Wind Creek Bethlehem says it intends to pay the $10 million annual host fee that goes to Allentown and Bethlehem.
The fee is paid out each quarter, and the first $2.5 million installment was paid as scheduled on Wednesday, Wind Creek said. Of that money, $2 million will go to Bethlehem and $500,000 will go to Allentown, said Eric Evans, Bethlehem’s business administrator.
The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue gave casinos the option of deferring the first payment, but Kathy McCracken, Wind Creek Bethlehem’s general manager, said the casino understands that “community need is as great as ever” and wanted to be sure the money was delivered as planned.
“When Wind Creek’s leadership team arrived last spring, they pledged a commitment to our community. This crisis has given them an early opportunity to fulfill that pledge, and for that, we are very thankful,” said Mayor Robert Donchez.
Earlier this month, Bethlehem officials anticipated a $5 million to $7 million deficit as it was unclear whether Wind Creek would pay all of the host fee, which is equal to about 10% of the city’s general fund budget.
The city still projects an overall shortfall for 2020, but it will be significantly less than the $5 million to $7 million initially projected.
In addition to the annual host fee, Bethlehem also receives about $1.8 million, or $150,000 per month, in money from gaming revenue. With the casino closed since March 15, that money is not coming in, Evans said.
Wind Creek has said the casino would be closed indefinitely after several employees tested positive for the coronavirus. Since then, the governor shut down all the state’s casinos. Wind Creek committed to paying employees through the end of May.
As the coronavirus shutdown drags on, Bethlehem is looking at a $5 million to $7 million budget deficit this year, driven significantly by a reduction in the host fee the city receives from Wind Creek Bethlehem.
The casino was expected to pay Bethlehem a $9.8 million fee this year, city officials said. But the fee is based on gambling revenues and the casino has been closed since March 15.
Mayor Robert Donchez, during a news conference Thursday, said the city loses more than $800,000 each month the casino is closed. If the closure extends through the end of April, that will amount to more than $1 million.
“There are so many unknowns. We try to make adjustments on particular line items, but it’s very difficult to do. We do not have any lead time on how long the casino could be shutdown,” said Eric Evans, the city’s business administrator. He warned the $5 million-$7 million deficit is a conservative estimate that could change in the coming weeks.
“We definitely took a punch in the gut with this. We are fortunate, in the last several years we have strengthened our financial position and rainy-day fund. By the September-October budget season we should have a clear idea of what damage we are facing,” Evans said.
Other line items in Bethlehem’s $80 million budget that are contributing to the projected deficit include a loss of earned income tax and amusement taxes paid by attractions like Wind Creek and ArtsQuest.
To stem the loses, the city has implemented a hiring freeze and is considering freezing the budget on major projects, Donchez said.
One option would be to delay the opening of Memorial Pool until next year. The 63-year-old flagship pool had been closed for $5.2 million in renovations and was set to reopen this summer. City officials could also delay certain infrastructure projects.
Bethlehem officials said they have discussed furloughing city employees but no decisions have been made.
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.
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’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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
There you will find the “Bureau Description,” “Goals and Objectives,” and “Prior Year Achievements.”
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.
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 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.
It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of the City budget.
Budgets are a stark statement of a city’s values and direction.
We Gadflyers should have some conversation about the budget.
The City budget is 300 pages long and best digested in small bites.
Gadfly, who knows 9 uses of the comma, is no budget sherpa.
Gadfly knows his limitations.
But Gadfly — like many of you — would like to know what he should see in the budget, what he should be thinking about, how he should feel about it.
So here are two proposals for a series of posts under the broad title of “Perspectives on the Budget”:
1) Gadfly would love to have 3-5 people commit to give us their perspectives on the budget as a whole — people with different views, different angles, different backgrounds, different philosophies. What does it look like from where you sit? Such a post might even but not necessarily comment on the nature and history of budgeting in Bethlehem. Gadfly is thinking of something fairly substantial. Maybe 500-word range. But the prof would take less. Could Gadfly have some volunteers? Or suggestions for people whom he should approach?
2) There are four budget hearings with specific agendas (see the calendar link above): November 12, November 13, November 21, and December 9. The meetings will be televised. Gadfly would love to have any number of people commit to attending or viewing at least one of those meetings on specific sections of the budget and post their perspectives, however short and fragmentary and tentative and subjective. Could we have “correspondents” for each meeting? Gadfly’s ready to take names of volunteers.
Gadfly is sure that in the budget and in the budget hearings there will be things we like, things we don’t, things we understand, things we don’t, things that excite us, things that bore us.
But Gadfly’s main purpose is information, participation, education.
Let’s try to get inside this budget process a bit.
Let’s see the City and Council operating at their highest level of responsibility.
And in doing so perhaps we’ll see the Gadfly operating at its highest level of utility.
Budget hearings will take place 6PM, Town Hall, November 12, November 13, November 21, and December 9. These hearings will be televised. First reading of the budget will be November 19, the second December 17.
Key points in the Mayor’s address:
On October 21st, S&P affirmed Bethlehem’s A+ stable bond rating.
For 2020, I am proposing a no tax increase budget.
Highlights of the Mayor’s address:
Sands > Wind Creek
9-1-1 > Bethlehem Service Center
Bethlehem Golf Club
New City web site
Capital projects without increased debt
Public safety improvements
Rodgers St. facility
Climate Action Plan
Two new programs:
Enhancements to our Housing Inspections Program
Stormwater Pollution and Flood Prevention Program***
“Bethlehem is undergoing transitions all over the City. Whether it be facilities, equipment, technology, or programming, we are planning, adapting, and investing to meet the needs of our growing population. We are a city with a rich and proud history, and our future is very bright. Bethlehem will continue to be the jewel of the Lehigh Valley.”
*** The news stories indicate a new storm water fee of approx $50-$60/homeowner.
But what is proposed to be added is a new storm water fee that would be assessed on every property based on impervious coverage like driveways, parking lots and building foundations. That fee would be imposed not only on homeowners and businesses, but also on nonprofits like colleges, churches and hospitals — which often don’t pay real estate tax bill but own quite a bit of land.
Officials are still working on the amount of the fee. For residential properties, the city is looking at instituting a flat fee based on the average impervious coverage of a residential property. Officials estimate it will be in the neighborhood of $50 annually for residential owners. The fee be implemented July 1, meaning only half would need to be paid next year.
While the budget includes no new tax increase, on July 1 the city will start charging a new stormwater fee to comply with a federal mandate to cut pollution in stormwater to protect Bethlehem’s waterways. Easton and Allentown already have enacted fees.
At 6PM next Wednesday (not Tuesday, which is Election Day), that is, before the regular Council meeting, City Council meets as a Committee of the Whole to discuss the 2020-2024 Capital Program.
A committee of the whole is a meeting of a deliberative assembly according to modified procedural rules based on those of a committee. The committee includes all members of the assembly, except that some officers may be replaced. As with other committees, the activities of a committee of the whole are limited to considering and making recommendations on matters that the assembly has referred to it; it cannot take up other matters or vote directly on the assembly’s business. The purpose of a committee of the whole is to relax the usual limits on debate, allowing a more open exchange of views without the urgency of a final vote. After debating, the committee submits its conclusions to the assembly (that is, to itself) and business continues according to the normal rules.
The 7-member City Council has several sub-committees (such as the Community Development committee that considered the CDBG funding with the Co-Op issue that we are covering now) usually made up of 3 members. Those sub-committees consider proposed legislation and, if approved, pass it on to the full City Council for final determination.
As a Committee of the Whole, all 7 members participate, and then their action is again considered by the same 7 members acting as the City Council.
Budgets represent the will of the City.
Establishing and approving the City budget is perhaps the highest responsibility of City Council.
Let the budget season begin.
The schedule for 2020 budget hearings will be announced at Council Wednesday.
Join with Gadfly looking at his very first Capital Program.
(Latest posts in a series about Wind Creek Casino and the budget)
We knew it was coming. The City once projected a windfall of $5-6m from the sale of the Sands to Wind Creek. But wise Gadfly followers were quick to say that the sale would be structured in such a way to favor Wind Creek. And so it turned out. The City realized but $317,000.
But the projected windfall was not factored into the 2019 budget except in a kind of “wish list.” And on Tuesday Council moved to begin the approval to do some tidying of the budget now that the sale is complete.
Key thing for us to know is that “Since 2013, Bethlehem’s dug itself out of deficit spending, built its cash reserves and earned an A+ bond rating, [City Business Manager Eric] Evans noted. The city currently has more than the 15 percent S&P wants to see in savings.”
In other words, the City is in pretty good shape financially. Tip o’ the hat!
Many Gadfly followers were hoping for more of a kick for such projects as the pedestrian bridge and the Rose Garden from the Casino Transfer Tax, but “The city found grants and other funding sources for projects like improvements to the Rose Garden, a pedestrian bridge study and security upgrades to City Hall.”
Gadfly is always curious about financial manipulations. Here’s how the deal was structured in Wind Creek’s favor. Sigh.
“The difference between the city’s initial projections of as much as $6.5 million and the actual transfer tax of just over $300,000, boiled down to how the casino deal was structured. It allowed for only the value of the underlying land to be computed in the transfer tax calculation. To enable Las Vegas Sands Corp. to sell 100% of the Sands Bethlehem’s operations to Wind Creek, the minority owners, BethWorks Now LLC, had their stake in the facility transferred into a ground lease. Wind Creek, which owns the structures and improvements on the site, entered into a lease with the ground landlords.”
Bethlehem officials hoped the sale of the Sands casino would net them a $5.9 million cash windfall to help knock lingering major repairs off the city’s to-do list. But then the casino sale’s complex structuring only left the city with $317,000.
Now, the administration has crafted a plan to still tackle some of the big-ticket items that keep getting kicked down the road by tapping its $15 million rainy day fund and $1.48 million left over from its 911 center consolidation.
On Tuesday evening, Bethlehem City Council’s finance committee heard the pitch to fund $3.98 million of the projects — things like fire trucks and street paving — and then the full council backed the budget transfers on first reading during the regular meeting. Council will vote on the ordinances at its Sept. 17 meeting.
The city typically borrows $5 million every other year to tackle capital repairs, but as costs rise the money doesn’t go as far, said Eric Evans, city business administrator. Some of the projects have lingered on the list since 2007.
Since 2013, Bethlehem’s dug itself out of deficit spending, built its cash reserves and earned an A+ bond rating, Evans noted. The city currently has more than the 15 percent S&P wants to see in savings, so Evans said he feels comfortable tapping the rainy day fund.
The administration wants to get back on a fire department vehicle replacement schedule, make repairs to the Bethlehem Area Public Library columns, fix the floor of the City Hall garage and put in a new Rodgers Street facility for the ground maintenance staff.
There’s some welcome news for downtown residents and merchants: $175,000 for a massive snow blower to clear huge piles of snow. Currently, after narrow roads are plowed of snow the city brings in front-end loaders to put the snow in dump trucks to cart it away. The snowblower will streamline the process, Evans said.
Council identified a Lehigh River pedestrian bridge study and upgrades to West Bethlehem’s Rose Garden as important projects for the potential casino transfer tax.
On Tuesday night, council sought reassurances those projects were still being funded.
The pedestrian bridge study will be grant funded while there’s $105,000 for the Rose Garden — $50,000 from a bond, $50,000 in city recreation fees and $5,000 from the Mount Airy Neighborhood Association, Evans said. There’s a potential $110,000 grant for the Rose Garden as well.
The city plans to postpone spending $200,000 on converting street lights to LED; lighting upgrades on Route 412, $220,000 of drainage work on Fifth Street and $200,000 on an addition to the Easton Avenue firehouse.
Bethlehem had hoped that a tax windfall from the $1.3 billion sale of the Sands casino would jump-start some long-delayed projects like fire truck replacements and road maintenance.
But now that the real estate transfer tax turned out to be just over $300,000 and not the $6.5 million once projected, Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez’s administration on Tuesday released its Plan B.
The plan delays nearly $1.62 million worth of those projects and uses surplus cash to cover nearly $4 million of them. About $2.5 million will come from a surplus the city has accumulated since 2012 and another $1.48 million will come from cash left over from its 911 operations, which consolidated with Northampton County’s operations.
Business Administrator Eric Evans said that by the end of last year, the city had about $15 million in cash, or about 19% of the city’s operating budget, and is expected to finish this year with a modest surplus.
After spending $2.5 million in reserves, the city’s cash on hand is expected to drop to 16% of the operating budget, Evans said. Standard & Poor’s bond rating agency recommends a cash balance of 15% of an operating budget.
Over the next 1½ years, the money is budgeted to go toward two fire trucks, trunking system radios, a snowblower for a front loader, street overlays, a chiller, a garage floor, repairs to the Bethlehem Area Public Library columns and a project at the public works facility on Rodgers Street.
That still leaves about $1.62 million in projects, such as lighting upgrades and more street work, that will be postponed until funding is identified. The city found grants and other funding sources for projects like improvements to the Rose Garden, a pedestrian bridge study and security upgrades to City Hall.
The difference between the city’s initial projections of as much as $6.5 million and the actual transfer tax of just over $300,000, boiled down to how the casino deal was structured. It allowed for only the value of the underlying land to be computed in the transfer tax calculation.
To enable Las Vegas Sands Corp. to sell 100% of the Sands Bethlehem’s operations to Wind Creek, the minority owners, BethWorks Now LLC, had their stake in the facility transferred into a ground lease. Wind Creek, which owns the structures and improvements on the site, entered into a lease with the ground landlords.
(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.