Lehigh County Election Board: Allentown Water Lease Referendum Not Going on the May Ballot

Huge news from Colin McEvoy:

The city deemed the signatures valid in December, which appeared to clear the way for the May and November referendum questions.
But Tim Benyo, chief clerk of the Lehigh County Election Board, notified the city on Feb. 21 that the referendum requirements had not been met, according to a letter obtained by The Express-Times.

The county election office had not received any petitions by Feb. 19, the required 13th Tuesday before the election deadline, according to the letter.

Benyo said while the city directed the county to place the referendum question on the ballot, he could not do so because requirements under the Pennsylvania Constitution and Election Code had not been met.

“While the Lehigh County Election Board wishes to honor any obligation to the City under its Home Rule Charter, that charter cannot change superseding state law governing this office,” the letter reads.

This is game over for the ballot strategy. The lease could get approved in April, long before the next opportunity to put it on the ballot for the November elections. A looming May ballot initiative could possibly have persuaded the city to hold off until after the vote, but now the referendum will come long after the vote on the lease.

I think the best option now seems to be to persuade the Lehigh County Commissioners to extend the Lehigh County Authority’s charter so it can submit a bid for Allentown’s water system. In my view, this is not even a second-best option, it’s the first-best option. This is an opportunity to regionalize Lehigh County’s water infrastructure – a technocratic good policy goal that could save tens of millions of dollars a year, and which has enjoyed support from both Democrats and Republicans. The Lehigh County Authority is the only bidder than is both local and a non-profit. Advocates who don’t want any changes might not be happy with this, but as long as some kind of change is about to happen, this is definitely the least objectionable option, and it’s the one political organizers would be wise to rally around now that the ballot strategy won’t work.


  1. and you wonder why citizens like me have no faith in government, its bureaucrats and the calls for expansion of government.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I do wonder that, and also wonder what the ideological content of this story could possibly be

      • This whole water issue really gives a black eye on government Jon. You have 4k of voters asking for a ballot initiative and the City drags its feet or doesn’t understand the law and now they cant file. Technicalities

        Meanwhile, the deal is done before it gets to a vote and the citizens are left once again without a voice on matters that will affect them and their families over the next 50 years.

        Bloggers like you should be outraged over the disenfranchising of the voter base in things like this.

        • Mitchell it’s really very simple – liberal elites like Jon want voters disenfranchised – he feels they are not intelligent enough to be trusted with decisions like this.

          And before you start Jon you’ve made that point 100 times.

          • Jon Geeting says:

            Intelligence has nothing to do with it. Most voters haven’t spent the time looking at the actual deal and would be voting based on appeals to emotion. It’s the big important fiscal decisions that are why we have representative democracy.

        • Jon Geeting says:

          I don’t personally support ballot initiatives so no, I’m not really outraged. It’s not clear whose fault it was that the deadline passed. Nobody’s been “disenfranchised.” They still have the ability to vote for different politicians, or run their own candidates in the primaries if they don’t like the current set of elected officials.

          • Vote for their own politicians? In Allentown?


            Bernie is right – it’s a banana republic. And worse, it’s hell-bent on taking the Valley down with it.

  2. Doesn’t matter, the lease will be signed before May so there are no questions on legality. There was never a “game” this is a done deal.

  3. Jon,

    Leaving aside the question of the ballot signatures…do you honestly believe the Lehigh County Authority is ready/able to give a “one time cash infusion” of 150-200 million dollars, plus all the assorted “privilege fees” that the city council is counting on?

    • They would have to do a bond issue to fund it. Whether they could float that amount is a good question.

      Another question is whether they have the technical and operational expertise to run it. The answer to that question is yes they do.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Sure, that’s actually a great use of a bond as John points out.

  4. I agree with Jon. It would be an overall good thing to have a county-wide water system.

    However, in the narrow sense the question is about (supposedly) paying off pension contributions. If the winning bid doesn’t provide enough money to the city to pay off the debt in the medium term and overcome the loss of revenue from the water plant in the short term, its a largely failed public policy, no matter how much more efficient the water delivery may be.

    There are cities and states all over the country whose executives insist that these one-time sales will produce massive amounts of revenue. They rarely do. The coverage of Allentown’s bids should be interesting.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I don’t know that it’s a failed pension funding policy if they get, say, 3/4 of what they originally wanted from LCA, but get a more efficient water delivery system out of the deal. They can make up the remaining gap some other way.

      • Jon,
        I guess what I’m wondering about is how having a politician insist that a certain course of action will “solve” a problem (clearly it won’t, but that’s another story), execute the action, and get 75% of what he insisted he would is a “good news story.” Allentown has few other options to “make up the difference,” particularly since pension funds don’t work the way the Morning Call seems to believe they do.

        You now have a city with two long-shot bets at the same time, both with probably a 50/50 or greater chance of failing to raise sufficient revenue to pay for city services.

        Lastly, if having the LCA do a bond issue is a great way to raise $150-200 million dollars for buying a water system, then why couldn’t Allentown have done the exact same thing, as Molovinsky and other suggested? Could it be that, even controlling for the difference in interest rates, that making a flow a stock doesn’t work very well. Maybe the first step before calling something a “great idea” is to actually put some numbers in the model to see how they work out. But that’s probably boring to the Mayor.

        • Jon Geeting says:

          Allentown can make up the other 25% through parking reforms, selling the parking garages and surface lots, and the rest through an increase in the land millage rate.

          Without seeing the bid, I would think the bond issue would be a good idea for LCA since they have a larger base of rate-payers to pay it back from, and they’d also be in a position to capture the efficiency gains from a consolidated county water system.

  5. Honestly–the city’s parking garages are worth what? What’s the annual income the city gets (or could get) from parking fees? And how do you replace that revenue in the future? Sacramento has tried something like this and got about 40% of the absurd number they asked for for parking lots.

    The problem isn’t in paying back the bonds, either for the city or the county–the water system has solid revenues. The problem is in the fair valuation of the asset. If the county authority acts responsibly, bids much lower than the “expected” price and wins, the city fails–unless somehow the stock market starts gaining 20 percent a year again.

    • They also have the golf course and park system to sell.

      • Jon Geeting says:

        Not for selling the parks, but do support upzoning all the land around parks.

        • Pawlowski will sell anything he has to for political gain. Nothing is off limits with this asshole.

          Upzoning will generate pennies compared with the problems they’ll still have after the water/sewer lease.

          • Jon Geeting says:

            Upzoning will take a while to pay off, but a bunch of new parkside real estate would be a big deal for the property tax base.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Not sure. It’s not just parking fees though. You’d have the land and structures back on the tax rolls, the employees would no longer work for the city, etc. Any city owned land in the NIZ could probably sell for quite a bit if they get fair market value.

      Once we see the bids for the water system, we’ll have a better idea of what the fair market value really is.

      • I’m generally in favor of referendums when they are hard., but I take your point about electing people to do a job. However, the anti-lease folks have a point in that the city has not been particularly transparent about what “the plan” is. Put it online–what are the numbers, what are the assumptions, and tell the city how this idea fits in. Make clear that there is a minimum bid (this hasn’t been done, as far as I know) Having the council just say “we got it” doesn’t seem very convincing.

        Right now the Mayor sets the boundaries of debate, so we talk about “one time cash infusions” and not at all about expected asset valuations increases or amounts of money required year by year. If this plan depends on 12% pension fund returns for 15-20 years, then it doesn’t really matter what the place sells for.

        I’d be interested in what the tax value of the garages would be in public hands–but of course no one will make a public estimate. I’d probably sell the golf course too, and rezoning is worth a look–but those are changes that will take years to impact the city’s finances, and this is a problem that will impact much sooner. Doesn’t mean you don’t do them, just that the time horizon is different.

        All really points to setting up a short-term “everything is better” picture to advance some political careers in the future.

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