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26 posts from Government

07/02/2014

Hobby Lobby, An Example of What Does Not Matter

Dr-Arthur-H-GarrisonBy Dr. Arthur Garrison, Assistant Professor, Criminal Justice at Kutztown University

In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Hobby Lobby asserted that from its religious perspective, anything that prevented the fertilized egg from growing into a baby -- by definition -- was in the same category as abortion. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers are required to provide a base level of care within the health care insurance that they provide to their employees. Birth control is included in that base level coverage. Under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules, there are twenty different types of contraception methods. Hobby Lobby sued the Department of Health and Human Services (DHH) regulations that included four methods of contraceptives. The first two methods are "day after" or emergency contraceptives -- Plan B (levonorgestrel-LNG) and Ella (ulipristal acetate-UPA). The second two methods are intrauterine devices (IUDs) -- levonorgestrel releasing intrauterine system (LNG-IUS) and the copper Intrauterine Device (Cu-IUD). Hobby Lobby in its arguments to the Court asserted that it opposed the specific funding of these four methods of contraceptives because they are "abortifacients" and that "they have no objection to the other 16 FDA-approved methods of birth control."

Fair enough. What was completely missed by the Court and the reaction to the decision is that Hobby Lobby was factually wrong. These four methods are not "abortifacients." A brief submitted to the Court by a group of medical scientists explained that Plan B, "levonorgestrel (LNG), [is] a synthetic version of the naturally-occurring hormone progesterone [that] works by preventing or disrupting ovulation, but is not effective after ovulation has already occurred." The reason being, "LNG does not cause changes to the endometrium (uterine lining) that would hamper implantation." Ella "acts on human progesterone receptors."  It "works later in the pre-ovulatory cycle, when [Plan B] is no longer effective."

Here is the point. The "claim that Plan B and Ella prevent implantation is not supported by current scientific data or by evidence in the record below. To the contrary, scientific research shows that Plan B and Ella both function by inhibiting or postponing ovulation; they do not prevent fertilization or implantation." As for the two types of IUDs, the "LNG-IUS works primarily by thickening the cervical mucus, thereby preventing sperm from reaching the egg." "The Cu-IUD affects the motility and viability of sperm and impairs their fertilizing capability." The brief goes on to explain that none of the methods can dislodge a fertilized egg, the scientific definition of abortifacients. A Google search confirms the assertions made in the brief.

The Court and both sides of the litigation bypassed the brief altogether. Rather than focusing on the science of these methods and the legal/factual issue of whether the four methods were in fact violative of religious convictions, the Court ruled that for-profit corporations were "persons" under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and that that the RFRA protects for-profit organizations that "wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the man┬Čner required by their religious beliefs." The Court could have ruled that since the four methods did not violate Hobby Lobby's religious values because they were not abortifacients, Hobby Lobby was legally obligated to offer these four methods along with the other sixteen. This limited approach would have avoided the current result in which the Court provided a legal determination that left open more questions than it answered.

07/01/2014

Welfare Fraud in Pennsylvania

Stan-Aleknaby Stan Alekna

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, 2013 welfare expenditures were $28 billion -- 44 percent of the state budget -- and are projected to rise to $32 billion in 2015.

Welfare costs will grow for the foreseeable future in both dollars and as a percent of total expenditures. This trend must be reversed.

Former Auditor General, Jack Wagner, estimated that welfare fraud represents ten to fifteen percent of total state expenditures, or $2.8 billion to $4.2 billion of stolen taxpayer funds. $400 million to $675 million annually could be attributed to food stamps and cash assistance program fraud alone.

While there has been some progress over the last three years in reducing welfare fraud, more action is necessary.

The Secretary of DPW stated that $2 billion was eliminated from welfare fraud, waste and abuse since 2011. But that's only 2.5 percent of total welfare expenditures annually. Many serious problems remain:

  • 77% of the DPW's County Assistance Offices (CAO's) do not comply with established procedures when administering food stamp and cash assistance programs.
  • The Auditor General's reports documenting these underperforming CAO's have been ignored by DPW and the state legislature.
  • Auditor General DePasquale's June 24, 2014 interim report on the audit of DPW's administration of Electronic Benefit EBT/ACCESS cards found that more than $200,000 in benefits were provided to 138 deceased recipients. A complete audit of the DPW's EBT program is expected to be completed in 2015.
  • It can take as long as three years for an Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigator to examine a single suspected case of welfare fraud because they lack adequate police powers to gather evidence.
  • Punishment for welfare fraud is minor and the chance of being caught slim. There is little offset to the potential gain from fraud.
  • There is almost no oversight by the state legislature of DPW and the $28 billion of annual welfare funds.  


The following recommendations, if implemented, would greatly reduce welfare fraud in the Commonwealth and save taxpayers hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.

 

  • Three bills aimed at stiffening the penalties for those convicted of welfare crimes are pending. All require drug testing of welfare applicants. In the past, similar bills have died in committee or been defeated by full House or Senate votes. This should not happen again.
  • After the budget and pension reform, the legislature's highest priority should be to combine the strongest elements of the three bills into one, fast track it through the House and Senate and have the Governor sign it into law, sending a clear sign to the public that the legislature is finally serious about welfare fraud.
  • The leadership should ensure that a House and a Senate standing committee, all fully committed to welfare reform and oversight, is assigned to oversee DPW.
  • A joint hearing of the House and Senate oversight committees should be convened to determine the current magnitude and of welfare fraud in Pennsylvania, and the adequacy of the measures that are in place to control it. Testimony should be heard from persons in DPW, OIG and the Auditor General's office who have first-hand experience in dealing with welfare fraud. Legislative action should then be pursued in support of any welfare reform recommendations that are adopted by the joint hearing.  
  • Recent budget reductions to the Auditor General's office should be reinstated so that the audits of DPW operations can be continued and expanded. Welfare fraud reductions would offset expenditures.
  • Require that DPW field management retrain, reassign to lessor roles or dismiss case workers who fail compliance audits more than once.
  • Provide police powers (search warrant and subpoena powers) to OIG welfare fraud investigators and permit them to be armed in the performance of their duties.  
  • Empower OIG to prosecute welfare fraud cases in criminal court. Currently, only county District Attorneys can try such cases and more serious criminal cases take priority over welfare crime.

If you agree that serious welfare reform is long overdue, call, write or email your state representative and senator. Ask them what they are doing to address this egregious waste of taxpayer money. Greatly reducing welfare fraud will ensure that funds will be available for those who need temporary financial assistance due to circumstances beyond their control, which is all that welfare was ever intended to be.



Stan Alekna is a retired business executive having held senior management positions with computer manufacturing, computer software and managed health care companies.  He and his wife live in Cornwall, PA.

05/29/2014

Veteran questions Toomey's voting record

I'm a Vietnam War veteran and a Past President of the PA State Council of VVA.  I would like to respond to your report of Senator Pat Toomey's news conference in which he discussed new legislation called the VA Accountability Act.  I understand that the bill would include several items to make people in the VA accountable by, for example, providing remedies for those veterans harmed as a result of willful VA misconduct.

While I think it's nice he wants to question VA practices, I question how substantially effective his action will be.  I wonder if he, in fact, may be a bit politically opportunistic. His record of support for veterans is woefully inadequate.  He has had many opportunities to demonstrate his support for veterans and has repeatedly failed to deliver.

For example, Toomey voted against every veterans' funding bill (13 of them) in the 10 years he has served as a Congressman from 2000-2005 and as a Senator from 2011 until now. He only voted for one in his career, in 1999. In addition to his votes against Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) appropriations bills, he voted against every other bill that would fund veteran programs, such as the Veterans Jobs Act and the recent Health and Benefits bill for our veterans.

Let me just point out what his votes against those bills mean to our veterans. When he filibustered the Health and Benefits bill for veterans, he voted against increasing assisted living services for veterans who have traumatic brain injuries. That bill also would have expanded care for women veterans through various programs such as occupational counseling and stress reduction therapy.  When Toomey filibustered the bipartisan Veterans Jobs Act, he blocked efforts to help our Iraq and Afghanistan warriors get jobs in their communities after deployment -- even after he voted to send them to war.

While it's good Toomey is paying attention to the issues at the VA hospitals, I wish he would have stood with us veterans in the past -- when we really needed his votes.
 
Very respectfully,
Larry Holman, MS, MBA
Past President, PA State Council, Vietnam Veterans of America
Past President, PA War Veterans Council

05/27/2014

Corporate welfare still lives in the East Penn School District

The East Penn School Board, after a surprise motion to rescind, voted again to give corporate welfare to Hamilton Crossings developer thru the TIF (Tax Increment Financing) plan. I say surprise because the EPSB member and crusader for the TIF, Ken Bacher, brought up a motion to rescind his previous YEA vote on the TIF. Unfortunately,  the public didn't find out about this motion until two days before it was to take place. Another interesting point, school board member, Lynn Donches, had made this same motion just weeks before and it didn't even get seconded for discussion. Bacher's motion seemed so scripted as to be a joke. The developer and bond agent were both present at the school board meeting and well-rehearsed to address the one issue that Bacher seemed ready to kill the TIF over. It seems over the next twenty years the school district would come up short ~ $350,000.00 because of changes to the TIF plan, seemingly driving Bacher to deny the developer the gift of $11,000,000.00 in EPSD student education funds. Of course Bacher rescinded his rescind motion as soon as the bond agent told him that the developer would make good on the ~$350,000.00. Seems like the developer and bond agent have a very expedient work arrangement? Couldn't be that this was all worked out ahead of time??? Fortunately the taxpayer and EPSD students have a friend on their side in Lynn Donches. She revived the motion and new board member Rev. Wally Vinovskis seconded it allowing ~1 hour of discussion and even with a questionable stacked deck the vote was close 5/4. Bacher was the swing vote. Unfortunately in East Penn School District, corporate welfare still lives.
For more info check out "stiffthetif.com".

John Donches

Editor's Note:  The author is the husband of East Penn School Board member Lynn Donches.

10/28/2013

Delaware River Flood Resolution

I would like to thank Ed Smith and all the Warren County NJ Freeholders for the flood prevention resolution you passed on Oct. 23, 2013 that called for the Governors of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware to petition the US. Supreme Court to order New York City to keep the water levels in its NYC Delaware Reservoirs at or below 90 percent throughout the year. The resolution, in part, states that the management of those reservoirs is a "significant factor" in flooding in Warren County, creating "an unnecessary and dangerous threat" of life and property to people living downstream.
 
People along the Delaware had not experienced a major flood in 49 years and then we experienced three major floods in 23 months! Sept. 2004, April 2005 and June 2006. due to heavy rains when the reservoirs were 100%+ full before the rain event.

In the June 06 flood, 195 billion gals. poured out of the reservoirs into the Delaware, the equivalent of Niagara Falls running into the Delaware for 37 hours!

The 100% full reservoirs were not able to release water quickly, due to small release values at the bottom. It can take weeks to create a void to accommodate a heavy rainfall. This is the reason that there must be a minimum of 10% year around safety void to prevent future flooding.

In Oct. 2005 we experienced the second heaviest rainfall since 1941, we did not flood, and the reservoirs were below 60%
 
The results of the Flood Analysis Model released in 2009 and paid for by the states of PA, NJ, DE, NY as well as the federal government proved that if prestorm voids exist, flood crests will be lower.

Thank you for your resolution that requires New York to do what they should have done to prevent higher flood crests after receiving the scientific proof from the Flood Analysis Model of 2009!
 
Government officials supporting the dire needs of their constituents is greatly appreciated. We who live outside of Warren County hope that our elected officials follow your example for the good of us all. Thank you!
 
Gail Pedrick
New Hope

President
Delaware Riverside Conservancy
Box 1 Stewartsville NJ 08886

09/11/2013

PA House Works to Tackle Transportation Issues

By Rep. Julie Harhart (R-Lehigh/Northampton)
 
Pennsylvania has the fifth largest state-maintained road system in the nation, which includes 32,000 bridges and 120,000 miles of road. Unfortunately, over the years our transportation infrastructure has slowly fallen into disrepair and projects are not proceeding as quickly as we would like. Much of this has been caused by several years of a depressed economy that led to tight transportation budgets, coupled with rising construction costs and a decrease in revenue from the gas tax, mostly due to people driving more fuel efficient vehicles.
 
As you can imagine, it is a time consuming and costly endeavor to maintain such infrastructure. Due to the lack of progress in making repairs or replacing certain structures, it was recently announced by PennDOT that 1,000 bridges across the state would need to be deemed structurally deficient with new or additional weight restrictions being placed on them.
 
I realize the term "structurally deficient" raises safety concerns for most individuals; however, as PennDOT has explained, the bridges being posted are still safe for motorists. They are posting the weight restrictions on the bridges in order to extend the longevity of the bridges and preserve safety.
 
In Lehigh and Northampton counties, 13 bridges are scheduled to be posted with weight restrictions and one bridge (Kromer Road over PA 33 in Plainfield Township, Northampton County) will be closed. These postings should not significantly impact the normal flow of commuter traffic on a daily basis.
 
The posting of these bridges, however, does bring up the larger issue of funding needed to repair or replace many bridges and sections of roadway. The General Assembly has examined a few plans put forth by the governor, Senate and House; however, we still lack consensus on any one comprehensive plan. The stumbling block is the large amount of funding needed to "do it all," and where that money will come from.
 
As a member of the House Transportation Committee, I know we will be looking at solutions this fall that will likely be less comprehensive and more targeted to the critical needs of our transportation system with smaller price tags and more doable ways to address funding.
 
Tending to our transportation system is a priority, as it affects the safety of those using our roads and bridges, as well as impacts our economy through the ability to efficiently transport goods and deliver services. I can assure you this will be at the top of agenda as we reconvene for the fall legislative session.
 
For more information, including a list of bridges that area scheduled to receive new weight restrictions in Lehigh and Northampton counties, visit my website at www.JulieHarhart.com and click on the banner in the middle of the page titled "New Weight Restrictions Being Placed on Regional Bridges."

04/10/2013

Reminder to government officials: elephants are in the room

Kraft_randyby Randy Kraft, wfmz.com

Elephants are in the room at many public local government meetings in the Lehigh Valley.
 
Just a few years ago, only one or two were present. But now there sometimes are as many as a half dozen.
 
Like all elephants in rooms, they remain silent and mostly are ignored, as perhaps they should be.
 
But they can be useful, powerful or even dangerous.
 
Those elephants, of course, are journalists.
 
Reporters, photographers and videographers at public meetings are in awesome positions of responsibility. Often within hours, we report to thousands of readers and/or viewers about the most important things that happened at those meetings... or at least what we think were the most important things that happened.
 
One of the more common frustrations of local journalism is when the folks at the front of the room conduct their business as if they don't know people -- including elephants -- are in the audience. Or as if they don't care. They vote on things with no discussion or explanation and don't share copies of whatever they are voting on with the public.
 
At a school board meeting not long ago, a member of the board said this about the district superintendent's report: "If the superintendent were providing information for the public in a form that the public would understand, I think it would take more context and more time and effort to make sure the message was crisp and communicating exactly what is intended."
 
So what? As long as one member of the public is sitting in the audience at a public meeting, don't educators especially have some ethical obligation not only to educate students, but the public as well?
 
And shouldn't they do that even if no one is in the room except a couple of elephants?
 
Don't all elected officials in a democratic society have the same obligation to clearly communicate what they are doing in a public meeting?
 
Too often, clear communication is lost in jargon at school board and other municipal meetings.  What those in the audience hear is fragmented and, at times, perhaps intentionally obscure.
 
 And no one is permitted to just shout out: "What's going on here?"
 
The amount of information shared with the public at public meetings varies widely right here in the Lehigh Valley. Some local governing bodies are far more open than others.
 
 Among the most transparent are Allentown City Council and Lehigh County Commissioners. They provide the public with copies of nearly every document they will be discussing and/or voting on that night. And they invite comments from the public on non-agenda items at the beginning of each meeting-- which sometimes can continue for an hour, even though each speaker has a time limit. They again invite the public to speak just before every vote on an issue.
 
Among the municipalities I regularly cover, Lower Macungie Township runs a close second when it comes to running open meetings. It does the same thing city council and the county commissioners do, except it does not provide hard copies of all documents to those attending its commissioners meetings.
Some may be surprised to learn Allentown City Council is among the most open, because it recently created a firestorm when its president refused to let people speak about the controversial water and sewer lease. By tradition, council does not permit public comment on bills and resolutions that are being introduced but not discussed -- a tradition that may have to be replaced by a rule, or discontinued.
 
Anyone who feels stifled at an Allentown Council meeting should go to certain school board meetings, where the public gets only one opportunity to speak. And people who do speak feel like they are talking to an empty room, because they usually get no response from their elected school board members. There is no dialogue.
 
Even in meetings where officials do invite public comment on each issue before it is put to a vote, by tradition most journalists never ask questions during meetings. Like I said: silent elephants.
 
Our job is to observe, not to participate. We're there to cover the news, not make the news. We too easily could influence the course of a discussion simply by asking a key question....although we sometimes have to bite our tongues because we wish someone would ask that question.
 
Those local officials have a captive audience of news people who are there to get a story and will be coming up to them with questions at the end of every meeting, often for clarification about things they said. And things they didn't say.
 
As soon as meetings adjourn, journalists scramble to the front to ask decision-makers questions before they leave their seats. It reminds me of a deli counter where we should take a number to be the next to be waited on.
 
I have encountered reporters who don't want other reporters to hear questions they ask, but that seems to be rare. More often, the decision-makers find themselves answering the same questions several times. 
 
Elected officials and their hired managers may be mentally exhausted by the end of a long meeting (and probably a long day). The last thing they may want to do is answer the same questions over and over.
 
But these days "call us tomorrow" just doesn't work any more, not when young reporters start writing stories on their laptops before a meeting even ends and others among us frequently are writing until the wee hours of the morning to keep up with the competition.
 
What's worst is when boards and councils immediately rush into private executive sessions of indeterminate length at the conclusion of their public meetings. Journalists have to wait until they return if we want our questions answered. We also have to trust officials when they say no action will be taken in public at the conclusion of their executive sessions or hang around for a long time just to make sure for ourselves.
 
After 37 years in journalism, I never have understood why an opportunity for media to ask questions is not more formally built right into the system, immediately after public meetings adjourn.
 
Why not routinely announce "a media briefing will be held immediately after the conclusion of this meeting"? After all, it is in officials' best interest to make sure information is being communicated accurately.
 
 
Such a crazy idea may be dismissed as totally unnecessary, and perhaps that is true if there are no problems with meeting coverage. To the credit of the East Penn School District, the superintendent and school board president usually remain planted in their seats long enough to field questions from the media. Others do the same. Whitehall Mayor Ed Hozza has even invited reporters with questions into a conference room just off the public meeting room to meet with him immediately after the township commissioners adjourn.
 
I was surprised when I recently covered a couple meetings of the Warren County Freeholders. The last thing on their agenda was a time for public and media questions. I never saw that on anyone's agenda before.
 
Distasteful as the thought might be to some journalists, a post-meeting media briefing also gives decision-makers an immediate opportunity to attempt some preemptive damage control. They can try to influence what we will report.
 
But more important, it helps ensure that what we write is correct. Our questions fill in the gaps regarding what really happened at the meeting.
 
It's a sad fact that most people don't go to municipal or school board meetings unless they are concerned about a specific issue. But journalists are there -- some of us quietly wishing residents would demand that their elected officials more consistently conduct the public's business in public.
 

03/21/2013

Was a "No" Vote Big Government Intrusion?

Brad-Osborne-SMBy Brad Osborne, Lehigh County Commissioner

Five hundred years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a book titled The Prince.  One phrase from that text that remains a paradox today is "the end justifies the means".  In other words, an action can be justified by the intended outcome rather than the action itself.  On Wednesday, March 13, five members of the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners exercised the political equivalent of this maxim.  In doing so, they not only diminished the integrity of our office, but also increased the uncertainty of the future cost of water and wastewater treatment in Lehigh County. How is that?

The Board voted, by the slimmest of margins, 5-4, to deny the extension of the Lehigh County Authority (LCA) charter, in order that they not meet the bid requirements for the pending Allentown water and wastewater system lease.  These commissioners, known as "the bloc" for their record of voting together, brushed aside the very facts they professed to need, to decide in favor of the result they wanted.  Deny the extension LCA needed to bid on the lease, and maybe we can scuttle Allentown's plan of financing their pension debt by eliminating the most viable, publicly accountable bidder.  Was this decision based on good government principles or a need to feel powerful?

Our responsibility as Lehigh County Commissioners was to evaluate the performance of LCA since the last charter extension in 1999 and determine if they were worthy of another 14-year extension.  The board proceeded to detail the necessary elements of the charter review.  It was a good, comprehensive framework from which to work.  It included financial metrics, environmental records and customer satisfaction measurements.  In short, everything you'd need to know to make an informed decision as a commissioner.  We studied this matter for seven weeks, which included a public forum moderated by the League of Women Voters, a 4-hour public hearing conducted by a commissioner subcommittee, and unfettered access to any information we wanted.  We were approached by communities ranging in size from Lower Macungie to Upper Milford, organizations as diverse as the East Penn Chamber of Commerce, Renew Lehigh Valley, Lehigh Valley Partnership and Wildlands Conservancy, respected businesses such as Samuel Adams Brewery and Ocean Spray, and professionals in the field to listen to their positive experiences, and consider their informed and reasoned recommendations. The board had no unanswered questions, no outstanding concerns about LCA's performance, and understood the weighted opinion of the public.  We were ready to make a decision. 

What was our response to all this information, study and analysis?  Denial of the request by a five to four vote.  How did that happen?  Concern was shifted from the tangible and measurable performance of LCA, to the intangible and immeasurable argument of how bad an idea the lease of the water system is.  That should not have been the basis of our decision; that was outside our scope and jurisdiction.  The "bloc" allowed their personal bias and agenda to overshadow their duty, and used words such as "toxic", "house of cards", "bad deal" and "city politicians" to justify their denial.  In other words, they employed Machiavellian tactics to force an outcome they want to see down the road.

This could turn out to be a costly mistake that will raise water rates on families and businesses for years to come.  Their actions may prevent an established, non-profit, regional organization with local government oversight from bidding.  It was a shortsighted decision based on personal politics.  Simply put, it is bad public policy.

To make matters even worse, a member of the bloc proposed using our board and county resources to investigate and pursue every legal means possible to stop the city transaction from taking place.  These self-proclaimed believers in limited government are now apparently ready to expand the role of County government to attack those municipalities they disagree with.  Isn't the contradiction evident?

To express your opinion on this decision and the "bloc's" intention to investigate and possibly litigate using your tax dollars, call, write or email the commissioners' office, or come to our March 27 meeting. 

03/01/2013

The State Of Lehigh County

Billhansell_editby Bill Hansell, Lehigh County Executive

Under our charter, the Lehigh County executive is required to deliver a "State of the County" message to our Board of Commissioners before the end of February each year.  I decided against an elaborate presentation of this message and instead chose to simply deliver it to you in writing.  I was invited to speak at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon next month and I will also outline the state of our county to the businesses and members there.

Our county is among the largest in Pennsylvania.  More than 350,000 people call Lehigh County home.  Tens of thousands of businesses operate here, countless cultural arts institutions and organizations thrive here, and we assess property taxes on more than 125,000 properties. The sum total of all of those people, institutions and businesses is the essence of Lehigh County.

This message is intended to brief you on the state of Lehigh County's government, not necessarily the state of Lehigh County, which encompasses much more.

Over the past seven years, through Don Cunningham's stewardship and, more recently, mine, Lehigh County's government has been  managed in a fiscally prudent but responsive manner, balancing the need to keep our tax burden low with providing services needed to help the  county's most vulnerable residents.  Despite the increased demand that a recession brings to county services, Lehigh County's government is considerably smaller than it was seven years ago.

The 2013 budget that my administration proposed was the third consecutive year for the County's budget to be lower than the prior year and was a full $50 million lower than in 2010.  The number of employees working for Lehigh County is now 6 percent below our employee compliment of twenty years ago.  As a result of bipartisan collaboration that was carried out in good faith with four commissioners as well as other elected officials, we committed to find another $3.5 million in spending cuts and turn a planned one-year tax credit into a permanent reduction in our millage rate.

I have been privileged to serve local governments for over half a century, from a small town to a growing suburb to the 1st and 3rd largest cities in our Commonwealth.  I have lead two major associations devoted to improving local government and have advised local governments from Australia to South Africa to the Balkans.

Because of the long career and wealth of experience that I have with government budgets, I know what a well-managed government looks like.  The management and direction of Lehigh County at present and over the past seven years has been a resounding success by any measurable standard.

In that period of time, Lehigh County was able to renovate our county courthouse, saving $20 million in the process, build Coca Cola Park, which is rapidly becoming one of the biggest attractions in our area, and create a plan to significantly enhance the Trexler Nature Preserve.  With the capital funds that were saved through numerous cost-cutting measures on the courthouse, the county was able to undertake the most comprehensive facilities and capital program upgrade in this county's history, ranging from a state of the art 911 dispatch center to more than 20 bridge replacements and repairs. 

Through the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program we are providing $2.2 million which will be used in neighborhoods that are in danger of decline by purchasing, rehabilitating and selling of distressed properties.  Meanwhile, our Green Future Fund program has pushed the total of farmland acres preserved past the 20,000-acre mark and, most recently, released $1.1 million to six municipalities for important parks and recreation projects.

As a result of the business community and our county government's hard work in the area of economic development, earlier this year, Lehigh County was recognized by the Fourth Economy Community Index as one of the top ten best counties in the nation to attract growth and investment in the future.

The first priority of the county must be to protect the people who live here. Providing a safe environment is the first and most important step to creating economic growth.  Our highest priority over the past seven years has been a commitment to public safety and justice.

More than seventy cents of every Lehigh County tax dollar is spent on people, institutions and systems that combat crime and help to maintain law and order.  Strong efforts in this area have benefits that are twofold.  First, our efforts help to make Lehigh County a safer place to live in the short term, and second, every dollar that we spend today on law and order helps to prevent further spending to pay the costs associated with crime and punishment down the road.
We have fully funded the effort to connect every police department in Lehigh County to police departments in other counties, to each other and to the State Police with "real time" sharing of data records.  We also provided funding to put ten new police officers on the streets of six Lehigh County municipalities, opened a new state-of-the-art 911 center and fully renovated and expanded our work release center with a focus on more effective counseling for both men and women. 

In collaboration with District Attorney Jim Martin, we have opened a Central Booking Unit designed to put officers back on the street quickly after making an arrest, a digital forensic lab in collaboration with DeSales University and a Regional Crime Center, which can pull in data from an extremely wide range of law enforcement sources to determine crime patterns, cross-match information on potential suspects and provide solid leads to the local police.

The overall goal has been simple.  We want Lehigh County to be a safe place to live and a very unfriendly place for lawbreakers.

Just last week, some of you may have attended the groundbreaking of a facility that was the result of a unique partnership between Lehigh County and Cetronia Ambulance Corps.  We sold the land to Cetronia, who built a facility that was big enough to house their own public health and safety operations and include a new medicolegal facility for our coroner as well as space to house our emergency management vehicles.  We were able to save millions on the facility through this partnership.

In a month or so, we will hold a grand opening for our new Lehigh County Detoxification Center in partnership with a private provider, White Deer Run.  This facility was built without the use of Lehigh County tax dollars.

The only way that Lehigh County can enhance services in these crucial areas without putting a burden on taxpayers is to be as frugal  and efficient as possible with what we spend on our basic operations, and I'm proud to report that that's exactly what we've done and what we will continue to do.  Most important, our employees have been committed to that goal and I take particular pride in recognizing the great partnership that we have gotten from our unions.
Total staffing has been reduced by 143 full-time positions and another 28 positions have been converted to critical public safety positions--with the reductions occurring in both our union and non-union units.  All the while, we have successfully avoided having any contract negotiations move to arbitration.

I am also proud to say that the County's healthcare costs have increased an average of only 1.3% annually since this administration took office in 2006, which is something I doubt many private sector companies can say.  We have gotten there by tough negotiating, transferring a significant portion of the costs to all of our employees and increasing the focus on wellness programs to limit the future growth of this very challenging budget line item.

This has happened not in spite of, but because of, our union contracts. Without arbitration, we have negotiated agreements with all our unions to keep wage growth under control and for all workers -- union and non-union -- to pay about 20 percent of the cost of their healthcare.

We are emerging from the recent recession in sound financial condition, and in better shape than many other municipal and county governments in America.  Any way that you choose to measure it, the state of our county finances is sound.

Thanks to the spirit of cooperation that has prevailed on the Board of Commissioners, especially through the early years of the administration, we have been able to accomplish a great deal in just seven short years--and we have been able to do what we have done in a cost-effective manner.  But I am a strong believer in continuous improvement.

When I was appointed County Executive, I made a commitment to focus on continuous improvement and we are following through on that commitment.  I have tapped into my old rolodex and sought out resources and former associates from the professional association that I used to lead, the ICMA, to begin the implementation of a performance management process for all departments.  This performance management initiative will sharpen the focus on the goals that we hope to achieve and it will increase efficiency in the processes we use to get to those goals.

We have also launched a major priority-based budget initiative which could have a dramatic impact on the way we approach our budget process and on how we analyze the things we do with our taxpayers' money.  We plan to explore several possible and examine different scenarios for changes or reductions in functions and services.  Over the coming months, we will undertake a new way of looking at how we choose what is important and what ends up in our budget.

Despite the County Executive's veto and the administration's advice against reassessing last year, we were able to make the best of the situation and follow the Board of Commissioner's direction to reassess, and the process went smoothly.

We have come through the reassessment process and the required appeals period with very good results from a County financial perspective, if not to the delight of almost half of our property owners.  As we have experienced, reassessment can be a very controversial issue and one which can be seriously flawed if left in the hands of politicians.  Barring unexpected action by the State to make the process occur at regular intervals, this administration recommends that the Board of Commissioners press for a charter change via referendum to ensure that it happens.

Lehigh County is home to all of us, and the decisions that we make will have an impact not just today, but far into the future.  I believe that government has a place in our lives; it has a role to play in the provision of basic services and that it must be properly funded in order to fulfill its mandates.

Overall, the state of Lehigh County government is strong and our county is steadily recovering from the devastation of the recession.  Reports from the housing market are encouraging, salaries are beginning to rise again and we are seeing more companies opt to move from outside the area to within our borders, which should work positively on the stalled job market.

However, we're certainly not out of the difficult times yet and there is a greater need than ever to demonstrate the spirit of cooperation that has always been the hallmark of Lehigh County government.  This is a time when we have to put political party differences and ideology aside, as we did in crafting a bipartisan 2013 Budget, and work together toward the common good, and in the best interests of our county's taxpayers.  That's what I committed to do when I was appointed County Executive and what I continue to hope can be forged with our Board of Commissioners, despite the fact that it is an election year.

We've weathered an extremely difficult economic stretch but were still able to get many important things accomplished.  We need to do even more together now that we see a light at the end of the tunnel.

02/15/2013

Allentown's Fiscal Cliff

Gary_Strathearn_smBy City of Allentown Finance Director Garret Strathearn

There's been much said recently about the recommendation to use a concession lease of the City's water and sewer utilities to address Allentown's pressing unfunded pension liability.  There has not been much said about the consequences of not doing it. As the City's Director of Finance, it is my responsibility to inform all of our residents, taxpayers and business owners of the very serious nature of these consequences.

Allentown's unfunded liability represents a $200 million and growing legally binding full faith and credit general obligation debt of the City.  If no action is taken, the City's finances will be precarious for decades to come.  Our state-mandated annual payments on this debt, our Minimal Municipal Obligation (MMO), have risen enormously.  Those payments will soon consume close to $30 million of our $90 million General Fund budget.  In short, Allentown is facing a financial tsunami of seismic proportions. 

The amount of our MMO is directly driven by the size of our unfunded liability.  We must either eliminate - or at the very least - significantly reduce it.  Without this relief, the city's ability to provide the breadth and quality of services Allentown residents have come to expect and deserve will be drastically reduced.

Unfortunately, our situation only gets worse with time.  A series of intricate actuarial changes in the way pension obligations are calculated and measured by standard setting and rating authorities will soon compound the seriousness of our situation. 

The significant savings initiatives the city has put into place over the past six years have been very beneficial.  Yet these steps are equivalent to repairing a house room-by-room.  It's now time to permanently strengthen the foundation.  Without that, the whole place will collapse under its own weight.         

We cannot save, borrow, tax or invest our way out of this problem.  For example, it would require close to a 100% real estate tax increase to just keep pace with our growing minimal pension payments.  Yet, this would have no impact at all on eliminating the problem; the debt caused by our pension plan's unfunded liability.  It's equal to making a minimum payment on a huge credit card balance; it gets you nowhere.  Taking this approach is irresponsible financial management and will lead to crippling long-term consequences for all Allentown stakeholders.  

After much research, study and evaluation of several options, it was decided the most prudent, cost-effective financing tool for the City to address this formidable problem is a concession lease that leverages the equity of our water and sewer operations in order to receive a sizeable upfront payment to reduce or eliminate our unfunded liability. 

This is the best option we have to address the City's fiscal crisis. If this option is not implemented, in less than 24 months Allentown will be another PA city making ugly headlines about bankruptcy and a lack of political will to address its obligations. We will not allow Allentown to become another Harrisburg, Scranton or worse yet Stockton, California.

We fully understand the enormous responsibility that comes with this recommendation.  A team of the country's most respected and experienced legal, financial, engineering and technical professionals has been assembled to help the City meet this challenge.  This team has been laser-focused on preserving the excellence and dependability of Allentown's water supply; including compliance with environmental standards and technical expertise; conducting thorough due diligence; and carefully crafting a concession agreement which includes a structured rate schedule and provisions for monitoring and enforcing water quality and performance standards. 

Allentown is on the road to sustained economic recovery and stability. With this option, and working with City Council and the City Controller, we can eliminate or substantially reduce our unfunded pension liability debt, stabilize our tax rate for years, and keep our important water and sewer assets in good order, condition and repair for decades to come.

I encourage you to review the information on the city's website.
http://www.allentownpa.gov and click on the Water/Sewer Concession icon. 

Also, please watch the following video outlining the details of both our pension crisis and our proposed solution. 
http://www.youtube.com/embed/YDSIbFqElDk.   

While we did not create the pension liability problem, it is our responsibility to resolve it.  Lyndon Johnson said it best, "Yesterday is not ours to recover but tomorrow is ours to win or lose." We truly believe the proposed concession lease is the best solution to preserve and protect Allentown's future.  This is a fiscal cliff we CAN -- and MUST avoid.