Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Northampton County Municipalities struggle to work together

A plan that could improve emergency services and help bring state money to a dozen Northampton County municipalities has hit a snag because they don't agree on how to organize themselves.

For a year, the municipalities have discussed forming one of the Lehigh Valley's biggest confederations -- a group that would cover roughly a third of Northampton County and represent nearly a quarter of its population.

But some of the potential members still don't agree on how the group should be set up or whether all the municipalities must first become part of the existing Nazareth Area Council of Governments.

That plan has already turned off supervisors in Lehigh Township, who are interested in forming a regional group but recently rejected joining the Nazareth Area COG, Township Manager Alice Rehrig said.

The Nazareth Area COG plan may also be a tough sell in Northampton, though Borough Manager Gene Zarayko stressed that borough officials ''have an interest in moving forward.''

In December 2006, Northampton Area School District officials proposed forming a new council of governments to help the district's seven municipalities (Lehigh Township, Allen Township, Northampton, Bath, Chapman, East Allen Township and Moore Township) communicate.

Bath, Chapman and the townships of East Allen and Moore -- are part of the COG with Nazareth and Tatamy boroughs, and Lower Nazareth, Upper Nazareth and Bushkill townships, all of which are in Nazareth Area School District.

Joining all these municipalities in a regional supergroup would give local officials a louder voice when dealing with state officials, said Bill Brackbill, the Nazareth Area COG's secretary and business administrator. That could lead to bigger state grants or even to the state Department of Transportation focusing harder on local traffic projects.

Forming a group could also mean better coordination during regional emergencies. The Nazareth Area COG's members have drafted agreements that will make it easier to share fire and police resources, and they're working on a regional emergency management plan, Brackbill said.

Given the Nazareth Area COG's resources and experience, it makes sense to add Northampton and its neighbors to the existing group instead of starting from scratch, Brackbill said.

''The present members of the Nazareth COG are welcoming in these members with open arms,'' he said.

Allen Township and Northampton have both pledged to pay their dues and join the group, though Zarayko said Northampton officials had believed it was going to be only ''a branch or an arm of the Nazareth COG'' instead of the Nazareth-based group itself.

Northampton officials turned down an earlier offer to join that confederation, partially because Northampton seems to have more in common with an adjoining borough like Catasauqua than it does with Nazareth, Zarayko said.

Getting Lehigh Township and Northampton to join the existing COG might be easier if it weren't named after a borough 10 miles away. Brackbill said a name change is ''something that can be considered.''

Despite the rejection from Lehigh Township supervisors, Brackbill has continued to invite that township's representatives to meetings, and he's eager to move forward with all willing municipalities.

''Some people might think the progress is slow,'' he said, but he pointed out that the Nazareth Area COG also took years to build. ''It's a process that eventually will work out.''

No comments: