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.

How a Shenanigan Works

The Ida-delayed Lower Saucon Township council meeting took place on Thursday, September 9 before a decidedly unimpressively-sized audience.  In fact, the room of about 15-20 people dwindled considerably after the introduction of the junior council persons for the 2021-22 school year.  Once they were introduced and appointed, the six students left.

The remaining ten or so audience members soldiered on.  Natasha Manbeck from McMahon Associates presented the final Active Transportation Plan funded by the WalkWorks Grant that McMahon Associates had put together for the township.  It included three categories of projects:  currently ongoing ones such as the Meadows Road bridge replacement, early action items that are of lower cost and less complexity, and other projects that will require more time and more cost.  There was not much time spent in detailing these projects so I suggest you take some time to look at the finished plan on the township’s website.

Two financial items were covered: presentation and review of the capital improvement plan 2022-2026 and a review of investment options.  The second item was particularly obscure, dealing with various financial instruments that could be used in the township’s bank account based on the fact that apparently the bank will begin charging additional fees if things stay as they are.  With no accompanying visual aids, it was not clear at all what the differences were.  Mrs. Stauffer tried to get some clarification, but that was fruitless. Since neither subject apparently required a vote, the Council moved on with just concerned-looking head-nodding.

After approving some Saucon Rail Trail events, the Council moved to cleaning up some more business left over from the fire service ordinance last month.  According to township requirements, Special Fire Police need to be appointed by resolution of the Council.  At the current time, the approved Special Fire Police include members of the Steel City Fire Company as well as Lower Saucon Fire Rescue.  Since the township is no longer utilizing the services of Steel City, it was necessary to rescind the previous appointments of all the Special Fire Police and then reappoint the LSFR Special Fire Police.  This was done by a vote of 5-0. 

After the vote, Mr. Kevin Kalman, Steel City Fire Police Captain, rose to object to the fact that he was having difficulty joining LSFR because their regulations require that he resign his membership in Steel City to be considered for LSFR.  Several Council members, particularly Mr. Carocci, pointed out that it was his decision to make and that LSFR did not need to have members who also belong to other fire companies since LSFR has mutual assistance agreements with other companies.

Moving On . . .

Following approval of a resolution to submit an application for a grant to Northampton County for a public works storage building, the Council approved a resolution proposed by Mr. Banonis that the Township give priority in the purchasing of items to those manufactured in the United States, subject to some possible exceptions for the inability to find equivalent items in either the U.S. or other democratic countries.  The word “democratic” was not defined. It will be interesting to see how this new requirement is applied when the Council takes up the purchase and installation of additional audio-visual equipment to provide interactive video for future meetings. Most electronics equipment is not made in the U.S. these days. 

Mrs. DeLeon had requested that a discussion of a mask mandate in the Township building and particularly for the Council meetings be added to the agenda.  Of course, as happens with discussions of this matter at other public meetings these days, at this point the conversation took a turn into an alternative universe as we were treated to all kinds of ridiculous rationales as to why this was unworkable or undemocratic or unhealthy (really?).  Absolutely no acknowledgement that acting out of a concern for one’s neighbor or one’s own children was a value that the Council might want to promote.  No acknowledgement from Mr. Carocci, Mr. Banonis or Mrs. Yerger that they gave a rap about the health of those attending Council meetings or doing business at the township building.  We even were treated to two township residents with disgustingly selfish justifications for why the poor little dears couldn’t stand to wear a mask and the old reliable argument about “freedumb.”  

I’m sure Mrs. DeLeon knew that her motion to require masks was DOA when she looked around the room and noticed that of the about 20 or so people there, only 3 (Mrs. Stauffer, Mrs. DeLeon and your trusty blogger) were wearing masks. And of course, it was voted down, 2-3, only Mrs. DeLeon and Mrs. Stauffer voting yes. But I give them both props for at least trying to show concern for the health and safety of their fellow citizens.  And on behalf of my two grandchildren, ages 1 and 5, I thank them as well.

A Classic Saucon Shenanigan

Now here’s where a classic Saucon Shenanigan comes in.  Following the vote on masks, Mrs. Stauffer suggested that an alternative solution might be to require that residents offer proof of vaccination before attending the meetings and, if they didn’t, that they would have to wear a mask.  That was met with another pile of bogus objections but the most bogus was Mr. Banonis’ claim that Mrs. Stauffer couldn’t offer a motion because the subject wasn’t on the agenda and the Sunshine Law, blah-blah-blah.  Mrs. Stauffer did not make the motion.

Watch this clever trick.  Within just a few minutes, Mr. Banonis made a motion to task Ms. Huhn with looking for funds for the projects in the Active Transportation Plan, to talk with the Public Works Department about what they could do on their own and to initiate talks with PennDOT about their possible partnership in implementation.  Wait. What? That wasn’t on the agenda.  You can’t do that.  Mrs. Stauffer and Mrs. DeLeon quickly pointed out the hypocrisy involved.  But not to fear.  Here comes Solicitor Treadwell to the rescue.  Apparently you can make motions that are not on the agenda as long as “the matter is de minimis in nature and does not involve the expenditure of funds or entering into a contract or agreement”.

So—-Mrs. Stauffer’s motion really would have been in order?  But it was only when Mr. Banonis made his motion that the Solicitor felt compelled to jump in and offer legal counsel so that he could go ahead with what he wanted?  See – shenanigans.

Incidentally, these new revisions to the Sunshine Law are going to really put a crimp in Mr. Banonis’ and Mr. Carocci’s style.  If you recall, it was as a non-agenda item during Council member reports that Mr. Carocci moved last year that the footnote about the requirements for the two fire companies to merge before they received funding be added to the 2021 budget. That’s clearly out of line now.  Score one for good government.

Looking Ahead

As mentioned before, the agenda for the September 15 meeting includes a report on the quote received for additional A/V equipment to livestream future Council meetings along with the ability for remote viewers to participate.  It will be interesting to see how committed to transparent government this Council really is.  Zoom meetings over the past year have averaged around 30-40 attendees, occasionally quite a few more.  With the fire company issue resolved, that number has dropped dramatically with in-person meetings.  Hellertown Borough does this.  Will LST?

One More Item

Just a reminder that we have not heard any more about the data breach investigation that was mentioned at the July meeting.  It’s not on the upcoming agenda.  What’s up with that?

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

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Divorce, Lower Saucon Style

Lower Saucon Township Council held its August 18, 2021, meeting in person again and to the surprise of virtually no one in the packed meeting room, voted to designate Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) as the sole provider of fire services within the township, ending its relationship with Steel City Volunteer Fire Company.  The Council had requested Solicitor Lincoln Treadwell to prepare an ordinance to that effect following the July 21 meeting.

Because it was an ordinance, it was necessary to conduct an official hearing before the vote on the ordinance.  Scott Nocek, president of Steel City, rose to request that the Council delay the vote on the ordinance to the September 1 meeting. This was rather startling since the Council has been attempting to get Steel City to merge with LSFR since at least last summer, even adding footnotes to the township’s 2021 budget outlining criteria for each fire company to receive township funding in order to incentivize the merger.  After two meetings in a row where Steel City’s reluctance to? obstruction of? the merger had been outlined in detail, it wasn’t surprising that the question on the Council members’ minds, as well as I’m sure the bulk of the audience, seemed to be, “Why?  Why delay further?” 

It became clear that there had been a meeting of the two fire companies on August 3 to further discuss the merger.  Out of that came a request for Steel City to do some required paperwork to complete the merger.  But by the time of the August 18 meeting, the paperwork had still not been completed and submitted.   There then followed a long and often contentious discussion about who did or didn’t do what, by when, and why between Council members and Mr. Nocek.  There was reference back to an April 15 letter that Attorney Treadwell had sent to Steel City requesting information on some items that had appeared on Steel City’s 990 form that had still not received a response.  Mr. Nocek said he had the response with him that night and turned it over to Mr. Treadwell but that begged the question of why it took 4 months to produce the response.

Needless to say, nothing in the hearing changed anyone’s mind.  After closing the hearing, the Council voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance and LSFR became the township’s sole provider of fire services.

What followed was a discussion of how the 9-1-1 Center would be informed of the change in status even though the ordinance did not take effect for 10 days.  The Council authorized that a letter be sent informing them of the status change and that LSFR Chief Johnson make a call to the 9-1-1 Center immediately after the meeting, adding Fire Company 16 (LSFR) to the structured dispatch so there would be no lapse in coverage.

Once that was settled, there were a series of motions to deal with the new facts on the ground.  The Council approved funding a recruitment and retention event on September 18 (rain date: September 19) in Steel City to recruit firefighters for LSFR; to reimburse attorney’s fees associated with the merger and the review of the Steel City fire station building maintenance; to authorize the funding of capital improvements at LSFR fire stations and to authorize the release of payment number 2 for LSFR’s new ladder truck.  

At that point, with the business regarding the fire department concluded, the meeting room cleared out pretty quickly, from about 65-70 attendees to 19.

The Council proceeded to appoint two new members to the Lower Saucon Authority Board – Bob Davis and Bob Keich by a vote of 5-0.  Unlike in previous appointments, the resumes of the two candidates were included in the publicly posted council information.  It was nice to know something about their qualifications before their appointments.

The rest of the meeting was mostly housekeeping except for an interesting discussion of whether council meetings could be conducted in some type of hybrid format that would allow township residents to at least view and/or view and participate in regular council meetings remotely.  Ms. Huhn had prepared a packet of information on the types of systems used by other townships and boroughs.  Tom Rieger, Hellertown Borough Council president, was invited to share how Hellertown has implemented a hybrid system that allows both the livestreaming of their council meetings and the participation of remote attendees.  He reported it had cost them about $15,000 which could be covered by federal Covid relief funds.  Ms. Huhn was tasked with getting prices for a system similar to Hellertown’s.

Of course the best part of that discussion happened when Mr. Banonis, who waxed lyrical on the excitement and energy of so many residents at the meeting in person after the Covid shutdown, and who seemed to have quite a few other reasons why hybrid was somehow not as good as in person, mused as to whether the reason for so many attendees might have been the agenda for the evening (i.e. the fire company issues).  Yeah, do you think?  Since more than 70% of the attendees left after that was done with?  Mrs. Stauffer spoke up on the value of a hybrid model in reaching those who can’t make it to the council meetings in person, pointing out that it’s “not about us in the Council room” but rather about the township residents who might not be able to attend. There’s a thought that’s worth remembering at every council meeting.

Two More Items

The update to the Saucon Valley Partnership Comprehensive Plan will be voted on September 8 at 6 PM via a Zoom meeting. You can register for the meeting on the Township website through the Council web page. The updated plan can be found here: https://epd-pgh.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=dfb95aee27934650b7a998bdaf170a44

Township resident Victoria Opthof-Cordaro raised a question during public comment about the status of the data breach investigation that had been mentioned at the July meeting.  Attorney Treadwell said that there was no more additional information to share at this time except that the township’s insurance company had verified that the costs of the law firm hired to deal with the breach would be covered. 

Watch this space.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, September 1, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021

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

The Whole World is Watching. Well, Hellertown Is.

Last week’s Lower Saucon Township Council meeting had a decidedly different vibe to it. It was much more low-key, ticking along at a brisk pace, checking things off on the agenda. There was a resolution observing International Firefighters’ Day on May 4, a handful of resident requests for variances, a lot line adjustment, some administrative resolutions. All dispensed with fairly rapidly with 4-0 votes (Mrs. deLeon was absent).

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There was the adoption of a Feral Cat Trap/Neuter/Return agreement whereby the Township will provide vouchers that will cover the $35 cost for residents who trap a feral cat and take it to No Nonsense Neutering for the procedure. Hopefully, this will resolve the feral cat problem in Steel City that Ms. Civitella brought to the Council’s attention earlier this year. Ms. Huhn was appropriately thanked for her rapid and effective response in providing the information necessary to deal with this issue.

In tax-related news, the filing date for EIT final returns was moved to May 17 so that it will correspond to the Federal and State tax due dates. No penalties or interest will be collected on any taxes paid by May 17.

Seasonal workers for Public Works will be paid $14.63 per hour and the Police Department has received its spiffy new uniforms!

As I said, a fairly uneventful meeting. So uneventful, in fact, that at several points when Mrs. Yerger requested a motion for an agenda item, there was an awkward pause before another Council member so moved. None of the usual two-step jockeying to be the mover or seconder. Mrs. Yerger herself even moved at least one item that I recall.

But as we’ve come to learn, it’s the non-agenda items that often generate the most interest. That was the case on April 21 as well.

First, Mrs. Stauffer provided a detailed report on the activities of the Hellertown Area Library (HAL) during this past year as they coped with all of the challenges of Covid-19. She provided data on library usage and descriptions of alternative programming that outlined a robust response to the pandemic. Mrs. Stauffer is the Council’s liaison to the Library.

Then, in the public comment period on non-agenda items for non-residents only (the very last item on the agenda), Julia Sefton, President of the HAL Board addressed the Council in response to the variety of issues that had been raised at the previous Council meeting on April 7. She outlined the normal reorganization process of the Board and how it was disrupted this year by both Covid and by LST Council’s desire to advertise separately for the one Board opening. She explained that they are an all-volunteer board and that they are perhaps not as skilled in parliamentary procedure as they should be. She acknowledged that allowing outgoing Board member Janie Hecker to make a motion at their previous Board meeting was incorrect, although she did point out that Ms. Hecker had every right to attend that meeting as a private citizen. She just should not have been recognized as a Board member or allowed to participate as such.

Ms. Sefton also made it clear that there was no disrespect meant to the LST Council by any of the HAL Board’s actions. She apologized for any consternation that might have caused and reiterated HAL’s appreciation for the substantial support provided to the Library by the Township. She committed to the Board’s taking a closer look at their procedures and correcting anything that might run counter to accepted practice.

Attorney Treadwell volunteered his time to help the Board work through their processes in conjunction with the Hellertown Council solicitor if that would be useful. Ms. Sefton graciously accepted. Mr. Banonis then said that it wasn’t necessary for the HAL Board to apologize and that he appreciated their taking the time to explain what had happened at the last HAL Board meeting. He and Mr. Carocci then fell all over themselves explaining how valuable the Library is to the community. Quite a turnaround from two weeks prior.

With that, the meeting adjourned in almost record time.

And then I realized what had been happening. I’d noticed at the beginning of the meeting that there was a larger-than-usual number of Zoom attendees. I didn’t think much of it since sometimes variance requests and zoning issues attract support people for the petitioner (lawyers, engineers, neighbors) and they tend to drop off when that agenda item is completed. But they were all still there at the end of the meeting. Unusual. Until someone pointed out that those additional people included the Mayor of Hellertown, Hellertown’s council-appointed liaison to the HAL Board, and a good many members of the HAL Board, obviously there to witness the report by Mrs. Stauffer, the comments by Ms. Sefton and the subsequent response.

I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about what effect all of those witnesses might have had. But I’ll make one observation of my own. Neither Mr. Banonis nor Mr. Carocci took the opportunity in this feel-good mutual Library admiration moment to apologize for the belittling remarks and accusations that they leveled at Mrs. Stauffer on April 7.

Ah well, baby steps.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

UPDATE: In my last blog, I promised to inquire about what differences there might be between the “Council packet” that Council members receive and the supporting material that is posted on the township website along with the meeting agenda. Ms. Huhn said that there should be no difference in those materials – everything in the Council packet should also be on the website. She also asked that if someone notices a discrepancy to let her know. She did point out, and she was absolutely correct in this, that she said in the April 7 meeting that the background material on the Planning Commission nominee – Mr. Woosnam – had been EMAILED to the Council members, not included in the Council packet. So my apologies to Ms. Huhn for incorrectly reporting what she had said about the distribution of Mr. Woosnam’s information.

I did request, on behalf of those of us who are playing along at home, that in the future that kind of information, when emailed, would also be available to Zoom meeting attendees.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, May 5, 2021, 6:30 PM

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

And the Beat Goes On

Remember the brouhaha back in the fall about the use of the Township pavilion by a political party for a rally? Remember how it surfaced concerns about inconsistencies and deficiencies in the pavilion rental policy and the parks usage policy? Remember the concerns that were raised about the enforcement of the rules and regulations regarding both pavilion rental and special events? Remember how thorough discussion of it got tabled sine die because:

  1. Budget season was coming up and that work was far more important than hashing out problems with the parks policy, and
  2. There was a request of Ms. Huhn to get additional information on the policies and procedures of other municipalities and how they handle similar information, and
  3. The Parks and Recreation Committee wanted to study the issue and weigh in on what they felt would be an appropriate solution?
Saed Hindash for LehighValley Live

Well, the issue reappeared as an agenda item at the March 3 Township Council meeting. Was there information presented about the policies and procedures of other municipalities and how they handle similar information? Not that I heard. Were there recommendations from the Parks and Recreation Committee on how to correct some of the inconsistencies and deficiencies? If there were, they were not included in the council packet that was posted on-line accompanying the agenda.

What was presented was a copy of the current “Request for Pavilion Rental” form with the words “Is this a political event? Yes / No” handwritten on it with an asterisk indicating that a political event required a Special Event Permit and a copy of the current “Special Event Application” with “political event” also handwritten under “type of event”. Ms. Huhn also stated with corroboration from Attorney Treadwell that in the future the township would be putting up “No Parking” signs in order to be able to enforce the regulation that no one can park on the grass.

In the comment period, there were questions raised about how the regulations would be enforced, since they clearly were not at the September 17 event. Attorney Treadwell pointed to the “No Parking” signs as the solution. When questioned about the harassment problems about which resident Stephanie Brown complained in person to a police officer at the event and that she subsequently raised at the October 7 council meeting and the flouting of park regulations regarding political banners and crowd size raised by resident Victoria Opthof at the same meeting, Attorney Treadwell deferred to Chief Barndt, who was not at the council meeting, as to why no action was taken that evening. Treadwell’s reply seemed to boil down to the police having discretion as to what complaints they want to respond to or not and since they didn’t respond, too bad. Gee, I hope if someone breaks into my house that the police use their discretion to decide to come arrest the guy.

Back at the October 7 meeting, resident and Parks and Rec Board member Katrina Schreefer had raised concerns that she had attended a Parks and Rec meeting on October 5 at which the Board seemed reluctant to take up the issues of park regulation enforcement. In the minutes of the subsequent Parks and Rec meeting on November 2, the Board moved a recommendation to Council that they put a capacity limitation on each park and pavilion and if the application exceeds that number, it automatically requires a special event application. Nothing was mentioned about that at the Council meeting on March 3. As Ms. Schreefer had brought up in October, the Parks and Rec Board did not recommend any other changes specifically to deal with regulation enforcement. They have not addressed any of these issues since.

And while the Parks and Rec Board seems to be very impressed with how detailed their rules and regulations are, let me share with you one sentence from the Fees & Charges section of the Parks & Athletic Facilities Use Policy, dated 6/19/13:

“Any event or activity which the Fee Schedule of this section indicates as a “Special Event” shall be subject to the provisions of the Special Event Permit Application procedures (under development).” [emphasis added]

Really? Under development since 2013? That sound you hear is the can being kicked down the road.

Moving on

One other peculiar action took place at the March 3 meeting. There was an agenda item to appoint a new member to the Hellertown Area Library Board because of the resignation of a member whose term runs through 12/31/21. Mrs. Stauffer, as liaison to the Library from the township, nominated Janie Hecker who had been recommended by the Library Board for the position. Apparently past practice has been for the township to accept the Board’s recommendation and elect that person to the Board. Also in the past, the Board has advertised the position and historically there have been few applicants, usually only one. But this time, when the Board sent over its recommendation, the Township, through Ms. Huhn, informed the HAL Board that the township would be advertising and conducting their own search. This apparently resulted in two additional applicants.

Now it was hard to follow what process was used, but apparently Ms. Huhn did advertise the position and sent some or all of the information from the applicants over to the HAL Board. It didn’t seem as if anyone in the Township office or anyone on the Township Council had actually interviewed any of the applicants and it was unclear if the HAL Board had interviewed any of the applicants either, although they knew the person they had recommended from her prior service. There was no information on any of the applicants (cover letters, resumes, etc.) provided in the documents that were publicly posted with the meeting’s agenda.

Instead, there was a lot of huffing and puffing from Mr. Carocci and Mr. Banonis about how the Board’s recommended nominee had previously served on the Board and the Township needed new blood and someone else should have a chance and it was the Township’s right to appoint whomever it chose (that part is correct) and they didn’t have to take the HAL Board’s recommendation (also true) and on and on and on. Mr. Banonis, in particularly high dudgeon, claimed that the other two applicants were being “shunned” by the Council in favor of the HAL Board’s recommendation. He then took the opportunity to present in detail one of the applicant’s credentials, someone named Sharon, last name unintelligible over Zoom. He neglected, however, to mention anything significant about the other applicant’s credentials. Perhaps she should feel “shunned.”

Long story short, Janie Hecker’s nomination was voted down and Sharon Whoever was elected to the HAL Board. But there are two larger issues here that should be considered.

First, one of Sharon’s credentials is that she is actually an employee of – wait for it – the Bethlehem Area Public Library. You remember the BAPL. That’s the library that the Township Council quite a few years ago went to great pains to divorce us from, over the objections of a large number of LST residents, myself included. But when Mrs. Stauffer and Mrs. deLeon raised the issue of this being a possible conflict of interest, Mrs. Yerger pooh-poohed the whole idea as ridiculous. After all, why would there be a problem that someone on the Hellertown Library Board actively works for the library from which the Township had so acrimoniously separated?

Second, and more importantly, is the question of how do these kinds of decisions get made in the Township? Who told Ms. Huhn to advertise for the HAL Board vacancy? I’m sure she didn’t get up one morning and just decide to do it on her own. So where did the direction come from? It wasn’t by a vote of Council. There has been no agenda item to that effect in the past year. It wasn’t from Mrs. Stauffer, the Council liaison to the Library, who might be the obvious person to make that request. So who decided that, this time, LST had to do its own advertising and find its own Library Board member?

And who interviewed the applicants? Who vetted their credentials? Who on the Township Council knows enough about the workings of the library to be able to make a credible judgement about who is the best fit? What about the mysterious third applicant? Who is she and wasn’t she entitled to a thoughtful consideration also?

This is a recurring theme with this Council. Last July, there were two openings on the Zoning Board that were handled in a similar manner – five applicants, no interviews in public or private, no vetting beyond Ms. Huhn’s confirmation that they were all township residents, no questions permitted, just the bulldozing of two candidates who suited Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci with Mrs. Yerger again playing yes-person. For more detail, you can read Saucon Shenanigans from July 25, 2020.

Here’s the point. This is not how you get the best government for your township or the best volunteers for township committees and boards. This is not transparency. This is not following an agreed-upon process. This stinks of outdated, backroom cronyism – who you know and who knows you.

Sharon Whoever may turn out to be a fine member of the HAL Board. The two Zoning Board members may be doing a bang-up job. But might one of the other people have been better? We’ll never know. In fact, we’ll never even have had a chance to make the comparisons because this Council made sure you wouldn’t see the process or the alternatives.

Is this really the best way to run a township?

One more thing before we go

This isn’t directly related to the township council but it does have to do with Saucon Valley and the kind of shenanigans that go on around here. Why, in the middle of another dramatic escalation in Covid case counts in Northampton County, has the Saucon Valley School District school board returned to in-person meetings? Where do they think we live? Texas?

Source: NYTimes

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, April 7, 2021, 6:30 PM

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

More Housekeeping. More Civility.

Last week’s meeting of the Lower Saucon Township council was again devoted primarily to township housekeeping matters. It was a relatively short agenda. The new Junior Council Persons for the 2020-2021 school year were welcomed on board. The execution of a DUI grant was authorized. There was a quarterly report on the Bethlehem landfill, a discussion of LED streetlights, and the submission of the 5-Year Capital Plan (more on that later). On the whole, a well-run meeting with a high level of collegiality and all 5-0 votes.

I especially want to applaud the civility with which the council members approached some disagreement about an upcoming meeting regarding the Creek Road development request. There was no disagreement on the fact that the Council is absolutely opposed to the development of that property as requested. The disagreements came in relation to how best to handle the Township’s response to the developer’s latest legal maneuver. Since the City of Bethlehem is actually the governing zoning authority, Lower Saucon is only an interested party and the sense of Council was that they didn’t want to lose that standing in any future considerations by the City of Bethlehem.

There was extended discussion around the best way to do that. Some supported sending a letter, some supported sending a township solicitor, some supported a Council member attending in person. The rather lengthy discussion was eventually amicably resolved with everyone having an opportunity to state his/her position and be thoroughly heard. On the whole, well done.

However, for those of us playing along at home, it seemed that the entire discussion could have been wrapped up much more expeditiously if the township solicitor, Attorney Treadwell, had taken the time at the beginning of the discussion to simply lay out the various options. Most of the discussion was protracted because Council members didn’t have a clear idea of how the various solutions protected or didn’t protect the Township’s position. If the solicitor had listed the options, along with the resulting township status of each action and the possible outcomes, everyone would have been starting from a common baseline of knowledge of the law regarding the situation.

For example, if he had said, “if you choose option A, your legal status will be X and the possible outcomes will be 1, 2, 3. If you choose option B, your legal status will be Y and the possible outcomes will be 4, 5, 6.” You get the idea. I have observed a number of solicitors over the years and I know that some of them prefer to not enter Council discussions without being directly invited or questioned, but in this situation, it would have been helpful.

Part of my purpose in creating this blog was to provide additional opportunities for Lower Saucon residents to access information they might find helpful and also to encourage more residents to be involved in Township decisions. To that purpose, there were two upcoming plans that I’d like to bring to your attention in case you’d like to read more about either of them

5-Year Capital Plan – 2021-2025

As mentioned above, one agenda item was the submission and review of the 5-Year Capital Plan (2021-2025). This is the plan that lays out anticipated capital expenses (as opposed to operating expenses) for the Township for the next 5 years. Township Finance Director Cathy Gorman, who is a true Township treasure in her custodianship of township finances, has produced a very detailed document explaining the purposes of a 5-year capital plan, the areas that it encompasses, and then all of the numbers to back all of that up. You can find the plan by clicking on the heading of this section.

This Plan is the blueprint for generally big-money expenditures and it should track with Township objectives. The Plan is up for its annual review. It does not get adopted until the regular budget cycle for 2021. As we approach the end of the life of the landfill in the Township, the funding for the Capital Plan becomes an issue of some significance since it has been primarily funded to date by tipping fees.

I urge you to take a look at the Capital Plan, familiarize yourself with the kinds of areas it covers, and provide any questions or input to Council through the normal channels. I had asked Ms. Gorman if she would consider preparing a short, executive-type summary for the Plan for those who are not into serious number-crunching which she agreed to do. I don’t see that on the site yet, but hopefully it will be coming soon. In the meantime, she provides a very clear, detailed explanation of the contents of the Plan.

Saucon Valley 2020 Comprehensive Plan Update

I’ll let the words of the Saucon Valley Partnership’s website listing speak for themselves: “The Saucon Valley Partnership (consisting of Hellertown Borough, Lower Saucon Township and the Saucon Valley School District) will be soliciting feedback, through upcoming hearings, regarding our Multi-Municipal Comprehensive Plan update and your participation is appreciated. Please take some time to view the interactive story map, click here to access the proposed updates to the growth in our community.”

Again, this is a long-range plan for a broader swath of the Saucon Valley than just the Township. It’s worth a look if you want to see where the area is headed. It’s a very cool site full of fascinating data and hard work envisioning the future of the Saucon Valley area.

The Partnership is taking questions and input from the public. You can find meeting dates and sites on the Township website. It’s another way to keep up-to-date on the possibilities for the future.

Next scheduled Council meeting – Wednesday, September 16 – 7 PM