At its Nov. 27 meeting, Northampton County’s nine-member Gaming Board awarded $530,834.40 in “impact” grants to the municipalities surrounding Bethlehem’s Sands Casino. But they may have played Santa Claus for the last time.
Drug overdose deaths have increased sharply in the Lehigh Valley since 2014, according to records maintained by both the Northampton and Lehigh county coroners. These fatalities have increased sharply even though drug overdose reversal kits have been widely available and have been used by first responders over the past year.
What’s Northampton County doing about the opioid crisis? That question stumped County Council candidates at a recent debate. But Tiffany Rossanese can answer that question. She’s the Administrator of Northampton County Drug and Alcohol program. She updated council members Nov. 16 on what her department is doing to combat America’s heroin epidemic.
Commissioners voted unanimously Nov. 20 to advertise a budget for next year that holds the line on taxes for a second year in a row. But to do so, officials will have to dip into cash reserves. They will start 2018 with an opening cash balance of $3.2 million, but expect to have only a little over $2 million left at the end of the year.
The spending plan will maintain the current real estate tax of 7.09 mills. According to Finance Director Andrew Freda, this translates to an annual tax bill of $647 for the average taxpayer.
Without a business plan or feasibility study in hand, Northampton County Council is nevertheless considering a $1 million grant for the Da Vinci Science Center project in Easton. An ordinance establishing the grant was introduced at the Nov. 16 meeting. Payments would be made in $100,000 increments over the next 10 years. The money would come from hotel taxes, not real estate taxes. Hotel taxes may only be used for projects that promote regional tourism.
The proposal is similar to a grant that helped fund SteelStacks and PBS-39 in South Bethlehem.
Northampton County Council is currently considering six leases for magisterial district judges. Those leases were held by Executive John Brown for eight weeks before the court insisted that Council should review them. Brown wanted to renegotiate terms already established by the courts.
Three Magisterial District Judges - Alicia Zito, Nancy Matos Gonzalez and Dan Corpora - were at a council committee meeting Oct. 18 to discuss the need for offices in which they can feel safe. Matos Gonzalez, who has presided in South Bethlehem for the past 26 years, spoke for them.
Under Northampton County’s career service rules, a job vacancy must first be offered to someone who already works for the county. As positions become open, county staffers often apply. This gives qualified people a chance to move up and prove themselves. But when a department head concludes that no one on the inside is qualified for an open slot, he or she can hire someone from the outside. One such recent outside hire by Human Resources Director Amy Trapp is raising eyebrows.
Standing inside Gracedale’s Chapel, Northampton County Executive John Brown answered the prayers of many taxpayers on Oct. 3 when he discussed his budget for next year. That’s because, for the third year in a row, he’s been able to dodge a tax hike. Also, in what may very well be a first in Northampton County, he has avoided dipping into cash reserves to balance his $402 million spending plan. It’s a true balanced budget. Brown thanked his cabinet and the county work force several times. “Employees are the county’s most valuable resource,” is part of his message.
Over the past three county election cycles, Gracedale has been a dominant issue. An effort to sell the public nursing home sparked a rare public referendum in 2011 in which voters overwhelmingly voted the keep it. Since that time, county candidates have universally made their own support clear. Now a possible jail at Gracedale has galvanized Nazareth area residents. They have packed into both County Council meetings on October 5 and 22 to oppose any new jail at Gracedale. They have circulated an online petition, gathering over 1,000 signatures.
According to its treasurer, Tom Nolan, Northampton County’s Gaming Board is sitting on a $745,128 mountain of cash. That’s how much was in its restricted account, i.e.; the one that pays municipal grants, at the end of August. At their Sept. 25 meeting, board members made clear that they are in no hurry to award grants. That’s because, if they do, the state could ask that the money be refunded.