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Hellertown Calls County Plan to Disband Gaming Authority ‘Overreach,’ Votes to Oppose It

A proposal by Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure to dissolve the county’s gaming commission–officially known as the Northampton County Gaming Revenue and Economic Redevelopment Authority–has some Hellertown officials unamused.

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A proposal by Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure to dissolve the county’s gaming commission–officially known as the Northampton County Gaming Revenue and Economic Redevelopment Authority–has some Hellertown officials unamused.

Borough council discussed the plan at their meeting Monday, with most members opposing it, particularly in light of the fact that there is currently a $1.2 million surplus in gaming funds that would become a county asset upon the authority’s dissolution.

The gaming authority was established following the legalization of casino gambling in Pennsylvania and the opening of the Sands casino in Bethlehem in 2009, with its primary purpose being the distribution of a share of gaming revenue via a competitive municipal grants process, to both contiguous and non-contiguous municipalities that apply for relief.

Municipalities contiguous with the City of Bethlehem–including Hellertown borough and Lower Saucon Township–have had the opportunity each year to compete for grants by proving negative impact from the casino, and have received millions in grant monies since the authority’s inception.

It was also the potential loss of future gaming grants–which have been used to help purchase new police vehicles, hire additional police officers and help improve emergency services–that concerned some council members, in addition to the more immediate loss of the $1.2 million.

“I find this to be a massive overreach by the county,” councilman Herb Payung said. Opposing the dissolution of the gaming authority, he said, “is a matter of principle.”

Councilman Kevin Lott disagreed, and warned his fellow council members that “poking” the county by passing a resolution opposing the dissolution of the authority could have negative consequences.

Lott maintained that the gaming revenue has always been the county’s money to do with what it wishes.

“The county sets the board up… This is county money,” he said. “They set the board up to distribute that money. They control this money. It’s going to be a lose-lose for us, money-wise.”

“If you can’t win, stay out of the fight,” he added. “And we will be better off if we stay out of this fight.”

Lott also said the current system is not ideal, because a municipality that is wealthier than Hellertown and further geographically from the casino than the borough is–such as Hanover Township, Northampton County–has the same opportunity to compete for the contiguous municipality grant money under the current system.

Mayor David Heintzelman–a former member of the authority, which is comprised of nine appointed representatives from the casino host city and its contiguous communities–said he understood both points of view, and would like to open up lines of communication with McClure, who’s been in office a little over three months.

“I don’t like the game of politics, I’m sorry,” Heintzelman said. “We are about Hellertown. And if we don’t have a voice, we’ve lost something.”

“This is one of those things that has been very helpful to us,” agreed council president Tom Rieger, who suggested that council invite McClure to a future meeting to discuss the matter with him face-to-face.

That suggestion was met with approval from other council members and officials, who agreed that they have received scant information about the proposal to disband the authority and what prompted it.

“That’s the confusion,” commented borough manager Cathy Hartranft. “Why now? Why doesn’t (McClure) just let the gaming authority distribute the money and be done with it?”

Council ultimately voted 6-1 to oppose the disbandment of the authority at this time and until the surplus of gaming funds is distributed. Lott voted against the motion.

Rieger said he was “disappointed” that the borough is being drawn into county politics and alluded to the fact that–regardless of what county council decides at its meeting Thursday–the matter may not be finally decided.

Some local municipalities may decide to sue the county if county council does in fact vote to approve McClure’s proposal, he said.

Northampton County Council will meet at 6:30 p.m. this Thursday, April 19 in the council meeting room at the county government center, 669 Washington St., Easton. Meetings are also streamed live online.

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About the author

Josh Popichak

Josh Popichak is the owner, publisher and editor of Saucon Source. A Lehigh Valley native, he's covered local news since 2005 and previously worked for Berks-Mont News and AOL/Patch. Contact him at josh@sauconsource.com.

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