Chatter around Gadfly’s water-cooler about: a pedestrian bridge

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Makes you think about priorities here in the budget season!

So $100,000 for a bridge that is not needed and connects nothing to nothing?

  • Drugs – not enough police

 

  • Sidewalks – residential problem

 

  • Walkability –  you have to drive to the bridge because you cannot walk there

 

  • No money for home improvements

 

  • No money for trees

But we might have a bridge!

Gadfly thought you ethicists might need a change of pace!

Discussion of the golf course budget drifts off the fairway

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Before going any further, Gadfly invites you to spend a light few minutes with the public comment by Jack Hoy (Huy?) at the last City Council meeting.

82-year-old Mr. Hoy gave us all a few chuckles as, bringing several clubs as exhibits, he proclaimed his pride and appreciation in the Bethlehem Golf Course that signaled the dramatic, positive change there over the past year.

Hoy was such a great warm and sincere salesman for this major part of our recreational system that at Wednesday’s budget hearing Council members quipped that he was a plant by Business Manager Eric Evans to support the Golf budget statements.

You might remember that back in 2018 the golf course was a hot issue. It was losing money and deteriorating in quality. Should we sell it, lease it, dedicate a pot of money to it??  Tricky issue. And a high priority for many vocal residents.

There was a meeting in which Town Hall was filled with angry and concerned golfers, the like of which Gadfly hadn’t seen and won’t soon forget.

Business Manager Eric Evans seemed to take charge of the course’s fate, advocating for a viable future path. The decision was to make the course operate as a business and to be self-supporting, and Larry Kelchner — a retired businessman — was hired to manage the course.

Mr. Kelchner was impressive at the budget hearing Wednesday, and the performance of the course over the year has even changed Councilwoman Van Wirt’s mind about it — because last year she was skeptical about the course’s future.

So Mr. Kelchner pretty much simply received plaudits and engaged in congenial conversation till it was if someone stepped on a landmine unobtrusively planted in a fairway and for several minutes the meeting blew up.

Please go to the City video of Wednesday’s budget hearing #2, part 4 min. 21:20 to the end and part #5 up to min. 12:15.

You know that an important part of Gadfly’s mission is to help and encourage you to know your Councilpeople so that when it comes time to vote you are doing so as well informed as you can be.

This 15 mins. is well worth viewing in this respect.

Councilman Callahan raised a legitimate question about the difference in cost between adults and kids for greens fees and season passes but not at the driving range and claimed that was driving (no pun intended) kids away from golfing there.

For instance, a round of golf on the 18hole course is $24 for adults, $16 for kids, but at the driving range it’s $10/bucket for both — same price. At one point BC seemed to be asking for a reduction to $5, on the grounds that the differential in the other fees made the case that we recognized that kids can’t afford the same as adults.

And, said BC, the consequence was that the kids were not using the facility because of the cost — kids whom BC wanted there to keep them off the streets.

So far so good.

On its face, that is not unreasonable.

Then things went out of bounds.

At one one point BC seemed to be saying that there were no kids at the course because of this fee differential while LK was saying that there were plenty of kids there.

In answer to BC, EE and LK said the fee at the driving range was “industry standard” and documented various examples of their generous involvement with and solicitation of junior golfers.

But BC wouldn’t seem to accept that explanation and pressed on.

Tension escalated when Councilwoman Van Wirt tried to get the discussion to move on, which met with a curt response from BC, and pretty soon there were hard words between President Waldron and BC, including suggestions that BC was arguing for special interests — for example, “paving” was mentioned, seemingly totally unrelated to the golf discussion.

Odd. Where did that come from? One of those times where other people know things you don’t. Other issues bubbling under the surface. And you feel left out of the conversation.

Paving?

Gadfly was not sure of what AW spoke, but he immediately thought of BC at the first budget hearing indicating twice that major road work was needed. Major paving.

Had BC been promoting paving interests there?

In any event, BC was rather heatedly defensive, and protested unfairness.

Now Gadfly — as always — suggests you go to the tape yourself and make judgment if judgment needs to be made.

Perhaps Gadfly will only say that there is a “history” of BC interactions with Council members that has resulted in short fuses among his colleagues.

Tempers escalate quickly.

After a previous Council flare-up involving BC (the Zoning Board nomination issue about which Gadfly devoted 10 posts), Gadfly responded to President Waldron’s invitation (to us all) to comment on the way he handles discussion.

Gadfly suggested that President Waldron consider a discussion rule based in Roberts Rules:

  • a limit of 10 minutes, then others are given an opportunity to speak
  • after others have spoken or passed on the opportunity to speak, another 10 minutes
  • any further 10-minute time after that only with majority vote of the other Council members

After you view the tape of this heated episode, however, Gadfly suggests that you go back and bask in Mr. Hoy’s ray of golf course sunshine again.

Gadfly bets his game is as sharp as his wit.

Budget hearing #2 goes pretty smoothly

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2020 Proposed Budget

2nd-Budget-Hrg-11-13-19-Agenda

Gadfly’s private life (yes, he has one!) unfortunately kept him from attending the second budget hearing as well as the first. So, again, he relies on the video archive just as you can.

Gadfly especially likes these budget hearings for the ability to hear from the City administrators and for the opportunity to hear some of the doings within their departments.

After all, these people — in their day-to-day, on-the-ground work — may have more to do with the quality of City life than some elected officials.

Gadfly likes to know who they are, have a sense of them.

Last hearing, for instance, we heard from admins Boscola and Alkhal. Mr, Boscola attends all the City Council hearings, but Gadfly doesn’t believe he’s ever had an occasion to speak. So hearing him was a treat. On the other hand, Mr. Alkhal is often called upon to answer some question or other in his diverse department.

At the mics for the second hearing were the familiar Chief DiLuzio, Chief Achey, and Business Manager Evans but also the unfamiliar Golf Course manager Larry Kelchner, who has been spoken of very highly. It was good to hear him.

Followers can see from the bullet points below that the questions from our Council inquisitors elicited answers on interesting topics. Gadfly invites you at the very least to choose a spot to browse the discussion for a while.

As at the first hearing — except for a brief stretch that we’ll consider in the next post — the interchanges between Council and Administration were courteous and amicable. One could sense cooperation and respect.

Budget Hearing #2, November 13
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Police Chief DiLuzio (parts 1 and 2):

  • no big changes in the budget
  • rise in overtime because they’re down 20 officers; applications are down; “big issue is manpower”; overtime is controlled — 4hr shifts not 8
  • good economy affects number of applications
  • every patrol officer has a body camera
  • current contract expires in 2022
  • new vehicles Ford SUVs
  • discussion of budgeting of special event overtime
  • probable presidential candidate coming to the City in 2020
  • we are probably in lower half of pay rates compared to other cities
  • drugs, opiods — get calls every day — number stagnant but hasn’t increased
  • programs to keep kids off the streets?
  • interaction with Health Department, for instance storm problems
  • the BPAIR program: people voluntarily turning selves in for drug treatment
  • diversity? work with NAACP, Hispanic organization,  LGBTQ
  • info on use of body cameras
  • info on winter shelter: people sleeping outside, etc.
  • Resource officers at Liberty: safety concerns? soft target
  • Fentanyl? large caches for city our size, a lot of it out there
  • marijuana enforcement

Fire Chief Achey (end of part 2, part 3)

  • contract settled
  • numbers of fires down: smoke alarm program
  • new engines added
  • down 2 firefighters, recruitment good
  • meeting call volume, injuries at historic low
  • drone program?
  • our gas lines? risk of explosions?
  • code for firewalls?
  • hiring Latinos?
  • EMS service calls static
  • compression devices?

Golf Course: Eric Evans, Larry Kelchner (end  of part 3, part 4 & 5)

  • turnaround has been a success
  • lots of positive feedback
  • major projects: pavilion, irrigation system, trees, etc.
  • rounds up 17% on course and up on driving range
  • marketing partnership with St. Luke’s at range — up 23%
  • “dramatic changes operationally” paying off
  • good work of part-timers
  • involved in First Tee program
  • environmentally friendly?
  • bunker and cart path work
  • bathrooms need to be “tuned up”
  • fees not being raised
  • discussion of kids’ fees — why difference in rate?
  • why not differential for kids at driving range?
  • First Tee (housed in Boys Club) uses facility for free
  • argument over whether kids are at the range
  • Liberty, Freesom, Beca teams use for free
  • host “Y,” Special Olympic, etc.
  • $5 at range instead of $10?
  • sticking it to kids on Golf range?
  • St. Luke’s partnership
  • “uniforms” for staff
  • relationship with restaurant owner: “fluid,” “contentious”

Water and Sewer and Public Works budgets discussed at first budget hearing

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2020 Proposed Budget

1st-Budget-Hrg-11-12-19-Agenda-2

Gadfly went to the important meeting of the Zoning Hearing Board Tuesday night and thus did not go to the first budget hearing.

But he knew the budget hearing would be available on video to catch up on.

Thanks again to President Waldron and Council for moving on this video system last year. It is very helpful.

Now, though the camera doesn’t really take in the audience, Gadfly senses there weren’t many resident attendees at the hearing. Maybe none.

Last year Mr Haines and I were the lone spectators.

That’s a shame.

Here is the time to ask your questions about how money is spent and to make your pitch about how the money should be spent.

The topics Tuesday night were Water/Sewer and Public Works. The former might not be a real “hot” topic, but Public Works is a big department, now even including what was the separate Recreation department. Potentially lots of residents issues there — streets, sidewalks, traffic, etc.

It’s up to the Council members to represent our “needs” but always best for us to speak up.

The meeting was very cordial, same as last year.

There were no points of contention.

Most interesting, Gadfly thought, was Councilman Callahan sort of forecasting that there were some major budget considerations coming up in the area of Public Works, perhaps in the next administration. (The Mayor, he said, has 1.5 years left.)

Here are links to the meeting video and some highlights:

Budget Hearing #1, November 12
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Water and Sewer: Edward Boscola

  • General praise for the quality of our water — wins awards — and the performance of our operation.
  • Part 1 min. 41:30-Part 2 min. 3:20: Interesting conversation with Councilman Callahan. What’s the quality of the piping, are we replacing on a regular basis? Costs $1m/mile to replace a water main, and we have 500 miles. We can’t grow ourselves out of our debt. Where are we going to get the money? Can’t do rate rise every year.  Council’s going to have to take a good hard look at this in upcoming years.
  • Gadfly learns: we “sell” water to a bunch of outside places, Bethlehem Township, Hanover Township, etc. Outside City customer rates regulated by the PUC (Pennsylvania Utilities Commission). We can set rates inside city, but we choose to go by what the PUC sets outside. In sewer, however, our only customers are inside the city, and we set a bulk rate for the Townships, who then charge their residents whatever they want. We’re seeking a 5-10% rate rise from the PUC; it costs $250,000-$400,000 for accounting and legal fees to argue a case before the PUC.

Public Works: Mike Alkhal

  • Discussion of the new storm water plan — the “biggest new item” — highlighted in the Mayor’s budget address as a major new program: Part 3 mins 15:30-20:17.
  • Memorial Pool is on schedule for opening next year.
  • Streets: Part 3 mins. 32:20-38:48. Significant number of streets that need to be re-surfaced, and we’re trying to make progress. Upgrading ADA ramps is a major portion of the cost. Re-doing streets has good impact on property owners. Always doing what we can. We have 200 linear miles of roads and another 40-60 of alleys. Roads are rated every two years. About $18m worth of work needed on bad roads, and we’re only putting in, say, $2m/yr. Councilman Callahan raises the point that we’re going to have to do something — a road tax?
  • Discussion of how roads are chewed up by UGI and others doing repairs: Part 3 mins. 38:48-43:32. Councilman Callahan asking about the possible need to revise an ordinance or to have a new one, and again talking about need to raise money for roads.

Let’s try to make the budget exciting!

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MAYOR DONCHEZ’S 2020 BUDGET ADDRESS

Baby Gadfly was pretty brash.

Back at the beginning of the year diapered Gadfly was critical of the Mayor’s annual “State of the Union” (oops, City) address, critical of where it was given and how it was pitched.

Remember? Given to a group of business people. The general public could pay to attend. Pay. Ugh.

Gadfly thought he had mellowed. But last Friday’s recent Budget address (given under the very same circumstances) by the Mayor finds him in the same mood.

Gadfly sees the “State of the City” address and the Budget address as ritual communal events involving “the people” — exciting moments for robust wide-ranging discussion from a broad set of perspectives, a time for the whole City to be listening and responding.

He thinks they should be bigger deals than they are.

Gadfly is all about citizen participation. We don’t have that at these significant moments.

After the “State” address he proposed assembling, say, four people to complement the Mayor’s address with posts on Gadfly, posts that appraise the City from a variety of angles, through a variety of lenses, using different metrics — not necessarily to compete with, criticize, answer, or attack the Mayor, but complementary views aimed at the conversation that builds community.

You saw Gadfly propose exactly the same thing — a “Perspectives on the Budget” series of posts — in these pages on Friday. (Will anyone pitch in?)

Gadfly has no especial quarrel with the Mayor’s performance or the state of the city. On the contrary, Gadfly’s actually a pretty happy camper. There were great things in the “State” address, and now the Mayor’s proposing a budget with no tax increase.

Gadfly just doesn’t feel he’s talked to or with about such important matters as the state of the city and the budget.

And he’s pouty about it.

Gadfly almost went to the Friday businessperson’s breakfast where the Mayor delivered the Budget address. He wanted to feel the vibe of the gala premiere rather than the ho-hum of the stale routine re-run that will occur tonight when the Mayor delivers the same address to Council and a splatter of spectators to get it “on the record.”

And now he can’t go tonight for even the re-run. This first Budget hearing conflicts with the 2 W. Market Zoning Board hearing that won’t be recorded for his later viewing as the Budget hearing will.

Here’s what Gadfly is pouty about.

The Budget address is not addressed to him (“us”).

See if you are any different than Gadfly.

Gadfly wanted the Mayor to burst right out of the rhetorical gate in the address proclaiming “Here’s what we’re doing for you with your tax dollars in 2020!” “Here’s how we’re doing what you want us to do!” “Here’s how I’m fulfilling my promises to work for you!”

Ahh, now that would get his attention!

Gadfly simply thinks the budget address would have been quite, quite different if the Mayor imagined “the public” in front of him rather than an auditorium of business people.

Quite different — and more effective at engaging the public.

As is, Gadfly had to search for the headlines in the address that would have dominated chatter over his breakfast table: our A+ credit rating and no increase in taxes.

Now those are things that should be shouted from the Payrow parapet.

And in Gadfly’s mind, budget addresses should emphasize the future.

Much of the Mayor’s address is about the past. These things in the address have already happened or been done: Martin Tower, the Sands sale, bye-bye to 9-1-1, hello to the Service Center, Memorial Pool construction, Golf course renovation, the web site, a new fire truck, a new EMS vehicle, 10,000 tons of new macadam, etc., etc., etc.

So much time spent on these things, laudable and good as they are.

But what’s new?

The Climate Action Plan, the Census, the Housing Inspection Plan, the Stormwater Plan.

In Gadfly’s mind, the new should be foregrounded.

We look forward to what we should look forward to.

And two of those four new items are driven (rather uninterestingly to most of us) by outside forces.

Gadfly would further foreground the two that are driven by inside forces, the two that are truly City “initiatives.”

Imagine with Gadfly the excitement that could be generated over the value to the address of more vivid descriptions of the home-grown Climate Action and Housing Inspection plans.

And Gadfly wants to feel excitement at these pivotal moments.

Excitement over what we’re going to get for our bucks.

As is, the announcement of the budget and the subsequent budget hearings spread out over several weeks might pass virtually unnoticed by the general citizenry.

Now there’s a danger in talking directly to the public, of course, as elected official know better than anyone else. As Gadfly writes, the one — only one! — response to the budget address on the City Hall Facebook page is by a member of the Lehigh Valley branch of the populous Ad Hominem family.

Sigh.

One thinks of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye imagining someone writing “Fuck you” on his tombstone.

Sorry for that guy, Mr. Mayor — but we must still try to make the damn budget exciting to the general public.

Budget opacity and arcanity

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Did you see this recent comment by Peter Crownfield on a recent post ?

“Municipal budget books seem to be designed to make things opaque or difficult to understand. . . . Do you suppose keeping things arcane [good SAT word, Peter] is one reason why it is done the way it is?”

Exactly.

Gadfly’s been meaning to hatch one of his beautiful (!) “Modest Proposals” on this very subject.

Gadfly was a writing teacher for a hundred years.

One of the first principles of good writing is to identify your audience.

“Who is your audience?” Gadfly would intone pregnantly and poignantly.

The audience determines your approach, your tone of voice, your writing strategies — everything.

The 2020 budget is an accounting document for accountants — it seems.

2020 Proposed Budget

It is not written for the public. It is not public-friendly.

It does not encourage public knowledge, participation, conversation.

It does not invite public engagement.

Most of what the general public sees as it meets and then thumbs through the budget is off-putting.

Most should be in an appendix in a document aimed at the general public.

Gadfly is writing in haste here (grandkids’ soccer!!!), but what he’s been thinking about is a document (online) that begins with a visual of the City organizational chart.

CITYORGN Oct 22 2019

An easily understandable map of City structure.

And then each block would have linked to it a budget “narrative.”

Some of the info narrative for each block is already in the current budget book.

For instance, go to p. 72 in 2020 Proposed Budget:  Planning and Zoning.

There you will find the “Bureau Description,” “Goals and Objectives,” and “Prior Year Achievements.”

Good.

Gadfly would add such categories as “This Year’s Goals” and “Projects Deferred” (what we’d do if we had more money), and “Impact on This Year’s Budget.”

Something like that.

Foreground this concise “narrative.”

Same for each block in the organizational chart.

Then — most importantly — the whole document introduced by an “Executive Summary” or an “Overview”: general state of revenue — up, down? general state of expenses — up, down? what factors? what priorities? what drivers? what pressures? what left on the cutting room floor? What’s the goal of the budget? What were the tough choices? What the heartaches? What problem areas resolved? Where the cracks? Where the hot spots?

A snapshot. A frame. A context. An introduction.

One substantial paragraph. One page.

Could say more (and more coherently) but gotta run.

Remind me to dress warmly.

The 2020 budget: we are in Council’s hands

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One of the prompts that candidates for Council in the May primary responded to (high-five again!) for Gadfly was “Talk about budgets and the budgeting process, arguably the most important power and responsibility that City Council has.”

Thus Gadfly has statements from last May by Councilpersons Colon, Reynolds, Van Wirt, and Crampsie Smith but not Callahan, Negron, and Waldron.

Though we don’t have complete Council voices, and though these statements are not directly related to the 2020 budget now in front of us, it seems pertinent to bring these statements back into view as Council is now faced with a real budget and a real decision.

Gadfly budget statements

Gadfly encourages you to review these statements again as we enter budget season.

We are in Council’s hands.

The reason that Gadfly is proposing a “Perspectives on the Budget” thread (as described in the last post) and looking for volunteers is to have an eye on and a voice in the upcoming deliberations and decisions.

Of course, make your views known to Council members. Contact info can be found on the Gadfly sidebar. And there will soon be a link to the budget draft itself there.

But Gadfly hopes we will have people willing to share those views with the wider community here.

“Good conversation builds community.”