(58th in a series of posts on candidates for election)
Barbara Diamond enjoys retirement as Lehigh University Director of Foundation Relations by engaging in various activities and organizations hopefully for the betterment of the community. Her particular interests at the moment are preventing gun violence, local government ethics reform, and Bethlehem Democratic Committee work.
Here are some stubborn facts: Friends of Bryan Callahan contributed $4500 and various developers contributed $4300. Over half of Ms. Ritter’s total campaign funds ($14,100) are from developers and a developer-friendly councilman, judging by his voting history, who supported her as an elected official using his campaign funds not his personal money. This magnitude of political contribution in a city council election should concern everyone about the corrosive effect of political influence by special interests.
The Sands is changing hands. New Owners Wind Creek coming soon.
To tell the truth, the Sands has been invisible to me.
The Gadfly was aware of the hubbub surrounding its approval and construction. But did not feel especially involved one way or the other in the decision.
And he has not been involved since it opened. Though a regular at ArtsQuest/SteelStacks events, Gadfly has never been to the casino, never been to a show – maybe once or twice to the outlets, never even been caught in a traffic jam in the vicinity.
To tell the truth, Gadfly is hardly aware of the Sands’ existence.
So how should I feel about the fact that so soon after it started, the Sands is getting a new owner?
As I read the news stories yesterday, I could not help but remember CM Callahan’s claim at Council a couple of weeks ago that the Sands brings in more money for the City than the Bethlehem Steel Co did in its heyday.
He made me think that not only is the Sands invisible to me but the “good” it does for the City has been pretty much invisible to me as well – tax dollars that fund public services.
So maybe that’s where his thoughts should go when wondering how he should feel about the entrance of a new owner.
Because some serious money will be generated. One-time, not continuing. But a wind-fall from Wind Creek.
The City stands to gain a yet undetermined but significant amount of money from a “casino transfer tax.”
In fact, the City provisionally included $6m income from the casino transfer tax in the 2019 budget (see p. 278 – 7th column from the left). Remember that is not a fixed number. It could well be considerably less. But the City will receive one-time income from the casino transfer tax when the sale is consummated.
Read down that 7th column and see what the City tentatively plans to spend that “extra” money on if it gets $6m.
When the exact amount is determined, the City and Council will have another conversation about the exact expenditures. But that list will give you an idea what’s on the radar.
For instance, Gadfly knows there are followers who will be glad to see $40,000 for a pedestrian bridge feasibility study and $50,000 for Rose Garden improvements.
So Gadfly guesses that he should be more aware of and appreciative of the benefit that this developer brings to the City.
Here are some links to bring you up to speed on the Sands/Wind Creek situation. Perhaps you will be amused as he is about speculation that there might be a water park on the old steel property. Now that might get Gadfly to break out some old 60s demonstrator duds and posters and take up a battle station on the Minsi Trail Bridge.
“Taxes will rise by 3.8 percent, or about an additional $34 for the average homeowner, next year under a $78 million budget Bethlehem City Council unanimously approved Tuesday”.
“The increase will help defray the rising cost of pensions, contracted salary increases and debt payments, according to Mayor Robert Donchez’s administration.”
“Meanwhile, city departments will dial back their spending to 2017 levels and the city will employ 590 workers, a historical low.”
“The workforce was reduced because the city is transferring its 911 operations to Northampton County and changes in the labor contract at the golf course.”
“The city also will save about $750,000 when the operation of its 911 center is turned over to Northampton County by June of next year.”
“Donchez is also looking to invest $24 million over the next couple of years in bigger-ticket projects: repairing more streets, buying two firetrucks and an EMS vehicle and renovating Memorial Pool on Illicks Mill Road.”
As reported earlier, Gadfly and Mr. Haines seemed to be the only spectators at the five budget discussions between the Administration and City Council — a sad fact wryly noted by President Waldron. But perhaps quite understandable. No question such hearings are on the long side and by nature on the dull side too. (But not to Gadfly!) Unless there is some fight. But there was none of that. Discussion, yes. Some back and forth, yes. But all cordial.
So our City budget is going up 3.8%, not so much as several others around us. Gadfly has heard no squawking. Might be too early. And this post might awaken a few. But several hoped-for requests did get in or on a kind of wish list for Casino sale tax dollars – Rose Garden, pedestrian bridge study, Food Co-op, Northside 2027. And Gadfly isn’t aware of a major “want” that didn’t get noticed.
Gadfly glazes over quickly when numbers are thrown about and will try to be more knowledgeable next time around. But he has heard during the current sessions that a good deal of the budget is fixed cost that can’t be tinkered with, so there’s not much discretion involved with a high percentage of the budget. Gadfly would welcome comments by knowledgeable budgeteers.
In a previous post, Gadfly published some clips from the last budget hearing. At final passage December 18 the approval process went quickly. But here are some clips from Council members commenting on the process.
CM Callahan’s is most interesting to Gadfly – explaining the need for the tax increase.
Administration did well holding the line. Not easy to find fat. Money goes to personnel costs for public safety, pensions, health insurance. What would you cut? Streets, snow, parks, Christmas tree lights? Lots of practical conversations like this. Great budget that shows willingness of all sides to work together on what is ultimately a compromise. Thanks to all.
Makes the announcement of County money coming for the pedestrian bridge study.
Lot of investments in there we should be proud of. Thanks to the Mayor, Mr. Evans Mr. Sivac for painful decisions. Good comparison with Allentown. We would never have the kind of Administration/Council shenanigans that occurred there. Collegial debate. But Mr. Donchez would never do what the Allentown mayor did, and same with Council. Again, there’s a lot in here that we should be proud of.
CM Colon and CW Negron
CW Negron notes a “healthy and passionate discussion,” especially on taking the fake tree out of the budget. She makes a strong pitch for the Rose Garden and pedestrian bridge on the “wish list” when Casino money is definite and appears.
No room to cut anymore except for public safety. Doesn’t take the increase lightly. Only the first time he’s voted for increase. Remembers people struggling in the Kaywin neighborhood in which he grew up. A lot of people still struggling. Always conscious about raising taxes. Lots of people not living a high life style, living on tight budgets. Raising taxes on them is really a hardship. He’s pro-economic development. Only 2 ways to raise taxes. If we don’t have economic development, the only other way is raising taxes. Need to keep city affordable for middle class. Worries if we keep on raising taxes people won’t afford to live here. Thankfully, we are a desirable place to live, worries about effect of taxes. Examples of Benner building bringing in $250,000/yr in taxes and 510 Flats bringing in $260,000 – that’s real money, police officers and firemen, etc. So it’s economic development or raising taxes, and the latter puts the burden on our residents. Not lecturing, but we have to understand what our priorities are. Recognizes the burden to keep cost down that falls on the City and thanks them for it. This is a tight, tight budget. Wishes more people showed up for the budget hearings. Either everybody is ok with raising taxes or there’s a lot of apathy out there. Please understand how hard we work on this. Tax increase basically due to rising costs of pension and healthcare – that’s it, no additional hiring and no fluff. Show up next year and cheer us on.
Council President Waldron quipped about the full house at Town Hall on the 2 W. Market meetings compared to the 1 spectator at a $78m budget hearing.
So it goes. (Who recognizes that Kurt Vonnegut is still on Gadfly’s mind?)
There were five scheduled meetings of the Administration and City Council to discuss the 2019 budget. One was snowed out. The last meeting was last night, and the sequence is well reported on in the above article by Nicole. Penultimate tinkering was done last night. The final, official budget will be voted on next Council meeting December 18. Some changes could occur before the vote. Here are some bullet points Gadfly plucked from Nicole’s article
+ $34 for the average homeowner
a non-emergency call center will replace 911 service taken over by the county
city work force is down but pension payments rising
more road work will be done than in previous years
makeover at Memorial Pool
improvements to the Rose Garden
possible contribution to a feasibility study for a pedestrian bridge
uncertain amount but a one-time large tax income from Casino sale on the horizon
new fiscal plans for the Golf Course
Ho, hum, some people would say. But Gadfly found his very first experience with budget hearings very interesting. Here are a couple quick notes:
the interchanges were not only civil, but light and even humorous
no hassles like we hear about, for instance, in Allentown
it was good to hear and “recognize” department heads, people before mainly faceless
you can learn a lot when ideas are or have to be linked with money
neat seeing resident-based requests got into the budget
Gadfly’s antennae (he thinks he has more than one) were especially attuned to this last point. CM Reynolds introduced a request for Rose Garden money. CM Callahan pushed to increase it and to add funds for a pedestrian bridge feasibility study (funds for that seem to be imminently possible from the county and another granting agency as well). Rose Garden money was proposed out of the city budget, and additional money for the Rose Garden plus money for the bridge study were put on the list for consideration when that Casino tax income is definite. All of Council, as far as Gadfly could tell, were supportive of both the Rose Garden improvements and moving forward on study of the pedestrian bridge.
But what do the budget hearings look like? How does the process work?
Gadfly videographer Owen Gallagher took some video. We don’t have video editing software, so the following three clips are not focused on key moments or highlights but simply present the routine linear process (which had many twists and turns) monitored by President Waldron on the Rose Garden insertion into the budget. You can see CM Reynolds introduce the idea, then CM Callahan move to augment the idea. During the process you can see the mayor, especially Public Works head Mike Alkhal, and other Council members interact.
It would take NFL films to make this visually “exciting,” but exciting things are happening nonetheless.
Proponents of the Rose Garden should get a thrill. Looks like $$$$ flowing your way.
Pedestrian bridge is also on the radar.
Here’s your local government operating in perhaps the most important thing they do.
As Gadfly wrote in post #1, there is a feeling among Council that the City is doing a good budget job (A+ credit rating), and that was reflected in final comments last night. Shown here is CM Reynolds’s offering of appreciation to the City, which were followed by equally gracious remarks by President Waldron that unfortunately we didn’t film.
Steve Melnick has had a career in economic development for over 35 years in several states, with the last 20 years here in Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley.
Gadfly: The city has uncovered a three million dollar shortfall in the budget. and taxes are proposed to be increased 3.8%. Why, then, did the Redevelopment Authority give away $800,000 to a private developer for unspecified environmental issues? Why wasn’t the state ISRP (Industrial Site Remediation Program) used to provide assistance to the developer so the RDA could have reprogrammed that money for other more public uses. I realize that in the context of a $78,000,000 budget, $800,000 is small potatoes, but it still irritates me that that money wasn’t somehow reprogrammed to help the city close it’s shortfall while our taxes will increase. Incidentally this $800,000 grant was given to the same people who sold a parcel of vacant land to the same Authority for 2.1 million dollars. Does it make sense to buy a piece of land for 2.1 million and give the same people an $800,000 grant? Parking and development in Bethlehem is being hijacked by a few individuals who have little or no regard for the overall public good.
Gadfly knows you will say he needs a life, but he is looking forward to 5 budget meetings over the next couple weeks.
The Mayor has proposed the 2019 budget (see the link above), and now Council goes over it closely over the course of these 5 meetings.
It may be about the most important work that Council does.
Gadfly has attended meetings over the last few weeks where Council members have applauded the current A+ credit rating the City enjoys, which, I gather, in fairly recent history was not always so good.
Gadfly will report on the proceedings.
Nicole’s articles will fill you in on the Mayor’s proposal.
Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez on Friday called for a 3.8 percent tax increase to balance a $78 million budget. The proposal would cost the average property owner an extra $34 a year, but the city will get enough money to fill a $3 million budget hole. The city’s pension payment is expected to increase by $2.2 million next year. The debt payment will rise by $250,000, and there are contractual raises in employee salaries. Donchez said the proposal will allow the city to maintain its strong balance sheet, which prompted Standard & Poor’s to award it an A+ credit rating, and keep the city safe, clean and a quality place to live.
Council President Adam Waldron said he had not received the budget as of Friday morning, but a small tax increase is expected. “The budget is very challenging because so many costs are fixed. There is little discretionary once you factor in public safety, pensions and health care,” Waldron said. “At each of the five budget hearings, council will do its best to identify anything unnecessary, but overall the administration has made some very positive decisions in the last couple years to get where we are … in regards to our bond rating and personnel head count.”
The tax increase will cover about $1 million of the projected budget hole next year. Bethlehem would make up another $1 million by reducing department budgets to what was spent in 2017. The city also will save about $750,000 when the operation of its 911 center is turned over to Northampton County by June of next year.
The proposed budget in Bethlehem would mean a tax hike of 0.67 mills in the Northampton County part of the city, bringing the total millage to 18.22 mills, and 0.21 mills in the Lehigh County part, bringing the total to 5.71 mills. The owner of a home assessed at $50,000 in Northampton County part would pay a $911 tax bill to the city.
Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez has proposed to borrow nearly $5 million to go toward covering some big-ticket projects in the next couple years.
For instance: Memorial Pool, Fire Dept trucks, Roads, Police body cameras.
The city is hoping to make some waves with a new flagship pool on Illicks Mill Road. The old one, which was built 61 years ago, has been out-dated and in need of repairs. The city is about to launch a $4.5 million project to reconstruct it with more slides and more modern water play features, hoping to remake it as a destination pool. The pool was closed this year and is expected to be closed most of or all of next year while the construction takes place. (The neighborhood pools remain open.) The city has secured about $1.5 million in state grants for it and earmarked $600,000 brought in from recreation fees.
In the Gadfly house, budget times are narrow times.
Budget is a 4-letter word. “Holy Budget!” can often be heard rattling the windows.
Though there is an A+ rating for the City — and maybe because of it — there will be winners and losers.