County executive candidates Q&A: General election (edit)

By LVEDC Staff on May 22, 2013

Editor’s Note: The following responses were edited from a complete transcript from a LVEDC forum held May 13th at DeSales University featuring the candidates for Northampton and Lehigh County executive. Please click here for the full transcript

Northampton County

Opening statements

John Brown, mayor, Borough of Bangor, Republican candidate: I think there are three critical areas to look at when it comes to the county. The first one is economic and job development and the role of county government in that realm. If you look at the current make-up of the county, we provide services, human health services; we provide safety through the prison court system. Yet when you look at economic development, while it’s there it is not highlighted and I do believe that it needs to be in the forefront.

The second important aspect I think is good government. One of the things [the voters] is concerned about is: is government doing what they are supposed to do and are they doing it in a way that they can be proud of? Is it predictable and dependable from the leadership of the county and the government in general? Are we working to the highest and best interests of the constituents, the taxpayers that we are looking to serve? The general impression is “Eh, we can do a little bit better.”

Finally, I think the last part is leadership. I think, across the board, there is a sense that there is no sufficient leadership or the quality of leadership overall. I think this realm in leadership is about integrity, creating that alignment throughout all the systems of government so that regardless of where you touch, they are getting the same message.

John Callahan, mayor, City of Bethlehem, Democratic candidate: I made a lifetime commitment to public service and to making my community better. Better for my kids, better for your kids and your grandkids, and for future generations. That’s really what this is all about and I believe that by working together, we can make Northampton County better and we can help this county move forward. That’s kind of the fundamental question for me and what drives me and my motivation.

I say all the time that it is not the role of government to make jobs. The best that government can do is to create the right environment for the private sector to thrive and for those investments to take place. We’ve done that in the city of Bethlehem with great success. In the last 10 years, we’ve had over two billion dollars of economic investment in the city of Bethlehem. That investment has led to 5,500 new jobs in the city of Bethlehem. These are some hard economic times and I’m proud of those results.

We are at a point now where Bethlehem is now rated as one of the 100 best places to live, one of the 100 best places to raise a family, and very much in line with tonight’s topic, rated by Forbes as one of the 100 best places in the country in which to launch a new business. That did not happen by accident. It took focus and partnerships – like working with LVEDC – and working with the private sector and non-profit sector to create that environment and we’ve done that. The area of fiscal responsibility is also important in creating that right environment. In the city of Bethlehem, we have no deficit. We have back to back surpluses. We had a million dollar surplus last year alone and we’ve got $90 million dollars less debt today than when I took office back in 2004.

What does regionalism mean to you and why you believe that it is important that is essential for the success of the Lehigh Valley. Also, provide a specific example of a service or activity that you believe should be regionalized.

Mayor Brown: Regionalism is essentially maximizing the resources of any group of collective municipalities. In this economy it’s difficult for small municipalities in particular to be able to take advantage of some of the economic ideals we have here. It is absolutely critical that we are able to bring municipalities together and share various services. I’ve worked for the past 18 months up in the Slate Belt to bring my sister communities together. Bangor Borough by itself, if you gave us a ton of money, there’s not a lot of development I can do. We recognized very early that for us to be able to benefit, I had to reach out to my sister communities and bring us all out together. We all have common needs. Unless, we find a way to reduce the costs for these services and eliminate redundancies, we won’t have enough money to reinvest into our communities. For the past 18 months I’ve worked really hard to regionalize the police departments.

Mayor Callahan: I think the easiest way to define regionalism is that all rising tides lift all boats. If you understand that and you believe that, then you’ll be the beneficiary of a thriving and growing region. Your community may not personally be the beneficiary but if you keep that understanding and sense of perspective, it will eventually benefit the whole region. I think internally in the Lehigh Valley, we know we have dust-ups here and there where it ebbs and the flows, depending on the personalities and perhaps the issues and topics of the day.

Some specific events that I’ve been proud to be involved in, especially as mayor, is the revenue sharing of the Sands and its gaming dollars. Instead of taking a winner-takes-all approach and pitting one community against another, I took a different approach. I worked with our state senators and local elected officials to come up with a plan so we could share the revenue of a $2.5 million dollars or more to the City of Allentown and now with the table games, an increase of $800,000 going to the City of Easton. Taking a public policy goal to help balance our budget and deliver critical services in our urban core, our three cities of the region and putting it in place. It was a watershed moment, in my opinion, for regional cooperation. That’s putting your money where your mouth is. It was not easy to do.

Another topic that is critically important and a topic that the partnership has talked about is this whole redundancy of sewage and water authorities throughout the Lehigh Valley. There was over 40 sewer and water authorities. We announced that the City of Bethlehem is acquiring East Allen water systems and saving the customers $200 each annually and providing them with a better product and services. Those are two specific examples of things I have been involved in.

Providing tax incentives and public grants and tax abatements to foster the development projects have been a part of many, many major economic development policies in the Lehigh Valley in projects. What is your position in providing tax money to support private development contracts?

Mayor Brown: What is the return on investment for the taxpayer? You are actually putting up their money, and you have to look at how secure is that money and that return back to the taxpayer. What is the end result of that investment and has the taxpayer benefited in a way that was projected? I’m not sure that’s always the case.

The other part is what are the ripple effects on small businesses and local school districts and municipalities? I’m not sure how well all these things are quantified when these programs are put together or even over period of time. What is the net effect? Did you just shift the burden somewhere else or is there really a return investment on the taxpayer in terms of jobs and incentives going forward. They are good programs that need to be used sparingly. We have to take a look at how often and when they are being used. Some projects will be needed to make sense.

Mayor Callahan: I’ve been a big supporter and proponent of all the alphabet soup programs – from KIZ to LERTA to TIF. The only tool we have not taken advantage of yet is KOZ which may come in the future for the city. You need to be targeted in the incentives that you use. I think you need to serve larger public policy goals when you use those incentives. The TIF in Bethlehem is probably the most successful tax incremental financing programs in all of the state. I’ve advocated for a TIF for Martin Tower, a 54-acre project in the Lehigh Valley. I’m very familiar with those programs and I’m an advocate for those programs. I’ve worked hard with these programs in place and used them wisely and I would look for more opportunities to do that in Northampton County. I think there are a larger amount of development tracts within the Northampton County that make great candidates for these types of incentives. I have that level of expertise and familiarity as a mayor and you can count on me as a county executive to continue those projects throughout the county.

In an ever-changing global economy, the Lehigh Valley is in competition with communities across the country and around the world. What do you see as the unique assets of Northampton County and what are your thoughts on how the Lehigh Valley should be marketed?

Mayor Brown: I want to do an analysis on the competition. Why is it we are not being selected by some of these companies? What do the other regions have that we don’t? If you haven’t defined the need of what the client wants and needs to attract them, then it doesn’t matter what you have to offer. We need to debrief and build our understanding of the criteria from there. You need to understand the demographic of where you’re marketing and the kind of companies you are working with. You may also need to bring in other resources to allow these additional companies to buy in. You need to be specific and break it down.

Mayor Callahan: We can all agree on this topic. We need to learn what the client wants and learn how to market to them. That is why I concur with Glenn on the need for higher education and the quality of community colleges. Northampton Community College is a high-quality school that provides high-quality education. This in turn attracts the bright minds. We are making sure to have a strong base by focusing on the basic levels. Two points that must be focused on is our location and our hire ability. Our hire ability cannot be underestimated.

Lehigh County is considering approving a TIF to redevelop a zinc mine in Lower Macungie Township and Northampton County has just recently approved a TIF for a new interchange on Route 33. More developers are requesting TIF financing as part of their development projects. What are your thoughts on TIFs?

Mayor Brown: TIFs are a part of the public funds so my question is how well are they being used and what is the return to the taxpayer for offering that financing? It is a good tool and it makes sense but, if you’re not careful, are we putting smaller businesses out of business? What is the impact on our infrastructure and are we just shifting the burden? I’m not against it but I just want to make sure we’ve asked all the hard questions before using this incentive. We need to ensure the return over time just as Lamont had said.

Mayor Callahan: All these economic tools should be used judicially. We need to use the right tool for the job and not all TIFs are created equally. You can either do them well or poorly. You need to make sure that the back-up is secured. I think the TIFs make sense but I can honestly say I don’t know much about the one in Lehigh County about the zinc mine but on the surface it makes sense. I strongly advocate the TIF for the BethWorks site and the progression of another TIF. Martin Tower is a perfect example of a difficult project but has the potential to be a great project.

What would your administration do to have Northampton County play a role in economic development and job creation? Please give specific examples of proposals.

Mayor Brown: Where does economic development show up? If that’s not clearly defined, then how can you expect the employees and those that come into contact with the county understand what the mission/vision of economic development is? As county executive, I would first spell that out. What we need to do and the resources we need to pull. We need to establish this in order to align the employees and the county on the understanding.

Some of the things the county should do are to reach out to the smaller communities in a much more aggressive way. The county has a responsibility to encourage municipalities to take this up to identify what are some of the barriers and resistance to economic development and help them move past that. We need to establish a structure as well within municipalities in order to be able to communicate effectively and provide a consistent message throughout the counties.

Mayor Callahan: Get into the jobs and developments again. I think there not being an economic development director in Northampton County was a mistake; the department being moved was also a mistake. The location of the branch will be moved and changed to a different location under my administration because locations plays a big part in attracting businesses to want to invest and move their businesses here. I think the county executive needs to be more actively involved because things do not happen by accident, they need to get done and be established. We also need to move faster in order to encourage more developers to be interested.

What is your position on continuing infrastructure development in a regional manor to reduce operating costs and redundancies to support economic growth in Northampton County?

Mayor Brown: It makes sense to this on a regional basis because 1) the scope of some of these projects are going to be well beyond a particularly municipality, and 2) these are long-term assets that can be a liability so long-term planning is needed.

Mayor Callahan: I know an awful lot about this. We spent about $4 million dollars on fixing the filters at our water facilities to make sure we can provide the capacity for existing and new customers to come. We announced just last week, after two years of negotiation, with six different enmities, we will slowly but surely convert the East Allen water system into ours to provide them with a cheaper and better product. I know how to do it and I will surely lead in this direction.

Closing statements

Mayor Brown: I think that the county executive should have great leadership skills in order to have an effective impact. It has been proven that leadership is the one quality that can make or break any organization. If things do not start at the top effectively, it will not make its way through the entire system. Leaders need to be a role model and carry themselves in a manner that will inspire the council and they must be willing to show up as well. I have extensive experience in this field and I can therefore help be a more active and effective county executive.

Mayor Callahan: Thank you for coming here tonight. I know how to run effective government and one of the safest communities around. I plan on continuing to create this environment that I have been able to uphold for the past nine years because, if we don’t have a safe environment, no developers will want to invest if they feel they cannot be safe. I look forward to taking my experience and using it to help the City of Bethlehem move forward at the county level.

The Lehigh County Candidates

Opening statements

Scott Ott, commissioner, Lehigh County, Republican candidate: Hi, my name is Scott Ott. I am the husband of Stephanie, and a father of four. Three of them are here tonight. The other is all grown up and living on her own. She’s much smarter than me and she is an accountant. I don’t know how that happened, coming from my bloodline, but we are very proud of our children. I am currently getting paid to write. In the past I was the executive director of a non-profit organization with about a $400,000-a-year budget. I have been executive director of the Lehigh County Republican Committee for about a year. I have also been an editor-and-chief of a business journal. The great benefit of that job was the ability to travel around our county regions and interview people who have actually ran businesses to find out what drives them and what motivates them. I would also like to argue that business people are not in the business of creating jobs. Business people are chasing a dream. Business people want to be able to support their family and their children. Most of your focus, if you are in business, is trying to do what you love to do so well that other people want to buy it and pay you a profitable amount of money from that.

You have heard tonight that government does not create jobs but I would also argue that business people are not in the business of creating jobs. Because I had the opportunity to experience that experience, I have learned that perhaps the greatest role of government in business is to first “do no harm.” First, let’s make sure we are not doing anything to positively interfere with a robust dynamic free-market economy. Secondly, public safety is important to create in the environment. Lastly, we need to create an affordable place to live. We need it, it’s necessary, but we always need to watch the cost of our overhead that living here is affordable here for both the residents and for the people who are trying to operate businesses here.

Tom Muller, interim executive, Lehigh County, Democratic candidate: I’ve been a private sector business man for a little over 40 years. During that time I’ve run very large businesses and two small businesses of my own. I have built businesses and I have relocated business, relocated plants, and I’ve closed operations. For the past seven years, I have been director of administration for Lehigh County. Essentially operating as a chief operator for the county and reporting to county executive, which is the position I’m hoping to get for next year. During that time I think I’ve been dispelling the myth that you lose your business savvy when you become a politician or, pardon me, a government employee. I think I’ve been fighting that myth for a long time successfully.

The county plays an essential role in economic development but government needs to start being more involved than before. First, we are an important table setter in where we make the public safe and second, provide a good quality of life. To me that goes to recreational facilities and cultural facilities/venues. I think we’ve been doing a good job for the past seven years now in working on regionalization inside the county.

What does regionalism mean to you and why you believe that it is important that is essential for the success of the Lehigh Valley? Also, provide a specific example of a service or activity that you believe should be regionalized.

Ott: A view of regionalism that I can get on board with is where voluntary cooperation between municipalities, between counties or even school districts. If they want to participate, reduce their overhead, create economies of scale that is terrific. But you can’t force it from the top down.

The politics of regionalization may put a damper on some of the dreams of regionalization but I think there is good reason to pursue cooperation political boundaries as well.

Muller: Regionalization in my mind is working together and doing things that collectively we can do more efficiently for the good of the counties. The one I would push for – and the one we’ve been pushing for quite some time now – is the regionalization on the criminal side of things with the anti-crime side of things.

Counties have had an important and traditional role in economic development such as having industrial development authorities, general purpose authorities, area loan organizations supporting LVEDC, and ground field development. What will be your structural and staffing approach regarding an economic development office?

Muller: To be simple, the answer would be very similar to what Don [Cunningham] put in place for Lehigh County. We had a very active development committee and very active development department led by Cindy Feinberg. They’ve taken a very active role with LVEDC, with any of the development groups out there to be at the table, working to bring businesses to our area. It is my intention to continue my commitment to that department.

Ott: Actually, I prefer a strong role for the private sector. In fact I’m a great admirer to LVEDC and the way they approach things. I like the idea that local business are investing and partnering in this and that you are more likely, as business people, to understand what the needs are in any given moment in this economy. As I said before, the approach of “first, do no harm,” the way that economic professionals like Mr. Cunningham or people in the private business center interact with the county government needs to be respectful, seamless, smooth and as friendly and courteous as welcoming as possible.

However, I want to see the drive for how this community develops and wanting this community to be developed from folks like you. Government, while it can do some things well and must do some things well, is never going to be as nimble as you can be. It’s never going to be as robust and aggressive as you can be. Frankly, politicians come to the topic of economic development with someone mixed motives. They’re always looking down the road to the next election and their motivations may not synchronize as well as they could with what your motivations are. So I would like to see a stronger role for the private sector in this and with the county being where it’s supposed to be, but not trying to drive the bus, so to speak.

Infrastructures, including water and waste water systems, are vital to continued economic growth. What is your position on continuing infrastructure development in a regional manner to reduce operation costs and redundancies and to support economic growth?

Ott: Well, as you saw recently in Lehigh County, we Lehigh County commissioners have discovered that we have very little control over how water and sewer development progresses, whether to extend the charter of the Lehigh County Authority, which handles that business or did for about 20,000 customers but now I believe it will be for about 55,000 customers. We specifically said to the Lehigh County, by a vote of commissioners, we are not going to extend the charter for the Lehigh Valley water program and therefore, not bid on the Allentown water system, but they went ahead and did that anyways. The municipal authorities act gives them great latitude on what they can do to accomplish.

So the role of county commissioner is really limited to appointing members to the Lehigh County board and conceivably the board of commissioners could dissolve the authority but that is a nuclear subject that nobody wants to touch. So I think we will do the best we can to put people in a position on the board who are responsible and will make good decisions, but our control over specifically over water and sewer, is not nearly what people think, despite the name Lehigh County Authority. Now, we do take care of about 47 bridges in Lehigh County. Mr. Cunningham did a great job in his term in office, to advance the repair and maintenance of those bridges and obviously that is a key point for us.

Muller: I come from a distinctly different point of view than Mr. Ott does. I happen to be vice chairman of the Lehigh County Authority. Frankly I am actually delighted that the commissioners barely have involvements with the board. The ability to regionalize the issue with the water and sewer project has been long lacking in the Lehigh Valley. It has been a big concern and a big push by many groups to get better regionalization. It is interesting and unfortunate. It came with so many arguments over the last year plus with this one but we have gotten to a very good point, which is regionalizing most of Lehigh County. I can see future regionalization down the road. I think LCA has a big job yet to absorb what it just took on but I am very much in favor with what we did there but of course there are our other infrastructure such as our bridges, as well as the buildings that we own. We are blessed and in great shape from an infrastructure standpoint.

Providing tax incentives, public grants and tax abatements to foster economic development projects has been part of many economic development projects here in the Lehigh Valley. What is your stance in providing tax money to support private development projects?

Muller: I am in favor for tax support for new businesses. The one criterion is that I would like to see more emphasis placed on is the development of jobs. For instance, I have a lot more interest and big support for the next million-square-foot box that goes in the Breinigsville area and a lot more interest in somebody a coal center, a plant, something that’s going to bring in more people and putting less demand on our total infrastructure. I think it’s an important way to go and when you get to a TIF, we are taking about spending money that we haven’t even gotten out and generally getting more money in the short term than we ever had. So, it is an easy and convenient way to get business which in turn would create more job opportunities.

Ott: The most important thing that comes to how TIF is used is by asking good questions throughout the process. What we’ve discovered, and I think all the members of the Lehigh Valley Commissioners board has done a good job of asking, is that we have become dealmakers instead of lawmakers. I want to see more of a process that if the developer follows the guidelines that Lehigh County wants to see in place, then it should almost be a consent agenda item. You shouldn’t have to jump through hoops and prove that it’s a good idea to have a Costco or a Target or a Starbucks or anything else like that. It should be about “what are the standards… and did you achieve those standards.” If they met the standards, then they should be applied. Currently the only standards we have are the broader state standards and I think the Lehigh County needs to decide if we need to have more specific ones than that.

We are going to stay on this topic and drill a little more specifically into this topic on TIFs. Lehigh County is considering approving a TIF to redevelop a zinc mine in lower Macungie Township and Northampton County has just recently approved a TIF for a new interchange on Route 33. More developers are requesting TIF financing as part of their development projects. What are your thoughts on TIFs?

Muller: I am very supportive. At Hamilton Crossings, we are looking into a situation there where the value of the land our associates put on it would go about tenfold versus where it is right now. The other counties and tax bodies would receive 50 percent of that. Moving forward to the very beginning so we are talking about picking up five times the amount of taxes for that area, for the school district, and for the county, as well as being able to make something on ground that would otherwise is good for nothing. We’re talking about 920 jobs going into that particular location. That’s not counting the construction jobs to build it. To me it’s frankly a no-brainer. It should happen.

Ott: There are more complicating factors than just saying that if something is a good project we should use a TIF. When it was originally being presented to the topic and when we first saw it, the idea was, they were going to need this TIF money because the soil needed to be remediated since it was an old mine site and they needed to take some 50,000 truckloads of soil out, reprocess that, and put it back in so the building could be built on a stable foundation. As it turns out, essentially that money can’t be used for the soil remediation and the developer said that 74 percent of the TIF money will actually go towards making improvements that essentially PennDOT wants to see happen. We are somewhat atoning the sins for PennDOT’s past because they didn’t build the bypass in the way then intended. We need to be judicious about using TIFs and unfortunately, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. We’re going to have school district taxpayers and county taxpayers who are essentially footing the bill for something that PennDOT should’ve taken care of many years ago.

In an ever-changing global economy, the Lehigh Valley is in competition with communities across the country and around the world. What do you see as the unique assets of Lehigh County and what are your thoughts on how the Lehigh Valley should be marketed?

Ott: This probably is not the answer you would expect but the unique assets of Lehigh County are the people who volunteer to coach Little League, run Scout troops, teach Sunday school, to start small businesses. Eighty percent of new jobs come from small businesses… not necessarily the big businesses that we get excited about luring into the area. We have some of the finest people who live here and I think that’s what made this community great. We have business people who are not only effective at innovating and creating products to change the way we do business and making a profit, but business people who are willing to put their own substance into the community, those who are willing to volunteer their time and money to make the community a better place. That’s a hard thing to sell but we have the best people and have a great mix of suburban, urban and rural in this area – and we have great medical facilities and universities. If you want to hunt or fish, you can. It is a well-rounded community. If you want to go to the opera, you can.

Muller: I’m going to start from the business standpoint. I’ve been in the distribution business and one of the things you will find if you’ve picked up a distribution magazine is, that Breinigsville and Fogelsville is the place in the country if you’re only going to have one distribution center you would put it for exactly the reason that Dean (Browning) touched on. We have a great location and great “meds and eds” and we are top notch on both of those as we can see from the facility we are sitting in here today.

Our infrastructure is also a great one which helps draw businesses into the area. Not to be left aside is LCA and are overall water and sewer infrastructure is excellent and was a key point of getting Ocean Spray into the area. We pulled together to make sure they had what they needed to entice them into this area. Lastly, our quality of life also plays a major role in attracting businesses to the area. Just about anything you want is here and if you somehow have an urge to go to the big city… it’s about the same distance to each direction.

Public opinion polls consistently say that the economy and jobs are the number one priority of residents. What would your administration do to play a role in economic development and job creation and please provide specific proposals?

Ott: I strongly adhere to the “do no harm” mentality and therefore do not see an active government role in the county of job creation. I do see making county process that businesses have to deal with as a smooth process that is technologically up to date so that we can be of service to the people we serve. That being said, in a small way there may be something that we can do and that is what county government does. The functions that we perform are sometimes repetitive where we’ve already done things like this with vendors who run things for us and outsourced our other work to others.

We also need to make sure we have good price values in every area to be competitive. The only way to get good price value information is to subject those areas to competition. When I say that, I don’t mean that government employees need to stop doing any other function. I think government employees should be able to bid on those jobs. We need to make sure you we are spending our money well by making sure you have a competitive bidding program. The primary objective here is that the taxpayers are getting the best values for their dollar and that we actually know what a good value is.

Muller: As a Democrat, I think the county has to be active in economic development and job creation in the community and even though it is not a driver it at least needs to help support organizations like the LVEDC to promote the county to prospective businesses. We need to do whatever we can to help and support them in trying to bring jobs into the area.

Closing statements

Ott: I think these are the most important elections that you are ever faced with because your vote has a lot of weight here and I am encouraged that you are getting involved and getting information. I think the clients will be more excited with the possibility that we can change government from the grass root up. If we can get around to this and demonstrate our fiscal abilities, then maybe we can be the model for those all over the county as well as in the state. I hope you all will go out and vote on May 21st.

Muller: Lehigh County is an extremely complicated business of $365 million, which most of it goes into the community. We are actually the driver to some agree. We have over 2,000 employees and it is not just a job you hand over to someone. I have a unique and mixed amount of experience.

U.S. Congressman Matthew Cartwright Q&A (edited)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Matthew Cartwright was elected November 6th, 2012 to represent the recently and heavily reconfigured 17th U.S. Congressional District, which now includes the Ci[...]

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