The three Democratic candidates looking to succeed John Stoffa as Northampton County Executive are waging a campaign that concentrates on economic development -- at least on the surface.
But in separate interviews with WFMZ.com, they all acknowledged the issue that is the linchpin of all they hope to accomplish is Gracedale, the county nursing home.
The winner of the primary will face off in November against Bangor Mayor John Brown, who is running unopposed for the Republican nomination.
Northampton County Council member Lamont McClure, who led a coalition in the fight two years ago to keep the nursing home in Upper Nazareth Township under county control, said Gracedale "is at the forefront of everything we're going to do."
Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan put operating Gracedale "in the most efficient and effective way" at the top of his priorities list.
And Glenn Reibman proudly pointed out that Gracedale turned a profit of about $600,000 a year during his previous stint as county executive from 1998 to 2006.
This year, Gracedale could finish the year $4 million to $5 million in the red.
McClure, 42, said by the end of his first term as executive, he could make the nursing home "net neutral," so over time the county would not have to use tax money to support Gracedale. He could do this because "I have become intimately involved in the financing."
McClure said he would "stabilize finances" by working closely with the outside management firm brought in by council to manage Gracedale and through negotiations with nursing home employees, who he said have already made "important, if painful concessions."
Callahan, 43, was a bit more cautious in estimating how fast the red ink can be eliminated, but not in his commitment to Gracedale. "In next two to three years, we may be able to get that [deficit] number under $2 million," he said. "Revenue neutral? I don't know. You have to strike a balance between affordability and quality of care."
However, Callahan added, he believes providing nursing home care "is a core function of the county, and Gracedale should remain under county control and ownership." He drew on his experience as mayor to make a comparison. "I never made money running the fire department, but it was my responsibility to provide safety for residents."
Reibman, 68, has put forth a bolder idea to make Gracedale turn a profit than either of his opponents: Import Monroe County residents to fill beds at the nursing home. "It's a little out of the box, but I'm an out-of-the-box kind of guy," Reibman said.
Reibman noted that he has had discussions with Monroe County commissioners, and at least two of the three are interested in selling the county's 75-bed Pleasant Valley Manor in Snydersville. "We could work out a deal where Monroe residents can come to Gracedale. … Maybe [Monroe County] can bring some of their [nursing home] personnel here too. Right now, it's a vision. But we would be helping another county with their problem and they would be helping us with our problem."
At the moment, Northampton County officials are considering reducing Gracedale's bed space from 725 to 688 to potentially earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in incentives from the state for meeting certain occupancy requirements.
"No matter how many beds in Gracedale, I want to have it running at full capacity," Reibman said.
McClure has made a bold pledge of his own: not to raise property taxes in the next four years. He said he can make that promise "because I have become knowledgeable about the budget during my seven years on [county] council."
McClure pointed out that the county has been running a large surplus, and a 2007 half-mill tax increase earmarked for open space preservation will raise $83 million over 20 years. And while he prides himself on being a protector of open space and environmentally sensitive land, McClure said, "We're not going to spend $83 million over 20 years on open space, and there's no excuse for a $60 million surplus."
He chided his opponents for "going to the well of the taxpayer" to solve their fiscal difficulties, saying it has been their "default position" to raise taxes.
Callahan responded by noting under his administration, Bethlehem had surpluses two years in a row for the first time since 1993. "We had a $1 million surplus last year alone, and we have $90 million less in debt today than when I took office."
Callahan said he can bring to the county the expertise that brought in $2 billion in investment and 5,500 jobs to Bethlehem during his 10 years as mayor. Like McClure and Reibman, he said he would appoint a director of Community and Economic Development to coordinate the county's efforts with the businesses, regional entities and local municipalities.
But just as important, Callahan said, "is making sure there are fewer vacant storefronts in our boroughs."
Using a sports analogy, Callahan said, "I've always believed that economic development and urban revitalization is much more of a singles and doubles game than it is about home runs. There are key properties in every downtown, and it's important to revitalize and redevelop those … finding a willing community with a willing property owner, and having the county facilitating those projects."
Reibman, who said he was known as "the economic development executive" during his two terms leading the county, believes the county has not been as aggressive as it should in attracting new jobs.
He said his first order of business would be to again consolidate the divisions of community and economic development and appoint a director whose job would be to encourage businesses to relocate to Northampton County, upgrade infrastructure, and improve job training at local high schools and colleges. "There should also be economic partnerships with other counties," he said. "We should reach north to Monroe County."
As for increasing taxes from 6.4 mills to 10.2 mills during his second term as executive, Reibman said the county was coping with "the biggest downturn since the Great Depression." Working with a council of six Republicans and three Democrats, Reibman says he made financial decisions "to plug the holes" until certain investments took hold, "and because of that investment in the county, we haven't had to have a tax increase in the county -- other than the half-mill for open space in 2007 -- for 10 years."
Reibman also noted that there were no property tax increases in his first four years.
The candidates were each asked what special quality sets them apart from their opponents.
McClure said he has the ability to do "tough things." He pointed to the fight to keep Gracedale county-owned. "I took the lead. I brought the coalition together and led it. It showed me and the public that I have the leadership to be county executive. … I had no idea what public thought of that, and didn't care what political winds dictated."
Callahan pointed to his "willingness to step up and make difficult decisions, regardless of the political consequences. I've been tested in ways that are unique. I am exactly the kind of leader Northampton County needs right now."
Reibman was succinct: "Experience. Vision. Results."