A Few Answers Generate More Questions

The June 16 meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council provided some answers to the questions raised on this blog about the funding for Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) and the Steel City Fire Company. It also raised some other, more disturbing questions about the proposed merger.

To briefly recap, by a 3-2 vote last year (Ms.Yerger, Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci in favor), a footnote was added to the 2021 township budget that required the completed merger of Lower Saucon Fire Rescue and Steel City Fire Company by April 1, 2021, in order for the fire companies to receive their regular contributions from the Township, $150,000 for LSFR and $50,000 for Steel City. Failure to meet that date would trigger a series of additional deadlines with stepped-down funding culminating in cancellation of all funding if the merger was not completed by June 1. Despite requests from Mrs. Stauffer in the Spring, no information on progress on the situation was shared with the exception of a “no progress” comment from Solicitor Treadwell at the April 7 meeting. At the June 16 meeting, Mr. Carocci made a motion to fully fund LSFR for the budgeted $150,000. In discussion on the motion, he shared the timeline of the attempts to complete the merger on the part of each of the fire companies. To make a long story short, LSFR has repeatedly attempted to move the merger forward while Steel City has repeatedly rebuffed actions to make progress. As of the end of March, Steel City had only been willing to agree to a merger of operations but wanted to postpone the legal merger for at least another 1-2 years. Based on that information, the Council voted 5-0 to approve funding only for LSFR for 2021.

Mr. Carocci then provided additional information regarding the future of the merger. In reviewing Steel City’s IRS Form 990, Solicitor Treadwell noticed an unusually large donation to Steel City of $50,000 from The Boston Foundation, a donor-advised fund, followed by a transfer of $40,000 from the fire company to an injured officer who lives in New Jersey. Because of the unusual nature of the transactions, Solicitor Treadwell contacted counsel for the Steel City Fire Company with a host of questions regarding the transaction. The response from the fire company’s counsel had been received only late on the afternoon of the Council meeting and had provided insufficient information to answer the questions raised.

So we now have an answer as to whether Lower Saucon Council is going to fund LSFR (yes – 100%) or Steel City (not as of this moment) and we have some better understanding of why they made that decision. All good. But along the way, there are new questions.

Obviously the largest one is what to do about the proposed merger? Since further discussion on LSFR’s role in the Township is on the agenda for the July 21 meeting, we can expect to hear more about that shortly.

Mrs. deLeon raised the question of why Solicitor Treadwell had not shared the letter he wrote to Steel City’s counsel with the LST Council. She indicated that he should have copied the council members. Mr. Treadwell pointed out that he had been tasked with participating in the merger negotiations and this was part of the due diligence that he was conducting. He also pointed out that if he copied council members on every piece of correspondence that he produced, that they would be inundated. While he apologized for not sharing the letter, I think that instead the Council owed him a big thank you for his thoroughness in scrutinizing Steel City’s 990. He caught something that could be a major liability for a merged fire department and that raises legitimate questions about how Steel City handled the entire transaction.

The bigger question that should be raised beyond Mrs. deLeon’s concern is why there was no reporting on the status of the merger at all from January till June. The detailed timeline Mr. Carocci provided showed that there had been actions that had been taken over that time period, but none of that was reported. When Mrs. Stauffer appropriately raised the question in April, there was no sharing of the status of the negotiations which at that time apparently were already fraught. And although Mr. Carocci apologized profusely for not providing any of the information that he referenced at the June 16 meeting in time for it to be included in the council packets or on the website, the fact is that it shouldn’t have taken until June 16 for that information to be compiled. Where was a report at the March Council meeting or the April one or the May one? Mr. Carocci is the liaison to the fire companies. Why couldn’t he have provided something sooner? Is this his definition of transparency?

Moving on . . .

Natasha Manbeck of McMahon Associates provided a status report on the draft of the Active Transportation Plan being developed as part of the WalkWorks Grant. She acknowledged the contributions of many LST residents and indicated that the Draft will be presented in August for public comment. Anyone with comments in the meantime can send them to Diane Palek, the Township’s administrative assistant (adminasst@lowersaucontownship.org).

Frank Thompson of the Parks & Rec Board presented Logan Kade’s proposed Eagle Scout project to construct an information kiosk at Heller Homestead Park to the Council. The Council approved the project, 5-0.

Bill Ross of the Lower Saucon Authority gave a detailed explanation of Senate Bill No. 597, requesting that Council submit a letter opposing the bill. He explained that it places additional onerous requirements on public water authorities in the state (including Lower Saucon’s) that are unnecessary to guarantee the quality of water and will make the public authorities vulnerable to takeover by private entities. The Council agreed to provide such a letter, 5-0. Mr. Ross encouraged anyone who was listening to contact their state senators and voice their opposition to the bill as well.

And of course it wouldn’t be a LST Council meeting if there weren’t gratuitous swipes at fellow Council members and attempts to impugn their integrity. In the discussion about the bids received from Keystone Collections and Berkheimer to provide tax collection services to the Township, Mrs. deLeon raised a question about the fact that Keystone (which had the lower bid) had also requested space in Seidersville Hall for an in-township office whereas Berkheimer did not. Her concern was whether the two bids therefore represent an apples-to-apples comparison and whether, if Keystone were awarded the contract, would they be paying for their use of the space? A reasonable question.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Mr. Banonis, however, had to jump in to point out that perhaps Mrs. deLeon had other reasons for raising the questions because doesn’t Mrs. deLeon’s sister work for Berkheimer? The implication was that this was suspicious. Mrs. deLeon then tossed the question to Solicitor Treadwell, asking if there was a conflict here. Attorney Treadwell’s response was “not technically under the Ethics Code.” But Mr. Banonis just couldn’t let it rest. According to the minutes, he hastened to assure us before he made the motion to approve the bid from Keystone that “he doesn’t have any immediate family members that work for Keystone, he has no parents, no children, he doesn’t think he has any siblings as he’s an only child, he doesn’t have any aunts, cousins or uncles who work for either Berkheimer or Keystone” so he could make the motion in good conscience and with a clear mind. Mrs. Yerger, not to be outdone in gratuitous snark, then seconded “based on the fact that she has no relatives working for either Keystone or Berkheimer.” Come on, what is this? Fifth grade? Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah, nyah, nyah. Or maybe it’s an attempt at humor. If so, don’t give up your day job.

Finally, and most importantly for those of us who love spending our time attending these meetings so you, Gentle Reader, don’t have to (although you should), the Council decided to return to live, in-person meetings starting with the next one scheduled for Wednesday, July 21. If you’re planning to attend, be prepared to show up at Town Hall at 6:30 PM.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, July 21, 2021 – 6:30 PM AT TOWN HALL

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021

A Council Quickie – and a Serious Question

The May 19, 2021, Lower Saucon Township Council meeting was even shorter than the one on May 5. The meeting was gaveled in at 6:30 and adjourned at 7:10 PM. It amounted to a passel of resolutions to thank Saucon Valley area high school students for being junior council members, the approval of a “blessing boxes” program in two parks, approval of summer hours for the administrative staff, the hiring of a cleaning service and the submission of a grant application. That was it except for the usual housekeeping of approving minutes and financial reports.

A brief word about the blessing boxes. The program was approved but there is currently no timeline for their installation at Town Hall Park and Steel City Park. I’m sure when that’s nailed down there will be more information coming about this volunteer opportunity for township residents to help their neighbors who are in need. More details will be provided when there is an implementation date.

Since we have some extra time in this issue, let’s make a trip back to the 2021 budget that was proposed in October and adopted in December. Specifically, it might be interesting to find out what’s happening with those footnotes that were added to the budget relative to the funding of the fire department.

To refresh your memory, Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci seemed almost apoplectic back at the October 7 meeting that the fire companies were not moving fast enough on their merger in spite of the ongoing pandemic and the fact that both businesses and governments were still essentially shut down. To “incentivize” completion of the merger, Mr. Carocci proposed three footnotes to be added to the 2021 budget that would supposedly make the merger happen faster. The footnotes were approved as part of the budget approval on December 16, 2020, over the objections of Mrs. deLeon and Mrs. Stauffer.

The footnotes were as follows:

“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 [sic] allocated funds in [sic] 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 [sic] 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.

2021 Lower Saucon Township Budget – http://www.lowersaucontownship.org/pdf/2021final.pdf

In case you haven’t noticed, we have now passed both the April 2 and the May 1 deadlines and will have passed the June 1 deadline before the next scheduled Council meeting on June 16. Back at the April 7 Council meeting, Mrs. Stauffer raised the question of what was happening with the merger and had it been completed by the April 1 deadline. The reply was, in a roundabout answer from Solicitor Treadwell, “no” and she was “tut-tut”-ed by Mr. Carocci that it really wasn’t necessary to discuss that at the time. Nevertheless, Mrs. Stauffer made a motion to void the footnotes to the 2021 budget since they were clearly not going to be enforced as they had been passed. Her motion failed 2-3 with only Mrs. deLeon joining her to vote in favor.

So here we find ourselves coming up on a June 16 Council meeting, two weeks after the final June 1 deadline that said that the fire companies would receive zero-zilch-nada funding for the 2021 fiscal year. What exactly is going on? What was all the bluff and bluster back in October using the funding cudgel to force the merger by April 1 if there was no intention of actually enforcing it? The funding of the fire company hasn’t been on the agenda at all during 2021. It’s been essentially ignored.

Are Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci, with Mrs. Yerger playing “me too,” really planning on defunding the fire companies? Is that really in the best interests of the Township? Or was it all just empty posturing?

Regardless of the answer, is this really what anyone would call effective leadership?

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, June 16, 2021, 6:30 PM

Next Township Elections – Tuesday, November 2, 2021

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