Inside Your Town

Allentown City Council member Jeanette Eichenwald still trying to solve $1 million mystery

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Allentown City Council member Jeanette Eichenwald again demanded an explanation from the city's administration about an estimated $1 million dollars taken out of the city budget to pay for consultants this year.

For months, Eichenwald has been asking the administration to explain what was not accomplished during 2012 "in order to pay that $1 million bill." At Wednesday night's City Council meeting, she said she still has not received an answer.

"This is absolutely unacceptable," said Eichenwald. "This is bad government and not a way in which a city should do business."

Eichenwald said the administration spent $500,000 researching the proposed water and sewer lease and another $500,000 researching the planned waste-to-energy plant.

She has said City Council has a fiduciary responsibility to control how Allentown's money is being spent and council never directly approved the administration paying $1 million for consultants. As a member of council, she is offended that she cannot get answers regarding the intended use for that $1 million.

Eichenwald told Francis Dougherty, the city's managing director, that she knows he prides himself on being a man of his word, "so I'm asking for the sixth time: When will I have the document telling us what was not accomplished from the 2012 budget in order to pay $1 million to consultants?"

"I'll go on record by saying by Friday," said Dougherty. "How's that?"

"By this Friday, the 21st?"

"By this Friday."

"That has nothing to do with the fact that the world will end Friday," said Eichenwald, evoking laughter from the audience. "Let's say if the world does not end on Dec. 21, City Council will have that document."

"Yes, you will, I will commit," said Dougherty.

Eichenwald said she had raised the issue four or five previous times.

At the October 17 council meeting, for example, Dougherty said he had submitted Eichenwald's request for that information to City Finance Director Garret Strathearn, but had not received an update. Council vice president Ray O'Connell told Dougherty "you're the boss" and suggested he should tell the finance director: "I need it by this time."

Eichenwald said the last time she asked for that explanation, everyone on City Council agreed it should be provided within two weeks. "The time once again has gone by and the administration has provided us with no information."

When speaking under "old business," Eichenwald reminded council that it hired the Pennsylvania Economy League to provide it with recommendations about the city's looming pension crisis.

One of the league's recommendations was that the city should investigate having a public authority operate its water and sewer systems, as an alternative to leasing those systems to a private company for 50 years. The league suggested that option be looked into while the city was requesting proposals to lease the systems, which it currently is doing.

Eichenwald called the public authority option a very serious alternative and asked Dougherty if the administration is investigating it.

"I can't answer that question," said Dougherty. "It's not my project. But I will pose that to the finance director."

Dougherty assured Eichenwald she will get an answer.

"Hopefully that answer will be yes," she said.

"Time and again we are told there is no alternative," said Eichenwald. "PEL has recommended to us that this is a viable alternative and I suggest we look into it.

"There seems to be so much money available to be spent on consultants for privatizing the water but suddenly there's just no time or effort available for any other alternative."

Eichenwald said one of those lead consultants, Public Financial Management –PFM -- was hired by the administration to find a solution to the pension crisis. "The solution they came up with, discounting all others, was that we privatize the water," she said. "I find it extremely interesting that PFM is now the consultant negotiating the privatization RFP (requests for proposals)."

The audience at the council meeting reacted with audible amazement.

"Wow," said one person. "Imagine that," said another.

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