12-7-2007 The Grinch who stole Christmas

Well then. The latest from Culm County includes this unimaginable political dustup between citizen Tim Grier and Majority Commissioner Skrepenak Inc. How the hell did things get to this near crippling point?

Well, since nearly all of the local political muckrakers are typically glued to WILK all day long, including our minority republican commissioner and his spouse, I’ll clue you in.

This all began when Joe Hilliard, an Allentown republican who frequently challenges every financial move the ruling democrats propose, called Sue Henry’s show on WILK spouting chapter and verse about the Local Government Unit Debt Act, which supposedly works to restrict the deficit spending of local municipalities. And as he went on and on about how this act works, he actually made it sound very easy to bounce our county’s proposed budget, so I started scribbling notes.

Debit Act?

Very interesting.

Turns out, after a bit of Google searching, this Joe Hilliard guy and his sidekicks have challenged practically everything the Mayor of Allentown has put forth, and with very mixed results. They’ve challenged an EMS tax increase, a police contract, a refinancing plan, as well as the most recent budget laden with bonds. As one message board poster put it, he is “oh-for-four,” an assertion that Hilliard weakly rejects.

And if you read the various blogs and message boards emanating from the Allentown area, you’ll quicker learn that Joe Hilliard is a polarizing figure, who is blasted by just as many people as he is praised. And now he’s spread his self-styled freedom fighting to Luzerne County, without ever mentioning the fact that his various and sundry governmental reform pursuits have amounted to far less than he would have had us believe on WILK.

Enter…The Grinch who stole Christmas.

The way I see it, for the first time in his activist career, Tim Grier actually got one right. First of all, a budget that includes millions upon millions upon millions in new debt, but without even a hint as to what those millions will be spent on is an insult to the intelligence of those of us that actually pay attention to all of this confusing stuff without putting a partisan slant on things. Secondly, when a commissioner wants to take on 21 billion jiggabucks worth of new debt while his personal friends, his new hires are running absolutely wild with taxpayer provided debit cards…well, then I’m thinking Tim Grier is completely justified in putting the brakes on quite suddenly.

With that said, the following caught my eye this morning, culled from the linked-to Times Leader story:

County shutdown looming

Grier said it’s not fair that many county officials are painting him as the bad guy when they are the ones who failed to prepare for the deficit earlier in the year. Instead, they relied on a bond, and legislators gave all taxpayers the right to challenge bonds, he said.

Many county employees express the sentiment that they’d like to “rip his head off” because layoffs are at stake, but Grier said his phone is ringing off the hook with calls from taxpayers – mostly strangers – encouraging him to stick to his challenge.

Grier filed two complaints over the county’s borrowing – one over a capital projects package and the other over a bond that will cover the county’s 2007 debt.

Hmmm. They want to “rip his head off.”

Once again, Grier’s got it right. Let’s recount the many missteps, shall we?

The County could not, or would not balance the books during 2007. Now it wants to take on new debt to make up for the shortfall. The County now proposes countless new debt, but refuses to clearly list where and to whom those borrowed monies would go to. The County lists capital projects in the ‘08 budget, but far too few to necessitate the exorbitant level of deficit spending. What it amounts to is there’s far more questions than answers contained within that proposed “plan,” but, once again, we’re expected to remain mum on all of that while our “leaders” are spending our tax dollars in strip clubs as if it’s their God-given right.

So, the county’s finances are a complete and utter mess, and Tim Grier is the bad guy here?

Au contraire, kiddies.

It was Skrepenak Inc. that conveniently failed to mention the millions in red ink before the November election. It was Skrepenak Inc. that prepared a debt-laden budget that is as purposely vague as it is incompetent, perhaps taking irresponsibleness to dizzying, record heights. It was Skrepenak Inc. that did not deliver upon the promised financial updates…the quarterly budget reports. And it was Skrepenak Inc. that haphazardly managed to create this needless monetary impasse.

So, in effect, if the county employees nervously awaiting news about possible mass layoffs need a villain to blame with all of this, they need look no further than Greg Skrepenak. The truth is, if the proposed budget was impeccably prepared and not challengeable, Tim Grier would probably be out Christmas shopping somewhere, rather than staring down the barrels of county attorneys and the like.

As far as I’m concerned, Tim Grier has been wrong with all of his heavy-handed political muckraking just about as often as the Sun comes up in the morning. His tactics are often over the top. His accusatory mudslinging has been second to none. And his incendiary language has quite often far exceeded what would normally pass as slander. But with all of that said, he has every right to challenge what could only be called a middling financial performance by this county’s current administration. If he’s the bad guy in all of this, I’m Soupy Sales.

Although, there’s much more to this Local Government Unit Debt Act than meets the eye, and much of it is beyond the comprehension of the average taxpayer. Try this snippet on for size.

The starting point of any municipal indebtedness is the determination of the borrowing base and the preparation of the certification of this borrowing base. Section 8002 of the Act defines the borrowing base as the annual arithmetic average of the total revenues for the three full fiscal years immediately preceding the incurring of nonelectoral debt or lease rental debt. Total revenues as defined in Section 8002 means all monies received by the local government unit, except the following:

Got all that? Are you ready to start interloping upon your local government? Are you ready to dictate to them what they are going to do, or not do?

Yeah? Are you completely sure?

Here’s the part of all of this that seriously troubles me. You know, the stuff that Joe Hilliard failed to mention when he delivered his call to action by way of WILK. You know, the little things like how his effort at challenging a similar budget resulted in a resounding defeat.

Yeah, I’ve read his message board posts, in which he snatched victory from the obvious jaws of defeat. Some say he came up half-full, while many, many others claim he came up somewhere between half-empty to completely empty.

Let’s start with this one from the Citizens‘ Voice:

Deadline to file complaint on new county debt nears

Janel Miller, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said the county submitted plans to add new debt on Nov. 19. A complaint must be filed 15 days after the state receives a plan to add debt, and a state review of local debt applications can take 20 days, Miller said.

Pennsylvania FreedomWorks Chairman Joe Hilliard, a grass-roots activist from Lehigh County, said Tuesday on WILK News Radio he thought Luzerne County’s borrowing plans could be successfully challenged if a complaint is filed. Hilliard is challenging Allentown’s plan to borrow up to $35 million to refinance debt.

Hilliard said local government agencies in the state must list specifics about what would be financed with new debt. He said the state would rubber stamp debt applications if a complaint is not filed.

The state Local Government Unit Debt Act says local agencies must obtain “realistic cost estimates” of projects involving construction or acquisition prior to the authorization of debt to finance those projects.

Sounds doable, doesn’t it? Yeah, grab a pitchfork, a ladder and a torch and let’s get on down there. Revolution, baby! Follow me!

Unfortunately, what he made sound like such a sure thing on WILK resulted in this in his own back yard.

From the Allentown Morning Call:

Allentown bond move gets state OK

Hilliard doubted another appeal would succeed. He said citizens instead should lobby state legislators to clarify the state's debt law to prohibit ''fiscally irresponsible practices'' like Allentown's plan.

Gee, thanks Joe. So much for your activist slam dunk. So much for bringing our local government to it’s knees. Is this what we should expect here in Luzerne County?

The County shuts down all non-essential services? The County lays off most of this county’s largest workforce? Employees face the Christmas holiday with visions of financial uncertainty circling their heads?

Perhaps they could use Sam Hyder's well-worn debit card to cover the payroll?

Perhaps not.

And what services come to an abrupt halt? The vans that shuttle the elderly to and fro? The Meals on Wheels folks? Luzerne County Head Start? I dunno, I’m guessing here.

Perhaps, a few of those Child & Youth caseworkers? Seriously, if the county government goes into forced hibernation for months on end, as we have been duly warned it could be forced to do, who suffers? Skrepenak? Hyder? Diaz? Brace? Grier?

From what we’re hearing, the County can go to the courts and secure enough money to continue to operate the government--to cover it’s debts--without shutting down anything of note. And without adding untold debts for only Skrepenak Inc. knows what, and that would have to be repaid over 20 long years. But, that would jeopardize the 21 billion jiggabucks of new debt the movers and shakers want to add to the debt load.

So, who should blink?

Should Tim Grier relent, pull his challenge, and allow Skrepenak Inc. to write yet another hefty blank check for itself? Or should Skrepenak Inc. retool it’s ill-prepared financial plan? What’s the bigger priority at this regrettable point? The cohesiveness of local government, or the unfair blaming of Tim Grier for the multi-layered financial mess that was created by none other than Skrepenak Inc.?

Where this one goes, nobody knows. All I do know is, to blame all of this on Tim Grier is to shift the blame from those it rightly belongs to.

And judging by the latest rumblings on both the internet and talk radio right now, Tim Grier is suddenly much more popular than Greg Skrepenak. And if nothing else, that should be a stark reminder to Greg and the boys that they have fumbled the financial ball, they have lost the support of a sizeable chunk of the voting populace and they have further undermined our faith in local government. And it is that latter part of the equation that makes me the angriest.

So, if the threatened layoffs do come about--if the county government goes into sleep mode--we need not blame any of that on the oft-vilified character sporting the green skin.

No, in this troubling case, the blame falls squarely on the largest Grinch ever seen in these goofy parts…Greg Skrepenak.

Sez me.

‘Til next time.