Allentown council member wants more financial control over administration's hiring of consultants
Charging that Allentown’s administration spent $1 million to pay private consultants during 2012, City Council member Jeanette Eichenwald wants to make sure that does not happen again in 2013 without council’s budgetary approval.
On Tuesday night, the eve of City Council adopting the city’s 2013 budget, Eichenwald insisted council has a fiduciary responsibility to better control how Allentown’s money is being spent.
She questioned how it was possible for the administration to spend “upwards of $1 million” when “none of that money was directly approved by council." And she repeatedly asked: “What didn’t happen to pay $1 million in consultants’ fees? What did not get paid out of the budget for that million dollars?”
She said $1 million could have put more police or firefighters on the streets this year.
Eichenwald proposed amending the 2013 budget to transfer 20 percent of money budgeted by every city department for “other contracted services” – a total of $899,000 -- and move it into the general fund.
Her proposed amendment stipulated if the administration should need money in that fund balance for professional services, it would request that money from council.
She said the “other contracted services” budget line gives city administrators “an enormous amount of leeway” in how money is spent.
Francis Dougherty, the city’s managing director, said Eichenwald’s proposal would impose “a severe handicap on the day-to-day operations of running a government and we oppose this amendment.”
Dougherty said her amendment would jeopardize contractual obligations the city has with various companies, including a $2 million contract with the vendor who maintains the city’s fleet of vehicles.
Eichenwald said her motion would not stop the city from paying for contracted agreements. Her intent is that the administration should have to request funds from City Council when it wants to hire consultants “for another idea,” like having a trash-to-energy plant built in the city or leasing the water and sewer systems.
Dougherty gave council “a 19-page detailed summary” of the “detrimental” impact of Eichenwald’s proposed amendment. Council vice president Ray O’Connell said Dougherty’s memo maintained Eichenwald’s proposal would result in the elimination of fire police and all summer programs for city youth.
Eichenwald said she was offended that Dougherty was suggesting her amendment would mean the city no longer would offer vital services. She said he presented council with “a make-believe sheet to scare people into what is wrong with this idea.”
“Here you have a whole sheet of what would happen if this amendment were passed,” she said. “Where’s the sheet that tells me what wasn’t done when that million dollars was spent? Something was not done. We’re not going to be told what wasn’t done.”
She said she has been asking the administration those questions for at least six months, but can’t get answers.
Eichenwald said the administration hired consultants for both the proposed lease of the city’s water and sewer systems, which she opposes, and for the planned waste-to-energy plant earlier this year.
Council member Peter Schweyer wasn’t sure Eichenwald’s amendment was the best way to address the issue, but “absolutely, wholeheartedly” agreed with her goal.
He said Eichenwald “is trying to gain some control over making sure we’re doing what we say we’re going to do, not burying money in the budget for other services that were not talked about the beginning of the budget year.”
“Exactly,” said Eichenwald.
“She’s trying to do the right thing, so we can be the watchdog on the funds for the city,” said council president Julio Guridy. He said his only concern is “how far are we going to micro-manage the budget? I don’t want to stifle the administration, but I do want to know where the money was spent.”
However, Guridy said he is very uncomfortable taking money from every city department and putting it into the general fund. O’Connell said he also was very reluctant to do that.
O’Connell asked if a compromise could be found. Schweyer suggested council get legal advice to develop an ordinance to address the issue early next year, as an alternative to Eichenwald’s motion.
Said Eichenwald: “I’m open to any kind of compromise that will provide us with more fiduciary oversight.”
She agreed to withdraw her amendment after getting “official assurances” the issue will not be dropped.
“I will make a pledge as president that we will keep this moving forward,” said Guridy.
“I will withdraw the motion but not the idea,” said Eichenwald.
Council intends to adopt the 2013 budget during its Wednesday night meeting.
Schweyer proposed the only other budget amendment Tuesday -- to earmark $5,000 in the 2013 budget to continue the gun buy-back program initiated last summer. Council unanimously approved Schweyer’s motion.
Schweyer said nearly 130 guns were collected this year and most of them were operable. Those who turned in unwanted weapons received $100 gift cards to Kmart, which he said is located in the city and does not sell firearms.
Schweyer said the city may be able to allocate more money to purchase guns before the next buy-back program is done sometime in 2013.
He doesn’t expect drug dealers will be turning in their pistols, but explained it’s a safety effort to turn in unwanted firearms, which are destroyed.
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