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Welcome to the Bethlehem Gadfly!

Definition of gadfly
1: any of various flies that annoy livestock

2: a person who stimulates other people especially by persistent criticism
3: someone who challenges people in positions of power

The main goal of the Gadfly blog is to provide a space for healthy public dialogue about issues of concern to Bethlehem, Pa., residents. All sides, all perspectives welcome.

For good examples of in-depth coverage of continuing serious issues, see the threads onGadfly 54 candidates for election, Martin Tower, Parking, and on 2 W. Market St.

As context for and balance to the serious issues, we also have some fun stuff relating to Bethlehem as well.

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The Gadfly — Ed Gallagher — would like to hear from you!

Pausing on Peter’s posts

logo Latest post in a series about Wind Creek Casino logo

Peter Crownfield made two comments on posts recently that are easily missed because of the WordPress format for comments — and I’d like to foreground them here.

Peter: Is this [the newly proposed Wind Creek hotel and etcetera] to be a climate-neutral (net zero) building? Is it to be fossil-fuel free? If it doesn’t meet these basics, they should not be allowed to go forward.

We don’t have a real Climate Action Plan in place yet.

But Gadfly thinks we should be thinking that we have a figurative one in place and acting as if it were real.

That is, that every new building now should be held to the rigorous standards of the plan that we will have.

For instance, I’m afraid that the Polk Street Garage will get through without the kind of thinking about solar power that the Environmental Advisory Council folk prompted the Parking Authority about.

The BPA response to the EAC was, to me, far too vague.

For instance, Gadfly is not sure at Planning Commission meetings etc that he hears questions about energy saving design and so forth.

We should be thinking that way even though rules aren’t in place, shouldn’t we?

If Wind Creek doesn’t pass the kind of scrutiny Peter suggests, they should be stopped. No reason why, with their resources, they are not a model of energy efficiency, even without being forced to be.

Gadfly might feel good about Wind Creek’s plans to make Bethlehem the no. 1 destination in the Northeast for a water park if at least their campus was a model in this respect.

Peter: I have not analyzed the TIFs in question, nor have I seen any comprehensive analysis by the city. I have seen quite a few comprehensive studies of TIFs (and similar tax incentive programs) in other areas, and most of them indicate a net loss to the municipalities, even after the TIF ends. I thought Bethlehem was going to start analyzing all these incentive programs in terms of financial results, jobs added, and other predicted benefits.

Yeah.

I would very much like to see a comprehensive analysis of the first 10 years of the Sands, for instance.

These incentive programs come with a lot of promises, a lot of hype — have those things been delivered? I almost feel that such an analysis has to be done by an independent body.

So we’re seeing hype surrounding the recent announcement of Wind Creek’s first major phase.

But what’s our experience with such forecasts?  Can we trust?

A modest proposal: restraining Council repetition

logo 9th in a series of modest proposals logo

Bill Scheirer is an economist who grew up in Bethlehem, spent 40 years in DC, and retired here in 2003. He is a life member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and was on the Mayor’s Task Force for the City of Bethlehem Comprehensive Plan, Zoning Ordinance, and Zoning Map.

Gadfly:

As I recall. there are 15 council rules, number 12 of which is that Robert’s Rules applies in all other instances. I would like to propose a Council Rule 16, which would read as follows:

“A councilmember may not state the same fact, opinion, argument, or representation more than twice in the same speech, nor more than three times in the same meeting.”

Councilmembers will find, with this rule modifying Robert’s Rules, that meetings will be shortened not insignificantly and that other councilmembers and members of the press and the public will be more attentive to what they are saying.

Bill
Gadfly #2

Do you suppose that this rule is aimed at any one Council member in particular?

Councilman Callahan’s coup de gras: bar Councilwoman Van Wirt from acting on Parking Authority matters

logo Latest in a series of posts on Ethics and City Government logo

Councilman Reynolds here refines the basis for his motion to relieve Councilman Callahan as liaison to the Parking Authority by focusing on conflict of interest, that is, BGC’s advocacy for the proposal of the company for whom his brother works: it doesn’t matter that you didn’t have a vote; it doesn’t matter that you may disagree with your brother a lot; it does matter that you promoted a plan from which your brother would benefit.

  • It’s not about criticizing [the Polk Street project].
  • Your brother [John Callahan] was a great Mayor, and there are great projects that they are doing in the City of Bethlehem.
  • They don’t look nearly as good when you advocate for them.
  • Our behavior is not just determined by whether or not we vote, but it’s whether or not we advocate, how we have conversations . . .
  • This is more about whether or not . . . the way you handled yourself is representative of this particular body.
  • It doesn’t matter if you disagree with somebody that you are related to nine times in a row, it doesn’t make it any better to be able to advocate for any individual project.
  • [You can believe that that report was biased but] I’m hard pressed to find that that’s an appropriate comment when somebody in your family is the one who benefits from this.
  • As far as representing City Council to another entity, I believe the point has been made.

Councilman Callahan does not address Councilman Reynolds’s conflict of interest argument but stresses the context of AMK’s actions, that is, the recent corruption cases in Allentown and Reading, as the reason for his concern. He denies any active involvement in the BPA decision, indicating — as he has done many times — that he prefers to discuss matters out in the open, in public at Council meetings. And he ends — doing what he also has done many times — implying, without elaboration or specifics, that a Council member was acting “backstage.”

  • I had no input in that [BPA] decision [on the Polk Street Garage].
  • I did not speak at the meeting.
  • I had no conversations with anyone on the Parking Authority that was voting.
  • I had no voting rights there.
  • And as I have said numerous times, I prefer to handle things here in front of this body instead of backstage.
  • I feel . . . that in the wake of Allentown and Reading for [AMK] to make that phone call on the day of the vote and try to persuade people on the Board to go with Nova . . . I thought that was unethical.
  • I feel in the wake of Allentown and Reading again, everybody’s sensors were up.
  • My comments that I made were made here, I wasn’t hiding anything.
  • I didn’t make any phone calls behind the scenes early in the morning.

Councilman Callahan offers to resign as Parking Authority liaison, but Council progresses with Councilman Reynolds’s motion to relieve him by Council action, and the motion passes 5-2 (Councilman Colon voting with Councilman Callahan). BGC again references a kind of predetermined plot by JWR, but in a dramatic coup de gras BGC asks that Councilwoman Van Wirt be barred from discussion or voting regarding the BPA because of an easement she has with them on her home property. What’s fair is fair, he claims. Gadfly doesn’t understand the correlation. Gadfly cannot understand this move by BGC at all. Anyone who has paid even the barest attention knows that PVW has been at virtually continual loggerheads with the BPA. To suggest favoritism, if that’s what BGC is doing, because of a deal in her benefit makes no sense. Very odd behavior, if you ask the Gadfly. This final move by BGC is an attempt to turn tables, to attempt to slur PVW, to intimate — what? — possible unethical behavior, possible conflict of interest on her part? Council doesn’t even stop to acknowledge much less consider BGC’s request.

  • Obviously this was something Mr. Reynolds was working on
  • I resign as liaison to the Parking Authority.
  • I think parking is a very important thing in the City of Bethlehem.
  • I would ask from this point on that Dr. Van Wirt not vote or have any discussion on anything dealing with the Parking Authority due to a easement that you have with the Parking Authority for access to your garage.
  • I mean, if we’re going to be fair, we’re going to be fair.

to be continued . . .

A TIF Tutorial

logo Latest post in a series about Wind Creek Casino logo

Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development, and deputy director of community development.

“And the additional real estate taxes the new construction will generate will immediately help the city’s bottom line. In past years, county, city and school district tax revenue generated from improvements there went into a special taxing fund — the Tax Increment Financing — to pay for infrastructure improvements at the former Bethlehem Steel land. The TIF expires next year.”
                                                            Morning Call, December 4

Gadfly,

Along with then City Solicitor Joseph ‘Jay’ Leeson and Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority Executive Director John Rohal, I was the 3rd member of the City’s negotiating team to deal with Bethlehem Steel representatives to bring about Tax Increment Financing (TIF) at the site that comprised what was then known as Beth Works. It roughly encompassed the area from the Fahy Bridge to the property that is now Lehigh Heavy Forge just east of the casino. It was looked at to be a financing mechanism for providing public funding to support the construction of public infrastructure for new development on a portion of what at that time was the largest brownfield site in the United States.

What is TIF? It is the set aside of real estate taxes collected on new development within a defined area. The taxes being collected on the unimproved property continue to be paid to the taxing entities, in this case the Bethlehem Area School District, City of Bethlehem, and County of Northampton. Once development takes place the property is reassessed to include those improvements. So, if an acre building site is assessed before any improvements at $500,000 and reassessed after improvements at $2.5 million, the real estate taxes on the $2 million increase would be diverted into a TIF account and not be paid to the taxing entities.

Public meetings were held, and all three taxing entities bought into the idea of diverting tax proceeds into a fund reserved for making public improvements to support new for-profit development.

As those funds accumulate they can then be used to pay off bonds that are floated to fund public improvements such as streets, public utilities, parking lots/garages, etc. The TIF in Bethlehem was structured for a 20-year term, which if my memory serves me was the term limit in 1999 when we negotiated this deal with Bethlehem Steel. The aforementioned public improvements were the kinds of public improvements envisioned back then to be built and funded with TIF. Of course, Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt and development concepts evolved, so different kinds of “public improvements” were made.

The singular project that made TIF viable was the casino development and the roughly $4 million in annual real estate tax increases that were then going into the TIF account. This allowed the Redevelopment Authority to float bonds for a variety of initiatives that include the Hoover Mason Trestle, Stock House, parking lots, public areas of SteelStacks, and the South Bethlehem Greenway. TIF money also went into other questionable uses as well, such as the private 510 Flats project ($800,000) across from the NCC Fowler Center and funding the South Side Ambassadors Program, and reimbursing ArtsQuest for staff time to unlock/lock the Hoover Mason Trestle access gates.

As with many government initiatives good intentions can often lead to unintended consequences, and TIF ended up being used in ways that some would question, including me as an original negotiator. Politics and the desire to feed at the public trough tended to trump intentions.

Although I’ve been informed that it is possible to extend the TIF term so that additional improvements could be made, I do not believe that the political will exists with any of the three taxing entities to do that. Increasing needs in individual budgets do not make it attractive to forgo tax revenue beyond the original 20-year term.

I hope this makes it more understandable.

Dana

So Professor Dana or others: let me see if I understand. Let’s see if I can put this in my own words.

Under the TIF, the property owner (the Sands) paid taxes as usual on their now developed and more valuable property, but the amount of the tax increase solely attributed to development went not to the taxing agencies but into a fund solely directed at improving their property. The taxing agencies’ revenues from the property stayed the same (in that sense, they didn’t “lose” money), but they agreed to take a hit on increased taxes from the increased value of the redeveloped property, and, in effect, the property owner saved some money on improvements. The taxes on the increased value of the property flowed back in to the property owner enabling it to do more improvement.

So is it true to say that the end of the TIF is a loss to Wind Creek? That they are the ones to lose the benefit? So is it true to say that the end of the TIF is a gain for the City (and the other taxing agencies)? If so, that sounds ok to me. But it sounds to me that you see “us” losing a benefit when the TIF ends and that you would like to see the TIF continue — can you explain that further? Does Wind Creek need the “help” of the TIF? Are there things on that property that won’t get done without the TIF? I think I’m still missing something here.

Gadfly still needs your help.

Councilman Callahan: “Mr. Reynolds, I know your games.”

logo Latest in a series of posts on Ethics and City Government logo

Councilman Callahan, of course, defends himself. Gadfly wonders how effective you will think that defense is. Frankly, Gadfly sometimes has trouble following BGC’s train of thought. Now it must be said that BGC may have been caught by surprise. Councilman Reynolds seemed to be working from a prepared or roughly prepared text. No doubt he had the advantage of prior organization of his thoughts. BGC, on the other hand, had to answer in defense spontaneously. It is telling, however, that BGC’s first response to JWR’s motion to relieve him as liaison to the BPA is to see himself as a kind of victim of an “orchestrated” conspiracy, and his last response, similarly, is to see himself the object of game playing. That’s frustrating to Gadfly. That’s a tease. That’s innuendo much like what BGC aimed at AMK. What exactly are you talking about, Councilman Callahan? Tell me, tell us the public, what game is Councilman Reynolds playing? Out here in the cheap seats, we don’t know what you are talking about. What exactly do you mean so that we can judge your truth? That kind of framing by BGC seems to Gadfly a deflection from the charge of the “unequivocally inappropriate” behavior of advocating for his brother’s company and knowing more inside information than he should have if he were simply acting as liaison. In addition, Gadfly could not connect the relevance in BGC’s references to the Transfer Tax, to the Mayor’s role in building the Polk Street Garage, to the departure of Mr. Livingston. And to establish the “bias,” the “slant” of the proposal backed by the City but not accepted by the BPA would need concrete examples and deeper analysis.

(Pardon some perhaps peripheral Gadfly venting. Certainly, it’s a free country. People can do what they want. Certainly family relationships in business and politics need not automatically be looked on with suspicion, need not be thought of as or necessarily be nefarious. Because you are somebody’s relative shouldn’t mark you as some visible sinner like the Hawthorne character in the classic Scarlet Letter novel. (Pardon the professorial reference, but after the Gadfly follower brought up “Kabuki theater” yesterday, the metaphorical roof is off!) But what was Hunter Biden thinking when accepting that Ukraine appointment? Could the Mayor’s son not have a good job somewhere besides with the parent company of a business that does City business — enormous City business?  Why doesn’t BGC stay totally away from situations that involve his brother? It just seems to Gadfly that ethical quicksand is readily visible, but, sadly, people walk into it anyway.)

  • I’ll step down if you feel that way Mr. Reynolds, I mean obviously this has been orchestrated.
  • But know this, nobody, nobody on this Council has been harder on Peron Development [the company that BGC’s brother John works for and the company whose proposal was accepted by the Parking Authority] or BethWorks in what happened with that Transfer Tax.
  • You can mention my brother all you want, my brother’s in the private sector right now.
  • I had no vote for the Parking Authority on that . . . never had any conversations about it.
  • All I knew is that report if you look at it line item by line item by line item, it would be very tough for anybody, rational, and not go, hmmm, there’s a slant to that.
  • I didn’t speak to my brother for two weeks about it . . . he was upset.
  • So to suggest that I don’t take a middle ground on everything to me is pushing it.
  • You know what, I’ll step down from the Parking Authority [the Council liaison role].
  • My issue with it is the fact that the Mayor runs the Parking Authority.
  • Mr. Livingston [executive director of the Parking Authority] is leaving . . . because that garage is being built because the Mayor wants it built.
  • If the Mayor didn’t want that garage built, it’s not getting built.
  • [The Mayor] raised the fine increase to build it.
  • Instead of throwing the Parking director out there to take all the heat, [the Mayor] should have stepped up.
  • To suggest that I’m not fair and I’m not trying to play both ways is disingenuous.
  • You know what, Mr. Reynolds, I know your games.
  • I will step down as the Parking Authority liaison.

to be continued . . .

Councilman Reynolds: “I do not have confidence that Mr. Callahan should continue as our liaison to the Parking Authority”

logo Latest in a series of posts on Ethics and City Government logo

You are going to need a program again to understand the dates and the events cited in this chapter of the ethics discussion at City Council Tuesday night. Here goes. The Bethlehem Parking Authority requested input from the City on the proposals from two firms on the retail portion of the Polk Street Garage. The Mayor recused himself because his son works for one of the firms and appointed an ad hoc committee.

Aug 13: the committee interviewed the two firms
Aug 20: at City Council, Councilman Callahan (not a committee member) referenced info about the meeting before the committee circulated its report
Aug 22: the Committee circulated its report
Aug 28: the Bethlehem Parking Authority voted on the proposals
Nov 6: Councilman Callahan questioned AMK publicly at the City Council meeting about her actions contacting BPA Board members before the Aug 28 vote
Nov 25: The Mayor sends Council a 4-page memo refuting Councilman Callahan’s charge of AMK’s unethical behavior in the Parking Authority issue

Remember that in the last segment, Councilman Callahan not only did not apologize to AMK but moved the goalposts of the Parking Authority issue. In the beginning of this statement, Councilman Reynolds does not seem to take note of BGC’s refocusing the specific nature of AMK’s unethical act and assumes that the Mayor’s memo to BGC has settled the issue. Which is wrong. But the real purpose of JWR here is to show that BGC is guilty of bad behavior. JWR accuses the accuser! He doesn’t call BGC’s actions in 1) advocating for the proposer for whom his brother works and 2) overstepping his role as Council liaison to the BPA “unethical,” but, rather, he calls them “unequivocally inappropriate,” and thus he moves that Council remove BGC from the liaison role.

Pretty slick for a statesman. Ha! JWR has the instincts of a Big-City ward politician.

JWR’s purpose is to punish BGC.

What do you think of JWR for doing that? (BGC will later intimate that other Council members were compliant with JWR.)

How do you think Councilman Callahan is going to respond to JWR? Is he the kind of person to accept such a rebuke?

(Remember that Gadfly is going slow here so that you can think about how you feel about each actor in this ethics controversy at each step along the way.)

  • Mr. Callahan is the liaison from our body to the Parking Authority . . . he represents us.
  • The winning proposal that was picked by the Parking Authority Board — that was not the recommended project of the Administration — includes one of [BGC’s] family members. [BGC’s brother, John Callahan, former Mayor of Bethlehem]
  • As the Parking Authority liaison, [BGC] should not be having conversations with Board members about their decision,
  • he should not be publicly advocating for including affordable housing or not,
  • he should not have had any conversations with anyone on that ad hoc committee on August 13,
  • he definitely should not be referencing those conversations publicly in order to advocate for an aspect of the project . . . before a vote.
  • I don’t think anybody could disagree that that behavior there is unequivocally inappropriate.
  • Most importantly, it’s all public.
  • This is not about the merits of the Polk Street project . . . the administration thought there were positives to both.
  • But he is our liaison to the Parking Authority. He is this body’s representative.
  • This [Polk Street] project is not over.
  • I do not have confidence that Mr. Callahan should continue as our liaison to the Parking Authority.
  • I feel that this has further damaged the connection between City Council and the Parking Authority.
  • He’s not the one that should be making that particular argument [that the City report was biased in favor of the low bidder] when a member of his family is involved.
  • I think that this project is a great project that currently is in a shadow of Mr. Callahan’s . . . his support of the project publicly.

to be continued . . .

“Dark Waters”: a movie to think by

logo The latest in a series of posts relating to the environment, Bethlehem’s Climate
Action Plan, and Bethlehem’s Environmental Advisory Council  logo

Many Gadfly followers are environmentally focused.

The movie “Dark Waters” opens nationally tomorrow and will no doubt play soon locally. Unfortunately, though it is listed on the web site of my go-to place the Banko Ale House Cinema as “coming soon,” they tell me today it will not be playing there. But look for it elsewhere.

Below are selections from a review of “Dark Waters” published in the Call Tuesday.

Looks good. Looks meaningful.

Gadfly loves these kinds of films. “Reel American History” was his long-standing project with Lehigh students as part of his larger History on Trial suite of web projects. And RAH contained several projects on films similar in nature with “Dark Waters”:  Blowing the whistle on “Big Tobacco” [The Insider (1999)]; Radiation kills Karen Silkwood [Silkwood (1983)].

Gadfly has several times recommended the Radical Moderate blog of sustainability warrior and Bethlehem native Alison Steele.

Alison has just published the third in a series of posts framing “Dark Waters” with the documentary — available online here — “The Devil We Know.”

The first 5 minutes of the documentary will scare the hell out of you.

Gadfly recommends that you view the documentary in concert with Alison’s posts and then see the movie.

This is “Reel American History”!

And Gadfly would very much invite posts reacting to the film, the documentary, Alison’s framing of them — all of the above.

Serious business.

(What do we know of the environmental impact of Bethlehem Steel? Studies?)

David Michaels, “Commentary: What ‘Dark Waters’ reveals about corporate science.” {Bloomberg Opinion] Morning Call, December 3, 2019.

A new movie, “Dark Waters,” shines a bright light on a group of dangerous chemicals that are likely in your bloodstream right now. It tells the true story of a polluter that manipulated research and kept evidence hidden from the public — and shows just how crucial it is that scientific evidence be produced by researchers free of conflicts of interest.

The chemicals that drive the film’s drama, known as PFAS, are remarkably effective at repelling water and oil. They’re used to make familiar products such as Teflon, Scotchgard and Gore-Tex, and are found in the coating of pizza boxes and microwave-popcorn bags.

Unfortunately, in recent years, they’ve also gained attention for their links to cancer, liver and thyroid disease, increased cholesterol, and depressed fertility. They’ve been found in the blood of almost every American ever tested, and they contaminate the water in communities across the U.S.

“Dark Waters” focuses on how the chemical company DuPont manufactured Teflon in a West Virginia town, and in the process fouled the local drinking water with a PFAS compound. Over the course of the drama, viewers learn that DuPont hid much of what it knew about its effects. In 1981, for example, DuPont was informed by 3M (from which DuPont purchased much of its C8) that the chemical caused birth defects in rats; DuPont then learned of two apparent birth defects among children of its Teflon division employees.

When the first public concerns abound the compound emerged, DuPont did what too many corporations do: They took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook and hired a firm to sow doubt about the scientific evidence.

The film captures how a courageous attorney working virtually on his own was able to document DuPont’s coverup. Armed with those documents, the Environmental Protection Agency eventually issued its then largest-ever fine, and required DuPont to clean up the local water supply.

We badly need a new model for production of the evidence necessary to protect the public. When government agencies consider potentially harmful exposures and activities, from vaping to opioids to glyphosate to payday loans, they should insist the regulated industries provide data produced by unconflicted scientists.

It’s Thursday, December 5, do you know where your local Climate Action Plan is?