ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The candidates for Lehigh County executive went head-to-head during a debate for the “Business Matters” television show, discussing a variety of topics, including vaccinations, election security, and job openings in the Lehigh Valley.
Tony Iannelli, "Business Matters" host and CEO and President of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce taped the segment with Democratic incumbent Phil Armstrong and Republican challenger Glenn Eckhart on Tuesday ahead of the show airing on Oct. 11 at 7:30 p.m. on WFMZ-TV Channel 69.
Eckhart won the coin toss to begin the debate and was asked to comment on the federal CARES Act funding for Lehigh County.
“It needs to be spread out fairly. I think our realtors deserve a little bit of money, since they were shut down last year. That was a very hard situation for them. So, I look to make sure it is spread out fairly,” said Eckhart.
Armstrong, a former teacher and Whitehall Township commissioner, says he already worked to put together a committee to discuss dispersal of the CARES Act relief money. He says the decision needs to be made as a group and not by an individual.
The debate started to get heated when Iannelli changed the subject to the opening of warehouses in the Lehigh Valley.
Armstrong responded to the question by saying the Lehigh Valley and Lehigh County are growing where others are not.
“We’re growing at a rate that we need to have a sustainable future. We’re leading now with manufacturing. These warehouses are not all just warehouses, some of them are manufacturing. We have 140 science manufacturing plants right now in Lehigh Valley where the average wage is $90,000. This is helping Lehigh County,” said Armstrong.
Armstrong finished his answer by assuring the audience that the planning commission is working to make sure the growth is sustainable and setting aside farmland preservation.
Eckhart responded by saying the manufacturing growth needs to be based on supply and demand.
“You only have so much land in Lehigh County, and the more you divide it and the more that you decide to save, the less tax revenue you’re going to get, and you’re going to get less affordable housing in Lehigh County based on the amount of property there is,” continued Eckhart.
Eckhart, a former county commissioner and county controller, says people moving to the Lehigh Valley from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are driving up home costs, making it harder for Lehigh County residents to buy an affordable first home.
Armstrong and Eckhart butted heads on the topic of the COVID-19 vaccination and the possibility of mandating county employees to receive the shot.
Armstrong is vaccinated and believes the only way we’re going to get out of the pandemic is for people in a mass to get vaccinated.
“We have to keep our areas, like the jail and Cedarbrook, closed to people, visitors that are not vaccinated, because we can't allow these things to spread,” said Armstrong.
Armstrong pointed out to the audience that his opponent is not vaccinated.
Eckhart says he is not opposed to the shot, but is not supportive of mandating the vaccination.
“If I am elected county executive, I will not send out a questionnaire asking if you are immunized. If you are a union member, don't ever feel your job is going to be taken away from you because you are not immunized,” said Eckhart.
Eckhart continued to say he believes you can choose to do with your body as you see fit.
Armstrong believes if elected, Eckhart will not be able to fulfill the duties of county executive because he will not be able to attend certain county events and meetings because they will be held at locations where the vaccination is required.
The topic of prison costs, transitioning prisoners into the real world and job openings at the prison followed the vaccination topic.
Armstrong focused on his previous work providing drug and DUI courses for prisoners, as well as bringing in CareerLink to help with job preparation.
Eckhart says recidivism rates are too high and that the prison system is understaffed. He continued to say the jail is paying too much in overtime.
Armstrong believes before the overtime issue can be solved, the prison needs to find qualified employees and provide proper training.
“You can’t just bring somebody off the street on Monday and make them a prison guard on Tuesday. There’s testing, there’s training and we’re doing that,” Armstrong said.
Both candidates agreed that there are a large number of job openings in Lehigh County that need to be filled.
Eckhart says the poor and middle class residents of the Lehigh Valley are suffering.
“We are not doing enough to make sure businesses can provide jobs,” Eckert said, adding that the open jobs are not paying enough to provide employees with a livable wage.
Armstrong says the job of the county executive will be to help provide job training for the open positions.
“The last count, there were 8,000 job openings in the Lehigh Valley,” said Armstrong.
Things heated up once again when Iannelli transitioned the conversation to election integrity.
Eckhart is concerned about a video camera for one of the ballot boxes that was not turned on before the November elections.
Armstrong defended the election integrity by saying the problem was fixed.
“Four out of the five worked very well. There was a mistake at one of them,” said Armstrong.
The debate ended with each candidate being given one minute to look at the camera and speak directly to the audience.
Eckhart went first and looked ahead to the future he envisions.
“I am going to build a great team in which we are going to handle Lehigh County government a little bit better than it is right now,” said Eckhart.
Armstrong finished the debate with his final thoughts on his time in the county executive position.
“I stand on all of the things we have accomplished. We have opened up the government like it's never been opened before. Citizen academies, newsletters, webcasts promoting events, business and lehigh county news,” said Armstrong.
The Municipal Election will be held on November 2. Polls are open on election day from 7:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.
The last day to request a mail-in or absentee ballot is October 26.