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Lehigh Co. Executive: Commissioners guilty of blackmail

Published On: Jan 13 2013 06:00:00 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 14 2013 07:08:19 PM CST

Lehigh County's executive claims some county commissioners are blackmailing him, and holding a million dollars in parks projects hostage in the process.

Lehigh County's executive claims some county commissioners are blackmailing him, and holding a million dollars in parks projects hostage in the process.

One of those projects is the Saucon Rail Trail, where little Leah Finkbeiner spent Monday learning to ride her bike.

"It's a safe place for my daughter to ride her bike," said her mother, Ali.

The popular trail is set to expand to Coopersburg, but the plan could now stop dead its tracks because of a budget battle.

"This is an equivalent of blackmail," said Lehigh Co. Executive Bill Hansell.

In a Friday memo, Hansell accused Republican commissioners of blackmailing him by withholding a million dollars for the Rail Trail and other projects. Commissioners already promised the money to several Lehigh Co. communities, but they have since delayed votes on releasing the funds several times.

Hansell claims Republicans are using the parks projects to force additional spending cuts -- after the county budget was already passed.

"You're saying, 'We're not going to fund these projects unless you cut the budget an additional million dollars," said Hansell.

Projects throughout the county could feel a squeeze. Camp Olympic in Lower Macungie Twp. was promised $238,000; Lindberg Park in Salisbury Twp. was granted $160,400; and Emmaus parks were promised $70,000.

Voters already approved the money a decade ago as part of Lehigh County's Green Futures grant program. But that was 2002, and Republicans -- who took control on a no-tax pledge -- say economic times have changed.

"The Commissioners all want to fund these projects," said commissioner Scott Ott, "but some of us believe that preventing a 2015 tax hike is also important."

Meantime, projects like the Rail Trail and others remain in limbo. And some, including Allentown mayor Ed Pawlowski, are getting frustrated. The city's MLK Trail stands to lose more than $600,000.

"For what seems to me to be an internal political issue, we are holding up some very worthy projects," said Pawlowski.

Hansell admits he has little leverage in this budget battle.

"There's no question, they have the legal right to do what they're talking about doing," he said. "I don't think it's the honorable thing."

Leah's mom hopes commissioners will reconsider.

"I think it's a worthwhile cause," she said of the Rail Trail expansion. "I think a lot of people use the trail."

Commissioners will reconsider the parks money on January 23.