I wanted to follow up with Easton Mayor Sal Panto on several topics, including the State of the Lehigh Valley report, some recent good news we've been hearing about Easton, and what he thinks the Lehigh Valley can do to improve its economy. Here is the transcript of a phone interview we did Monday morning, lightly edited for clarity.
Jon Geeting: At the State of the LV event two weeks ago, one of the quotes I liked from you was when you said the Lehigh Valley is the third largest region in Pennsylvania, but doesn't act like it. What did you mean by that, and what would it look like for the region to act more like a region?
Sal Panto: What I meant by that, very simply, was that we need to be more cohesive in our desires for what we need and what our priorities are in what we need from the state and the federal government.
For example, I believe that passenger rail is really important. But as the mayor of the city of Easton, that doesn't carry as much clout as if the entire region voted to say "passenger rail is a priority for us, and every municipality in the region passed a resolution to that effect" we can go to Congress and our Congressmen and our Senators and say "look, this is a priority for the Lehigh Valley, and that region has over 600,000 people.
When they look at Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton and the surrounding areas individually, we don't have that clout. On the state and federal level, you need numbers.
JG: I noticed a lot of people during the question and answer period brought up municipal consolidation and the need for more research on sharing services. You mentioned this is an area you're interested in.
Sal Panto: I'm definitely in that area of regionalism. I think regionalism will help save taxpayers a lot of money by eliminating duplication, and even more, triplication of services. I'm not a proponent of consolidation of municipalities. I don't think that's gonna happen until we can first at least work together.
What I'm proposing is that we look at municipal services on a regional level, or at least a larger-than-municipal level to decrease costs to the taxpayers. But in order to do that, you do need a plan in place.
For example, if you want to consolidate fire service, what does that mean for a person who is in, say, West Easton? Does that mean they lose their firehouse and everybody has to come from 6th Street on Northampton Street or from 21st Street in Wilson? You need to know where everything's going to be located before you can decide you want to vote for that.
I think a lot of time, consolidation of services comes up as a really admirable thing to do but nobody's going to vote for it unless they know what it's going to look like after I vote for it. I don't want to know that after the fact, I want to know that before the fact. And we just haven't done that plan yet.
JG: Do you think that's a job for the Lehigh Valley Research Consortium?
SP: I recommended that they study that when we had the State of the Lehigh Valley because I think that they're a good research organization that can look at the economics. You've gotta eliminate the emotional and political aspects of that issue, and purely look at the economics. This region is becoming increasingly expensive to live in and to deliver municipal services. We need to find a way to cut taxes.
The biggest area is our school districts. You look at the cost per student - will it go down if the school districts are consolidated under a single entity, or two entities, county-wide? That would be something I would be interested in, as well as increasing the ability of students to move from one high school to another where there may be more offerings.
If there's an Advanced Placement student and they're in a small school district that doesn't have a lot of offerings, under regionalization I would let them go to a bigger school district that has more offerings. Every one of our school districts is very good, but it's getting to the point where school taxes are exuberant in this area. I believe it's basically because we have so many administrators per student, if you look at the student-administration ratio.
I'm not saying we should have a district the size of New York City or Philadelphia, and I'm not saying that we eliminate high schools.
But if you consolidate the central administration, you may save as much as $2 million. I don't know what the number is, but the Consortium could certainly find out that number. They could be looking at what it would be if you started tabula rasa, if you wanted to get the best school district, what would it be? In an area larger than the existing school districts are today. Individually it's not working.
JG: what's the biggest challenge you see facing cities like Easton over the next 5-10 years?
SP: I think the lack of ability to annex property is now something that's been in place for 60 years and we're now beginning to feel the effects of that. I just went to Washington DC for the Conference of Mayors and talked to mayors from all over the country and they don't get Pennsylvania. The geopolitical boundaries in Pennsylvania are so messed up that they don't get it.
If you go to Florida, you're talking city or county government, period. And as a city grows it takes more and more of the annexed, non-incorporated land into the city boundaries.
That doesn't happen up north, and that's why we end up losing a lot of our companies to the South. Less bureaucratic overhead, more regionalism - all those become cost factors for business, and they take their jobs to the South. They move because it's cheaper and easier to do business in the South. There are fewer layers of government and fewer taxes to deal with.
On Wednesday: The city's financial state, and the future of Easton.