Mayor Ed Pawlowski continued his effort to sell the public on his proposal to lease Allentown's water and sewer system, but sometimes his arguments were swamped by a deluge of technical facts and unfamiliar financial jargon.
Pawlowski spoke Thursday night at the Scottish Rite Cathedral about the 40- to 50-year lease plan he believes could help Allentown pay the $130 million it owes in pension liabilities.
About 50 people showed up -- roughly the same number at Pawlowski's first public information session at Dieruff High School last week. And, like last week, a sizeable number of city officials and city workers were part of the audience.
This group of people seemed less contentious than the one at Dieruff, and more inclined to ask off-topic questions such as the ratio of city managers to city workers and the possibility of reducing the pensions of current city retirees.
The meeting started 20 minutes late, because Pawlowski did a live interview about the lease proposal in Bethlehem with radio station WDIY.
After arriving at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, the mayor delivered the same power point presentation he made at Dieruff, right down to the joking asides, and then answered more than two dozen written questions.
He assured one questioner that emergency calls would be answered on weekends and holidays, no matter what group was awarded the lease to run the water and sewer systems. "They would be required to have staff 24/7," Pawlowski said.
Another questioner wanted to know if the $160 million to $180 million valuation of the water and sewer plants was realistic. Scott Shearer, a financial consultant for the city, responded that the firm hired by Allentown "used very conservative numbers."
Still another questioner wanted to know why the city couldn't use pension bonds to make money over time instead of getting a fixed amount of money up front with a lease. Schearer also answered that question, saying, "You could borrow money at 6 to 7 percent, but can you guarantee you're going to earn 7 or 8 percent every year for the next 20 years? That's a bigger risk than what we're talking about here."
Things got a bit murky when Pawlowski tried to explain how the city could turn two prized assets into cash, and why the city would immediately be on firmer financial footing by getting the lease money up front.
Pawlowski's constant use of terms such as MMO (governmental shorthand for the minimum amount Allentown is required to come up with each year to pay off the unfunded pension liability); "monetizing the asset" (finding a way to get money for the water and sewer system, as through a lease), and "delta" (the difference between one sum and another) did little to clarify things.
There was a light moment as the event planner Kelly Henry read the final question: "How many people in this room receive an annual pension of $92,000. Please raise your hand."
Pawlowski grinned, and then replied, "I'm sure not many."
Two more public information meetings on the lease proposal are planned. The first is on Aug. 16 at the Lehigh Valley Health Network's Mack Auditorium on Mack Boulevard, the second at Sacred Heart Hospital on Chew Street. Both will start at 6 p.m.