he complained. 

In addition to approving the budget, County Council also voted, 8-1, to cut taxes by one mill ($8.6 million) for all county taxpayers, from 11.8 to 10.8 mills. 

Peg Ferraro opposed the tax rate decrease because she said there are "so many other needs" in the County. She said the money could be spent on county employees to work at Gracedale. Ron Heckman said that, historically, tax reductions have resulted in a need to raise them the following year. He added, however, that the county's cash reserves are very healthy. 

A home assessed at $75,000 will receive a tax bill next year that drops from $885 to $810. The budget is also balanced. 

This budget was reviewed by County Council in a series of five budget hearings. Council basically accepted the budget as proposed, but included amendments regarding salaries and its contingency fund.  In an oddity of the county's home rule charter, a thumbs down would mean the spending plan as proposed would go into effect automatically. 

Budget highlights:

1. One Mill Tax Cut ($8.6 million in savings to all Northampton County Taxpayers)
2. Fund Balance:  Emergency Stabilization $17.4 Million (9.3% of General Fund) & $21.4 Million Unassigned for a total of approximately $39 million in reserve.
3. $12.2 Million in Operational Cuts or a (12.8% reduction in spending identified through improved management countywide).
4. A one step increase for all nonunion county employees (4.5%)
5. Fully funding pension, unemployment and OPEB obligations.
6. Meeting all matching requirements from the state and federal government for pass through funding for COVID relief and Human Services provided by Northampton County.

McClure's spending plan continues a continued commitment to fund open space preservation at $3 million every year. This is accomplished by purchasing conservation easements under which farmers agree to never develop their land. In addition, the county purchases environmentally sensitive land and both creates and maintains parks. In his budget message, McClure states his object is to both preserve green space and limit warehouse proliferation. 

McClure stated his budget will continue the pandemic relief and assistance to county residents. This includes $25 million in relief to small businesses. 

NorCo Council Approves Payraise For Exec, Controller and County Council

By a 7-2 vote, with one pass, Northampton County Council voted last sight to raise the salaries of the county executive, county controller and county council. Under the proposed ordinance, which was amended to increase the original proposal, the county's elected officials will be compensated as follows:

County Executive will be paid $125,000 (up from $85,000) per annum, effective January 1, 2026;

County Controller will be paid $85,000 (up from $75,000) per annum, effective January 1, 2024; and 

County Council members will be paid $12,500 (up from $9,500) per annum, effective January 1, 2024.

The County Council president will receive $500 in addition to the $12,500 annual salary.

The sole dissenting vote was cast by Tara Zrinski. She felt during the discussion that the salary for the Exec, in particular, is still too low. Bill McGee passed during the vote, and the Clerk failed to come back to him after polling the rest of County Council. 

In the last Exec race, the only Republican to run for Exec was a personal trainer.. John Cucick said that if the ordinance "encourages better candidates to to run, it will be worth it." He opposed a suggestion that the salary be tied to the CPI, arguing that is not "good government."  

For County Council and the Executive, this would be its first wage increase since 2010. 

The Northampton County Home Rule Charter prevents Council from giving themselves raises. They can set salaries for the next term of an elected official, but not the current one. Here's what it says.

"The County Council shall have the power by ordinance to set the salary of each elected official. No ordinance shall increase or decrease the salary of an elected official during his term of office. No ordinance which increases or decreases the salary of an elected official shall take effect less than one (1) year after its date of enactment."

When Lehigh and Northampton County adopted Home Rule Charters in 1978, they set initial salaries for their execs and legislators. The full-time county execs were paid $30,000 (Lehigh) and $35,000 (Northampton) while part-time legislators were paid $2,500 (Lehigh) and $4,000 (Northampton).

If these 1978 salaries were adjusted just for cost of living, our local county officials would be bringing home a lot more bacon today. Northampton County Exec McClure would be paid $154,889.84. Northampton County Council members would receive $17,701.70 salaries instead of the current $9,500.

"Everybody sitting here knows damn well he's going to veto it," said Kerry Myers of Executive Lamont McClure. 

Thursday, December 02, 2021

NorCo Council To Beef Up Contingency Fund for Pay Study, Gracedale Operating Study and IT Review

At its final budget hearing on Wednesday, Northampton County Council voted 8-0 to beef up its contingency fund to a whopping $400,000 in next year's budget. The money will come from the stabilization fund and by reducing funding for IT. 

Council member Peg Ferraro was absent. 

Historically, Council's contingency fund is little more than huge slush fund from which it hands out money at the end of the year to make itself look good. Not this time. Council member Lori Vargo Heffner, who drafted a budget amendment increasing the contingency fund from $150,000 to $400,000, wants to do so to study three things. First, she'd like to get a long overdue pay study for the county workforce. Second, Council is concerned about whether its time for its own internal IT department. Third, she'd like to study what the hell is going on at Gracedale. 

Council members Tara Zrinski and Kevin Lott amazingly expressed doubt whether Council has the authority to study Gracedale. "I don't know whether it's our job on Council to be studying Gracedale," worried Lott. "I just went down there the other day," said Zrinski. They should read the Home Rule Charter. Council is the governing body and has all residual powers. Gracedale administrators appear before Council once every month to discuss the nursing home for precisely that reason.

The rest of Council disagreed sharply. Kerry Myers stated, "Sometimes you have to spend a loittle bit to learn a little bit." A Gracedale presentation a few months ago was dismissed by Council member Ron Heckman as "popsickles and lollipops." "Smiling faces aren't always telling the truth," agreed Myers. He reminded everyone that, just a few weeks ago, a dark picture of the home was painted by some former employees.   

Council member John Cusick said his main concerns at Gracedale are financial and its level of care. He pointed out that, even at the height of the pandemic, four residents were crammed into one room. He also noted that Administrator Jennifer Stewart-King has only ever worked at one nursing home, and might benefit from an independent study.

Zrinski eventually backtracked, stating her main concern was that the contingency fund would be a source of walking around money. She  was satisfied by the explanations of intended use. 

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Reibman Rules Undated and Misdated Mail-in Ballots Count in Lehigh County Judicial Race

In a decision that undoubtedly will make its way to Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, Lehigh County Judge Edward Reibman has ruled that 261 undated and misdated mail-in ballots must be counted in the final tally of November 2's Lehigh County election. You can read his 18-page Opinion below.  At the moment, Republican David Ritter leads Democrat Zac Cohen by 74 votes in a contest for Lehigh County judge. Since these ballots are largely Democratic, they could affect that and other races.

At issue are 257 mail-in ballots with no date on the return envelope, along with 4 ballots in which the date is on the wrong line. 

After brushing aside some procedural concerns, Reibman pointed out the statutory language mandating that a mail-in voter "shall" sign and date the declaration on the outer envelope. Distilling his 18-pages to one sentence, Reibman concludes that "shall" means "should" for a minor irregularity like a date, so long as the ballots are received timely.

I agree with Judge Reibman's interpretation of the law, but he will almost certainly be reversed. Five Supreme Court justices have already signaled that "shall" means "shall."

Reibman Opinion by BernieOHare