Follow-Up: How to Submit Comments on the 2021 Budget

As promised, here are the details on how to submit comments on the LST 2021 Budget.

Comments may be submitted by mail to:

Lower Saucon Township, 3700 Old Philadelphia Pike, Bethlehem, PA 18015

or by email to:

receptionist@lowersaucontownship.org

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

The legal notice regarding the budget was published on November 13 in the Morning Call. The 20-day comment period would therefore end on December 3. While I’ve been told that since the budget’s posted on the website that the 20-day limit is not really important, I’d suggest you send your comments by Dec. 3 so they don’t get excluded on a technicality. Of course, residents can always comment on any agenda item at the December 16 meeting at 7 PM at which the budget will be adopted, but you will be limited to a 3-minute statement.

Budgeting for Bullies

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

It’s budget time in Lower Saucon Township so let me fill you in on what’s been going on down at the old virtual Town Hall.

As I understand it, here’s how the schedule works. There’s a budget workshop meeting, which was held on Wednesday, October 28. That’s followed by the presentation of the 2021 Proposed Budget at a regular Council meeting which was held on Wednesday, November 4. The approved Proposed Budget is then open for public comment for 20 days. The Council approved publishing notice of the public comment period at its November 4 meeting. The approved Proposed Budget is now up on the Township website. I’m not quite sure when that 20 day period started or where that notification gets published. When I find out, I’ll let you know. Then, sometime after the comment period, the Council votes on the final budget for 2021. According to Ms. Huhn, it’s likely this would be at the December 16 Council meeting.

Why would you care about this timeline? Well, I’m thinking there may be some residents who want to make some comments about some of the particulars in this budget.

Budget Details and the Cliff Notes Version

On Friday, November 13, 2020, the Morning Call published a detailed article on the Lower Saucon budget written by Christina Tatu. If you can’t access the article because of the Call’s paywall, here are the highlights:

  • The general fund budget is $8.53 million. The total budget is $11.3 million.
  • The proposed budget reduces real estate taxes from 6.39 mills to 5.14 mills, representing a 1 mill reduction in real estate taxes and a .25 mill reduction in the fire tax
  • The township has about $12 million in cash reserves
  • The township Council added an addendum to the budget that makes funding of the township’s two fire companies dependent on their successful completion of a merger by arbitrarily prescribed dates in 2021

Let’s take a look at some of the items in more detail.

Real Estate Tax Reduction

Obviously for most Township residents, the reduction in the real estate tax is the good news of the day. And frankly, any township that’s holding almost a year and half worth of revenue in reserve is not collecting taxes; it’s hoarding money. So returning some of it to Township residents seems a laudable thing to do.

Here’s some of the history. Because of the imminent closure of the landfill (in about 3 years), Council undertook an aggressive plan to pay down township debt so that when the landfill revenue disappeared, residents would not take as big a hit tax-wise to cover the loss. They finished paying off that debt in 2020, leaving the Township debt-free, an enviable position.

In the meantime, the landfill applied for an expansion, called the Northern Realignment, that will increase the landfill’s usable life by about 5 more years. Landfill revenue currently amounts to about $2 million per year, so its loss would represent about a 23% reduction in revenue. If the expansion is approved, that potential loss gets postponed for an additional five years. The combination of the aggressive debt-repayment action and the extension of the landfill life resulted in that significant cash reserve. Council’s plan to return some of that overage to residents seems to be prudent, and fair, policy.

There are two items in relationship to it, however, that I would like to bring to your attention.

First, the extension of the life of the landfill does not FIX the problem of its eventual closing. It only kicks the can down the road. The reduction in the real estate tax millage is only prudent if Council undertakes a concomitant commitment to township revenue development focused on creating new revenue within the next 5-7 years that will replace the landfill loss. There has been some discussion on various development possibilities in the Township but I get no sense of urgency about any of them. The 378 Corridor has been one possibility, but right now, many of those properties sit vacant, representing lost revenue. While I understand that the Covid-19 crisis has put dramatic strains on many of the types of businesses that populated that stretch, Council cannot become complacent about addressing opportunities along that Corridor. Planning now for the inevitable end of the Covid crisis would be an appropriate use of Council’s time rather than waiting until it’s a scramble to get projects up and running in time to meet the new deadline of the landfill closing.

Second, implementing a tax decrease is a very helpful tool for politicians running for re-election. But if the decrease now only means a significant increase later, then we’re just playing bait and switch. Mr. Banonis has already tried to put a political spin on the decrease. The Call quotes him as saying the tax decrease was “necessary to provide relief to our residents suffering from the continued effects of Gov. Wolf’s COVID shutdown.” This is a bit precious, to say the least. In presenting the budget, Township Finance Director Cathy Gorman made the point that one of the reasons that Lower Saucon will be ending the year in such a good financial position is that the Earned Income Tax receipts are, in fact, 11% higher than those received in 2019. I’m certain most other townships would like to be in such an enviable position and, while many of us have been adversely affected by the COVID crisis and will certainly be relieved to have the reduced tax burden, it doesn’t appear that the COVID crisis has taken a huge financial toll on residents’ incomes. In addition, many residents, especially those of us in older age groups and those with dangerous co-morbidities, are quite grateful to Governor Wolf for his ongoing responsible and effective leadership during the crisis that focused on preserving the health of the community.

The bottom line – the tax decrease, while prudent and appropriate at the moment, comes with possible challenges in the future. Keep that in mind and perhaps keep the pressure on Council to keep looking for new revenue opportunities.

Fire Tax Decrease

The other good news is the fire tax decrease of .25 mills. The fire companies have said that they are comfortable with that decrease and with the reserve cushion that has already been built up. Since this is a relatively new tax, it’s not surprising that it has taken a few years to figure out what the proper level of taxation is to guarantee funding.

The Budget as Cudgel

Which brings us to the whole issue of funding for the fire companies and the addendum that was added to the 2021 budget to predicate the funding levels on whether the two companies can achieve a merger by the Council’s pre-determined timelines.

Here’s some history as I understand it. The township at one time had 4 fire companies: Leithsville, Se-Wy-Co, Southeastern and Steel City. Leithsville and Se-Wy-Co merged to create Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR). LSFR then absorbed Southeastern and maintained the name Lower Saucon Fire Rescue. The final merger is between Steel City and LSFR. All of this has taken place over the span of several years.

Also, at some point, based on some financial skullduggery that occurred at a fire company that is not part of the Township, the Township imposed a set of requirements on how the fire companies needed to report their finances in order to qualify for Township funding. At the beginning of this year, there was some attempt by Council members to tie some additional strings to the funding for 2020. I was puzzled at the time at the level of acrimony between the Council and the fire companies’ representatives. Mrs. deLeon and Mrs. Stauffer raised objections to what they perceived as an attempt to change the rules for the release of funding at the 11th hour and no changes were made.

Since then, several Council members have apparently become even more frustrated about the length of time that the last merger is taking. Mrs. Yerger, Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci have all expressed annoyance and irritation with the slow pace of the consolidation. At the October 7 Council dumpster fire that passed as a meeting, Mr. Carocci presented three motions during the reports period of the agenda (which means the motions were not on the publicly available agenda) requiring that the fire companies meet arbitrary deadlines to complete the merger or else face the reduction or possible elimination of funding during the 2021 budget year. Over the objections of Mrs. deLeon and Mrs. Stauffer, the motions passed.

The Approved Draft Budget includes those requirements. If you look at the section, Fire and Emergency Services, on page 21 of the budget explanation on the Township website, you’ll see a clever little asterisk next to the title. This takes you to end of the budget report and the restrictions that were passed at that October 6 council meeting. I’ll reproduce them here so you don’t have to go looking.

Motion for the Township staff to prepare a proposed 2021 budget that will allocate $150,000 to Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue and $50,000 to Steel City Fire Company to assist in the funding of their operations which payments will placed on the June __, 2021 agenda for approval. If the April 1st deadline is met, then payment may be authorized at the next regularly scheduled Council meeting. These amounts maintain the 2020 Township funding levels. However, none of the allocated funds in the 2021 budget will be payable unless the following condition is met:

Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue and Steel City Fire completely merge their operations and become one legally merged fire company to the satisfaction of Township Council and under Pennsylvania and Federal Law by April 1, 2021.

If by April 2, 2021, Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue and Steel City Fire have failed to completely merge their operations and become one legally merged fire company to the satisfaction of Township Council and under Pennsylvania and Federal Law the allocated funds will be reduced by 50% at that time. Meaning – Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue would only be eligible for $75,000 and Steel City Fire $25,000 in Township funding in fiscal 2021.

If by May 1, 2021, Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue and Steel City Fire still have not completely merged their operations and become one legally merged fire company to the satisfaction of Township Council and under Pennsylvania and Federal Law the remain allocated funds in will be reduced by an additional 50% at that time. Meaning as of May 1, 2021 – Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue would only be eligible for $37,500 and Steel City Fire $12,500 in Township funding in fiscal 2021.

If by June 1, 2021, Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue and Steel City Fire have failed to completely merge their operations and become on legally merged fire company to the satisfaction of Township Council and under Pennsylvania and Federal Law. Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue and Steel City will not be eligible for any of the aforementioned Township funds during fiscal year 2021.

Scott Krycia, President of LSFR, presented a very cogent and direct comment to this portion of the budget at the budget workshop meeting on October 28. In it, he highlighted the difficulties that the COVID crisis has presented in accomplishing a merger that involves multiple levels of both county and state approval to be completed. He also pointed out that all of the fire companies’ personnel are volunteers, who are attempting to accomplish all of this in their spare time as they and their families also deal with that COVID crisis that Mr. Banonis likes to use to justify all sorts of things and as they continue to fight fires and provide rescue services. His quite reasonable plea was that Council reconsider the deadlines and work out ones that are mutually acceptable to the fire companies and the Council. His plea fell on deaf ears. It was on the basis of this particular issue that Mrs. deLeon voted against approving the budget at the November 4 meeting. Mrs. Stauffer was absent.

Mr. Krycia didn’t bring up this other point but I will. I’m always suspicious of weasel wording like “to the satisfaction of Township Council.” What exactly does that mean? Could the merger be in accordance with “Pennsylvania and Federal Law” and still not “satisfy” Township Council? That’s pretty vague wording that could cover a multitude of sins. So far this year, it would seem that Township Council is never satisfied with anything that the fire companies propose.

I’ll also point out that Mr. Krycia was required to explain his rather complicated position in the pathetically laughable three minutes of public comment time that he was allotted, a subject I’ll take up in a future blog.

Ms. Tatu, in her Call article, reports that Mr. Krycia believes that if the LSFR loses funding, the fire company might have to take measures that would mean longer response times. Frankly, if I were LSFR and Steel City and I were treated with such disrespect to the point that Council wouldn’t even have a civil discussion about the real barriers to meeting arbitrary deadlines imposed by the Council, I’d just shut the fire companies down. I’d also point out that I’m not aware that any of the three Council members who supported these actions have any direct experience in managing a fire company merger whereas the leadership of LSFR has been through this process at least twice in recent years. Whose experience would you depend on?

It all seems to be a gigantic power struggle that certainly doesn’t end up benefiting the Township, especially in a time when volunteer fire companies are having more and more difficulty finding volunteers. It’s a tough job, time consuming and physically demanding, and volunteer fire personnel are tremendously dedicated. If the end result is that Lower Saucon has to transition to a paid fire department, you can kiss that 1 mill tax reduction good-bye.

Make Your Voice Heard

What can you do about all this? Speak up. Send comments to the Township Council. Here are their email addresses.

  • Mrs. Yerger – syerger@lowersaucontownship.org
  • Mr. Banonis – jbanonis@lowersaucontownship.org
  • Mrs. deLeon – pdeleon@lowersaucontownship.org
  • Mr. Carocci – tcarocci@lowersaucontownship.org
  • Mrs. Stauffer – k.stauffer@lowersaucontownship.org

Or give the township office a call at 610-865-3291 and ask them where comments can be registered.

This is especially important if you are NOT part of either of the fire companies or related to their members. I’m sure the fire companies can mount their own defense, but if you find these budget restrictions imprudent and counter-productive, let council members know that it’s not just a fire company thing. This impacts all of us.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, November 18, 7 PM

Next Township Elections – Primary: Tuesday, May 18, 2021. General: Tuesday, November 2, 2021

A Tale of Two Meetings

October played host to not two but three meetings of the Lower Saucon Township Council. Two regular meetings were held on October 7 and October 21. The third meeting, on October 28, was a meeting specifically to review a draft budget for 2021. I’ll report on the third meeting in a subsequent blog.

I took off for a much-needed vacation the morning following the dumpster fire that passed for a Council meeting on October 7 and returned only shortly before the meeting on October 21. Since I had no intention of imposing memories of the October 7 meeting on my valuable away-time, I’m addressing both the October meetings together.

Was It the Length?

After a couple months of relatively collegial and productive Council meetings, the October 7 meeting proved that it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Perhaps it was the length of the meeting (almost 4 solid hours) or the tediousness of the Bethlehem Landfill presentation or the inflammatory nature of the discussion on the pavilion rental policy, but the backbiting, mansplaining, belittling, bullying behavior reared its ugly head the longer the meeting dragged on.

The first bumps in the road appeared around the question of whether the Council should take a position on the Landfill’s current filing with the Zoning Hearing Board. The legal twists and turns of these landfill discussions are a bit difficult for the average citizen to follow. Apparently they were asking the Council for a special exception so that they would not have to install a berm on a realignment of the landfill. About this, there was unanimity as the Council voted 5-0 to approve the exception.

From there, the discussion progressed to what position the Council would take regarding the current filings the landfill company has before the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) and the Planning Commission regarding the Northern Realignment. What became concerning in the discussion was the seeming lack of trust regarding how the Zoning Hearing Board operates. Mrs. deLeon wanted legal representation from the Council in front of the Hearing Board even if the Council voted to take “no position” on the filings. Mr. Treadwell indicated that would not be necessary.

The discussion went round and round with no one clearly articulating what the relationship is between the ZHB and the Council. Isn’t the ZHB appointed by the Council? As such, don’t they in some way represent the Council? Aren’t they separately responsible for making sure the landfill company abides by the law? Isn’t that why the ZHB has its own solicitor? There were no answers to any of these questions and when they finally voted 4-1 to take no position on the landfill company’s filings and to not send a solicitor, the reasoning for the decision was as clear as mud.

Ah, the Pavilion Rental Policy

After a few more mundane items, we landed at the discussion on the pavilion rental policy. A thoroughly reasonable motion was made by Mrs. Yerger to table the discussion until Ms. Huhn could obtain additional information on how other municipalities handle the kind of situation that arose from the Republican Party renting the pavilion under the guise of a “private” party. In addition, the Parks and Recreation Board had requested that it be included in future discussions on park rental policies and they had not had time to review the rules and regulations before that night’s meeting. Also, given the anger that had built up around the event, it was certainly a good idea to let that cool off a bit.

But a couple problems arose during the public comment.

First, comments wandered far afield from the question of whether to table the motion. Mrs. Yerger made no attempt to rein them in.

Second, the comments made by township residents about actions taken – or not taken – by the police at the event were heard but not responded to nor was there any indication of a forum where such troubling complaints could be dealt with.

Third, Mr. Banonis refused to respond to the question by Mrs. Stauffer of whether he was at the event, even though there were published photos showing him there, except to say that what he does on his personal time is really no one’s business “of this Council or you, Kristen.” Why can’t he admit he was there? And really, is that personal dig necessary?

Fourth, there was no specific date set for follow-up on this subject. Apparently with budget season upon us, it would be too heavy a lift for Council to consider this at the same time. But new season rentals begin to be accepted in January. Shouldn’t this be close to a resolution by then?

When Is a Report More than a Report?

Then we arrived at the portion of the meeting where the Council and Staff reports are heard. By now it was well past 10 PM. And Mr. Carocci presented three motions regarding budgeting for the fire companies that were not on the agenda and were not available for review. There were two that were put up on the screen. The third was not readable by the at-home audience.

The gist of the motions was to require Ms. Gorman to create a budget that included a step-down mechanism for funding of the fire companies that would be triggered if the merger of the companies was not completed by certain arbitrary dates. It also included a reduction in the Fire Tax. I’ll discuss this in more detail in the budgeting meeting blog. But the central point is – why are motions required to do this? The draft budget was not going to be presented until October 28 at which time every item on it could be discussed. Why could this not have been a simple request to Mrs. Gorman? Doesn’t she receive requests for other budget items from other Council and staff members? Isn’t the point of the budget meetings to discuss these kinds of choices? Why, this late in a meeting, under the Reports section, is something with such wide-ranging impact introduced as a motion? By my count, more than 20 of the original participants by Zoom had already left the meeting.

All three motions passed, two by a 3-2 vote (Mrs. Stauffer and Mrs. deLeon dissenting), one by a 4-1 vote (Mrs. Stauffer dissenting).

Then Mr. Banonis, during his report, proceeded to introduce a motion “to remove Lauressa McNemar and Tri-C Corporation for their ongoing consulting role immediately and to the extent that there are ongoing permit issues that are pending with the landfill that we replace them with Maser Engineering, as a limited engagement, simply for the review and consultation on those permit applications.”

Again, this was a confusing issue at a VERY late hour dealing with the work that a 30-year consultant for the township had done on some particular forms. Ms. Lauressa McNemar had apparently identified some anomalies in a Form U and was unsure how to proceed with informing the appropriate parties. She contacted Ms. Huhn for instruction. Ms. Huhn reported that “she told Lauressa to put it in writing and provide it to her if she has these concerns.” Ms. McNemar complied. It turned out that the anomalies Ms. McNemar identified were not correct and on that basis Mr. Banonis wanted her, basically, fired.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Mr. Banonis has been pushing for a firm called Maser Engineering to take over the work of both Ms. McNemar’s firm and Hanover Engineering relative to the landfill since early this year. So far, he has not been successful. His motion would have given Maser a foot in the door without a competitive bid for a limited time. So he did a hatchet job on Ms. McNemar because she followed Ms. Huhn’s instructions.

By this point Mrs. Yerger’s Zoom connection had failed and she was absent from the meeting, so the vote on the motion was 2-2, causing it to fail. But the hurt was inflicted. Ms. McNemar “retired” from her position the next day.

There is so much to unpack here but I’ll leave it at this:

This is not transparency in government. Pushing substantive motions on issues of importance during the Reports period of a meeting that has already lasted over 3 hours is not how to engage public involvement. Nor does it even encourage robust discussion among fellow Council members. Council, particularly Mrs. Yerger as the Chair, needs to prohibit these kinds of stealth motions during the Reports sections unless they are specifically included in the agenda as intending to be discussed. And the motions need to be included in the packet attached to the agenda so that the public can see them. She needs to gavel them down as out of order and require that they be submitted as agenda items. There was no question that these motions were carefully planned ahead of time and not ad hoc responses to issues that were surfaced during the Council meeting.

On to the October 21 Council meeting. It went just swimmingly. All the votes were 5-0. There was nothing of controversy on the agenda and it wrapped up in less than an hour. So you see, it is possible to be civil and collegial when there’s no real money on the line.

At one point late in the October 7 meeting, Mrs. Stauffer, who had objected to being laughed at earlier in the meeting, said, “I didn’t ask for an apology.” Mr. Banonis replied, “Well, that’s good. Keep your expectations low.”

Oh, we do, Mr. Banonis. We do.

And for the 20 residents who got tired on October 7 and signed off early? Good decision.

Next scheduled Council meeting – Wednesday, November 4 – 7 PM