It appears Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta is pulling out all stops and calling in all allies.
The Standard Speaker reports on an ad Hazleton councilwoman Evelyn Graham took out in support of Barletta. The ad pleas for Hazleton residents to pressure House Majority leader Todd Eachus in to cleaning up Barletta's pension mess.
With her wallet, Graham has purchased a full-page advertisement, appearing on page 7 of today's edition, that delivers public details of her challenge to Eachus.
The advertisement urges all citizens to call the local legislator and "remind him who put him in office."
"Ask (Eachus) to sponsor Senate Bill 961 and save Hazleton from bankruptcy," the ad states.
"Hazleton is in desperate circumstances and I believe Senate Bill 961 is the perfect place to start," Graham said.
Written specifically for Hazleton in 2007, Senate Bill 961 would allow the city to use a portion of its pension millage to fund health care benefits and life insurance for retired police officers and firefighters.
Actually, the city has been using a portion of its pension tax to pay for retiree benefits since 2002 when Sen. Bob Casey was auditor general and there was no law against the practice. But there was no law that specifically allowed it, either.
When he asked Casey's office in 2002 whether the city could fund retiree benefits with pension tax revenues, Barletta said the official's response was: "We will not issue a pre-audit determination."
"In other words, they told us to roll the dice," Barletta said.
Speaking from Harrisburg where he expects to spend the weekend working on the state budget, Eachus said Barletta's action in 2002 was an understandable gamble. But to continue funding retiree benefits with pension tax revenues after current Auditor General Jack Wagner said the practice was improper in 2007 was "irresponsible."
It's true that Eachus's district should be his first priority. But given the fact that Barletta created this mess in the first place, because he couldn't take time to learn how to write a budget, I think he's being a little shameless by making demands.
Perhaps, instead of starting a political-ad war and trying to throw
this mess Eachus' way, Barletta should just admit he screwed up big
On a similar note, what exactly is councilwoman Graham thinking by getting involved?
Graham said her advertisement is in response to Eachus' refusal to re-introduce the legislation.
"If Senate Bill 961 is dead, it is because Todd Eachus killed it," Graham said. "I believe Todd Eachus is trying to keep us from finding a solution because I believe he is trying to destroy the mayor," Graham said.
She called Eachus' actions "political."
When he learned of Graham's advertisement, Eachus said, "Sounds like a political advertisement."
"Well, he knows what he's talking about, doesn't he?" Graham responded.
Eachus said he is consumed with work on the state budget at the present time, but extended an invitation to Barletta and any other person from Hazleton to visit him in Harrisburg for discussions on Hazleton's predicament.
Barletta chuckled at the invitation.
"That's pitiful. To say he is too busy to work on the city's problems is sad, very sad," Barletta said.
"I smell a rat here somewhere. Why not put this legislation out on the House floor and see how the other members feel about it?" Barletta said. "We don't need another solution. We have a good solution that auditor general supports and every single senator supported."
Eachus said he is committed to the citizens of Hazleton, but it will take some time to find a solution.
"I can't snap my fingers and tell the Legislature what to do. It's not magic," Eachus said. "If a bill fails in the House, it's over. Yes, I'm majority leader, but I need a city administration that will work with me. I did not create this problem. And this is not the only problem I've got. The 14 municipalities I represent sent me here to lead and I'm leading."
Let's think about this for a second. Barletta and Graham both believe that Eachus should show extreme favoritism toward Hazleton and pass a bill, which would only benefit the single municipality, in a time where many Pennsylvania counties are facing tough financial situations.
My Hazleton source says Graham has been mentioned as a possible
competitor against Eachus next year. Guess she decided to start the ad
war early. I certainly hope that she's paying for this ad with her own
The bottom line; Eachus has to be clear about what action he's
planning to take. It's obvious that Barletta is incapable of fixing
what he broke. At the same time, Barletta and Graham are embarrassing
themselves with their petty antics.
One possible solution: A hotel room tax. According to my Hazleton source, Barletta could make up the $3 million personally in about 6 months.