A 2012 decision to take $500,000 from the Allentown fire department to pay consultants was defended by city officials before members of City Council Wednesday night.
Council member Jeanette Eichenwald first questioned the reason for the
$500,000 transfer at a City Council meeting last month.
She told city managing director Francis Dougherty she would want answers at Wednesday’s meeting of council’s public safety committee, which she chairs.
Eichenwald’s initial concern was that $500,000 could have been used to staff another city EMS ambulance operating at night in the city.
But she expanded on that Wednesday, saying Allentown also needs more firefighters. She said the number of firefighters is at a low point.
Dougherty was accompanied by Fire Chief Robert Kudlak, Jr., who had no complaints about the fund transfer.
After the meeting, Eichenwald said Kudlak “is toeing the administration line. I can’t imagine there’s a fire chief anywhere in the world that, if he were given the opportunity to speak for himself, wouldn’t want to fully staff his fire department.”
Dougherty began the conversation by saying Eichenwald had raised a question and allegations concerning the police and fire budgets at the last council meeting.
“Excuse me for interrupting you, Mr. Dougherty, but I don’t consider it an allegation,” said Eichenwald. “It was a question.”
“We view it as an allegation,” countered Dougherty. “We’ll argue over semantics, but let’s get to the answer.”
Eichenwald said, and Dougherty agreed, that the $500,000 transfer from the fire department took place in 2012 and that money was transferred back into the city’s general fund to pay for consultants.
Said Dougherty: “I need to state for the record that this transfer was done per policy, per procedure. It was signed, in accordance with council rules and ordinances, by four of the seven members of City Council – allowing the transfer to happen.”
Eichenwald was not one of the four council members who approved that
2012 transfer. It was signed by council president Julio Guridy, vice president Ray O’Connell and council members Joe Davis and Cynthia Mota.
“It was done above-board,” said O’Connell, who also said: “I’m not going to get into what it was spent for; not my concern.”
A copy of the $500,000 transfer authorization provided by Eichenwald states it was done for to pay water and sewer concession consultants.
But those words were crossed out and replaced with handwritten words, which state the transfer was to pay “unfunded police and fire pension liability project consultants.”
The city has leased its water and sanitary sewer systems to Lehigh County Authority to avert an impending police and fire pension debt crisis.
Eichenwald has been a frequent critic of the administration of Mayor Ed Pawlowski hiring highly-paid consultants for controversial projects.
In 2012, she demanded to know how the administration intended to pay an estimated $1 million in fees owed consultants who worked on the water and sewer lease and a waste-to-energy plant.
She was one of two council members who voted against the contract for the Delta Thermo plant in March 2012 and the only one who voted against the water/sewer lease in April 2013.
On Wednesday, Eichenwald said her issue, as chairwoman of council’s public safety committee, “is to be concerned about the public safety of the citizens of this community.”
Rather than the money being used for consultants, she said: “That half million dollars could have been better used to provide to more fire department employees or to put another ambulance on the street with two additional EMS employees.”
“I’m not going to argue that point with you,” said the fire chief.
Eichenwald said the fire department’s total budget in 2012 was about $8 million, adding “a half a million dollars is a big portion of that $8 million.”
“I need to question the wisdom of whoever made those decisions to take a half million dollars out of a fire department budget.”