What’s the Rush, Boys? (strap in – it’s a long one)

The pathetically underattended meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council took place on Wednesday, October 6, 2021.  Apparently very few residents considered it important to show up for discussion of the proposed 2022 budget, the marquee item on the agenda.

There were 5 members from the Chamber of Commerce in attendance to present a donation check of $810.19 to the police department from a fundraiser they held.  They promptly skedaddled once the presentation was over.  There were three representatives of the Hellertown council/mayor there. More on their concerns later.  They stayed for the whole meeting, to their credit.  Then there were a number of candidates for Council who have been reliably attending meetings for several months and Mrs. Zavacky who hardly ever bothers to show up. Beyond that, you could count the attendees on one hand and have fingers left over.

The housekeeping stuff all passed with 5-0 votes.  Mrs. Yerger announced at the beginning of the meeting that the Council had met in executive session and accepted the terms of the agreement that will result in a 5-year contract with the police department. The Council then officially passed the motion to accept it, 5-0.

That July Data Breach

On questioning from resident George Gress, we finally got an answer to the outcome of the investigation of the data breach on July 9. Solicitor Treadwell reported that the server had been infiltrated by unauthorized people but that no personal or sensitive information had been compromised.  There was no cost involved for the investigation beyond the $2500 deductible of the insurance policy.  It should be pointed out, however (although Solicitor Treadwell didn’t mention it), that remediation to the IT systems to prevent future hacks appears to come to more than $20,000 based on the figures listed in the 2022 budget.  This includes the replacement of 2 servers.

The PA Department of Environmental Protection completed its first Environmental Assessment Review of the Bethlehem landfill.  The report was sent to the landfill committee which had not met prior to the Council meeting.  The landfill committee chairman reported that they had done a good job.  The landfill needs to respond by December 24.  Mrs. deLeon requested that a report from the landfill committee be put on the agenda for after their October 21 meeting.  Watch this space.

On to the Budget

One small question I had raised in the last issue of Saucon Shenanigans regarding a surprisingly large increase in the Council Expenses account for next year was easily answered by Finance Director Cathy Gorman.  The 72% increase represented both some IT remediation costs but also, more significantly, funding in case all of the Council members choose to attend conferences in 2022.  Because of Covid last year, most conferences were cancelled or Council members chose not to attend, dramatically reducing the actual costs in that account.

Of more interest and concern was the extensive discussion regarding the funding for the Hellertown Public Library which gave rise to the question asked in the title of today’s blog.

Hellertown Public Library

In the budget proposed at the workshop session on September 15, LST’s contribution to the library was pegged at $100,264, the same amount as last year.  At that workshop session, Mr. Carocci had requested that Ms. Gorman refigure the budget with increases of both 5% and 7.5% for the library in 2022.  Those numbers came out to $105,277 and $107,784, respectively.  But Mrs. Stauffer, the Council’s liaison to the library, had also asked at that same meeting that Ms. Gorman come up with a per capita model that could be used for determining the township’s contribution.  

Mrs. Stauffer asked at this meeting for that per capita model and, doing calculations on the spot using the new census figure of 11,094 residents in the township, Mrs. Gorman came up with the figure of $9.66 per capita, which actually doesn’t match the budget number of $107,784. It comes out to $107,168.04 instead.  Supposedly that $107,168.04 number came from the library board’s proposal to the township, although that proposal was not available to view.  

Here’s where it gets weird.  A little history is in order.

When the township agreed to join with Hellertown Borough in supporting the Hellertown Public Library – a move that was decidedly NOT supported by a large number of LST residents who were not happy to lose access to the much better resourced and more professionally managed Bethlehem Public Library – a five-year agreement was created that covered the new relationship.  That agreement included the funding arrangement.  The agreement expired with the 2020 budget but, because of Covid and the difficulties in meeting, the budget figure for 2021 remained the same as for 2020 based on a memo from the library board to the Township requesting the same.

That means that a new 5-year agreement needed to be produced for this year or the previous one extended again.  

That agreement has apparently not been finalized or approved by either LST or Hellertown Borough.  In fact, the Hellertown Borough folks were at the LST meeting because they had not yet had an opportunity to discuss what they were going to do vis-à-vis the new agreement and they wanted to see what LST was planning to do.  Which raises the question, if there has been no finalized agreement or even extensive discussions, why were Mr. Carocci and Mr. Banonis so adamant that a number had to be inserted into the budget and the budget approved at this Council meeting?

FYI, in 2019, the budget adoption meeting was held on October 23.  Last year, the budget adoption meeting was held on October 28.  So clearly it was not necessary to pass the budget at this October 6 meeting.

This is not the way to run a township or a budgeting process, just haphazardly choosing a percentage increase in the budget for the library and then sticking it into the budget along with a reminder that anything in the budget could be adjusted by 10% after the budget was adopted and saying you’ll figure out later what the number should be.  Especially when there’s NO RUSH TO GET THIS DONE!

So let me, in the interest of civic improvement and waiving my usual $250/hour consulting fee, offer an idea for how a responsibly-run township should approach this.

1. The Library should have provided a draft 5-year agreement for review by both Hellertown Borough and LST in a timely manner prior to budget consideration.  [NOTE: meeting timely deadlines does not seem to be a strong point of the library leadership.  That needs to change.]

2. The draft 5-year agreement should include a budget for 2022 as well as a budget request for the amount of support needed from the Borough and the Township, on the assumption that the library has other sources of revenue such as fines, fees, grants, and private donations.  That budget should be created based on a thorough analysis of what the library’s real costs will be and the costs of any anticipated improvements or expansions, not on what they consider to be an amount that won’t annoy the Township or Borough.  

3. The budget request to the Borough and the Township should then be apportioned based on a clearly defined funding formula.  It would seem that a per capita cost based on current census numbers would be the most equitable.  For example, since LST has 11,094 residents and Hellertown has 6,132, the total budget request should be divided by 17,226 to determine the per capita number and then that number should be multiplied by the number of residents in each municipality to determine the actual dollars requested from each entity.  

[NOTE: there are other ways to allocate funding, such as by a percentage or by a percentage that takes into account the in-kind donation from Hellertown of having the library within their borders which possibly generates non-financial support needs from the Borough. Whatever the mechanism, it should be clearly explained.]

4. It would also be useful if the library would produce a 5-year projection budget to give the financing bodies some idea of what to expect down the road, highlighting any assumptions of population growth or per capita increase.

5. The Library Board should then make a presentation to both councils.  Preferably this would include the director of the library and the president of the library’s board as well as their financial person.  That presentation might include, in addition to the budget request, a review of what the library has accomplished in the previous year and what it hopes to change.  For example, the library has been doing good work on revising its by-laws, cleaning up its board rotation process and developing job descriptions for board members.  This would all be of interest in evaluating the budget request.  This presentation should NOT be left to the Council’s library liaison member since that member has no authority to make or change any of the library’s decisions.

6. After the presentation, each municipality could then debate the budget request and decide how they will respond to it. At this point, they could make an INFORMED decision on what the budget number should be, not a shot in the dark.  If there are concerns about how one municipality’s decision could affect another’s, there could be a joint workshop meeting simply for the sake of considering this one agenda item.  If the municipalities decline to meet the library’s requested budget amount, the library would either have to find other sources of revenue for that shortfall or reduce their spending.  The 5-year agreement should cover what the options are and what the municipalities’ responsibilities are in that kind of a situation.

7. There also needs to be a formal adoption of the 5-year agreement with the library.  Once that agreement, which includes the funding formula for future years, is in place, future oversight could include an annual status presentation from the library at the same time as each year’s budget request and discussion takes place. Before it’s adopted, the public should have the opportunity to both read and comment on it at a public meeting.

There. I fixed it for you.

Based on this year’s meeting schedule, even with the library missing the September 1 date to submit the budget request, the request to create a test budget at 5% and 7.5% for the library could have been made at the Sept. 15 meeting as it was (although a percentage increase is an arbitrary and ill-informed choice), the presentation from the library plus the informed budget discussion could have been made at the October 6 meeting and any differences with Hellertown could have been worked out then or at a subsequent joint workshop meeting.  That would have left plenty of time to adopt the new budget on October 27 in a similar timeframe to previous years.  

And we all know the Council makes the fire company jump through similar hoops every year for funding, so why should the library be any different?

If the LST Council isn’t willing to invest the time and energy to responsibly analyze the Hellertown Library budget request each year, then why don’t they just admit it and sign us back up with Bethlehem where all they have to do is write a check?

The draft budget was adopted 4-1 with Mrs. Stauffer voting no because of the handling of the library issue.

Again, what was the rush this year?

The other item irrationally discussed and jammed through was the decision to provide $2500 bonuses to 20 township employees from the American Rescue Plan COVID-19 funds.  When Mr. Carocci suggested it at the September 15 meeting, resident Victoria Opthof-Cordaro asked why the uniformed police department members were not included in the bonus plan.  Mr. Carocci’s response was that he didn’t want to provide bonuses to the police department while they were in the middle of negotiations.  However, Solicitor Treadwell and Mr. Carocci himself admitted that the money for the bonuses was not coming from the township budget.  Mr. Carocci also described this as a bonus for township employees for doing their jobs through the Covid crisis. So there is no correlation between a contract negotiation that results in a budgeted township expense and has long-term implications and a one-time, one-off bonus that has no relationship to job performance or work rules or a union contract and is going to be paid for out of Federally-provided funds.  

Nevertheless, he persisted that the police should not be included in the bonus payment with a promise that they could be included after negotiations were completed.

Jump to October 6.  The first action of the meeting was to accept the terms of the 5-year agreement with the police union.  But when the item to award bonuses to township employees from the American Rescue Plan Covid-19 funds was presented for approval, again the unionized police officers are not to be included at this time.  So – you have an approved agreement with the police union but they’re still not eligible for the bonus – yet??  How does that work? Both Mrs. deLeon and Mrs. Opthof-Cordaro raised that question, again, with Mrs. deLeon saying that it looked like this was holding the police department hostage to sign the 5-year agreement.  And again the response was that, well, the agreement wasn’t signed and Mr. Banonis rejected the idea of hostage-taking.  From the draft minutes of the October 6 meeting:

“Mr. Banonis: ‘It’s just a matter of reducing the terms of that [agreement] to a formal contract and having it executed. So this in no way is being used as leverage.’ Ms. deLeon said in her opinion one has nothing to do with the other. ‘You are treating a different…’ Mr. Banonis said ‘exactly, you are right, they don’t.'”

So which is it, Mr. Banonis?  Do the two things have nothing to do with each other?  Or is the bonus contingent on the police department signing the 5-year contract?  Or does it just look that way, because, gee, that’s a really good way to manage the relationship with the police department. Sounds like your mouth says the first thing and your actions execute the second. 

I wonder how our police department is feeling about being left out of the bonus process, at least for the time being.  All warm and fuzzy?  All appreciated for the work they did?  Maybe not so much?  Perhaps they should go talk to the guys in the fire department about their treatment at the hands of this council during last year’s budget process.

And then the other question is – what was the rush?  The Council doesn’t have to spend these funds by any specific date.  They could have waited until after the police contract was signed, if that was their preference, to award all the bonuses to all the people eligible.  Why’d you have to rush to get it done piecemeal?  Why not avoid even the impression of bullying or favoritism? That would be good township and personnel management.

The motion passed 3-2 with Mrs. Stauffer and Mrs. deLeon voting no.

One More Thing Before We Go

It was heartening to see that Junior Councilperson Avia Weber wore a mask throughout the entire Council meeting.  Apparently mask-wearing is less of an issue for students than some would have us believe. Or possibly, they’re just smarter, more careful, and more considerate than most of the adults in the room.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, October 27, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021. Mail-in ballots can be returned as soon as you receive them.

Watch for the Special Election Edition, coming out this weekend.

Where Have All the People Gone?

The September 15th meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council was again sparsely attended.  Aside from the council members, the township staff and the police chief, there were only about 14 people present.  That included state representative Milou Mackenzie.  She was apparently there to toot her own horn about how available she is to help township residents with whatever it is they need.  Yes, we know.  That’s your job.  Too bad so few people could hear her remarks.

Photo by Jonas Kakaroto on Pexels.com

The other unfortunate thing about the dearth of listeners was that this was the meeting where the 2022 draft budget was presented by Director of Finance Cathy Gorman.  This is the time to get a good idea of where your tax dollars will be going next year and to make any suggestions of alternatives.  Sadly, there are very few township residents who are now adequately informed.

Ms. Gorman provided a review of the current financial state of the township as well as an analysis of where it will be at fiscal year end (December 31).  She then went into detail about each of the items in the budget.  I know – not scintillating Netflix stuff, but this is the stuff that counts, People!

Once Ms. Gorman finished, Mr. Carocci spoke up with his laundry list of changes that he wanted to see in the proposed budget.  They included a 2.5% salary increase for township employees, a $5-10/hour increase for Solicitor Treadwell, an additional $25,000 for the fire department, $20,000 additional for road maintenance, and an increase of either 5% or 7.5% of library funding with a matching percentage from Hellertown. 

[NOTE: These numbers are from my notes of the meeting.  As of this writing, the minutes of that portion of the meeting are missing on-line so I can’t verify them against the draft minutes.  I’ve asked Ms. Huhn to post the missing pages so that they are available for comparison.]

Mr. Carocci also proposed a bonus of $2500 per township employee to be taken from the additional funds provided by the American Rescue Plan, separate and apart from township expenses.  This would be as a thank you for surviving Covid.  It would cover 21 employees (administrative, police and public works) for a total of $52,500 but would not affect the township’s operating budget.There was no substantive opposition from anyone on Council to any of these changes so Ms. Gorman said that she would produce additional scenarios of the budget with the suggested changes for review.  FYI – the township expects to have approximately $1.65 million as a beginning balance going into 2022, so none of these changes make a substantial difference in the township’s financial situation. 

More on the budget and what to expect at Wednesday’s Council meeting below.

The other item of significance on the September 15 agenda was the presentation of an estimate to retrofit Council chambers to support interactive livestreaming of Council meetings.  There was only one proposal submitted which was by the firm that had done the previous audio-visual work in the township building.  The estimate was for $17,500 to provide the capability to both livestream meetings and to have interactive feedback from residents who are watching the livestream.  Mrs. DeLeon and Mrs. Stauffer in particular have been adamant about the need for such a capability.  And in fact, the dramatic drop in residents who participate in Council meetings, from an average of about 35 to 40 during Zoom meetings to a recent average of about 14 or 15, underscores the need for ease of accessibility to the meetings. It has been very disappointing that, even though Mrs. DeLeon and Mrs. Stauffer have repeatedly pointed out the need to get such a capability in place, we are now 3-1/2 months beyond the return to in-person meetings with no solution on the horizon, exacerbated by the other Council members’ deafness to the need (or perhaps their lack of desire) for such a capability.

That said, and I am a strong supporter of livestreamed, interactive meetings, Mr. Carocci raised a few salient points, most importantly that he was uncomfortable with only having one estimate for a project like this.  He also expressed concern that it was not clear who would manage such a system and whether the township had the in-house technical capabilities to make sure it was operable.  After considerable discussion of those points and others, the motion was tabled and Ms. Huhn was instructed to get at least two other estimates from other companies.  This is a prudent move.  Without in-house expertise on such a system, it will be difficult for the council to understand what exactly they’re paying for or whether any training that is purchased will be adequate.  In addition, although it was not brought up in the discussion, I found it concerning that the only estimate provided indicated there would be at least an 8-10 week lapse before the project could even be scheduled by the company.  Add to that the time to complete the project, and we’re looking at sometime in the new year before we have any hope of seeing a livestreamed Council meeting.  Hopefully, other companies will be more responsive.The rest of the meeting concerned mostly housekeeping issues and the Council was eager to adjourn as the lights had already flickered in the midst of a raging thunderstorm.

Looking Ahead

That said, let’s take a look at the next meeting which includes approval of the 2022 budget on its agenda.  This is a bit of a surprise since for quite a few weeks, the October 27 meeting has been identified as the budget approval meeting on the township website.  That designation has now disappeared from the website to be replaced with Wednesday’s vote.  I wonder why.  Last year it took place in late October.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

The budget is up on the website along with Wednesday’s agenda.  It includes two scenarios – one that includes a 2.5% salary increase for township employees and a 5% increase for the library and one that includes a 3% salary increase for township employees and a 7.5% increase for the library.  What is also included in the budget are a bunch of items tagged “funding to address IT security recommendations.”  Totaling those line items that are identified as IT or, under Data Processing, major equipment and software, there appears to be an increase of $26,790 over the same costs last year and, compared to the numbers that were presented at the September 15 meeting, an increase of $23,090.  That’s a big change in just 3 weeks.

The question that pops to mind is: is this a result of the investigation into the data breach over the summer? There has been no report on the results of that investigation nor does there appear to be any report scheduled for the October 6 meeting.  Perhaps we’ll find out on Wednesday what required such a big adjustment.

A smaller question is related to a 72%+ increase in the Council Expenses line.  Nothing related to that was raised in the budget workshop session either.

All of these questions are why there really need to be more people paying attention to what’s happening in the township.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, October 27, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021. Mail-in ballots can be returned as soon as you receive them.

Reminder: Budget Approval at Tonight’s Meeting

Just a quick reminder that tonight’s agenda for the Lower Saucon Township Council meeting includes adoption of the 2021 budget. If you have any comments to make on the budget – and it’s your right as a resident to do that – this is your last chance. If you have concerns about the constraints being placed on payments to the fire companies, you need to speak up now.

Register for the Zoom meeting here.

Review the agenda here.

Thank you for your participation and concern.

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