Q&A with Lehigh County Commissioner Bill Hansell
The un-politician, who was South Whitehall's first township manager as a First Class Township, talks about governing.
Lehigh County Commissioner Bill Hansell says he won’t run for reelection this year which puts him in a position to say what he thinks -- politics be damned.
At 73, Hansell has spent a half century in and around local government, having served as Catasauqua Borough manager, South Whitehall’s first township manager when it became a First Class Township in 1966 and later Allentown business administrator. He also led the Pennsylvania League of Cities and spent 20 years in Washington, D.C. as director of the International City/County Management Association.
After retiring, he and his wife Connie moved to Lower Macungie Township in 2004. A Democrat, he was appointed to an at-large county commissioner seat in February 2010 to fill out the term of Bill Leiner Jr. until the end of this year. Below, in an interview edited for length, he talks about partisan politics, why current public employee pensions are unsustainable and how he feels about going over to The Dark Side.
Q: How can local governments work themselves out of the budget straits they’re in?
A: The problem that we have is that in bad economic times, those who need the services of government -- the elderly who need the county nursing home [in South Whitehall], people with children or family members with disabilities, people who have lost their jobs -- need them even more. And those who are paying for the government don’t want to pay as much, they want the government to cut.
We have to make structural changes in government. We have to look at what are we doing, why are we doing it. When the ‘why’ becomes ‘we’ve been doing it this way forever’ then that’s not a good enough reason. Where is the citizen demand? Where is the mandate? Could somebody else do it?
I think the people on the one side who say, ‘Just raise taxes,’ are being very naïve, and they are as naïve as the people who say, ‘Cut, cut, cut.”
As [Lehigh County Executive] Don Cunningham said when the commissioners were going to send the budget [with a tax increase] back: ‘Yeah, I’ll make $20 million in cuts, $2 million of it will be we will no longer mow and maintain soccer fields and ball fields.’ If it comes down to, do we throw people out of Cedarbrook or do we close a wing of the prison and put bad people back on the street, or do we not cut grass…we don’t cut grass.
We holler and gripe in America like stuck pigs about taxes [but] the total taxes we pay as Americans is in the lower third of all developed countries.
Q: Pick out a couple of things that you learned in your work with South Whitehall or Catasauqua or Allentown that help you as a county commissioner.
A: There is no free lunch. There is no public policy alternative that doesn’t have a cost. The cost may be you’re not doing something so you’re transferring the cost of that to individuals instead of having it done collectively.
The second lesson is, don’t believe your own propaganda. Some of the commissioners say there should be zero increases for county employees for the next five years. No arbitrator in the world will go [for that.] I laughingly look at the commissioners and say, ‘Are you going to change bedpans at Cedarbrook when the nurses are on strike because you think they should get zero and they want 2 percent [raises]?’ You have to seek middle ground on issues.
Q: How has your association work informed your decisions as a county commissioner?
This is a pretty well managed county…but I wouldn’t say they’re using best practices. There’s very little performance measurement that I’ve seen. I’ve asked the court administrators, have you looked at our costs per capita …compared to other counties in the nearby area? In our prisons, what about cost, rates of imprisonment…are we at higher or lower levels than other counties and is our cost per prisoner higher or lower?
My dad was a firefighter in Philadelphia from 1943 to 1963. When he began, he was working 70-hour weeks, and by the end he was down to 40 hours because of collective bargaining. He never made $100 a week but he could earn his pension at a young age.
With collective bargaining what’s happened is the wage base for all these jobs… has gone way up. A fireman today earns $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 a year. The pension system has not changed. So you still have people retiring in uniform, some of them have 20 and out. Someone can become a cop at 22, and at 42 they get half of their compensation for the rest of their life. There’s a complete mismatch, and that’s some of the structural issues that have to be dealt with. Frankly, people are going to have to work longer…or they’re going to have to dramatically reduce the benefit level. It’s not sustainable by society.
Q: When you told a former colleague that you were appointed to serve as a county commissioner, he said you were going over to the Dark Side. So how is the Dark Side?
A: It’s been a very difficult adjustment. As a municipal manager, your job is to engineer democracy and that means to make local elected officials as effective as they can be regardless of whether you disagree with them politically. This environment today has made it very hard to put politics aside. When you’re elected you should say, ‘OK, now we’re about governing.’
Here you can virtually see politics on every vote. There were a lot of people pressuring me to take the [commissioners] chairmanship. Why? The Republican Party is pissed at [the chairman, Republican Dean] Browning. He didn’t vote to send the budget back. They’re furious; they’re not going to endorse him, which is really dumb. He and I disagree philosophically a lot, but he’s a very effective public official.
I told Browning: ‘I’m supporting you, and I don’t give a damn what the parties are.’ I think his vote on the budget was an act of real political courage. He knew that we would be on a totally unsustainable course if we did that.