Full Transcript of the May 13 Candidates Forum
By LVEDC Staff on May 16, 2013
The County Executive Candidates Forum on Economic Development and Regionalism Sponsored by LVEDC and Lehigh Valley Partnership May 13, 2013
NOTE: This transcript includes the gist of the candidates’ responses. Some segments have been edited for space, but the messaging has not.
First segment: Candidates for Northampton County Executive
Host Don Cunningham: Economic development, regionalism and jobs in the Lehigh Valley. Tonight’s forum gentlemen will be limited to those topics. We know there are many, many things that can be discussed for all of you, who run governments and run counties. Tonight we really just want to talk about those topics.
We are fortunate to have Chris Borick, professor of Political Science at Muhlenberg College. Not only are we fortunate to have him here tonight as a moderator, but we are fortunate to have him in the Lehigh Valley because if you know Chris, Chris is a statewide voice analyzing politics from the state level, the national level, and representing us here in the Lehigh Valley. I want to thank him for volunteering his time, coming to a competing college down here at DeSales to be a moderator for this forum.
Questions tonight were generated by submittals, by members of LVEDC, and of the Lehigh Valley Partnership. Candidates will have three minutes to give their opening remarks and talk about themselves and their platforms in these areas. Then you will each have two minutes to give closing remarks and we will have two minutes per answer and each candidate will get to answer the same question. We won’t have candidate-to-candidate questioning. John McGran is our official time keeper. When he holds up the little yellow sign, that means you have about 15 to 20 seconds and the red one means we are out of time. Obviously we can get more questions in if we adhere to the time frame.
So once again I want to thank the candidates for being here. Professor Borick is going to introduce them. Let’s give them all a round of applause and thank you all for being here as well. Ladies and gentlemen, Chris Borick.
Moderator Chris Borick: Thank you so much Don and thank you for all our candidates and to everybody that took the time to attend tonight. As Don said, count government is extremely important. Sometimes I call it invisible government to my students. My students focus on national politics. They’ll focus on state politics. Sometimes local politics and the municipal level. But county government is often invisible to them. Everybody in this room, I would imagine, knows that it’s anything but invisible in our lives.
It affects so much of what happens in our daily lives. These individuals are looking for positions at the head of county government in Northampton County and therefore, a lot of power and ability to shift and shape the way our lives are affected. So, it is great to have them here. As Don said nicely, we are going to have a focused debate… a focused forum if you will. These gentlemen have been together many times, I imagine, over the past few weeks and months and focused on a lot of other issues. Tonight it’s about economics.
I’m a political pollster, as probably many people know, and one of the things we ask individuals is what’s the most important issue to them? Time and time again, economic development and jobs and employment issues come out at the top of the list. So tonight, we’ll have a chance to focus on those very issues. The Lehigh Valley Economic Council and the Lehigh Valley Partnership have allowed us that opportunity to do so.
I’d like to introduce our four panelists. First we’ll start with Mayor John Brown of Bangor, next to him is Mayor John Callahan of Bethlehem, Northampton County councilman Lamont McClure and finally, former Northampton County Executive Glenn Reibman. Thank you gentlemen for being here. We’re going to start with opening statements and we’ll start with you Mayor Brown.
Mayor John Brown: Thank you for the invitation to be here. I’m excited to be running for county executive. Just a quick snapshot, I’m finishing my first term as Mayor in Bangor borough. I have 30 years of a business background that I brought into the role as mayor. 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. I think there needs to be a clearer definition as to what the role of the county is in that realm and then begin to align all the processes that need to be aligned in order to make that an effective tool in the county. That includes the county itself and then reaching out to local partners overall.
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.” I think there has to be accountability. We have to hold ourselves accountable within the government’s structure to make sure that we can build that trust back to the taxpayer.
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. You’re a role model. I think as a role model and a leader, in that realm, you inspire and you empower the constituents, the employees, and the groups that you’re working with overall. To be able to do their jobs in a way that they know how and they know is align within the overall vision and mission the government is supposed to do. Ultimately, that is to serve the taxpayer and not the other way around.
Mayor John Callahan: Let me start off by thanking Don Cunningham and LVEDC and the partnership for hosting this important forum tonight about a topic that we all recognize is critically important to not just Northampton County, but to the region and the state as a whole. I think the first fundamental question that you all should be asking and that we should be answering is “why do you want to be county executive?” and “what do you plan on doing once you get there?” For me, it’s pretty simple. 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.
This is an important topic for this evening. There’s not a time that I’ve given a business leader address or a state of the city address that when I have not acknowledge the role that all of you people play. First and foremost in economic and job development. 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.
There was a story in the paper last month, we just had our best quarter, in recent memory, and Standard & Poor recently changed our economic outlook from neutral to positive. That’s again about providing the right environment for the private sector to thrive over time and, as John said, to provide a level of predictability. We’ve made great strides and I’m going to talk about a couple to three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Chris Martin and do a tour of Martin Guitar, a six-generation business in Northampton County, that has provided great jobs for decades. To meet with this senior leadership to talk about what’s important and what do they need from the county in order for there to be a seventh generation of Martin Guitar. So, we’re going to talk about my three point plan for job creation and I look forward to tonight’s topics and the questions that we’ll all have the opportunity to answer.
Lamont McClure: The fundamental issue in this particular forum is economic development and job creation. One of the things in Northampton County that we have not done as well as we could have done in these past several years is create jobs. I understand that one of the focuses of tonight’s forum is regionalism and we’re going to talk a bit about regionalism and I am supportive of regionalism. But we are running for Northampton County Executive and we need to focus on Northampton County first and Northampton County jobs. One of the things I noticed not too long ago was that the Morning Call had an economic development review. They talked about the best employers that have come to the Lehigh Valley in the past and they all happen to be in Lehigh County. By best employers, I mean those who pay wages from which you can raise a family and send your kid to college on. In that very same issue of the Morning Call, there was also an article warehouses and how warehouses are the type of economic development that is less favorable than let’s say bringing in an Ocean Spray, or the folks who bake Entenmann’s products, or Olympus to your county. Unfortunately, what we need to do is focus on those better paying jobs. I think that the way to do that is by creating a stable tax structure. That’s why I’ve pledge not to raise property taxes in the next four years.
We’ve taken a hard look at the budget this year and we believe that we can promise the job creators, and isn’t that what we always hear? Don’t they say that they want a stable regulatory environment and they want to know what the taxes are going to be because that’s part of the structural costs of when they determine whether to bring jobs to a particular locale. What I’m going to do is not raise taxes in the next four years. That will give individual home owners stability, small business owners stability, and that will give large employers the notion that they can come and not have to worry about their county tax bills rising.
Glenn Reibman: Thank you Chris, thank you Don Cunningham, the LVEDC, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to take this opportunity to talk about the success of the unprecedented development that was achieved with the Glenn Reibman administration, when I served two terms as Northampton County executive. When I ran for county executive in 1997, I said I would take economic development to the next level. The Reibman administration not only talked about economic development, it delivered and it achieved a level far above our expectations. The Reibman administration formalized the evolution of economic development from that of a detached, benevolent funder to that of an active and engaged partner. In short, economic development became an essential and important responsibility of county government.
We provided grants, which in turn resulted in billions in economic development to all corners of the county, thus creating thousands of jobs. We accomplished this by building Commerce Center Boulevard at the southernmost part of the old Bethlehem Steel property. The framework for the Bethlehem Commerce Center Boulevard is the boulevard to jobs to our citizens and prosperity for our family’s future and is the lynch pin to one of the greatest economic development projects in the history of the Lehigh Valley. The development of BethWorks would not have happened if the Bethlehem Area school district, the city of Bethlehem under Don Cunningham, and Northampton County did not make the initial investment and commitment by creating the first TIF (tax increment financing) program in Northampton County for this site.
Another investment was the grant for the county for the Broad Street parking garage in downtown Bethlehem. In Bethlehem Township, we invested in Lehigh Valley Industrial Park VI. In East Allen Township, we invested in infrastructure and improvements, which produced the Arcadia East Industrial Park with two large companies, Fisher Scientific of Boston, which handles lab equipment, and Trader Joe’s cold storage and distribution facility. These two developments alone brought $60 million in private investments and a thousand full- and part-time jobs to the county. In Plainfield Township, the county partnered to bring ECO-Block Canada’s award-winning facility there.
In the far northeast corner of the county, the Bangor Area School District and regional economic development groups partnered with the county to build the Portland Industrial Park – the only other park in the county with access to interstate 80. The Reibman administration created the proper environment for job creation and economic development and we will recreate that environment because I have the experience, I have achieved the results, and I have a vision to do so.
Borick: Thank you gentlemen for your opening comments. What we’re going to do is go in the same order for the first question then we will alternate. Then for closing statements, we will go in reverse order. We’ll start with Mayor Brown: Regionalism is key to the mission of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation and the Lehigh Valley Partnership. Please tell me what regionalism means 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. Again, the savings that we could achieve from that, the benefit to the local law enforcement, and the ability to clean up the regional issues that we have in crime is an example that of a service that should be regionalized overall.
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. I think public health will be the one for the future.
McClure: Regionalism is an interesting concept in which it is difficult to take apart and define, but some of our challenges in respect to regionalism are clear. One thing that binds us as a region is our airports and as I look around this room, I see people who sit or have sat on our airport authority board. They know about the challenges. Moving forward, we will need to work together to create an environment that will help make us a first-class region. One of the things we understand is that as our population grows, we will become the second largest metropolitan region in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We will necessarily need to have our regional act in order, in order to continue to thrive and grow.
Regionalism is an amorphous concept but you can see it play out in economic terms. It was not until the hockey arena issue was settled that a resolution was brought to the Northampton County council, which sought to ask and enable the undoing of the enabling legislation to allow the arena to come to Allentown. Although the arena is in Lehigh County, I thought as a matter of regionalism, it was important to establish a beachhead in Allentown so that all of the Lehigh Valley could benefit from that project as well. I know that Mayor Callahan and I disagreed on that. Mayor Callahan did not support the arena coming into Allentown. That is an example of how sometimes in regionalism; you must sacrifice for the greater good. No one in Northampton County and in the Northampton County council has been a stronger advocate to bringing in regional dollars and getting LVEDC, for instance, to pay more attention to Northampton County than I have. I think I bring the broadest perspective to the topic of regionalism.
Reibman: When I think of regionalism in the Lehigh Valley, I think of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation. We think of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. We think of the Lehigh Valley International Airport. We think of the Slate Belt Chamber of Commerce. These are realizations of people working together even within our municipal police force, another example of regionalization. What I want to do when elected is to move two new issues. That is a bi-county or even a tri-county health department and a multi-county rail system, just as our friends here in the Lehigh Valley and in New Jersey are desperately in need of.
Borick: 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 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.
McClure: In my seven years on the Northampton County council, I have had the opportunity to review, debate, and learn about the alphabet soup proposals. I believe that a stable tax environment in Northampton County is important. As long as we can demonstrate to potential business that their property taxes will not rise in the next four years, I think, will be very attractive. With respect to TIF and LERTA, I think it is important for us to realize that we have to analyze the benefits we are gaining. We need to get stronger on analysis of how these projects work. The one issue is job creation but the other is: are the projects working the way they were intended to work?
Reibman: I want to allude to the two projects that I had mentioned before in my opening statement and am very proud of. Number one, we provided real money to East Allen Township. That investment as I repeat produced the Arcadia Industrial Park and brought in two major companies. The private sector invested over $60 million dollars into the project. Today there are full- and part-time jobs there. The other one is the one in Plainfield Township. We won a state award for that project because the public sector and private sector worked together. There were eight partners. Together these partners brought ECO-Block Canada to the Slate Belt for a very successful project in the Pen Argyl Area School District.
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.
Borick: 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?
McClure: Our educational system, especially our universities. We are very fortunate to have the finest universities here in Lehigh Valley. We do a very good job at educating these folks and retaining them. We are one of the premier places to receive an education and stay. Companies care about the quality of life and education. Education at the higher level and the quality of life are two things we need to impress upon folks who are thinking about moving their business here.
Reibman: I would agree with Mr. McClure on education and higher learning, but along with that we have very good technical schools in the Lehigh Valley… and community colleges. We also have the tools and growing tax base in the Northampton County community with a very good quality of life. We are fortunate to have the chambers of commerce here in the Lehigh Valley because they are a great asset in attracting and growing businesses. We have the LVEDC to market us for businesses and economic development and we have Discover Lehigh Valley to market us for tourism. That combination makes us a very likeable community to come here, live here, work here, and play here.
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.
Borick: 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?
Reibman: We were the first administration to administer the first TIF. Without a TIF there probably would not be a BethWorks. Secondly, I want to commend Mr. [John] Stoffa’s administration and current county council on the Route 33 exit TIF. That is slated to create more than 5,000 jobs in Northampton County and greatly enhance our tax base.
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.
McClure: I am supportive of TIFs. Anyone looking at my record can rest assured that if it is appropriate to use these tools, I will use them as county executive. However, we need to use these tools and be mindful of them. We need to understand the benefits that will come from these projects when using TIFs. If I were to become county executive I would focus on determining in advance whether or not the benefits will actually projected would be achieved when using a TIF.
Borick: 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.
McClure: We need to have our fiscal office in order so that folks will know that their county government will be well run. In the first four years of my term, property taxes will not rise. I have proposed that we will hire a director of community and economic development. My vision for that position is to work with LVEDC and to partner with and use LVEDC as the primary marketer of Northampton County.
Reibman: I created the department of community and economic development in Northampton County and when I left it had a director and it will have a director when I return. My experience and record and action will be part of a five-point program for job creation and economic development. We are going to continue to expand Northampton’s tax base by encouraging businesses to locate into the county. We’re going to fund infrastructure and transportation upgrades. We’re going to improve job training programs at local schools and colleges. We are going to form partnerships with surrounding counties. We’re going to conduct a feasibility study and find out if we need an exit on I-78 and 378 in Northampton County.
Borick: 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 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.
McClure: We need to make sure our bridges are maintained and we have already started an analysis and we are in the process of repair the bridges. We need to continually do this and that is what I will focus on as county executive.
Reibman: I will renew quarterly meetings with the three mayors and the two executives of Northampton and Lehigh counties so we work together as a team of five when there is an important regional infrastructure project to lobby for the necessary dollars. I will also build a rail system that will come up from Philadelphia into the Lehigh Valley, that will come from New York to the Lehigh Valley, and that will come from the Scranton area to the Lehigh Valley. We need to work with the other counties in order to establish a multicounty so the infrastructure can be built.
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.
Borick: Thank you gentlemen. You have completed your question session and we will now move onto two-minute conclusions from each candidate.
Reibman: Thank you Chris, thank you Don, and again thank you LVEDC and the members who have participated in the forum tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, Northampton County government recognizes that we cannot protect Gracedale residents, protect our communities through a department of corrections, ensure the efficiency of criminal justice, maintain our parks and bridges or meet new emerging social needs without a growing tax base. Economic development is at the very foundation of a very healthy and sustainability. It takes times, patience and money. We will recreate this important environment under my administration because I have the experience, achieved the results, and I have the vision to do so.
McClure: I would like to commend my opponents in the primaries. I propose we don’t raise the property taxes in the next four years in order to strengthen and widen our tax base. I will use all the tools in the bag but I will be judicious when using them in order to ensure that the taxpayer is benefitting from these programs and there is a return investment available for the community.
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.
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.
Segment 2: The Lehigh County Candidates
Cunningham: On behalf of the board of directors of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation and the members the Lehigh Valley Partnership, I want to welcome all three of you and thank everyone for being here. Let me just take a moment to say that as you know that LVEDC is a public-private partnership, focused on marketing the Lehigh Valley for business development. The Lehigh Valley Partnership is a consortium of our largest employers and is also a public-private partnership.
This forum is a chance for you gentlemen to express your visions, your ideas, and your platforms related to regionalism, job creation, and economic development. Chris Borick will present to you a series of questions. We are grateful to two entities tonight. DeSales University, for hosting us here… which I believe is their first event that they have had in this beautiful new Gambet Center, named after Father Gambet, and thanks also to our moderator.
Borick: The first forum went well and now we’re onto the second part of this forum. Tonight we have Dean Browning, the former Lehigh County commissioner chairman; Tom Muller, who is the director of administration for Lehigh County; and Scott Ott, who is currently a Lehigh County commissioner. Gentlemen we shall start with your opening statements.
Dean Browning: I thank you, Don and the organization for having us tonight. I would also like to thank those of you who are here for taking time out to be with us this evening. In Lehigh County, with the budget that was just enacted, the county’s deficit has gotten larger. We need to truly balance the county’s budget, eliminate the deficit, and we need to do that without raising taxes. Over the past 10 years there have two tax increases and three tax decreases. Not quite the model of stability. Government must live within its means. We need to put together a budget where expenses do not exceed revenue. To do that, we need a county executive that has the ability to identify real spending reforms and the capability to enact those reforms.
We have a problem with the county’s compensation method where the employees that were getting two increases a year, both a step and a merit increase. I proposed a solution to that and worked with the administration to implement that beginning with non-union employees and then with union employees. As county executive I will bring that same problem-solving ability to bear and to be able to implement the solutions I develop.
Second, we need to create a climate in where our economy can grow and businesses have an opportunity to expand and create more and better jobs. I have over 30 years of experience working for local companies. I know that government does not create jobs through my experiences; private industries do. However, government does have a small and vital role to play in that and I plan as county executive to focus on that. I have had the opportunity to sit through the first session so I know that some of my specifics I will need to address that and that will be an answer to a subsequent question so I’ll to defer to that time but thank you very much.
Tom Muller: Thank you. Thanks Don for the invitation. This is the only time I’ve been between these two guys [Browning and Ott]. I don’t know if I should worry. Thanks very much to LVEDC and Chris. I hope I can thank you for the questions but I didn’t sit in earlier so I don’t know what they were. Let me tell you a little about me first because who I am and what I am – it kind of feeds into what decisions I may make moving forward. I am a husband first, in fact most places I go I am known as MJ’s husband. I normally don’t get two minutes to three minutes to chat. I am a grandfather. I am a father… a father who pays college tuition right now and I am also a field hockey and soccer dad, not to be confused with Sarah Palin’s hockey moms. I don’t look good in lipstick.
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.
Scott Ott: 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.
Borick: Regionalism is key to the mission of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation and the partnership. Please tell me what regionalism means 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.
Browning: To me regionalization is the application of an economic concept where you have a concentration of resources, an economy of scale to receive a better result. Applying that to the Lehigh Valley, in my mind, means we need to break down the parochial approach normally taken and take a more concentrated and more effective way of dealing with those problems. Two examples I have in mind, one is probably more a long-term solution, a long-term regionalization approach, and that is, how we conduct law enforcement.
In Lehigh County, we have a great number of individual law enforcement services. One approach we need to take, in my opinion, is take a countywide or regional approach to how we conduct law enforcement. More of a long-term solution. More of a short-term solution, for example, is within Lehigh and Northampton counties. We have three nursing homes serving the Lehigh Valley, two in Lehigh County and one in Northampton County. So, we have an opportunity there to take a regional approach towards our nursing home services in the Lehigh Valley beginning with backroom services, accounting and management, and if we need to take the next step and take a more Lehigh Valley approach to the nursing home business, instead of doing it on an individual county basis.
Muller: Interesting… I’m going to be agreeing with Dean on a number of points. 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. We in Lehigh County established a regional crime center. Unfortunately we’ve had to back off and make it regional within our 17 or now 18 police forces and a number of partnerships with counties outside the area. We’ve never quite gotten on board our partners from the east, Northampton County. Criminals don’t know any borders and so this needs to be regionalized. If that’s where 70 cents of our [tax] dollar goes, to me that is an important one that we can push. What’s interesting is that we’ve had our crime center open for all of about three months and so far it’s nailed three murderers and one happened to be in Bethlehem and two in Berks County, so it already has worked somewhat across the borders but it has a long way to go. That is the one I would push for significantly.
Ott: I think Tom highlights one of the challenges with any idea of regionalization where six of us can dream great dreams about how this or that can be regionalized, but in reality we have to deal with people. There’s the politics of personal involvement in each of these situations. So 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.
You can’t get that local police department to give up what they see as their autonomous behavior within their jurisdictional boundaries. So we need to be respectful of everyone. A county government is not better government than township government. County government is a different level of government and so we need to make sure that in any effort that we have, to reach out and find those economies of scale, that we treat everybody with respect and that’s going to have to flow. It is very difficult to create a regional crime center, where it may seem on the surface, as Mr. Muller described, would be a great benefit to everybody concerned, but it was hard to get people to pitch in and become involved with that. 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.
Borick: 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 up there in the back. 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. My challenge will be that I think Cindy plans on retiring at the end of the year so I’m going to need to find somebody who as at least and is somewhat is as near as good as she is.
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.
Browning: I agree that private enterprise is the primary driver for this economic process; however, with the current governmental environment, private enterprises need assistance, needs someone to coordinate and navigate through the obstacles government has put into place over the years. That is a key role that the LVEDC fulfills in helping businesses navigate that process so they can achieve that result. To answer your question specifically about the staffing, I agree with Tom Muller… I would keep staffing at the current level.
Borick: 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.
Browning: Infrastructure repair is one of the primary responsibilities of Lehigh County. As Mr. Ott just mentioned, the county is responsible for those 47 bridges in maintaining and repairing and we need to continue that effort. On a regional approach though to water and sewer, again back to the comment I made earlier, we need to move away from the parochial approach to how we deal with the problem and take more of a regional view and look for what’s best for the entire Lehigh Valley instead of and individual area.
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.
Borick: 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?
Browning: I am in favor of that and I would like to expand a little further on your question when you ask about supporting private development. It is true that it does support private development but there is a public good in that process in which it allows for the greater good to be affected. I am in support of TIFs. I think that is an appropriate way to use future tax dollars to take care of current requirements.
If you look at a particular project, and I will give you one for example, the West Hills development, right off the I-78 Route near the New Smithville exits. I was on that TIF committee. That is a development where the developer was going to pay roughly $100 million dollars on that project and bring up about a thousand jobs to the Lehigh County. To be able to go forward with that development, there were two things that were needed. One we needed to upgrade the waste water facility in that area and two the entrance and the exit ramp for that bridge needed to be rebuilt. Those were all public activities that needed to be done before the development could go forward. The bridge in particular over I-78 was height- and width-restricted… it was obsolete.
PennDOT said it was going t take years before they could fix that bridge. We had several options. We could have done nothing and the development would not have taken place. We could’ve waited 10 years for PennDOT to get around to that problem, or we could’ve used TIFs, which is using future tax dollars to the that infrastructure update now and allow development to go forward, with the benefit that once the development is completed, Lehigh County is going to be picking up roughly $250,000 a year in tax revenue and the Northwestern Lehigh School District is going to garner a million dollars a year in additional tax revenue.
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. There’s a glass half empty and glass half full view. A lot of the qualifications that if we had a good, sound template and process, we would fit that.
Borick: 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 Crossing, 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.
Browning: I take a little bit of a different view in that it is my understanding that future tax money will be used for the project and not current taxpayers’ monies to fund these projects. That is my understanding of how using TIFs worked. Again you get back to the point I raised before. What are the alternatives? You can either do nothing and hope that private enterprise will go forward and develop that, we wait for PENDOT to fulfill their responsibilities which means the development is put off by five to 10 years, or we can use TIFs now to have the project go forward and use future tax dollars rather than current tax dollars to finance things So I am in favor of them.
Borick: 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.
Browning: Lehigh Valley and Lehigh County has several unique aspects. One is quality of life. There is a small town atmosphere, yet we are close to the metropolitan centers of New York and Philadelphia, and even Washington D.C. Lehigh County is blessed; we have a Trexler Nature Preserve for those who like outdoor hiking activity, Coca-Cola Park and recreational areas. We have an ideal location and good transportation system. We have a unique particular location that benefits Lehigh Valley. We are close to the ports in New York and Philadelphia. As I recall, Lehigh County is a day’s drive from roughly about 60 percent of disposable income in the country. We are uniquely located to be able to move goods from the ports of New York and Philadelphia to that area of the country and that’s what I think we should be marketing as our strong point.
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 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.
Borick: 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?
Browning: Lehigh Valley government is not a driver but does have a role to play in it. It has a role to play in both the short term and long term. In the short term, and I will deviate from the others on the panel, in the fact that we need to develop our workforce in the Lehigh Valley, specifically Lehigh County. Workforce development is a need. My view and approach to solving that is going to be similar to the approach we’ve taken in Lehigh Valley government whether that is creating the congress of governments or putting together the criminal justice advisory board that beats on a regular basis. My approach would be that we form a round table of educational officials, local business leader, and local government leaders that would meet on a regular basis and focus specifically on what we need to do with workforce development in the Lehigh Valley.
In the long run, we need to do a much better job in education our kids. That is not the county’s role but I think the county executive is uniquely situated to take a leadership role in that. One of main things I would like to do as county executive is to work with local businesses to adopt a school and institute a program called “The Leader in Me” which basically takes Steven Cubby’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. We need to implement that in our schools in order to help kids become better students, better kids, and develop into more prosperous adults.
Muller: As a Democrat, I’m not going to go into as much detail as Dean just went. 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. Sometimes we need to take the side seat. We need to do whatever we can to help and support them in trying to bring jobs into the area. The only place I would support moving us in the education end or the democratic end of things. We need to work on our kids and the reason for that is to get them on the right track towards the progression of life to keep our expenses and taxes down.
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.
Borick: We have completed our formal question section of the forum so we’re going to move to closing contents.
Ott: I appreciate all of you coming down here today. They often call these “off-year elections” but frankly I think these are on-year elections. 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. You have really good candidates for Lehigh County and even Northampton County so be sure to vote. If you exercise this right about this, 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 since they’re new and don’t know how they work. I have a unique and mixed mount of experience and I hope you all will realize my point of view and that you agree. Please go out and vote on May 21st because your vote counts. Sitting on the couch at home and not voting is what causes races to be close so please vote and bring a buddy.
Browning: Thank you Chris for moderating tonight. I thank you all for coming out. I’m sure you had many more exciting things you could have done with your Monday evening other than sit here listening to us. Lehigh County is home to roughly 350,000 people who live here because they are looking for a better and prosperous life. Lehigh County government has a small but important role to play in that. As Tom mentioned, the county has a budget of roughly $360 million – or roughly about $1,000 per person for each person who lives in the Lehigh County. It employs 2,000 people and its purpose is to ensure security for the residents and to make sure that residents who can’t take care of themselves have support. It is there to make sure the bridges are maintained and are safe to travel on and that they took a part of recreational event.
Lehigh County has been successful thanks to the quality of life and the security provided in the county. It is important to have a certain aspect of skills in order to manage this environment and I believe I have those skill sets required to effectively be the CEO of Lehigh County. I have over 30 years of experience working for successful companies in the area balancing budgets, growing jobs, and growing businesses. I will bring that same skill to bear as county executive. I would urge you to go to my website to get more information on my plan and intentions if I were to become executive or you can check out my Facebook page. Be sure to vote on Tuesday May 21st.
LVEDC and LV Partnership host county executive’s forum on economic development and regionalism
By John McGran Job creation, the economy and regionalism topped the agenda at the first-ever county executive candidate’s forum hosted by Lehigh Valley Economic Development C[...]Continue to Next Page