Eight of Lehigh County’s nine commissioners voted to approve federal grants that will help local communities and human service agencies, although a couple of them predict the day will soon come when Washington can no longer afford to hand out such money.
The grants, which total more than $700,000, will benefit six municipalities and seven agencies. They range from $10,000 for a legal aide at North Penn Legal Services up to $122,000 for a street reconstruction project in Whitehall Township.
Wednesday night’s vote to approve the Community Development Block Grants came after nearly two hours of discussion – mostly by people in the larger-than-usual audience who stood to address commissioners.
Whether the county should accept or reject the federal grants also was debated for more than an hour at the commissioners’ June 27 meeting, where a couple of them expressed reservations about the county accepting money from a federal government already deeply in debt.
On Wednesday, some in the audience applauded the commissioners’ affirmative vote.
Before calling for the vote, Brad Osborne, chairman of the commissioners, said: “I personally don’t feel the CDBG program in Lehigh County is the vehicle we should use to express our displeasure with the federal government. I would like to encourage all of us as a board to approve this bill this evening.”
None of the commissioners voted no. But Commissioner Scott Ott abstained.
“I can’t put my name to this,” said Ott. “I can’t sign onto it and say: ‘It’s okay, grandkids, you can take care of it.' I know a ‘no’ vote is useless. The only thing I can find to do is to abstain.”
Ott also said: “We’re all concerned that we have a $16 trillion national debt but none of us is willing to make a decision that says no.”
The biggest surprise of the evening was when Commissioner Vic Mazziotti announced: “I am going to vote for this tonight, but I have deep concerns about it.”
At the June 27 meeting, Mazziottti said he had not yet decided how he would vote, but didn’t like accepting money from Washington that was being borrowed, “probably from the Chinese and others.”
On Wednesday, Ott said: “The Chinese communist government is fronting us money to feed 85-year-old women in Lehigh County. And we’re borrowing money from our grandchildren to feed elderly people they’ll never meet. It’s not sustainable, it’s not right, it’s not morally acceptable to do that.”
Mazziotti said the federal government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends. “We’re on an unsustainable path.” He predicted the CDBG program won’t exist within five years. Ott said if it vanishes, local municipalities will have to determine how to stand on their own.
“The federal government should be dealing with federal issues,” said Mazziotti. As an example of how it’s not, he cited a $50,000 CBDG grant for Whitehall Township to help a family losing its home to a sinkhole.
But Mazziotti said he is practical enough to realize if Lehigh County doesn’t spend the federal money, “it will be sent to somebody else and they will spend it.”
He said the county solicitor’s office told commissioners they don’t have the authority to reject the grants at this point --“that it’s too far down the line, that it’s been through too many public meetings, public hearings, discussions and regulations. That in itself tells you we’re dealing with a system that makes no sense.”
Commissioner Lisa Scheller voted for approval, but agreed that the federal CDBG program is going to end. She stressed non-profits, and even municipalities, should find ways to increase private donations. Scheller said it’s easier to ask the government for money than to ask individuals to reach into their pockets.
Commissioner Percy Doughtery agreed the federal government is running the country into debt by overspending and that the system needs to be reformed, but added: “This is a federal decision. Any complaints we have about it should go to our congressmen. That is where the action has to occur. We are not going to curtail the process if we turn this down tonight.”
Like others, Dougherty indicated the money is federal tax dollars collected from local residents, now coming back to the local community.
”It’s money the municipalities deserve,” he said. “They have become dependent on it.”
Catasauqua will get $50,000 from CDBG to install about 30 handicapped ramps at curbs. Catasauqua council member Vincent Smith said those curb cuts “are federally mandated, we do have to put them in and we don’t have the resources to do it on our own. Without this funding we have no choice but to raise taxes on our residents.”
“Not all federal funding is wasteful,” said Smith. “My municipality counts on this money to subsidize these important projects.”
Slatington will get $77,000 from CDBG for street reconstruction. Without the grant, the borough would have to raise its taxes 1.5 mills, said Bryon Reed, vice president of Slatington’s council.
Slatington council president Daniel Stevens urged commissioners to pass the grants so his borough can continue to rebuild its aging infrastructure, much of which has reached the end of its life expectancy. He said Slatington, which he called a poor community, probably could not afford to do that rebuilding on its own.
Pamela Bechtel, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Lehigh County, told commissioners its $30,000 CDBG grant will be used to provide up to 15,000 of the 140,000 meals her agency delivers each year “to some of the most vulnerable citizens of Lehigh County -- our homebound seniors and adults with disabilities—who are also very low income.” She said without the CDBG grants some of those people would face the anguish of deciding whether to use their limited resources for food or to pay rent, medical or utility bills.
Thirteen percent of Lehigh County’s residents are illiterate, said Carol Jones, executive director of The Literacy Center of the Lehigh Valley. It is getting a $28,640 CDBG grant for adult literacy instruction. Jones said without the funds at least 75 more people will go on its waiting list. She said her agency served 650 people last year, adding its waiting list already has more than 700 people.