An interesting interview appeared today in the Morning Call with Allentown's mayor, Ed Pawlowski.
Q: What would you say is the most difficult thing you accomplished in the past year?
A: I think there were (several) things that were difficult that we were able to hurdle. First off we had to restructure the entire budget and come in under our initial projections, which was a huge accomplishment for us. To come in $3.8 million under a budget that was already cut by $2.2 million was an amazing feat of discipline and determination on the part of the staff here at City Hall.
The second thing was the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) contract. At the same time that I lost a quarter of my police force, I had to basically sue the city police and the FOP, which was a major challenge. Everybody told us we didn't have a chance, we had no chance of winning, it was an impossible task. We took on the task anyway. We put together a top legal team of Max Davison, who understood the local legal dynamics here, as well as Ken Jarin, who was the top notch labor lawyer in the entire state. We took on an established union structure that was perhaps the most powerful in the state and we won. We got retirees to give back part of their retirement benefits, we restructured some basic premises of the contract, and we saved the city real money. ...we are going to save $16 million over the next 20 years. That is pretty significant. At the same time we had to rebuild the police force. So I walked this very fine line of suing the police union while we were asking them to do more and trying to encourage police morale and efficiency on the street, which was an incredibly difficult task.
We took it on and at the same time we started rebuilding our force, putting in a new police command structure that has really proved beneficial and building up the performance and morale of the force. They made some significant drug busts this year. They have really attacked head on some of the gang infrastructure that had taken root in the city and they are making some significant strides at weeding it out, even being down a quarter of the force. They have made just as many arrests this year with a quarter less police officers and that was the struggle. To go after the union because of budgetary reasons at the same time trying to work with them and develop a more proficient police force. Those were really the major struggles this year...
Q: Allentown fell short in its bid for a casino. How will that effect the city's financial health?
A: I never counted on [getting an influx of revenue from a casino] when I took this job. Our goal will be the same, to rebuild our economy and use whatever resources we have in our broader community. We have some great resources in our corporations, to try to rebuild this great city in a way that will bring it back to the prominence it once had in the Lehigh Valley. We cannot let the city continue to decline. I don't care how well Bethlehem does, if Allentown, which is literally joined at the hip, continues to decline, it will drag everything down with it. My goal is to make sure that doesn't happen. I think we have a great city. I think we have a lot of potential development on the horizon that will have some significant impact to bring the city back, and the goal will be to continue that process as we started from day one to rebuild our economy to bring us back solid fiscal discipline and rebuild performance in City Hall, increase our economic development activity and stabilize our neighborhoods. We are going to do that with or without a casino. That was the goal from the beginning, it is going to be the goal going in.
I think we have a great city. I think Allentown has a bright horizon. We have a city that is the third largest city in the state , that has a strong south side and east side and west side. We have some struggling neighborhoods in our downtown but this city is going to come back and it is going to come back with or without a casino. We will have a much harder road to hoe here, but this city will come back and we have a lot of great opportunities we are going to continue to pursue, and our goal is to see this city come back to its former prominence that existed in the past.
Q: What about the crime problem? The most recent FBI crime statistics show violent crime in Allentown is on the rise. Is it frustrating that is not a problem you can easily fix in an immediate way?
A: I think we are having an impact. The problem is we don't have the resources to really impact it the way I would like to. Remember, we are down a quarter of our officers. We are, quite honestly like most cities in this country, in a war. We are really in warfare against the drug dealers and gangs that are really trying to take over our neighborhoods and pedal their products to kids in our communities. We are fighting this as a war. We are going to take down their communication, we are going to disrupt their recruiting efforts, we are going to go after every one of their strongholds, we are going to push them out of town, and that is our goal, and we are doing that even with the fact that we have been low on manpower.
Our guys have really been stepping up to the plate. They have (been) working hand in hand with our district attorney. Just a couple of years ago, there was open warfare between the Allentown Police Department and the district attorney. I think we have the best relationship we have had, and we should have because we have a great district attorney who is doing a good job in prosecuting our criminals.
But I am going to take whatever resources I can and work with whatever departments I am going to work with to address this issue. We have restructured our police department. I think we have a good command team. We have more patrols out. We are doing joint operations with the state police on a more consistent basis. We collaborated with other cities and got money for the first time to go after gang intervention and prevention activities.
After rebuilding our force, we are rebuilding our vice as well. We are going to have our (surveillance) cameras, which will have a dramatic impact on the ability to do these crimes out in the open. We are going to expand our network as far as we possibly can expand it over the next year, and we have close to $1 million allocated not only for downtown but for all the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown.
Do we have a way to go? Absolutely. But we have taken some huge, huge bites out of this network. Almost every homicide has been solved. We are solving homicides from last year. We are solving them in record time. The message I want to get across is if you get caught in Allentown, you are going to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
I think we are going to see a dramatic decrease going into next year. We are taking (crime) on strategically just like we are taking on the budget. We are taking it on piece by piece by piece, going after these criminals and we are starting to have an impact, we are starting to have a dent in crime.
There is crime, but I think the perception far outstrips the reality in many cases. (Without reversing that) we are never going to get true economic revitalization in the city. This is something I will continue to focus on.
Q: Closing thoughts?
A: We have a lot of challenges on the horizon, and I have been open and honest with the citizens about the challenges that exist. But we also have a lot of potential on the horizon too. I think this is a great city, it is a city that is really coming back, it is a city on the precipice of redevelopment. We are going to get over that hill to the light on the other side, and this city is going to become a great city again.