Bethlehem PA Nonprofit Gets Too Cozy with City Hall

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April 26, 2014; Lehigh Valley Express-Times

It’s good for community-based nonprofits to form close working relationships with local elected officials and government—but not too close. And those relationships need to be public and transparent.

That issue was brought to light as a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania nonprofit organization created a website providing access to its tax records, following indications that a grand jury will probe financial breaks it got from the city, according to a report in the Lehigh Valley Express-Times.

The paper reports that the Gertrude Fox Environmental Center, an educational institute run until last week by Bethlehem city councilwoman Karen Dolan, sent an email inviting people to inspect its records. This was after the local county district attorney questioned grand jury candidates, making it apparent that the panel would investigate the Fox center.

The Express-Times reports that the councilwoman resigned from the center, which she founded, in April, a day after it became public that it received free utilities from the city, located in the Lehigh Valley about an hour’s drive north of Philadelphia. Also subject to scrutiny was about $128,000 worth of work that the city performed without compensation at the center.

The website includes the center’s 990 tax forms for 2008–2010, and refers to “recent false accusations, innuendo, and attacks against our nonprofit (that) have been outrageously untrue,” and is designed to tell “the truth to you—backed up by every supporting document we have.”

Apparently, the city did the work on the center’s restored building to help the organization meet a crucial state deadline for a certificate of occupancy; they sought repayment in a July 2010 letter, but officials later dropped that requirement. The city has also paid the center’s utility costs since 2012 in an arrangement made because the former mayor felt the center served a public function. The current mayor told the Express-Times that he won’t seek payment for the work or the utilities, but that he wants to establish a new lease for the center because of the controversy.—Larry Kaplan