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.

01/15/2013

Marijuana Legalization is Dangerous to Pennsylvania's Youth

Doyle-HeffleyBy Doyle Heffley, State Representative of the 122nd Legislative District
 
Pennsylvania's drug-induced deaths rank higher than the national average. In fact, a few years ago, more than 1,800 residents of Pennsylvania died as a direct consequence of drug use, compared to the number of Pennsylvanians who died from motor vehicle accidents (1,604) and firearms (1,325) in that same year.
 
In Carbon County alone, there's been a sharp increase in drug overdose-related deaths since 1996.  In 2007, four adults died of drug overdoses in our county. That figure spiked significantly in 2010, when 18 county residents, including one person under the age of 21, died of drug overdoses.
 
With marijuana being the second most abused drug in Pennsylvania, I can't help but wonder why some state lawmakers are pushing legislation to legalize recreational use of this gateway drug.
 
State Rep. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery), in his recent opinion-editorial, "Legalize Marijuana: We're Locking Up Pennsylvanians for No Reason at Great Cost," said the only crime committed by those who smoke marijuana is "smoking a plant which makes them feel giddy," and that the perception of marijuana being a gateway drug is false.
 
Well, here are the facts.
 
A 2012 Yale University study, which appears online in the Journal of Adolescent Health, showed that alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana were associated with an increased likelihood of prescription drug abuse in men ages 18 to 25. In women of that age, marijuana use was also linked with a higher likelihood of prescription drug abuse.
 
More specifically, the Yale researchers focused on a sample of more than 55,000 18- to 25-year-olds. Of those, about 12 percent reported that they were abusing prescription opioids. Of the group abusing these drugs, more than 34 percent had used marijuana. Among both men and women, those who had used marijuana were 2.5 times more likely than those their age who abstained to later dabble in prescription drugs.
 
Perhaps it's a mere coincidence that the most abused drug in Pennsylvania is heroine? After all, the increase in prescription drug abuse is fueling a rise in heroin addiction, according to a recent NBC News report. A growing number of young people who start abusing expensive prescription drugs are switching to heroin, which is cheaper and easier to buy.
 
According to Pennsylvania's most recent "Youth Survey Report" results, nearly 20 percent of students in grades six, eight, 10, 12 across the Commonwealth admitted to using marijuana at least once in their lifetimes. More than 5 percent of those students also admitted to abusing painkillers.
 
Marijuana legalization brings questions to the minds of parents and causes confusion for our children. Frighteningly, it can also cause the misperception that marijuana is not a harmful drug.
 
Studies have shown that teen marijuana use can aggravate depression and affect the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is not fully developed in teens. The list of negative affects is long, but that message can be challenged in the minds of our youth with marijuana legalization.
 
It is important that parents in Carbon County and the entire state keep talking to their kids about the harmful effects of marijuana and educate themselves on marijuana facts.
 
I am hosting a free Carbon County Drug and Alcohol Awareness Expo on Thursday, April 18, from 6-8 p.m. at the Lehighton Area High School, for parents and educators to gather more information on substance abuse.
 
Keep the message straight with the youth across the Commonwealth: Despite talks of legalization, marijuana is still a dangerous drug.

01/14/2013

North Whitehall Airport Matter

In early January, the body overseeing zoning for North Whitehall Township denied the author permission to establish a heliport. View article on wfmz.com.

 

By Michael Selig, MD, FACC, CFI-H - The issue in this case, is that the zoning ordinance lists private airports as a reasonable and permitted commercial use by special exception in the AR zoning district.  An airport is inclusive of heliports or helicopter use by definition of the Ordinance and the State Bureau of Aviation.  The ordinance that allows airports was determined and written into law with extensive deliberation by legislation. The ordinance already considered the potential impact on the community by limiting the number of flights is just 15/week.  There are 2 private heliports in North Whitehall.

If people object so strongly to airports, then they needed to undergo the proper procedure to remove it from the ordinances, so individuals such as myself do not waste their time and money to pursue what is a listed and permitted use.  If people are so opposed to having airports/heliports in their area, they needed to review the ordinances ahead of buying their property and find a dwelling elsewhere.  This goes to Usufruct, the right under the constitution to enjoy ones property according to listed uses.

The land mass, surrounded by farmland and elevation of this property provides a large natural buffer.  It was selected for just that reason. The helicopter is only a single engine, 2 bladed helicopter, about half the size of the medivac helicopters (twin engine, 4 bladed) the Townspeople kept relating to and nearly half the noise level; to that of a lawn mower.

This hearing became a venting session and character assassination vs dealing with the matters of law.  North Whitehall residents have limited knowledge pertaining to these legal matters and to helicopters, so it became an emotional issue for them.  Many local people were rallied up by a low income mobile home park owner, who lives in another Township and financially benefits from her property.  She was worried about her mobile park income, when her mobile home park has greater negative effects on property values.  Private airports and heliports increase property values. Look at how many of them are in Somerset, NJ where some of the most beautiful estates in the country are located.

The principle purpose for purchasing this property was for the Airport.  Before the purchase of the property I spoke with the zoning officer, we reviewed the ordinances who stated he did not see a reason for not allowing it and wrote a letter stating this.

I have served this community for the last 25 years as a solo, private practice cardiologist, did cardiac catheterization for 15 years and genuinely have concern about our community.  Obamacare has closed down most all private practice in our area and has negatively impacted my private practice.  Seeing this trend, I have been transitioning into the helicopter business I started with a friend in year 2000.

Not only do the residents of North Whitehall live in microcosms of indifference towards organ donation, shortages, and disease processes that necessitate the need for transplantation; it is apparent that they are prepared to preserve their "quality of life" without regard to others.  These same people spent several sessions proclaiming their concern only for themselves yet were unconcerned about the 12 years of prior EPA violations on the 309 property, a litany of violations that contaminated their streams and wildlife.  Not one of those people protested or requested remediation of that destruction, not the nurse, the mobile home park owner, or the agricultural land barrens.  Lost in the shuffle was the primary reason for the airport, to provide low cost transport of donor organs and advocacy services so I can continue to promote and preserve life.  This requires at times, rapid access to the aircraft and rapid departure.  Living on the property and avoiding the tower control of ABE allows that.

The matter is not yet closed, I believe my rights were violated; therefore I will pursue a request for reconsideration or appropriate appeals.  I suspect the Common Pleas will not grant me relief, but perhaps at the Commonwealth or Supreme Courts where the matter can be looked at purely as a matter of right and a matter of breach of law, to see if the written law has been properly applied. 

 

10/11/2012

Learning from Sandusky Case

Sarcc_logoOctober 9, 2012

Dear Editor,

For many, the sentencing of Jerry Sandusky for his sexual abuse of 10 boys over 15 years can't come soon enough. Sandusky's abusive behavior and Penn State's initial response has been a painful reminder of ways in which adults and organizations fail to protect our vulnerable children. The unprecedented NCAA sanctions against Penn State and the more general condemnation of some college’s “over the top, win at any cost" culture of sports has been an eye opener. Our surprise has not been that this culture exists, but with the fact that it can so dramatically compromise the safety of our children.

For all that is disturbing about this case and all those that have been harmed, there is the potential for good to come from what we have learned.

Estimates suggest that each day tens of millions of youth participate in activities that could be made safer by systematic prevention activities. While many organizations already incorporate prevention efforts, ALL organizations working with children or teens would benefit from stronger screening policies, regular self-assessment, and greater efforts to empower staff to keep youth safety in the forefront. The Sandusky case also reminds us that we need to do more to educate parents and the public about the everyday role that they can play in creating safer environments for children. SARCC is committed to ending sexual violence by educating adults and children in how to prevent violence by learning the skills necessary to be a good bystander. We can’t do this work alone. It takes a community to change this norm.

In the long run, the real tragedy of the Sandusky case will be measured by how we respond to this tragedy. Child sexual abuse is preventable and there is a role for all of us. Take time today to find out what you can do in your community to make the world safer for all of our children.

Sincerely,

Jenny Murphy-Shifflet
President/CEO
SARCC

For additional resources, visit SARCC’s website www.sarcclebanon.org or www.sarccschuylkill.org to volunteer.

10/04/2012

Voter ID Needed To Combat Voter Fraud

Rep_Charlie_DentBy U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent (PA-15)

In several Pennsylvania newspapers, I've recently read letters to the editor and opinion pieces opposing our Commonwealth's new voter ID law. Many of these essays erroneously claim voter fraud is a rarity in Pennsylvania, making the new law unnecessary. The truth is voter fraud has a long and well-documented history in our state. Want proof?

In 2007, canvassers working for ACORN in Berks County filed fraudulent voter registration forms to qualify for pay bonuses from the organization, resulting in a prison sentence for one perpetrator. In 2008, fraud occurred in nearby Dauphin County when an ACORN employee similarly filed more than 100 bogus registrations over the course of a single week. Within the last few years, numerous well-documented cases like these have been investigated across Pennsylvania.

Regrettably, the Commonwealth's largest city, Philadelphia, has developed a deplorable reputation for incidents of voter fraud. Many of us remember when U.S. District Judge Clarence Newcomer unseated State Senator Bill Stinson (D-Phila) in 1994 after it was discovered widespread voter fraud -- perpetrated through the absentee ballot process -- helped Stinson steal an election from Bruce Marks (R-Phila). Philadelphia's most memorable case of fraudulent activities is well documented in court records, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other regional media outlets.

In the early 1990's, Pennsylvania had a sensible policy of purging individuals' names from the voter rolls if they had not voted within a reasonable time period. Consequently, in a few weeks we are likely to learn that in Philadelphia there will be tens-of-thousands of more registered voters than citizens of voting age. Sadly, this should come as no surprise, as better than 100 percent turnout has been reported in some voting precincts in Philadelphia during recent Presidential elections. While the purging of voter rolls ensured those who died or relocated were no longer registered, even that practice could not guarantee the identity of legitimate voters.

Unfortunately, voter fraud is not isolated to Pennsylvania and has an inglorious history in many states. How can we forget Cook County, Illinois, where in the 1960 presidential race, ballots were miraculously cast by countless deceased voters. Or New York City, where in 1993 the Rudy Guiliani campaign for mayor famously witnessed individuals riding buses from poll to poll to cast multiple votes.

And just like Pennsylvania, voter fraud remains a serious problem across the country today. In 2008, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) defeated incumbent Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) by a mere 312 votes. Later, it was revealed over 1,000 convicted felons, a population ineligible to cast ballots, voted in the Minnesota election -- enough votes to affect the outcome of the race. And just a few days ago, a Democratic Congressional candidate in Maryland was forced to abandon her campaign when it was revealed she voted in both Maryland and Florida during the 2006 general election and 2008 presidential primaries.

In the United States, the principle of one man one vote is sacrosanct. A fraudulently cast vote negates one cast by an honest American. I believe it is imperative we not only count every vote, but ensure the integrity of every vote. While some will claim voter fraud is not a serious enough problem to warrant the new law and argue it will fail to eliminate all fraudulent activity, it certainly is a reasonable approach to achieving greater integrity in our democratic process.

Other than far left political activists and media antagonists, I have discovered few reasonable people believe the requirement to present photo ID when voting is an electoral barrier. In fact, the proposal has garnered widespread public support throughout our region, where residents are accustomed to presenting photo ID to cash a check, board an airplane, or buy a beer at an Phillies game.

08/01/2012

Iran, a Nuclear Bomb and Why a Sixteen Year Old Thinks They Shouldn't Have It

By Nicholas Mellen

After tumultuous years of proliferation drove our planet to our current state of mutually assured destruction, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran refuses to end their quest to enter the world arena of sorts.  Nuclear deterrence is at this point on our planet a side program that governments have to maintain in a global strength contest.  Weaponization of a nuclear energy program in Iran is a waste of time both for the government of Iran and for the countries that will inherently feel the duty to deter the Iranian strike capability.  To analyze this I visualize three scenarios: the first being sanctions on Iran fail to force the government to abandon its program and Iran proceeds to publicly test a nuclear weapon; the second being sanctions force the government of Iran to continue development but only to a breakout capability discussed later; and third being sanctions on Iran succeed to force the government to end their nuclear program. 

Scenario #1
"Iran tests nuclear device!" reads international headlines as the Iranian government displays a successful nuclear test on national television.  This scenario has most likely brought Iran already into a deep world of trouble.  Israel, with an already unchecked nuclear capability in the region, has likely stepped up efforts to infiltrate and attack Iran's nuclear program, possibly with full scale attacks such as bombing of facilities and political assassinations.  If Iran would even attempt to retaliate to any of these activities outside of influencing terrorist groups, resources and manpower for a nuclear program would dry up instantly as facilities would be bombed with precision by Israel and the human element of innovation would be gone as well.  So, inevitably in this scenario, Iran weathers significant attacks upon its infrastructure and has a government that with all of its anti-Israeli rhetoric does not attack Israel.  This part is not impossible as the ayatollahs are still sensible officials who want to ensure the survival of their nation and culture. 

The government of Iran now faces issues much greater than before the test.  Unlike other deterrence scenarios referenced by officials such as India and Pakistan or the United States and the Soviet Union, Iran's likely minimal nuclear program is both deterred and overwhelmed by Israel and its ally the United States.  For perspective, if a nuclear volley were launched at Israel, and the United States wanted to both deter the threat and attack Iran, it could do so with merely a Virginia class submarine and the current naval fleet already stationed in the Middle East supporting operations in Afghanistan.  If Iran develops a nuclear program, they are not deterred; they simply possess an excuse to have nuclear weapons used against them.  Beyond that, the influence of the United States and its Western allies on the world stage will likely demand even tighter sanctions, to a point likely worse than sanctions imposed on North Korea.  With a nuclear weapon, the ayatollahs are inviting their society to suffer from a lack of medical supplies and starvation.  Iran has no ability to compete on the world stage economically or militarily, and its people likely foster resentment for the government because of its actions, outside of the current youth who resent government policy. 

Scenario #2
"Iran possesses breakout capability" tops international headlines as the Iranian government has successfully deployed nuclear reactor facilities across the country and through this enterprise has developed the necessary infrastructure to build and test a nuclear bomb, yet reserves the ability to do so at the moment.  This scenario invites similar heat from the Israeli government with respect to infiltration and attacks on scientists and facilities and invites a similar response from the rest of the world with a quest for transparency.  The transparency argument splits two different ways.  For a true and swift breakout capability, Iran must have facilities that are producing highly enriched uranium which has no use in nuclear energy.  Facilities which produce such a unique enrichment of uranium would have to be hidden very well to keep international observers from discovering them and moreover Western intelligence from finding them.  Therefore with the lack of resources to build more enrichment facilities either underground or well hidden above ground, it is unlikely Iran would allow international observers to accurately gauge the extent of their nuclear program.

There is though a second transparency scenario, in which Iran develops less extensive infrastructure for weaponization and does not proceed to manufacture highly enriched uranium or develop test sites and other necessary facilities.  With this, Iran is poised to allow international observers to witness a program that at that very moment solely provides for a system of nuclear energy.  There is though an obvious downside to the Iranian government, in which developing a nuclear weapon with sufficient knowledge of the technology would take measurably longer than the first transparency scenario, as uranium would have to be enriched and weapons-specific facilities would have to be constructed, all with the full knowledge of the world that these events were occurring.  All evaluated, a breakout capability scenario invites still more trouble to Iran then the weapon itself is worth.

Scenario #3
International headlines read "Iran abandons nuclear program!" as the government of Iran shuts down all reactor and enrichment facilities and slowly invites international observers to evaluate the extent of their program and negotiate the removal, repurposing and destruction of facilities and other infrastructure related to the Iranian nuclear program.  Sanctions are dropped against Iran promptly after all fissile material exits the country or is properly secured, while Western nations reopen diplomatic channels.  Immediately, Iran and its people are in a much more secure and stable situation, and can continue normal economic functions such as oil exports and foodstuffs imports.  This scenario truly is the best for Iran, as the government has the opportunity to bring nationally unprecedented economic growth and prosperity as seen in other oil rich Middle Eastern nations.  Nearly all nations on the planet consume a large amount of oil and oil rich nations should be in a position to benefit from this.  Iran has a largely inefficient state sector and reliance on its oil industry, but with proper economic policymaking and patience, the government can develop sustainable growth.  Iran by 2011 estimates has a trillion dollar economy placing 18th in the world, but ranks 4th in oil production and 3rd in oil exports.  With a reference to the Islamist culture issues in the nation, Iran is experiencing a tug from traditionalists to keep a strict grip on the economy and a tug from a new generation, who want the country to grow and develop and truly expand their production capabilities as an economy.  In this modern era, economic supremacy dominates world affairs and trivial culture issues tear at nations with otherwise healthy economic affairs.

Conclusion
Looking past Iran's own actions in this world affair, Western governments must reexamine their stances on nuclear weapons.  While there is obviously a threat from a nation attacking another with a nuclear weapon, much direr and much more likely attacks are being developed and make a mockery out of mutually assured destruction due to a lack of deterrence.

Cyber warfare for example seems like a nuisance to the public, but in reality, a government aligned hacking collective with the ability to control power stations, commercial industries, and military hardware threatens more lives than a deterred nuclear threat from another nation. 

Conflicts in space are also another serious issue, as nations develop independent GPS and communication systems; they are vulnerable to attack just like any ground or air target, but with much more devastating consequences.  If, for example, a country destroys 9 or so of our current 31 healthy GPS satellites, positioning efforts across the country would fail, disrupting all commercial aviation and shipping, and severely weakening our military's ability to navigate a large section of the Earth's surface until repositioning could occur.

Overall, much larger threats exist in our heavily economically dependent nations, and nuclear ambitions are likely to evolve into a serious prospect for many nations as the technology becomes more readily available and the materials are more easily created.  Weaponization should become nearly a spinoff of what could be a prosperous era in nuclear energy efforts through both fission and fusion, along with other alternative energies.  In short, the world is ready for a new shift in energy dependency, away from the Middle East and out into the unknown, and nations like Iran just happen to not understand that. 
   
I would hope that this rational Iranian government does not pursue nuclear efforts at this time.  It is ever more likely that when proven oil reserves dry up and processes to gather natural gas reserves threaten public safety, a new era of peaceful proliferation in nuclear energy will occur spreading the enormous wealth of efforts in fusion and more efficient fission.  While more developed nations will likely control the commercial aspects of the nuclear industry, the prospect of nuclear energy in the Global South is more likely then rather than now as production or purchase of radioactive material will become more available to these developing and least industrialized nations. 

The author is a senior at Wyomissing Area High School, and president of the school's Model U.N.