Those circulating petitions to require that referendum want to get 3,000 signatures -- 1,000 more than they need – by December.
“Before any contract comes to council for a vote, we will have the needed signatures to get our referendum on the ballot,” said Poresky. “When that happens, council will be hard-pressed to justify defying the clear and overwhelming will of the people.”
The petition drive to get a referendum is being done by a five-man committee that includes Poresky, who is former owner of Dan’s Camera City and a member of the city’s Environmental Advisory Council; former City Council member Michael Donovan, who is an associate professor of business and economics at Cedar Crest College; former City Controller William Hoffman, and former Allentown Patriots presidents Glenn Hunsicker and Glenn S. Hunsicker.
Even if the men organizing the petition drive succeed in getting their referendum on the ballot, City Council and the administration could sign a lease long before the May primary. But they hope just having the required number of signatures to get it on the ballot will be enough public pressure to convince council to delay signing a lease until after the referendum.
Pawlowski’s opinion on that referendum attempt: “This is a representative democracy. They elect us to make the tough choices. This is a very complicated issue. It s going to take a lot of wrapping your head around this to really understand what this is all about.”
OPPONENTS AND ALTERNATE SOLUTIONS
The mayor maintains that those who oppose the lease are spreading fear that residents will face exorbitant rate hikes “while not providing any viable alternatives.”
“They’re not going to tell you what the alternative is, because they don’t have one,” he said. “I’ve ask them for an alternative from day one. If they had a viable option, they would have come forward with it. There is no viable option.”
Some opponents maintain they repeatedly asked both council and the administration to meet with them to work together to find the best solution, but their requests have been ignored or rejected.
Pawlowski said opponents often say the best alternative to leasing is a combination of solutions. “What’s the combination?” he asked. “Raising property taxes and earned income taxes? There is no combination. You can’t lease half the plant.”
Some critics of the mayor’s proposal say whenever they suggest an alternative solution to the administration it is rejected as “not recommended.” They also maintain the mayor is proposing a 50-year solution to a 20-year fiscal problem.
Poresky acknowledged there isn’t going to be a simple answer, “where we can say ‘if you just plug in this solution, it’s going to work’. A lot of this has to be worked out and it’s going to have to come from different sources.” He said other solutions can be found “if there is a will to not privatize. Privatization is the most costly, least desirable option.”
“A water company has no allegiance to Allentown,” said Poresky. “It has an allegiance to its stockholders.”
Poresky said opponents don’t want to be heard because they have all the answers, but because they want to work with city council and the administration to help find a better solution.
In September, council rejected a proposal by Donovan to create an independent committee to find the best way to solve the coming fiscal crisis. Opponents also have not yet been able to convince council to allow them more than three to five minutes so they can make a more detailed presentation on the issue.
Pawlowski said he hired “the best people possible” to help the city find the best solution.
“This potentially is a $240 million project, which is twice the amount of our total debt,” said the mayor. “It will eliminate the biggest problem we have and set us on a solid fiscal trajectory. You’re darn right I’m going to get the best professionals in the business to help us navigate through this deal –so we get the best deal possible, the best price and we’ve looked at all the options. I have no problem spending the money to make sure that happens. If we don’t, we’ll be paying a heck of a lot more going forward.”
Some opponents argue that if Allentown succeeded in getting special legislation passed in Harrisburg to create Neighborhood Improvement Zones just to benefit the city, it also should have enough clout to get other changes made by the state to avert the impending financial crisis. One of their suggestions is to get temporary state approval for an exemption to issue a short-term water revenue bond that could be used to help pay off the city’s pension obligation.
Opponents maintain the administration has contributed to the financial crisis by not raising property taxes when it should have. Allentown has not raised taxes since 2006.
One thing both sides agree on: Allentown has a surplus of excellent quality water.
“We have oodles of water to sell,” said the mayor. “We don’t even tap most of our sources.” He expects whatever company leases the water system will go out and get more customers to buy water. He said that benefits the city because the lease includes a revenue sharing component.
Opponents of the lease said Allentown, not a private company, should be making more money by selling more water at higher rates to new wholesale customers outside the city. “This is all revenue we’re giving away,” said Poresky. “The problem is the water department hasn’t been run like a business, to raise as much money as it can.”
In addition to Allentown still owning the water/sewer systems and not leasing its water sources, the proposed lease requires that it set operational standards and retain oversight to ensure water quality. “The lease has fees and penalties,” said Pawlowski. “If they don’t meet the operational standards they can be fined. We also can remove them as an operator and replace them if they are not meeting our standards.”