Portland Doesn’t Need Its Own Police Department

Why it would be a good idea for Northampton County to directly provide police services to the municipalities on the periphery:

Detractors have questioned the wisdom of starting a chapter of the Guardian Angels while trying to promote Portland’s downtown to businesses. Some, including Northampton County Councilman Ron Angle, a former Portland councilman, have said the presence of the Guardian Angels will make people think the town has a worse crime rate than it actually does.

Prator, however, insists the group would only be an aid to the borough. With only two part-time police officers and another two to be hired pending completion of paperwork, the group would provide law enforcement with an extra set of eyes and ears.

There’s no reason for Portland to have it’s own police department. It is extremely small and can’t possibly have the tax base to support comprehensive policing services. It would probably be more cost-effective to have Greater Bethlehem and Greater Easton police departments, with the County directly providing police services to the rest.

County Districts and Economic Development

This point is tangential to the Portland Generating Station issue, so it deserves its own post. Consider this quote from Ron Angle:

The Portland Power plant is in Northampton County, but the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection filed a petition against the plant.

And some Northampton County officials believe that move was fueled by politics.

“It always seems like there’s an obstacle for economic development in the slate belt,” said Ron Angle, a republican on Northampton County Council.

This is why I don’t like district seats for county government. The county has a limited number of dollars available to spend on economic development. The goal for economic development should be to boost productivity. Productivity increases with greater density, therefore the sole focus of the county’s economic development efforts should be to nudge more residents and employers to locate in the core cities and subsidize dense development there. You’re going to get the best results by concentrating resources, not spreading money evenly across all areas.

To put it bluntly, there should be zero dollars being spent encouraging residents and employers to locate in low-density low-productivity rural areas like the Slate Belt. Trying to artificially engineer development there is actively damaging to the region’s economy. It’s perfectly fine for people to choose to live wherever they want, but it’s totally inappropriate for the government to be spending any money to subsidize rural living or business development. It’s wasteful to spend taxpayer money in ways that reduce the region’s productivity and output. And yet, the fact that there is a council district representing this area ensures that some portion of the limited economic development budget will be spent unwisely, solely for political reasons.

Gut Check Time for Climate Hawks

The New Jersey DEP is asking the EPA to take action against the Portland Generating Station because it’s polluting across the border into NJ, where standards are stricter. If they win, the plant will have to upgrade its technology, which the owners say will force them to close it down.

At the national level, new EPA rules regulating mercury, coal ash and greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants are in the works, so it looks like no matter what happens, the Portland plant is going under.

From the perspective of someone who wants to slow climate change, and agrees with Friedrich Hayek that people don’t have a right to trash the commons for free, this is undoubtedly progress. Burning coal is terrible for the climate, its biproducts are radioactive and unregulated, and it’s awful for public health.

At the same time, about 75 people are going to get laid off, Northampton County is going to lose a lot of tax revenue, and it’s bad for the recovery no matter who is getting laid off.

This last point – that all layoffs during a slump are bad for the macroeconomy because the reduction in nominal spending ripples outward – is something I’ve been writing about constantly here on the blog. If the economy was adding lots of jobs, I wouldn’t hesitate to say this plant should close, because the workers would have a relatively easy time finding new work and county government wouldn’t be facing a serious revenue shortfall.

But the job market is terrible and the county is facing a revenue shortfall, so this is not a good year for this to happen. From a macroeconomic standpoint, it would be good if this conflict took a year or so to get resolved.

Still, I don’t think we can know what the effect would be on net. If the EPA issues these regulations and lots of older coal-fired plants go out of business, that raises the price of dirty energy and increases demand for clean energy – a growth industry in the Lehigh Valley. Will the increase in output in the clean energy sector translate into more or less than 75 jobs? More or less tax revenue?

Despite all the unknowns, I think regulators need to be climate hawks about this. We can’t wait any longer to start taking action on climate change, and clean energy is one of the growth industries that’s going to lead us out of the recession. There are good reasons to believe making carbon emissions more expensive would create more jobs on net, and considering the consequences of inaction, I think that’s a chance worth taking.

Portland Doesn’t Need Its Own EMS

I think it’s obvious that a place as tiny as Portland should not be providing its own EMS service and paying all the associated overhead. It only gets 400 calls a year!

Moser said the corps’ biggest problem has been collecting payments. It is owed $90,000, including $13,000 from Medicare and $3,000 from bad checks, he said. The company has talked with the district attorney’s office about pressing charges in some cases, he said.

“We’d be in easy street” if people just paid their bills, he said. “Trying to get it is the problem.”

The ambulance corps has struggled to get by for years, Moser said. Its coverage area, which used to extend to Bangor and Knowlton Township, had shrunk down to Portland and Upper Mount Bethel Township.

Even within that small area, the number of emergency calls has dropped. The corps used to receive 680 calls a year. Last year, it received less than 400, Moser said. It was on pace for another low year in 2011, he added.

There’s two issues here. The first is that Portland should obviously get EMS service from Upper Mount Bethel Township.

The other issue is tax collections. A County-wide tax base would have the resources to do tax collection right and fund a professional County-wide EMS service using the existing municipal locations as precincts.

Even if you didn’t want to go that far, the County should still do property tax and other collections for their constituent municipalities just like what happened with Act 32 and EIT collections.

Gracedale

I don’t think I’ve laid out my Gracedale views here on the blog in any comprehensive way before, so here goes. There are two main reasons that I oppose the Gracedale referendum.

First, I like that the Home Rule charter prevents referenda that extend to the budget, and I want to see that rule interpreted very very literally. Many liberals may dislike that rule right now, but once the door is opened to budget-impacting referenda, all kinds of awful right wing measures can pass. In other states, rightwingers are passing hard caps on taxes, supermajority requirements for increasing taxes, and requirements that voters approve any tax increases through a referendum. All of these would have a disastrous impact. A literal interpretation of the charter prevents any of these from being enacted via ballot initiative.

Second, I don’t want to see County government – or any body with procyclical budgeting requirements – take on any responsibilities for financing health care for elderly people. Because when recessions hit, and tax receipts are low, we see that there is no political appetite for raising taxes to maintain the same level of spending on care. The federal government doesn’t have to worry about that because it can run a deficit.

The federal government is the only entity that should be assuming any financial responsibilities in this area. The baby boomers are starting to retire, and the cost of health care is expected to keep going up in the absence of any political will to pay providers less. The County should not get stuck with an open-ended commitment to pay for health care. Over time, that will crowd out all the other responsibilities the County should eventually provide, including policing, education, planning, public health and a host of other duties.

So on that note, at the risk of sounding like history’s greatest monster I think it would be a mistake for John Stoffa to use the Gracedale revenue to increase funding for the Area Agency on Aging. County government is the wrong level of government to finance that. That revenue should be used for the Bi-County Health Department and the Regional Crime Data Center.

Population Change by County

(h/t Chris Briem)

Legislating from the Bench

I enjoyed this post from Chris Casey on the Allentown explosion and Gracedale, but I think this is mistaken:

The Gracedale issue appears to be headed to the ballot, against all odds. I am against selling the facility, but I really thought that a strict definition of the law regarding legitimate signatures would have it fall short. Judge Baratta made one ruling, and now he’s working on another. For once it is nice to see a judge NOT Legislating from the bench, but it is one of those doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons situations. The road to a Gracedale ballot question is literally a road to hell paved with good intentions.

Actually this seems to me like a pretty clear cut case of legislating from the bench. The charter says:

The power of initiative and referendum shall not extend to the budget or capital program, to the appropriation of money, to the levy of taxes, or to the salaries of elected officials, officers, or employees of the County.

The sale impacts the budget, and the judge admitted as much, but he still broadened the interpretation of the charter’s language beyond what can be defended by the text, because:

Basically the Judge is rejecting the charter’s clearly articulated broad prohibition of referenda that impact taxing and spending decisions, and substituting his own opinion that “the budget” and “capital program” should be narrowly interpreted to mean the 2011 budget and 2011 Capital Improvements Plan:

But obviously if Gracedale can’t be sold for 5 years and its financial position continues to deteriorate, that will force Council’s hand to either cut non-Gracedale spending or raise taxes in the 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 budgets.