People who speak at public meetings should be honored

(The latest in a series of posts on City government)

The Gadfly project is all about public participation.

And recently he witnessed some effective championing of public participation at the highest levels of city government.

Leading off the criticism of the Martin Tower design at the Planning Commission meeting April 11, Diane Szabo Backus called attention to the poor time of the meeting – 4pm – for working people. Toward the end of public comment, one such late-arriving working person Paige Van Wirt – Councilwoman in her night job – forcefully ratified Diane’s frustration at this obstacle to public participation, calling for meetings to start later. You can find recordings of both Diane’s and CW Van Wirt’s commonsense remarks here.

PVW didn’t let go of the issue of such poorly timed city meetings at City Council on April 16, again forcefully suggesting that meetings be scheduled for the evenings and, going even further, forcefully suggesting that meetings – especially Zoning, Planning, Redevelopment, and Parking – be video’d. To his credit, Mayor Donchez replied that he will be directing that scheduling of meetings in 2020 be at the 6 and 7pm hours and that video-ing will be discussed. Now that the CC meetings are video’d, we can see this forceful statement by PVW and the interchange with the mayor in the recording of the April 16 meeting at min. 1:42:57.

Well done Diane, PVW, and His Honor.

But there’s more.

PVW forcefully as well took on the “excoriating demeanor” of the Planning Commission chair toward the public commenters on April 11. See the above video of the April 16 meeting at min. 1:44:55.

“The people who come down to comment at a public meeting should be honored for the care they give the City. They’re not being paid. They don’t have ulterior motives. They were there because they cared deeply. I cannot support this chairman when he comes up for re-nomination because I feel that the citizens were not treated with the respect that they were due.”

Planning Commissioners are nominated by the Mayor and approved by City Council. In her opening remarks at the April 16 CC meeting (I’ll come back to them again in a following post), Diane intriguingly asserted that Commission appointment by elected officials is, in effect, election.

Another reminder in this election season that when we elect City Council members, we are, in effect, electing such people as the Planning Commission chair. Thus, if we the public want improved channels of participation, we must elect Council members who will actively champion it.

PVW concluded her substantial comments at the bottom end of a meeting almost two hours long by that time with “Thank you for your patience, I’m sorry.”

Gadflyers are far from sorry for such powerful support.

Brief election notes

Remember that May 21 is primary election day and that in our basically one-party town, the primary election is the key one for City Council seats.

Remember that today is the last day to register for the May 21 primary election. See registration information here.  You must be registered and registered as a Democrat to vote for the City Council seats.

The Bethlehem NAACP “Candidate’s Night 2019is 7PM tonight at Steelworkers Hall,
53 E. Lehigh St., though it is not clear from announcements I’ve seen whether any of our City Council candidates plan to be there.

Carol Ritter, candidate for the 4-year seat on City Council, has updated her response to prompt #1 in our Gadfly series as she catches up on her responses. Please take a look. Return frequently to this continuing “Candidates for election” series as we move toward election day to refresh yourself on the candidates and to prepare for casting an informed vote.

You may have noted like I did this weekend that the yard signs have really bloomed.

But we don’t want to vote for a pretty sign or a familiar name.

Gadfly’s slogan for the “Candidates for election” series is “Get beyond the yard sign.”

Council Candidates – 4-year seat – Prompt 4 (26)

(26th in a series of posts on candidates for election)

 Bethlehem NAACP “Candidate’s Night 2019,” April 22, 7PM, at Steelworkers Hall,
53 E. Lehigh St.

BCDC is hosting a candidates’ forum May 6, 6PM, at Steelworkers Hall,
53 E. Lehigh St.

registration deadline April 22

Election Day is May 21

vote for 3

4th in the series of candidate statements

statements in alphabetical order this time

Talk about budgets and the budgeting process, arguably the most important power and responsibility that City Council has.

Michael Colon (incumbent) Colon 2

The City’s budget is a long, tedious process which is often not very appealing to the public. I understand why.  There are a number of budget hearings during the fourth quarter each year. City Council and the administration go through a budget book which is hundreds of pages long.  A couple years before I was elected to City Council, I went to a budget hearing and truthfully didn’t totally grasp what I was hearing.  Thankfully the members of Council at the time were polite enough to answer emails I’d send with general questions to help me understand.

What is important to understand with the City’s budget today are two things. First is personnel is the biggest cost driver in running Bethlehem. Second is the overall headcount of Bethlehem employees is as low as anyone can remember. Most employees are likely going to work each day to a department that had more manpower when they started their employment. The question then is how to maintain adequate services?

The City must continue to look at technologies which will allow employees to be more effective at their jobs. Continued investment in new technologies will help in delivery of services. An example is the water department rolling out more electronic meters each year which allow the meter to be read remotely, cuttimg down on time going meter to meter. That being said, the workloads only increase our departments at City Hall.  Sometimes adding to the headcount is necessary as we recently decided to add a part-time employee to the Law Bureau due to increased demands. It is important to consider the long-term budgetary impact of each addition to the City’s payroll. In this instance there are no benefits other than salary.

The cost of doing business will continue to rise. It’s only fair a hardworking employee should be paid more today than they were one, three, ten years ago. Am I opposed to raising taxes?  Can’t say that I am. I’ve been a part of a Council that has passed small tax increases. What I am in favor of is continuing to look at the budget, this massive document, comprehensively and continuing to understand how to meet the City’s needs so that when taxes do have to rise they are incremental.

J. William Reynolds (incumbent) JWReynolds

The following facts about the budget cannot really be disputed.

  • Most of the budget is fixed due to union contracts and obligations (such as debt relating to capital investments)
  • The vast majority of the budget is personnel (over 80 percent)
  • The majority of the budget is public safety (important when considering the service impact of any spending cuts)
  • Legitimate meaningful cuts cannot be made without touching personnel (which generally Councilmembers do not want to do)

With those four points in mind, it is very difficult to make substantial cuts during budget time. So, what is City Council’s role in the budget?

  • Determine, follow, monitor the long-term financial health of the city by understanding the budget revenue and expenditure drivers
  • Have an in-depth understanding of the direction of departments and the short- and long-term financial implications of annual proposed changes
  • Monitor and follow revenue and expenditure estimates throughout the year
  • Educate the public about the aforementioned structural limitations of our budget
  • Support initiatives that assist the city financially and do not sacrifice the effectiveness and efficiency of city services

The single most impactful thing that Council members can do as it pertains to the budget is to keep open communication with the Administration and department heads about their short- and long-term financial plans for their departments throughout the year.   The budget is passed in December, but important financial questions are being asked and answered every day in City Hall.  What is our pension obligation for next year? A few people retired, are those positions being filled? Would a change in departmental structure save money over the long run without sacrificing service? If we have a year with many winter storms, where are we moving money from to pay for snow removal?

City Councilmembers who wish to fund new initiatives also must work with the Administration and Department heads throughout the year (rather than during budget time) to understand where new initiatives work with the larger plans/strategies for the departments.  It is often a long and tedious process to build support and the necessary financial budgetary flexibility for even minor additions to the budget throughout the year. Working slowly is, however, necessary to not only fund new initiatives but also to make sure the implementation process is clear moving forward.  During my time on City Council, most Councilmembers have approached the budget process with the above information in mind and, as a result, the current and future financial position of the City is stable and growing stronger by the year.

Carol Ritter

Watch this space

David Saltzer  David Saltzer

When speaking about budgets, there are  multiple facets that change annually. I have had the opportunity to sit on the other side of the council table as a taxpayer, employee, and president of the union looking at the budget from different perspectives. Budgeting is one of council’s most important duties. To create a budget that is fair to everyone allows the city to operate, grow, provide essential city services, and not drain the pockets of the citizens.

Budgets should be reevaluated on an ongoing basis. By looking at our vendors and what they offer to the city, it may in our best interest to look at long-term contracts as opposed to monthly or yearly contracts for services to save money, while also continuing with a yearly fleet replacement plan for aging essential city equipment in the streets, parks, and public safety departments. This will also help in the long term by not having to replace multiple broken and aged pieces of equipment at once.

We can also look at attracting businesses that will help add to the tax base and give back to the community through sponsorships to maintain parks or monies to fund essential equipment, saving taxpayers monies. We can also continue to search and seek out grants for community upgrades, equipment programs such as Costars, and safe staffing such as the COPS and SAFER grants for fire and police to help offset the cost of salaries in public safety.

One area where we cannot afford to cut is city personnel. Our city is currently operating with the lowest number of employees in history, and it shows. Employees are constantly asked to do more with less, and this attitude is unacceptable and needs to change. Our employees can feel the lack of support from the current city administration and are burning out, and the city is seeing the results of this burnout.

Paige Van Wirt (incumbent) Van Wirt 2

Semper Pro Populus

City Council has fiduciary responsibility over the City operations — the budget, capital expenditures, and leveraging debt. In thinking about this duty I find the term “Semper Pro Populus” to be the guide: Always for the Public. It is in this role that Bethlehem’s finances must be abundantly transparent, and the decision-making behind the city finances accessible and easily understood.

City Council approves debt — in part by floating general obligation bonds, which are
backed by the power of the taxpayer. Taxpayers frequently backstop the bonds of
independent authorities, approved by City Council. It is in this responsibility I find the
most serious oversight responsibility lies — how do we ensure that we do not wind up like Scranton, where City Council approved general obligation bonds for the Scranton
Parking Authority to build yet another parking garage which subsequently was not
supported by parking revenue. The Parking Authority then asked Scranton City Council
to raise city taxes to pay the G.O. bonds. Scranton City Council refused to honor the
taxpayer guarantee for the Parking Authority’s G.O. Bonds — not wanting to raise taxes on it’s citizens — and Scranton wound up losing access to capital markets as a result,
precipitating a full-blown financial crisis. (Mary Walsh, “With No Vote, Taxpayers Stuck
with Tab on Bonds” New York Times 6/25/2012) Or Harrisburg, where the G.O. Bonds
for a trash incinerator provided the initial debt, which was subsequently inflated by the
Harrisburg Authority over the years, ultimately leading to the state taking over
Harrisburg’s finances. Or Allentown, where the debt of the struggling Lehigh County
Authority has provoked widespread concern. To compound the problem, these
obligations are frequently carried off the books.

In terms of function, the City budget is composed of a series of operating funds
(general, water. and sewer) as well as a capital budget. Within this framework, there is
often very little room for leverage in council towards goals that differ from the
administration, with the exception of the capital budget. It is here that I think a unified,
cohesive City Council has the most room to guide the administration- How we invest in
our downtowns to help Bethlehem’s small businesses? What are the projected costs of
replacing our fleet with electric vehicles? How do we improve our sidewalks? How do
we use the power of the purse to create a city with a diversified economy, an affordable
housing stock, and lively, energized streetscapes in our downtowns?

A fiduciary must always act with highest ethical standards. This means honesty and full
disclosure. The power of the purse, as controlled by City Council, is another reason we
must have a strong ethical foundation for our elected officials; the proposed Ethics
Ordinance, which I will be reintroducing, is meant to reassure the taxpayers that no
conflict of interests will affect Bethlehem’s elected official’s obligation to the people.

Bethlehem is pressured by many responsibilities — pension obligations, retiree and
employee healthcare, aging infrastructure are just a few — and is looking for ways to
creatively increase the tax base and to find new sources of revenue all without adding to
the taxpayer’s burden. It is in the fiduciary role of City Council — to ensure that
Bethlehem’s financial obligations and decision-making are transparent, that taxpayerbacked bonds are vetted and publicly discussed, particularly when it comes to off-the-books Authority debt, — that we must ensure we are Semper Pro Populus — always for the public.

Council Candidates – 2-year seat – Prompt 4 (25)

(25th in a series of posts on candidates for election)

 Bethlehem NAACP “Candidate’s Night 2019,” April 22, 7PM, at Steelworkers Hall,
53 E. Lehigh St.

BCDC is hosting a candidates’ forum May 6, 6PM, at Steelworkers Hall,
53 E. Lehigh St.

registration deadline April 22

Election Day is May 21

vote for 1

4th in the series of candidate statements

statements in alphabetical order this time

Talk about budgets and the budgeting process, arguably the most important power and responsibility that City Council has.

Will Carpenter Will Carpenter

As a new member to Council, I would first need to listen and learn about process and the current and past budget initiatives, long-term objectives and challenges.  While I have created budgets, had profit/loss accountability, projected expenses and negotiated costs, I have never been a part of a municipal budgeting process and will have much to learn.

For expenditures, my priorities would start with public safety — from police, fire, and EMS to health and water quality. Keeping our community safe and our first responders well-equipped should be non-negotiable. Code enforcement is also part of public safety.  We have rules, so we should make sure they are consistently enforced and our departments have the resources to do so.

On the revenue side, we must protect and support our current strongest sources of revenue while looking ahead to the next revenue generators. Our business community and residential neighborhoods are the backbone of our city.  We are partners in success.  As the economy and the world continues to change, Bethlehem must be forward-looking to meet the needs of the next generation.

So initially, my responsibility is to ask questions, hold departments accountable and learn. Are we, the citizens, receiving good value on the expenditure?  What can we learn from past experience, or other municipalities experiences? Times aren’t always good, and bad times don’t last forever. Don’t overspend and don’t under-invest. It is a difficult balance, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I will certainly ask the questions.  Above all, don’t play politics with the budget.  I will tell it like it is and make the hard choices with a long-term perspective.

Ashley Daubert Ashley Daubert

In a healthcare setting, members of nursing leadership (like myself), are involved with some of the most critical functions in budgetary planning. Like nurse managers, the members of City Council serve as the link between the plans of administration/City and the workforce/tax payer. In my experience, the use of historical budgeting is a vital component of planning the next fiscal year’s budget. As a member of City Council, I would review historical budgets from the previous (at least) four years, and identify patterns and trends. I would also compare this data to a chart of accounts for the City – analyzing revenue, expenses, liabilities, and assets. I would then compare actual revenue and expenses to the budgeted revenue and expenses for each year. Variances would be identified and variance analyses completed, as appropriate. The budgeting process is ongoing and dynamic. It should provide feedback and opportunity for corrective action; this is essential in managing a budget.

In the development of a budget, it is important to really analyze what is being requested. For example, in the healthcare setting, there are things we need to function, and there are things that would be wonderful to have in an “ideal situation.” This is a concept I use when creating our household budget as well. I call it the “need vs. want” scenario(s) – the same mentality I would use as a member of City Council. I have reviewed the City of Bethlehem 2019 Operating and Capital Budgets, but without being able to (also) review some of the aforementioned historical documentation, at this point, I can only say it is very comprehensive and diverse. I can appreciate that it is does not intend to allocate funding disproportionately in one area versus another.

It is difficult to condense such a broad topic into the summary above – but in closing, a critical task in creating and/or approving a budget is collecting relevant data. Armed with this knowledge, Council can make fiscally responsible decisions to ensure the City can run efficiently, without raising taxes.

My Grandfather, Dale Daubert, served on the South Whitehall Township Board of Commissioners for 25 years. He was an outspoken advocate for preservation, and consistently voted against tax increases in the township. This is something he was known for, and I intend to fight the same way for the taxpayers of my City. You might say – it’s in my blood.

Grace Crampsie Smith grace crampsie smith

My previous budgetary experience with allocating federal, state, and local funds will be beneficial in my role as city councilperson. In my capacity as Addictions Counselor and Coordinator of Community and Early Intervention Services for Lehigh County Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, I was faced with the arduous task of assuring limited taxpayer funds were utilized most efficiently for my clients and families.  Budgetary battles were the norm, for there were never enough funds to adequately serve those in need, and waiting lists prevailed

Currently as a school counselor I again am faced with budgetary dilemmas in that school districts are faced with rising costs, especially given the diversion of sufficient funds from the budget to charter schools. As AP Coordinator, I am responsible for the AP budget and am facing increasingly challenges to offset rising costs with assuring quality administration of the AP program.

Negotiation and mediation skills have been the hallmark of my career as a counselor and human services administrator. While at Lehigh County, I facilitated the transformation of our service delivery from contract-private provider based to a Family Driven- Family Support Services model. This entailed weekly meetings with a Family Council, comprised of parents of those with developmental disabilities.  After more than a year of intense negotiations, we successfully transformed our delivery system, eliminating waiting lists, and assuring all clients/families received services. Negotiation was certainly the key during this arduous yearlong process, and I was complimented for my efforts.

What we need to remember re: the city budget is that like most budgets, the majority of the budget is comprised of fixed costs items such as personnel and health care. In fact 75.2 % of the general fund is comprised of personnel costs.

As a taxpayer I certainly “get it” that no one wants to have their taxes raised.  Concurrently, as a long-time professional in the area of human services, I see on a daily basis the need for services funded by public monies.

As time commences, costs increase — that’s why we have cost of living increases. So how do we balance this, especially for those on fixed incomes that receive minimal to no COLA?  As a councilperson, it is vital to assure funds are spent most efficiently, and prioritization is essential. We can also look at alternate sources of funding such as grants. When I wanted to empower our at-risk 9th graders, I applied for a grant through the Rt. 22 Anti-Gang Task Force and was able to institute the “Skills for Success” program in collaboration with Lafayette College. Collaboration with private entities/individuals should also be encouraged. For example, my friend Mary Sculion recently celebrated 30 years as Founder of Project Home in Philadelphia. At the celebratory dinner this past week, the private benefactors in attendance raised $10 million dollars in one night for her organization. We need to see more of this in Bethlehem.

As a young child, my family faced financial crisis when my father became very ill and was out of work long-term. My family of 9 would never have survived had it not been for the good will of our community.  This experience had a profound impact on me and is one of many reasons I want to be a city councilperson to assure we all work together for the benefit of ALL, regardless of budgetary constraints.

Martin Tower: the EAC wanted “a showpiece of sustainable design” (17)

(17th in a series on Martin Tower)

Martin Tower demolition May 19
www.martintowerbethlehem.com

Gadfly would like to stay on the Martin Tower beat a little longer. Lots of good stuff here.

Let’s back up a moment.

Gadfly caught the “City bug” in January 2018 and started going to meetings, not only the Council meetings but many of the citizen-based committees and commissions that most of us, frankly, don’t know much about.

Take a look at the list of the City Authorities, Boards, and Commissions. Quite extensive, no? Lots of residents volunteering their services.

He found that one of the most impressive and enjoyable groups is the Environmental Advisory Council (EAC) chaired by Lynn Rothman, with members Elizabeth Behrend, Elisabeth Cichonski, (ubiquitous) Kathy Fox, Brian Hillard, and Mike Topping — in addition to a cluster of regular attendees known for their environmental knowledge and activism and Councilman Reynolds often present as well.

Think EAC and think CAP and PBO. That’s Climate Action Plan and the Plastic Bag Ordinance. Not only nice people but productive people.

So the EAC has weighed in significantly on Martin Tower, both past and present, and Gadfly would like to highlight their “public sapience” – the nerdy term you saw him coin recently and which he must use a few times to wash it out of his system!

In a phrase designed to make Gadfly’s palms sweat, blood race, breath heave, and loins leap, the EAC dreamed of the Martin Tower site as “a showpiece of sustainable design”!

As a prime location for a landmark redevelopment, this site could showcase cutting-edge green design, respect open space and utilize smart growth principles. Such a design could encompass transit-oriented, walkable, bicycle-friendly land use, with mixed-use development. Many long-range sustainability and environmental goals articulated in the City’s 2008 Comprehensive Plan could be explored.  EAC-Martin Tower-2016

Think of it! “A showpiece of sustainable design”!

Gadfly imagines the Town Hall lights dimmed (except for that one damn light that seems to have a mind of its own! You know the one I mean.) and a crescendo of pencils tapping on chair arms leading up to the dramatic unveiling of Bethlehem’s SHOWPIECE OF SUSTAINABLE DESIGN!

Followed by a collective gasp so strong it would suck the panels off the ceiling.

Be still my heart!

But – sigh – we live in a fallen world.

Common wisdom in the cheap seats is that the design for the Martin Tower site fell well short of a showcase.

In addition to submitting a detailed letter (EAC-Martin Tower-2019), EAC members Brian Hillard and Mike Topping attended the Planning Commission meeting April 11.

Listen to their different voices.

074Brian, the younger guy, calm, diplomatic, showing just a trace of wry impatience at developer shortsightedness (“Looking at that pocket park, it’s like in the pocket”), even-temperedly calling attention to things you would think the developer would certainly have highlighted (Bethlehem’s Climate Action Plan, solar, etc.),  and ending with an echo of the “showcase” dream: “This site was an icon to our city and our region, and we would be well served to continue with that thought. This could be an icon to the future as we remove the icon from the past.”

079Mike, the older guy, experienced (“I used to sit on the other side of that table”), a bit gruff-voiced, tough talking, finding student designs better, forcefully invoking the specter of Levittown coming to Bethlehem, speaking definitively, authoritatively, for instance, about parking and subdividing (“It’s just wrong. It’s just not the way things are done”), attributing the design to an unimaginative engineer when real planning (by someone capable of creating a “showcase”) should be done.

A marvelous 1-2 presentation from these EACers.

Gadfly is not sure what impact these public voices can have on the Martin Tower project at this point. He doesn’t know as much as he needs to about the process of development. Such comments almost seem too late once the developer has presented a plan. Maybe not.

Gadfly is sure, though, that we’d all like a “showcase.”

And this isn’t it. Yet.

How do we get such ideas in on the “ground floor,” as it were – at the beginning of the design process?

Gadfly will be trying to learn and think more.

Candidates – are you listening? Are you thinking?

A couple election notes

May 21 is primary election.

Hoping everybody will vote.

Gadfly needs everybody involved in making informed choices for the best candidates for city government.

Thus, please note and continue to refer to our “candidates for election” thread (see under Topics of the sidebar and under Serious Stuff on the top menu).

We are getting great cooperation from the candidates in providing statements on various topics.

By election time each candidate will have prepared a portfolio of sorts where we can find their views and hear their “voices.”

Three sets of responses to prompts so far, and the fourth comes tomorrow.

And Carol Ritter (who’s had what Prof Gadfly nostalgically calls an excused absence) has posted her prompt #2 now and is getting back on track. Please take a moment now to read Carol’s post.

Do all you can to get to know the candidates. I hope they will let me know where they are “appearing,” so I can pass that on to you.

But mark this:  The Bethlehem City Democratic Committee is hosting a candidates’ forum May 6, 6PM, at Steelworkers Hall, 53 E. Lehigh St.

Also, for the incumbents, attend the City Council meetings or watch them on video. You can find past videos here. Several incumbents were vocally “active” at the April 16 meeting, for instance.

And the key thing is that you are registered to vote and registered Democratic (will there be any Republicans running?). In the primary election, you can only vote in the party in which you are registered. And since in a basically one-party town, the primary is tantamount to the general election, you must make sure that you are registered.

Monday is the last day to register!

See detailed registration info in a previous post here.

Thanks again to follower Al W for the registration info and — correcting the record — to follower Carol B for suggesting I provide this info on Gadfly.

Are you registered to vote?

Gadfly thanks to follower Kate for the nudge and thanks to follower Al W for the info

This coming Monday, April 22, is the last day to register to vote in Pennsylvania for the May 21 Primary Election. If you are not registered to vote in Pennsylvania, the PA Department of State offers an online application that only takes five minutes, and can be completed online. The application can be accessed using the web address: https://www.pavoterservices.pa.gov/pages/VoterRegistrationApplication.aspx

Other information on voting rules and info can be found at

votespa.com

The two county voter registration websites:

https://www.northamptoncounty.org/CTYADMN/ELECTNS/Pages/VoterRegInfo.aspx

https://www.lehighcounty.org/Departments/Voter-Registration

The League of Women Voters usually has helpful info too:
https://lwvlehighcounty.org/

http://www.lwvnorthco.org/

Northampton County

Election:

Contact Elections for questions related to your polling place, when or where an election will be held and other election related information.

​Ms. Amy Hess
Election Director
669 Washington St., Room 1211
Easton, PA 18042-4101
(610) 829-6260
election@northamptoncounty.org


Voter Registration
:

Contact Voter Registration to confirm if you are registered to vote, how to register and other questions related to voter registration.​

Ms. Amy Hess
Election Director
669 Washington St., Room 1211
Easton, PA 18042-4101
(610) 829-6260
election@northamptoncounty.org

County WebsiteNorthampton County Website

Lehigh County

Election:

Contact Elections for questions related to your polling place, when or where an election will be held and other election related information.​

Mr. Timothy Benyo
Chief Clerk, Board of Elections
Lehigh Co. Government Center
17 S. 7th St.
Allentown, PA 18101
(610) 782-3194


Voter Registration
:

Contact Voter Registration to confirm if you are registered to vote, how to register and other questions related to voter registration.​

Terri Harkins
Deputy Chief Clerk
Lehigh Co. Government Center
17 S. 7th St.
Allentown, PA 18101
(610) 782-3194

County WebsiteLehigh County Website