Gadfly mayoral forum #5: Bethlehem: a tale of two cities?

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

The Mayoral candidate comparison chart

Another week, another Gadfly prompt from hell for our candidates!

I joked in the prompt audio that they’re wishing I’d ask about something easy, like fixing potholes.

But Gadfly is up in the stratosphere. Literally. Gadfly asked everybody to look at Bethlehem from a high up perspective.

Inspired by Mark Iampietro’s “Lookout yoga,” Gadfly asked the candidates to take the proverbial 30,000ft. view of our town.

And what did they see? one city, one city with two complementary parts, one city with two different parts, one city with two contrary parts, one city with equal parts, two cities (or more)?

The candidates are good sports.

If you want to listen to my full prompt. click here.

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Dana Grubb

In 1924, the Hill to Hill Bridge was completed, a link between South, North and West Bethlehem; just a few years earlier, in 1917, the three boroughs had been joined to become the City of Bethlehem. “A tale of two cities” is an apt description of Bethlehem, since the divisions between the South and its North and Westside neighbors run as deep. The physical barrier of the Lehigh River between the South and North sides reinforces the distinction between the sections. Vehicular bridges do little to close the gaps, and a proposed pedestrian bridge would likely be equally ineffective.

The question of how to unite the two halves of Bethlehem might be better approached from a query of how to breed respect and even admiration for each other between Bethlehem’s two distinct sections. To do that, an understanding of the city’s history and the foundations of each section is a necessary aid.

Founded by Moravian missionaries in the early to mid 18th century, Bethlehem’s original settlement was on what is now the Northside. As such, the Northside claims the city’s oldest lineage, and the distinction of heritage that comes along with that. As what would become the “downtown” center of shops and offices sprang up in the historic district, wealthy business owners began to site their homes and properties nearby, on the North side.

When Bethlehem Steel began as the Bethlehem Iron Works in 1857, immigrant workers of more than 60 ethnicities arrived to work at the plant. They established homes near the plant, so they could walk to work, and since the plant was on what is today the Southside of the Lehigh River, that was where they settled. The homes here put functionality ahead of fashion and were largely row and twin homes with small gardens and only a basic finish. They were also homes that the workers could afford.

Meanwhile, the upper management and executives at Bethlehem Steel had begun to build their homes on the city’s Westside. Both North and West were separated by the river from the noise and dirt inherent in the steel plant’s environs, and the wealthier upper managers and executives were able to purchase larger tracts of land and build more spacious, elegant homes. Once the Lehigh Valley Railroad came in, Bethlehem’s South side really did become the “wrong side of the tracks,” and the division between rich and poor, management and workers, became deeper.

The establishment of Lehigh University in 1865 by Asa Packer raised the profile of the South side to some degree. Packer founded the University as an Engineering school to enhance and support the industrial growth of the Lehigh Valley. As time passed, the University added other disciplines to its syllabus, and students were added into the mix of residents living in the relatively inexpensive homes near the campus. Because most of these students were renters, not homeowners, that slant altered the demographics of the South side as well, not always to the good.

Once the steel plant closed, although the residents of the South side were no longer plant workers, their ethnic enclaves, which had sprung up from the mid-19th century on with the influx of the immigrant Steel workers, remained. A more diverse population evolved on the Southside because they could afford to purchase a home there, whereas the prices of North and West side real estate were often beyond their means. And so the divisions between South, North, and West sides were reinforced, with wealthier upper middle and upper class residents buying, building, and settling on the North and West sides, and moderate or low income families and renters, buying or rooming on the Southside.

With Bethlehem Steel gone, the opportunities for development, and re-use of that property, as well as the rest of the Southside, abounded. Developers see the Southside as the afterthought, the poor relation, who was ripe for the taking and exploiting because its residents were historically without political clout. The large-scale builders use any means to achieve their ends: in particular, they influence those who do have power to get on their side by making hefty campaign contributions, with little to no regard for what the residents of the Southside have wished for their community.

In addition, Lehigh University’s gradual encroachment toward what once was a bustling commercial and retail district along Third and Fourth Streets, and the pressures that student housing needs bring to the residential neighborhoods, have created gentrification. This interest in development beyond what was imagined when the National Register Historic Conservation District was established appears to be driven by return on investment and not by sound planning and concern for the fabric of the Southside.

City officials and developers must cherish and support the diverse population that is struggling to maintain a toehold in this section of the city, as real estate values are growing at an extraordinary rate. They should be upholding the enforcement of city ordinances that protect the charm and heritage of the South side and be listening to what residents want. Recent proposals coming before the Historic Conservation Commission for out of scale projects on the Southside prove that it is being treated like a country ripe for plunder: projects like these would gain little traction were they proposed for the North or West sides. The Southside deserves equal respect, recognition, and standing. Why? Because the attitude that the Southside is somehow inferior persists, handed down almost subconsciously through the decades, instead of celebrating the diversity and sense of community that has been brought to the Southside.

Are there solutions? Sure, but they aren’t easy ones. In order to change people’s perspectives and attitudes towards the Southside, value must be created for its vibrant, multi-cultural residents, businesses, and restaurants. That in itself will take legislation, education, communication, and time. Additionally, the current trend of development and big money will need to be met head on, and it’s going to take a Mayor, City Council, and community to demand responsible growth. Electing a Mayor who will stand his ground on development issues while seeking inclusivity and respect for a diverse community will be a step in the right direction and help Bethlehem live “a tale of one city.”

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J. William Reynolds

Ed,

When we are talking about the future of our city, Touchstone Theatre’s Festival Unbound was a fantastic place for you to start this prompt.  The conversations at Touchstone

about American (and our community’s) identity were inspiring, thought provoking, and thrilling.  One of my favorite things about the events was the emphasis placed on one’s individual and group experience in the way history is viewed.

When we look at our city’s history, it is clear to anyone who has ever lived or visited that our past is rich and vibrant. We deservedly spend a lot of time discussing all of the great aspects of our history. The community institutions, the architecture, the legacy of an American industrial titan in Bethlehem Steel, and a high quality of life in our neighborhoods that has spanned generations. Our history is not perfect, though, and it needs to be discussed in relation to inequities in 2021.

What are a few parts of our history that we aren’t quite as proud of?

  • The community policy on restricting most non-Moravians from living in Bethlehem for over 100 years.
  • Bethlehem Steel’s hiring policies limiting the amount of African American employees and families in Bethlehem (one of the reasons we have a significantly lower African American population than Easton or Allentown).
  • The deliberate location of public housing in the corners and the outskirts of our city creating systemic access issues including economic and educational opportunities.

These are but a few historical examples of public and private actions that helped create the structure of the Bethlehem that we know. They must be mentioned when we start talking about where people live in our city, why they live there, and what opportunities are available to people based on where they live. None of those decisions were made by the leaders of our community in recent years. It is our responsibility, however, to work systemically to fix them.

South Bethlehem is a resource rich area in many ways but is also negatively affected by some systemic issues. Affordable housing availability, economic, recreational, transportation, and technological opportunities are all areas that historically have been unequal in our community. City government, our non-profit community, and service providers have taken several steps to start to try to improve the systemic delivery of these services.

One example is the collective effort that has been started to tackle the issue of affordable housing. The new student overlay district in south Bethlehem is a good first step in attempting to limit the skyrocketing incentives of buying a property to turn it into student housing. It is also vital that the City of Bethlehem establishes an Affordable Housing Trust Fund and works with our non- profit partners. This work needs to include both the creation of new affordable housing and the rehabilitation of current housing to make it more affordable for our families.

Another example is our recent work on trying to expand high speed internet to all of our residents. We saw the influence of a lack of internet service on many of our most vulnerable populations during the pandemic. This is a structural issue that we must fix as a community. I am hopeful that we can use a portion of our stimulus funds to invest in this area (as the legislation specifically allows for).

Everything we do as a community has to be rooted in the idea of equity. I am proud that our Climate Action Plan, Northside 2027, and our Connecting Bethlehem Communications Initiative all include equity as the most important organizing principle. As more development occurs in every area of our city, we need to make sure that new investment is accomplishing community goals that relate to affordable housing, sustainability, and respecting our architectural history.

Bethlehem can, in fact, be “one” city.  We can continue to work to develop systems that work for everyone. We have started to make progress on a structural level, but there is a lot more work to be done. That work starts with understanding that the identity we have as a community is one based on diversity, respect, and inclusion. There is not one important neighborhood. There isn’t one history. Most importantly, there isn’t one identity in our city.  It doesn’t matter if you were born here or not. The only thing that matters is that we continue to build a city where everyone is valued, accepted, supported, and heard.  That is the Bethlehem we need to be.

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Residents are welcome to fashion reflections on candidate comments, sending them to ejg1@lehigh.edu. On Gadfly we seek the good conversation that builds community, so please be courteous at all times. Gadfly retains the right to abridge and to edit your reflections and to decline posts that are repetitive or that contain personal attacks. Gadfly will publish resident reflections on the week’s Forum at noon on Friday.

Mayoral candidate Reynolds Town Hall (with Council candidates) available

Latest in a series of posts on candidates for election

Gadfly recommends the video of last night’s Reynolds mayoral campaign Town Hall, also featuring City Council candidates Grace Crampsie Smith, Hillary Kwiatek, and Kiera Wilhelm.

Over the next few days, Gadfly will carve out and present pieces of the action for better focus.

There will be another Town Hall next Wednesday April 14, featuring Council candidate Rachel Leon.

Yard signs and endorsements are bloomin’, but Gadfly counsels to always go beyond them to first-hand knowledge of the candidates and the issues!

Think for yourself! Gadfly will try to provide the raw material.

J. William Reynolds for Mayor

click here for Town Hall video

click here for Town Hall video

Gadfly council forum #4: an innovative project

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

The Council candidates comparison chart

“The overarching issue is inclusiveness and transparency in our city government so that we can bring everyone together and move forward with a true sense of belonging as residents of Bethlehem.”
Hillary Kwiatek

“For me, the building of a homeless shelter would be of upmost importance. . . . I hope to focus on environmental justice. This focus will allow me to work with council members and our local nonprofits to address the need for a homeless shelter. . . . The matter of a homeless shelter is one that speaks to our humanity.”
Rachel Leon

“It’s crucial that we provide swift, equitable, and easily accessible funding to help our small businesses stay in business.”
Kiera Wilhelm

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The prompt:

Bryan, Grace, Hillary, Rachel, Kiera:

In the first three forum prompts, I have given you the topics.

Let’s turn that around this time.

You get to choose the topic.

Attached you will find a comparison chart. I wanted voters to have a handy way of looking at you all at once. I filled in the blocks of the chart from your campaign literature or hearing you make presentations, or, with Bryan and Grace, simply from knowing what you’ve done. I have tried to include what I have heard you identify as a campaign or platform issue.

Please pick one campaign or platform issue and elaborate on it.

What do you most look forward to working on in your term on Council?

Council members are problem solvers. What major problem would you like to work on either through the influence inherent in your position or through developing specific legislation —  whether alone or, most likely, in coalition with fellow Councilors?

Elaborate. What is the problem? How is it affecting our residents? How did you become engaged in it? What will you have to learn about it? What preparation will you have to do? With whom will you need to engage? What will be your goal? How will you go about achieving the goal? How will you gain support from your Council colleagues? What outcome do you seek? What value to the residents in our city will your work have?

Thanks for your service and your willingness to serve.

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Hillary Kwiatek

Grace Crampsie Smith

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Rachel Leon

I would like to think that we all have an ethos, consciously or subconsciously, that guides how we make our decisions. For me, environmentalism is that ethos. In this time

of hyperpolarization, I believe that we can all agree on this one thing, there is only one planet Earth. For this reason, whenever I make a decision, I think of how this might affect my family, my neighbors, my community down to the seventh generation. Understanding environmentalism as a platform is to truly understand what it means to be part of a community. It isn’t just about planting more trees, although I believe we should. It isn’t just about picking up litter, even though I love a good clean-up effort. Environmentalism is investing in local economies and supporting our small businesses. Environmentalism is addressing the placement of factories in our communities and how this affects already marginalized communities. Environmentalism is addressing access to nutritious food and affordable housing. When we put the health of our community at the core of our decisions, we can address the macro issues of environmentalism, like our air quality. We can make real change.

I think of affordable housing when I think of environmental issues. When we cannot find affordable housing, we are forced to move further away from our communities, adding to our overall emissions. I think of access to a full-service grocery and of members of our community who must drive 20 minutes just to pick up a few items during the week. I think of our homeless community members that are at a higher risk of experiencing environmental hazards. One thing I love about Bethlehem is that we have community organizations that work on issues like these. Our council has members that champion environmental issues and work diligently to address affordable housing. If I am afforded the opportunity to serve, I hope to work along side of them, and bring my unique perspective as a resident of South Bethlehem. For me, the building of a homeless shelter would be of upmost importance. This past year has shown us that, as a community, we are all connected. When we help our most marginalized community members, we help the community at large.

Environmental issues will be my driving force as I work with other council members. Although environmentalism is multifaceted, I hope to focus on environmental justice. This focus will allow me to work with council members and our local nonprofits to address the need for a homeless shelter and to address our air quality. I am already working with members of the community that have boots on the ground, so to speak, regarding these issues. The more I work with them, the more I learn about what has been successful in the past as well as what has not worked. If we come together, the Council and the nonprofits that have already done much of the heavy lifting, we can come up with an effective plan that implements proven solutions. The matter of a homeless shelter is one that speaks to our humanity. It has support in our community. It is my hope that we can take the next steps and make it a reality.

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Kiera Wilhelm

The meaningful relationships I have developed with small business owners in Bethlehem through my work at Fig have brought this community, and the issues they

face, close to my heart. I have always admired, deeply, the extraordinary hard work and dedication it takes to launch a small business. But this past year, I have been in awe. Forced closures, capacity reductions, layoffs, complex and time-consuming grant applications, learning how to keep customers and staff safe in a pandemic—the list of unimaginable challenges goes on.

With over $33 million of funding coming to Bethlehem through the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, the City will have the opportunity to provide desperately needed support to small business owners: to help them keep and hire back employees, provide debt relief, cover the cost of upgrades and strategies required to keep customers safe, and more. It’s crucial that we provide swift, equitable, and easily accessible funding to help our small businesses stay in business. And not only the funding itself, but the guidance and information to help small business owners navigate the process of applying for and utilizing it. This involves direct communication with small business owners themselves and working closely with those already serving the important role of supporting our small business community—including our existing economic development team, organizations like CADCB, and individuals like Missy Hartney with the SouthSide Arts District and Tammy Wendling with the Downtown Bethlehem Association (both of whom have worked tirelessly to guide our small business owners through the ever-shifting landscape of the past year).

We must look beyond the pandemic, as well. What do our small business owners need to succeed and feel supported by the City in the long term, and how can we better provide that support? What can we do to create an even more vibrant small business community? Can we improve practices with regard to inviting entrepreneurship and encouraging new small business owners to choose Bethlehem? How can we, as a City, more actively promote our local businesses? What mistakes have we made in the past, and how can we correct them?  How can we make it as easy as possible for great small businesses to open, expand, and thrive—not just post-pandemic, but well into the future?

Small businesses are often referred to as the lifeblood of the US economy, for good reason. Spending that we do at local businesses helps our local economy. Small businesses create jobs, drive innovation, and enable us to purchase products made locally. And small business owners are members of our community, too. They are neighbors and friends; they know our favorite item on the menu, how we take our coffee. They, and the work they do, provide character and individuality to Bethlehem. They are invested, deeply, in what happens here. And the past year has challenged them like no other. Celebrating and supporting small business is more important than ever, and taking a greater role in helping our hard-working community of small business owners thrive—now and into the future—will be a great privilege and responsibility of my role on Bethlehem City Council.

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Bryan Callahan

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Residents are welcome to fashion reflections on candidate comments, sending them to ejg1@lehigh.edu. On Gadfly we seek the good conversation that builds community, so please be courteous at all times. Gadfly retains the right to abridge and to edit your reflections and to decline posts that are repetitive or that contain personal attacks. Gadfly will publish resident reflections on the week’s Forum at noon on Friday.

Gadfly mayoral forum #4: innovative projects

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

The Mayoral candidate comparison chart

Because of the Easter holiday weekend, we’ve pushed our Forum posts back a day, and we’ll continue a Tuesday forum for the mayoral candidates and a Wednesday one for the Council candidates going forward.

This time the Gadfly Forum asks different questions of our candidates.

Once again, a tip o’ the hat to our candidates. Voting is getting closer, and everybody is getting busier. The extraordinary care taken with these responses is obvious.

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The prompts:

Willie:

You have been a City Councilman for a long time. You have a record of achievement that includes Northside 2027, the Climate Action Plan, and the Open Data Portal. You tout that achievement as a basis for your qualifications to be mayor.

Speaking as an average citizen, Northside 2027 and the Climate Action Plan are easy to “get.” I see what Northside 2027 is and understand its value. I see what the Climate Action Plan is and understand its value.

But speaking as an average citizen, I don’t “get” the Open Data Portal. Frankly, I have never gone there till 20 minutes before writing this, and I don’t understand its value except, perhaps, for the green eyeshade type folk who find numbers aphrodisiac and charts of pie delicious.

Here’s what you say on your candidate web site about the Open Data Portal:

“I am proud to have proposed and created Open Bethlehem – our city’s first open data program.  Open data allows citizens access to data related to local government, our community, and our neighborhoods. People throughout the country, when given access to government collected data, have found innovative and creative uses for the data that improve their community. Some applications of city open data initiatives include the tracking of budget revenue and projections, the efficiency of city services, health and code violations, police department statistics, and economic investment information. Bethlehem’s open data program has the potential to transform the ways in which citizens are able to access and utilize public data in an effort to improve our community. Bethlehem’s Open Data portal can be viewed here.

Please make the Open Data Portal interesting and valuable to me as an average citizen.

Perhaps take me to (be clear about how to navigate) and expand upon 2-3 specific examples of data you think an average citizen would be (should be?) most interested in or surprised by.

And, most intriguing of all, is it possible for you suggest or speculate how having access to that data might be useful for individual or groups of citizens striving to improve their community, as you claim?

Thanks for your service.

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Dana:

You were a City administrator for many years. But not lately.

You have told us of significant accomplishments during your significant time with the City. But you have none lately.

What you do have, though, contrary to Willie, are plans for intriguing new projects – such as the small business concierge and the reorganization of parking.

Here’s what you say about these two ideas:

Parking Authority Reform: Bethlehem needs a kinder, gentler parking authority. Many residents and small business owners feel that the Bethlehem Parking Authority is not approachable, and as a result is out of touch with the community that they are attempting to serve. I will address this and will consider moving the day-to-day operation into city hall, with the Parking Authority operating solely as the financing arm of that operation. This would give residents and business owners recourse through their elected representatives.

Small Business Assistance: Small businesses are the backbone of our local retail, restaurant, commercial and service sector. I understand many of the concerns that other small business owners have expressed to me. Small businesses are a critical part of our community’s economic vitality, and city government needs to recommit to providing assistance to current and prospective small businesses in Bethlehem. My administration will create a “small business concierge” to do exactly that.

Please expand on one or both of these ideas (depending on how much you have to say) – the need for them, their purpose, how they would operate, the value for the residents, and the city.

Thanks for your willingness to serve.

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J. William Reynolds

Open data is about transparency, innovation, and collaboration with the community.  It is also about possibility.

  • What is Open Bethlehem now? First and foremost, it is about transparency. If one visits Open Bethlehem, they can track our budget, our revenues, ourexpenditures, and the cost drivers.  Snow operations, street overlays, and pension costs are just a few of the topics one is able to track on a year to year basis. This information provides the structure for our budget every year. Rather than waiting for the budget to come around in November, one can see the revenues and expenditures that control the vast majority of what is included in the draft budget in November and December. This is a huge improvement over the previous process that one would have to undertake to find any of this financial data.
  • What can Open Bethlehem be? The next Administration needs to expand the public data that citizens are able to see. How many housing violations are in my neighborhood? How many building permits are currently active in my neighborhood? What streets are the most traffic tickets given out on? Other cities are leading the way in making this information easily accessible to the citizens of their community.

Open data is also about innovation. Government data has long influenced private sector and institutional decision-making. For example, hospital networks often make decisions on what services to provide in a certain area based on census data. Our City Health Bureau has valuable data that is extraordinarily helpful to our hospital networks. These data sets have enormous short- and long-range consequences and potential benefits for public health in our community. The pandemic has proved the necessity for this type of cooperation. This is only one example of public and private innovation. There are also extensive benefits to working with school districts, entrepreneurs, and social service providers which leads to our next question . . .

  • How do we get to the next stage of Open Data as a community? It starts with asking the community what data sets that they want. Our Open Bethlehem site now is effective if one is looking for information on city finances. We have not, however, even scratched the surface of the capabilities of what we can do with the above mentioned groups and institutions. This will not happen by accident, however. When I launched the concept of Open Bethlehem, I launched the Open Data Working Group that met with hospital network representatives, business leaders, city staff, and interested citizens to talk about the possibilities. The Working Group led to the launch of Open Bethlehem, but it must be empowered to expand the benefits of open data in our city. City staff are unable to know exactly what the private sector, social service providers, and health care networks want. We need to bring them into City Hall to find out.
  • How else do we see the benefits of technology as a city? This is not breaking news, but how well government utilizes technology will be a determining factor in the effectiveness and efficiency of government in the 21st century. Similar to the private sector, we need to invest in technological innovation within City Hall and in our community. Another thing we can do is sponsor community technology cooperation. Tech meetups with our tech community, hack-a-thons to create new city apps, and collaboration with universities and colleges are all examples of the types of initiatives that most cities are doing (and every city will do in the coming years). We should be able to track snow plows on our phones. We should make it easier to get text alerts about snow emergencies.  Adding these types of services must be a priority for us in the coming years if we are going to continue to offer the high-quality city services that our residents have come to expect and enjoy.

As a city, we have started to use technology more efficiently, but we have a long way to go to. Open data is one part of that effort to expand our technological capabilities and improve our ability to deliver services in an efficient and equitable manner. Our success in building a fairer, more inclusive city depends on it.

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I have observed and interacted with several City Councils over the years, both when I worked in City Hall and since then. I’ve witnessed professional and effective.

Council members, as well as unprofessional, ineffective, self-serving ones. Being a resident of the City but not part of its administration for the past 17 years has afforded

me objectivity and given me perspective regarding its government. It’s been eye-opening, and I have at times been vastly disappointed in the decision-making process on Council.

I’ve witnessed a disturbing disingenuousness on the part of publlc officials with regard to issues they do not wish to address: in particular, the Bethlehem Parking Authority. More than once I’ve heard a Mayor or Member of Council tell someone who has a parking question or issue that they can’t do anything because the BPA is a separate authority.

I’ve also listened to complaint after complaint from residents and business owners about the intransigent treatment given to those who feel that they’ve been disrespected or mistreated by the BPA. I recently received a video from a resident showing their interaction with a very surly enforcement officer. Gadfly, you yourself have experienced a chilly reception at a BPA board meeting.

If you believe as I do that government’s function is to provide service and be accountable, then it makes perfect sense to have the city’s parking system responsible and accountable to Bethlehem residents and business owners through their elected representatives.

In order to improve service and accountability I’ve proposed bringing the day-to-day operation of the parking authority under the aegis of the Mayor and City Council. The authority would remain to fund and own the parking authority infrastructure, and the city Department of Parking would remain at the current North Street Parking Garage location. The Director of this department would be a member of the Mayor’s cabinet and attend Mayor’s staff meetings.

This model parallels the structure of the city’s water system, so it’s a very familiar and successful paradigm in Bethlehem city government.

My small business concierge proposal has also come as a result of repeated dissatisfaction expressed by small business owners about their experiences with City Hall, whether as an existing owner trying to draw attention to a matter of importance or a prospective new business owner who has experienced many frustrating hurdles in City Hall as they tried to open a new business.

Having a one-stop shop that can provide a roadmap of assistance will encourage small businesses to locate in Bethlehem and allow existing owners to flourish. Acting on their behalf and walking them through the permitting, inspections and licensing process will encourage entrepreneurs to locate in Bethlehem. The small business concierge will also be able to link existing and future business owners to potential funding sources and assist them in filing applications for that assistance.

Small businesses are the backbone of our local economy. Their success is in all of our best interests.

Both of these ideas came about because I’ve been listening to residents and business owners, as a lifetime Bethlehem resident and small business owner myself.

When issues present themselves, we need a Mayor who has proven that they can find solutions, someone Bethlehem’s residents can believe in, who won’t play politics and jeopardize citizens’ livelihoods or trivialize their concerns.

Lastly, I’d like to touch on a third proposal I’ve made, that of re-establishing the Department of Parks and Recreation. The pandemic has brought people into parks and playgrounds and onto trails, as they seek fresh air, exercise, and solace.

As I visited Bethlehem’s parks and trails, I was dismayed at the lack of attention they’ve been receiving, especially when I saw how well-maintained parks and trails elsewhere were while I’ve been hiking and biking throughout Eastern Pennsylvania.

By restoring this department with an emphasis on maintenance and beautification, we can bring back what were at one time some of the nicest recreation facilities in the Lehigh Valley. Our residents deserve as much.

I believe that all three of these initiatives will benefit Bethlehem residents by providing more accountability on parking matters, improving the business climate in our town, and keeping our recreation facilities well maintained and safe for the heavy usage they’ve been experiencing. This allows all of us to “Believe in a Better Bethlehem.”

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Residents are welcome to fashion reflections on candidate comments, sending them to ejg1@lehigh.edu. On Gadfly we seek the good conversation that builds community, so please be courteous at all times. Gadfly retains the right to abridge and to edit your reflections and to decline posts that are repetitive or that contain personal attacks. Gadfly will publish resident reflections on the week’s Forum at noon on Friday.

Gadfly council forum #3: city services

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

The Council candidates comparison chart

“As Councilperson, warmly inviting and empowering residents to participate
will be at the core of my service.”
Kiera Wilhelm

“Elected officials need to find better ways to go to the communities that
tend to have less of a voice in local politics.”
Rachel Leon

“If I am elected, I will view constituent services as, in fact, part of ‘my job’.”
Hillary Kwiatek

“In serving and responding to others within the community my golden rule will
continue to be: ‘It doesn’t cost you anything to be nice to people’.”
Grace Crampsie Smith

“[City residents] know I will look into their particular situation and,
if I have to, fight and act on their concerns!”
Bryan Callahan

————

The prompt:

Bryan, Grace, Hillary, Rachel, Kiera

Our first two Forums were on “heady” topics: the budget and development.

I’d like to come more down to earth in this Forum #3.

Council responsibilities include setting the budget, approving personnel appointments, and passing laws. Big ticket items. On the other hand, the mayor has responsibilities for the day-to-day running of the city — from trash to parking to paving to snow to leaves, etc., and etc.

But you will get asked (or told!) about these things. Even Gadfly gets asked about this kind of basic quality of life/city services stuff. People think since I have a big mouth, I have some power to take care of a problem or get something done at City Hall. So you surely will get asked. People look at you as their voice in City Hall, the person to bring complaints to. The City Council meeting is what I call the “face” of city government. You’ve seen people show up at Town Hall or call in about water leaking into their cellar from a neighbor, fireworks bothering their dogs, and such things. It’s where they bring their complaints. And you’ve seen the Council prez awkwardly try to plead “not my job” and pass the resident on.

(Veterans Bryan and Grace might talk about their experience with this kind of resident contact. What have people complained to you about, what did you do, what was the outcome?)

So in this Forum I want you to think about basic city services. Residents will be telling you things, a lot good, we hope, but certainly some complaints about basic city services. It’s in the nature of your job to have your ear to the ground. Since you are now asking people for their vote, some no doubt are responding to you with a sort of “what will you do for me”? Or here’s what I want you to do. That is, here’s a problem we’d like you to do something about. Will you work on it if I vote for you?

If elected, you may not have a hand in the day-to-day managing of public services, but you will probably find it important to establish good rapport with the Mayor and department heads and so forth to be a channel for resident voices. If another level of persuasion is necessary, you have the power of the bully pulpit at Council meetings to call attention to a problem that you feel needs tending. And in the final analysis you might utilize the power of the budget to shape how City services are performed or delivered.

What are you hearing with your ear to the ground about those basic city services that have such a great impact on the day-to-day lives of the average resident?

Please share what you are hearing, what you are thinking about on this level.

What would you like to see worked on, improved?

You will be working with a new mayor — will there be things you will be bringing to his attention as he shapes his agenda and priorities at this basic level of City/resident relationship and interaction?

Thanks for your service and willingness to serve.

————

Kiera Wilhelm

When I first moved back to Bethlehem seven years ago, I lived in an apartment at a fairly busy intersection downtown. It was a noisy spot, located above a bar, and with

a good amount of incessant atmospheric noise at large. One day, I was speaking (okay, complaining) to a friend about it, who had lived in Bethlehem for years, and was quite involved in the community.

“You should bring it up to City Council,” he shared. “There’s a chunk of time at every meeting for the public to share any concerns or grievances.” This conversation was my first real introduction to Bethlehem City Council.

At the time, the thought of standing in front of a room of people at a podium to talk about my noise complaints made me shudder a bit; who would be interested to hear? Were my concerns important enough for that? But knowing that there was an entity available to hear from me and my neighbors if something was troubling us—and who might be able do something about it—made an impact. (I obviously remember the conversation, all these years later, and here I am running for City Council.)

Needless to say, I have since attended a number of Council meetings. At every one, I admire those who take the initiative to ask their questions, voice their concerns, and share their support. I’ve even been inspired to take the podium myself! I have watched as members of Council have listened—some respectfully, and some, occasionally, less so. You say it yourself, Gadfly, and I agree: these meetings are the “face” of city government. They enable our residents to feel heard. And to me, serving all of the citizens of Bethlehem by listening, respectfully, is one of the greatest responsibilities of being on Council.

Through my work, I have had the pleasure of developing trusted relationships with clients, colleagues, and readers throughout the City. I strive to listen, genuinely, to their needs, and I take my responsibility to each of them seriously. I’d like to think that this is behavior that’s come to be expected of me. I plan to bring that same trustworthy, respectful rapport to my relationships on Council—whether it be with fellow members, the Mayor, department heads, or constituents. (It’s worth mentioning that in my role as director of Fig, people regularly ask me about various aspects of the state of the City and inquire as to whether I can do anything to help any number of concerns, or pass their concerns on to those who can do something about it. This is a big part of why I am running for Council in the first place; I want to be able to say “yes.”)

After receiving this week’s prompt, I reached out to a handful of residents from different areas of the City to ask their concerns about City services. Here are some of the responses I received, in no particular order:

  • Roads have been neglected for so long and the constant utility construction, ripping up the roads and patching spots here and there are so poorly done.
  • As an active walker around the city, I’m saddened by the lack of attention to local parks.
  • I’m disturbed by the amount of trash that seems out of control along sidewalks, near highways, streams, and just in general.
  • The Boyd has sat way too long in utterly horrible condition.
  • Gridlock traffic problem on the South side.
  • My immediate answer is “paving the roads”. Number one. Top of the list.
  • Patiently waiting for the Pedestrian Bridge from North to South.
  • Lopsided attention Main Street receives.
  • People experiencing homelessness – what are the city initiatives to assist? Any secular resources?
  • Something like Denver’s STAR program that dispatches health care workers to some emergency calls so police aren’t always the people dispatched.
  • No single hauler trash pickup.
  • Fixing deteriorating roads.
  • Stormwater fee — this should have been explained better/more before implementing.
  • More attention to the city beyond the two blocks of Main Street that tourists visit.
  • Town & Gown relationships – Moravian, Lehigh, NCC, etc.

There are repeats. There are contradictions. But I learned so much from one simple inquiry. This is the lived experience of these residents, and their input is valuable—crucial—to informing City Hall about what is working well, and what’s not.

Understanding the role of local government, let alone attending or standing up at a Council meeting, can be intimidating. But not only do I want to hear from the citizens of Bethlehem, I want to hear from as many as possible. As Councilperson, warmly inviting and empowering residents to participate will be at the core of my service. Our constituents are our best resources; they represent our neighborhoods and report their real-life experiences. They are, in essence, City Ambassadors. Their input helps make our City better.

————

Rachel Leon

Thank you, Gadfly, for another thought provoking prompt. The part I want to focus on is the “day-to-day lives of the average resident.” It seems like such a mundane statement,

but we live out our lives in these day-to-day moments. When members of our communities are frustrated with local government it is usually a result of what happens in these day-to-day moments. An intersection that is difficult for pedestrians to navigate. Trash piling up outside of a school. The fear of overdevelopment in our neighborhoods. Lack of affordable housing. Food insecurity in areas of our City where there is limited access to a grocery store. As I speak to more and more people about their concerns, I continue to hear about all these things. We are coming out of a difficult time as a nation, and there are also concerns surrounding how our local economy will recover post pandemic. We need to be able to address all of these concerns, not just the ones that have an economic impact. As elected representatives, it is our responsibility to get into all our communities and ask what we can do for them. The key to the quality of life in our communities isn’t always more development, but we won’t know that if we aren’t asking the questions or if we are only listening to people who find a way to get our attention. It is important that we are really asking the questions, not just checking off an obligated line item in a budget meeting.

Of all of the concerns that I have heard, affordable housing seems to top the list. There are amazing people working hard to address the issue of affordable housing, and we need to continue to push forward with them. We need affordable housing, especially in our remaining mixed-income neighborhoods. We need accessible housing. Communities cannot continue to get pushed farther and farther out of their neighborhoods, so they can be replaced by people who can afford higher rents, for the sake of developer profits. Another issue that continuously comes up, and which has support from many local nonprofit organizations, is the need for a permanent homeless shelter. COVID has shown us just how vulnerable we all are. I don’t believe that we as a city can, in good conscience, put off building a shelter any longer. Homelessness was on the rise pre-pandemic and is expected to continue to rise. We need a permanent place where members of our community can get their basic needs met. This is a matter of basic human dignity.

While affordable housing and the building of a permanent homeless shelter are some of the issues I would like to continue to see work on as a councilmember, there are many other issues that face our communities. There has been a rise in civic engagement among citizens who want to protect our historic structures and districts. Parking is increasingly hard to come by in our more densely populated areas, partly due to limited options for public transportation. Our city parks need maintaining. I believe many of these issues can be addressed through better and more communication between residents and local government. It could very well be that there is a plan in place to take care of every single concern that our communities are facing and that our community members are simply not aware of these plans. Simply posting information on a website or hosting only one meeting about something that matters to communities can have the effect of excluding a lot of people from the conversation.

So, what I would like to see improved is our approach and commitment to providing affordable housing, the construction of a permanent homeless shelter, and better communication between local government and our communities. I believe elected officials need to find better ways to go to the communities that tend to have less of a voice in local politics. If we want to understand the issues that they are facing, we can’t just wait for them to come to us. A fully engaged and informed city council would be a forceful back up as the City moves forward with a new mayor.

The mayor and his staff can’t know everything. It’s the job of city council to make sure the mayor’s plans reflect what is good for communities that they may know little about. If the mayor’s plans fail, we all fail. While it may not be the job of councilmembers to fix everything, we can help the mayor know what the problems are and provide some insight on how to fix the problems. This is something I learned in the Navy. If one person doesn’t fix something right, the whole ship goes down. In this respect, local governance is the responsibility of all elected officials.

————

Hillary Kwiatek

The services Bethlehem provides are its most direct connection to residents. And folks are never more aware of those services than when they fall short of expectations.

Unfortunately, that’s usually when residents need those services most.

I have been knocking on doors in support of Democratic candidates in Bethlehem for more than fifteen years, and during that time I’ve probably heard it all: neighborhood bets on whether leaves will be picked up on the Southside or the smaller streets of the West Side, regardless of what the schedule says. A neighbor’s hauler never picks up their trash, and the bags are ravaged by animals resulting in garbage strewn all over the street. Springtime potholes destroy tires and alignments. Musikfest. (I personally love Musikfest, but your mileage may vary!) Absentee landlords who don’t address maintenance of their properties, endangering residents. And, of course, snow removal.

But I’ve also heard the good stuff: the city took care of a neighbor’s complaint that someone was leaving a non-operating car to decompose in their shared alley parking area. New curb cuts make traversing neighborhood intersections safer for older residents. New playground equipment goes up. Potholes get filled. Snow, eventually, is removed.

In a municipal government, the Mayor is the executive and the Council is the legislative body. In this model, Councilmembers are sent to City Hall to represent the people of the city as a member of Congress represents them in Washington, DC.

If I am elected, I will view constituent services as, in fact, part of “my job.”  I will learn the ins and outs of how city services are delivered. I will keep an open line of communication with residents, and I will strive to help them solve their problems or at least point them in the right direction.

Transparency is essential in helping residents understand how and why services are delivered in the city. That’s why Open Bethlehem is such a big step forward. Residents can see, in easy to read graphs, how the city is spending their tax dollars. (I tend to nerd out on data, so, yes, I was pretty amazed to find out that the city’s income from the sale of recyclable materials has plummeted over the past seven years to just 14 percent of what it was in 2013.)

But without good communication, residents won’t even know such resources are available. That’s why I was proud to be a member of the Connect Bethlehem working group. We surveyed residents about their awareness of and satisfaction with the ways the city communicates with them, from paper newsletters and telephone hotlines to social media accounts. From the more than 1,000 responses we received, we found a number of common themes:

  • Lack of awareness of communications resources
  • For those who are aware — concern that there are too many communications resources and a desire to consolidate those resources into fewer, more centralized accounts and tools
  • A desire for more consistent, regular communication that is easier to find
  • A need for a coordinated communication strategy, perhaps led by a dedicated staff position (“chief communications officer”)
  • A desire for more interactivity (“two-way communication”) in the city’s communications — exhibited by comments such as “They just post press releases” and “I sent them a message on FB Messenger and they didn’t reply”

As part of my work on the Connecting Bethlehem working group, I had the chance to meet many city staff members from nearly every municipal department. They were all clearly committed to serving the residents of the city and doing the best job they could with the resources available.

So, I would hesitate to put forth too many proposals for changing the way city services are delivered until I have had the chance to really dive into city operations and learn them from top to bottom.

I believe the new Bethlehem app is a step in the right direction in connecting residents with city services centrally. I have already seen issues in my own neighborhood being addressed as a result of reports sent via this tool. With a new Mayor, particularly one who has a progressive mindset with regard to communications, we can do even more.

————

Grace Crampsie Smith

I was fortunate to be born into a family where service to others was paramount. I literally saw on a daily basis my father, as a Police Chief, constantly respond to the calls and needs of others. Community members knew if there was a problem/issue, they could go to “Jack” and he would deal with it. He emulated to me the importance of treating others with compassion, respect, objectivity, and going to whatever lengths to resolve conflicts. He was known for his motto ”It doesn’t  cost you anything to be nice to people,” and I try to live his legacy every day.

My mother was the epitome of compassion for others. As the eldest of 10, mother of 7, and a nurse, caring for others was her middle name. If someone was ill or had an unmet need, they knew they could reach out to my mom and she’d be there for them.

My 6 siblings were much older than me, so I also got to experience them as role models of service/response to others. Several went into public service, and my only sister became a Sister of Mercy, literally giving her life in service and mercy to others. I always joke that having been born in between 5 brothers she had enough of men and decided to be a nun.

It is no wonder that I choose a professional path of serving those with addictions, mental health diagnoses, and developmental disabilities, as well as counseling high school students for almost 40 years.

In my tenure as city councilperson, I frequently have constituents reach out to me re: concerns. Issues range from public works (streets), safety/police, health, etc. I have responded to every issue by first and foremost gathering the facts, then reaching out to the appropriate person(s) in city administration to address the issue. I always tell fellow community members that I am here to represent and serve them so they should not hesitate to reach out to me. I also advise them of our new Service App, which is so much easier to navigate than the past one. However, I know that not everyone can or cares to access this app.

Over time, I’ve had several concerns within the Moravian College area re: typical college student behaviors that are disruptive to the neighborhood- parties, loud noises, safety of nearby residents due to Covid. I reached out to the College President, College Police, and City Police Dept. to address these concerns. Given my belief it is best to meet issues head on with all involved, I initiated the Moravian Block Watch. This allowed neighbors to sit at the table with city police, Moravian Police, and Moravian Representatives to discuss and resolve presenting issues. I think we were progressing and had success in resolving some issues, but, unfortunately, we had to discontinue meetings due to Covid.

I truly believe the skills I have honed as a counselor, as well as in various areas within the human services field has been a definite advantage in serving as a councilperson. In my career, I have to mediate and resolve conflict amongst individuals and entities on a daily basis. I’ve learned the importance of treating all sides with respect, allowing all sides to express their concerns, and try to guide others to meeting in middle. It is also important for different sides of issues to have their consciousness raised as to the obstacles the other side may face

I never hesitate to reach out to city staff or the mayor and will continue to do so no matter who the new mayor is. I believe those within the city and the mayor know that I will always strongly advocate for those in need, from micro issues such as a potholes to macro issues such as securing inclusionary housing options for multiple income levels. Recently, when we had to implement the new stormwater fee, I noted there needed to be a tier system or appeal process, and the appeal process was added.  Being a student of free/reduced lunch, I know first-hand the monetary challenges some households may face, and I will continue to advocate for those less fortunate.

In the end, in serving and responding to others within the community my golden rule will continue to be: “It doesn’t  cost you anything to be nice to people.”

————-

Bryan Callahan

Ed,

In the 7 plus years that I’ve been on Council, I am probably the most proud of the fact that City residents, taxpayers, property owners, policemen, firemen, and city workers

feel comfortable enough to call me or in many cases come to my house to talk to me and confide in me. They know I will look into their particular situation and, if I have to, fight and act on their concerns!

The issues range from small concerns to much bigger concerns and problems. My favorite memory was on a Sunday morning about 6 years ago. An elderly lady came out of church service at Notre Dame on Catasauqua Road on the West side. It was early Springtime, and as she pulled out of her parking spot her front tire hit a deep pot hole that caused a flat tire on her car. She called to tell me that the tire was so badly damaged that she had to buy a new tire and get a wheel alignment that cost her almost $250 and that she was very upset about it because that was a lot of money for her on her fixed income. As soon as I got off the call with her, I was so touched by her call, that I reached out to Public Works Director Mike Alkhal. Mike has always been a very responsive and responsible department head. I knew he would get it fixed, but I didn’t think it would be the first thing the next morning. Around 9:30 AM on Monday I got another phone call from her number. She told me that she was just driving up the road where the pot hole was, and she was shocked that “my pot hole was already being fixed!” She told me that she was very thankful for me acting on her behalf. I told her that all I did was make one phone call, but that I would call Mr. Alkhal to thank him for her. That situation put a smile on my face, that one little phone call made an elderly resident feel like the City was listening to her!

On a much larger scale I’ve been shocked when I had several police officers tell me that the administration was sitting on and holding back from Council the fact that several months earlier a man, who was being held in police custody, had committed suicide in the basement of City Hall or when residents have informed me about perceived retaliation from permits and inspections workers within the Community and Economic Development Department if they even dared to question the length of time it was taking to get their permit for their new garage, pool, patio or addition to their house.

I have always taken every resident’s phone calls and listen to their concerns, problems, and issues with a seriousness and have acted accordingly when needed.

I truly feel that listening to our residents and being their voice is the most important job of being on Council!

———-

Residents are welcome to fashion reflections on candidate comments, sending them to ejg1@lehigh.edu. On Gadfly we seek the good conversation that builds community, so please be courteous at all times. Gadfly retains the right to abridge and to edit your reflections and to decline posts that are repetitive or that contain personal attacks. Gadfly will publish resident reflections on the week’s Forum at noon on Friday.

Gadfly mayoral forum #3: city services

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

The Mayoral candidate comparison chart

The candidates again have wonderfully cooperated with what they might think of as Bethlehem’s form of March madness.

We need to stop, think, and be grateful at what is extraordinary, voluntary cooperation.

The candidate responses are presented in alphabetical order this time.

————

The prompt:

Dana, Willie:

The first two forums have been on “heady” subjects: the budget and development.

I’d like to get more down to earth for Forum #3.

The Mayor is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the city. The Mayor is on the front line every day, in the trenches. The mayor is responsible for the basic city services from trash pick-up to parking to road paving that produce a good quality of life for our residents. The mayor “administers.” I think of him or her as the person who keeps the trains running on time. When basic services break down, the mayor gets the call. The average Bethlehem Joe or Jane no doubt spends less time thinking about the budget and development than whether the snow is shoveled and the leaves picked up.

How do you see yourself in this aspect of a mayor’s job?

For instance, here are some possible things to think about that would be of interest to talk about:

1) What kind of administrator do you see yourself as?  Do you have a sense of your leadership style? Are you a delegator? Are you “hands-on”? Are you a micromanager? Do you foster creativity? How will you ensure that priorities are set, goals met? How will you interact with department heads? How will you set a tone for city employees in dealing with the public?

2) Do you contemplate any changes in the way “City Hall” operates? Will there be administrative innovation? Will there be new internal policies, procedures? Will there be new work structures, new ways of organizing how things get done? Do you plan creating any new administrative positions, any new reporting channels?  Will it be “business as usual” in City Hall when you move in to the corner office, or do you see some changes? For example, I believe fairly recently Recreation was moved around in a reorganization plan. Do you see anything like that as you envision yourself overseeing the nitty-gritty, day-to-day operation of the city?

3) Do you have a sense of what city services are working well and what city services aren’t? For instance, most particularly, are you aware of citizen concerns in certain areas of city services in which you will want to focus your attention right away and strive for improvement? Is there one department on which you will want to focus your attention? How will you monitor resident complaints and concerns and their successful resolution?

Some rich topics there from which to select and focus.

 Thank you for your service and willingness to serve.

————-

Dana Grubb

Having worked 27 years in several positions and with regular interaction among all city departments, I am the only Democratic candidate with the background and management experience to run Bethlehem city government. I will hit the ground running with my plans to reorganize, streamline, and rebuild employee morale so that the residents of Bethlehem get the best services possible and are treated with respect and fairness.

My management style has been characterized as “firm and fair.” I would add compassionate to that because I always try to put myself in the other employee’s shoes. When I worked in city hall, I expected my co-workers to execute their job duties and follow the employment rules and policies. I also sought to encourage them to have an attitude of service to the public, and one of empathy: employees need to consider the way in which they would like an issue handled if it were their own. I showed confidence in bureau heads and those reporting directly to me by enabling them to do their jobs; I also urged them to let me know if they needed support, so we could find solutions together. As Mayor, I may need to be more hands on initially, not to the point of micromanagement, but to ensure that everyone understands my philosophy of working in local government: it’s all about service to the community.

The Continuous Improvement Program under a prior administration failed because of the top-down bullying management style it created. Instead, innovations for cost savings and efficiency will be encouraged organically, and if someone has a good idea, I want to hear about it. I want the city workforce to enjoy coming to work, not be counting down the days until they’ll be leaving public service.

My Mayor’s office will be bi-lingual. There will be both a chief of staff position and a community outreach position. Chief of staff will work closely with me and assist in the dissemination of timely public information among other responsibilities. The community outreach professional will coordinate interaction between my office and outside groups and agencies. Both may be called upon to represent my office if there are scheduling conflicts.

I will also maintain the Mayor’s open office program, although perhaps on a different schedule, including evening hours at locations around the City to make access to the Mayor easier and less intimidating for segments of the population who need that consideration.

I will seek diversity in the hiring of qualified individuals. As much as possible, I will try to find the best and brightest people for city positions who are also city residents. That kind of connection to Bethlehem among city staff is critical, and I want it in my administration.

My plans for reorganization include returning the Department of Sewer and Water back into Public Works, where it used to be. There will be a Public Works Director and a Deputy Director of Sewer and Water in the reconstituted format.

I will reestablish a Department of Parks and Recreation because I think its dissolution was very short-sighted. Our parks, playgrounds, and trails need attention: a reestablished Department will bring a renewed effort to maintenance and potential capital projects. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the need for outdoor activities to keep ourselves mentally and physically healthy.

I will take community policing one step further than the initial re-organization by Chief Kott. The concept of community policing needs to become ingrained among the patrol platoons. I will promote and encourage this so we can build stronger relationships, communication, and trust between law enforcement and the public.

There are several positions inside city hall that will either be cut or refocused. A number of positions have been instituted over the last 15 to 20 years that were created for people and not because of real need.

Unlike my opponent, I am a small business owner. I understand the challenges and mechanics of running a small business, whether existing or start-up. This is why I will create the small business concierge position in the Office of Economic Development, so that a one-stop shop exists to provide resources for both new and existing business owners in Bethlehem.

I also remain committed to transferring the day-to-day operation of the Bethlehem Parking Authority into a City Department of Parking. The physical location will remain the same; however, as a city department, provision of services will be directly responsible to elected officials, which will make it more accountable. The Authority will remain to handle financing and ownership matters, much the same as the current structure with the water system’s Bethlehem Authority and city department.

Finally, delivery of city services is a fundamental responsibility for those serving in city government. I’ve heard far too many complaints about nonresponses to emails and phone calls from business owners and residents. It doesn’t take much to acknowledge a contact and inform someone that you’re working on it and will be back in touch with an answer. To simply ignore something is unacceptable.

The city’s workforce is a tremendous asset. I will do everything in my power to restore morale and pride in effort. Out of my own pocket, I plan to institute a monthly employee award in the form of a gift card from a Bethlehem business; I also have a few other ideas to reverse the current downward spiral of morale.

Managing a workforce takes experience: I have that experience. My opponent does not.

————

J. William Reynolds

The daily running of City Hall revolves around the delivery of basic city services. The efficient delivery of these services is often the determining factor for people when deciding

if they feel local government is working. The City of Bethlehem has a history of delivering services well.  Our water is of the highest quality, our leaves get picked up, and our streets are clean. Our employees deserve credit for the reputation Bethlehem has as a well-run city. There are several things, however, that I see Bethlehem needing to do to improve our delivery of services.

On a systemic level, City Hall needs to use technology to improve the efficiency of our operations. City government has taken several steps in recent years that have improved our use of technology. An improved website, a new services app, and our open data portal have contributed to real progress. We need to continue to implement technology, however. I have learned that citizens become the most frustrated when they cannot get an answer to their questions. Technology should allow neighborhood issues to be responded to in a quicker manner. We should also be using data more effectively to track and determine if city services are being delivered effectively as well. If someone sends me an email that they are happy with leaf pick up, that is great. That does not, however, guarantee that the system of leaf pickup is working or that the majority of people are happy. We need citywide data and metrics to determine that. The establishment of such data systems needs to be a priority moving forward.

Connected to this idea of using technology more, there is a lot of room for the City to communicate more effectively with our citizens. Our communications survey in 2019 showed that while residents (who filled out the survey) were largely happy with City communication channels, there were still things that we could do to make City Hall more accessible, clear, and responsive. This is absolutely an issue that must be prioritized going forward. As stated above, we have made great strides in this area, but there is much more we can do to bring City Hall into the 21st century.

It is also important that when citizens walk into City Hall that they feel that city government is being helpful. Often times, people’s entire opinion of City Hall will be determined by their one visit every couple of years to file for a permit or inquire about a communication that they received from the City. It is important that when citizens come to City Hall that they leave with the feeling that City Hall is welcoming, understanding, and helpful in trying to solve problems.

During my time on City Council, I have learned City Hall is the most productive when goals and priorities are shared between the Administration and City Council, across departments, and the community. Decision-making can never be done in a vacuum.  I have always relied on the leaders of Departments and Bureaus to provide practical, on the ground information to influence decisions related to funding and allocation of resources. This collaborative approach is one that provides the framework for how a City Hall should be run as we look to create a more accessible and responsive city.

Successful leadership in government often comes down to one question. Are you able to build diverse, broad coalitions to create progress and change? During my time in public office, I have learned rarely does anything of consequence happen without significant support, time, and energy coming from multiple areas of the community. When it comes to the City of Bethlehem, this means a combination of City Hall and community support. During my time as a Councilmember, this has been the formula I have used to create our Climate Action Plan and NorthSide 2027. These types of coalitions – residents, City Hall staff, elected officials, and institutional representatives – will be a hallmark of how my Administration would look to organize efforts to create change and progress in our City.

———–

Residents are welcome to fashion reflections on candidate comments, sending them to ejg1@lehigh.edu. On Gadfly we seek the good conversation that builds community, so please be courteous at all times. Gadfly retains the right to abridge and to edit your reflections and to decline posts that are repetitive or that contain personal attacks. Gadfly will publish resident reflections on the week’s Forum at noon on Friday.

A bit of a pep talk as we wait for Forum #3

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

Each Monday at noon between now and the May 18 election, we hope to have on Gadfly the voice of the mayoral candidates, each Tuesday at noon the City Council candidates.

While sitting here in Gadfly headquarters waiting for the mayoral voices coming in an hour, Gadfly has been thinking how lucky we are to have “races” for both electoral positions.

We’ve come very close to having “no contests.”

Wouldn’t that have been something. In a town of our size. In a town of our — what? — stature.

Candidate Reynolds is a young man but old in service years. If it weren’t for candidate Grubb, candidate Reynolds might have just walked through the primary, walked perhaps directly to the corner office at City Hall. Gadfly has heard many times that it is candidate Reynolds’ “time.” As if there is a line of succession. That is not the way we should be thinking. We need to hear candidate Reynolds as if for the first time. He must be made to earn our vote. And it is perhaps our even greater responsibility to listen to “dark horse” Grubb. He is not a casual or a faux candidate. His voice is enlivening our important cyclic community dialogue about the nature of Bethlehem. We must conscientiously seek to know what perspectives he has to offer.

So the Gadfly Forum is a way to help get us beyond mailings and yard signs, the sound bites at “Meet the candidate” events, the inevitable superficiality of meet and greets, the transiency of neighborhood walk-bys, and the potential inadequacy of past and first impressions — to encourage us not only to vote but to vote thoughtfully and mindfully.

We hope you will engage the forums in active mode and in high gear.

Gadfly seeks your questions for and responses to the candidates.

Mayoral candidate Grubb responds to the Armory neighbors

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

ref: Gadfly mayoral forum #2: development
ref: Addendum #1 to Gadfly forum on development: the Armory

Dear Gadfly,

The intrusion that the Armory project has become to a quiet Bethlehem neighborhood is the perfect example of the kind of development that Bethlehem doesn’t need. It reminds me of Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to jam their oversized feet into the tiny glass slipper.

I support redeveloping this site but will repeat again my Mayoral review criteria for projects in Bethlehem and address each point as it relates to this specific site.

“As Mayor, when a proposed project is brought to my attention I will have a series of questions and checklist for the developers of those projects:

  1. How will your project benefit Bethlehem and the neighborhood in which you’re locating?
  2. Have you met with the surrounding residents and property owners? How do they feel about your project?
  3. How many and what variances will you be seeking? Are you in compliance with all city ordinances?
  4. What if any assistance do you need from City Hall?
  5. Are your taxes current on all of the real estate that you own in Bethlehem? Are your properties in good condition and code compliant? We want to make sure that you are a responsible property owner.
  6. What are the parking needs for your project and how will they be addressed? Are you stressing an already existing short supply of parking?
  7. What is the environmental impact of any proposed demolition and/or the actual project?”

It is apparent that since construction started this neighborhood has been negatively impacted by an oversized development designed to maximize return on investment at the expense of those already living in this area. I’ve driven past it several times. I would not want this happening in my own neighborhood. I empathize with the neighbors’ plight. I’m not privy to any “inside deals” between city government and the developer, but my administration will be more demanding when it comes to scale, mass, and parking.

Neighborhood meetings were held, but from what I’ve seen and heard they appeared to focus on disseminating information rather than gathering, and listening to, input. It also doesn’t help when a former Bethlehem Mayor arrives representing a development that he personally profits from. Was he really listening to any concerns, or just paying lip service?

The number of zoning variances requested was exorbitant. When a project is scaled properly for its setting it won’t require this many variances.

The developer received assistance from the city when government conveyed one half of a boulevard-like roadway to the project. I’m less concerned with the loss of half of the roadway than I am with the reason for it: parking. I’ve questioned from the start why parking isn’t being built beneath the project to provide some relief from its parking demand on the neighborhood streets.  A less dense redevelopment of this site would have eased this concern. We still don’t know what the end use of the Armory portion of the project will be and what parking demand will be incurred.

Why weren’t condos or owner-occupied town houses considered? I don’t recall any conversation about affordable housing units.

While I have no reason to doubt that this developer is exemplary with regard to their “good citizen” standing, my administration will routinely verify that on taxes and property maintenance for other holdings.

Finally, there is a plethora of environmental concerns with this project. Construction and demolition debris filling a landfill, air quality, noise, vibrations from demolition and site preparation, are again all impacted by the project’s scope.

I will finish by addressing the City’s role of providing community support to the already existing residents. Simply put, the residents were there first. Every possible accommodation, demonstration of support, and application of inspection enforcement will be a priority for my administration.

My opponent for Mayor has taken campaign contributions from the primary developers in Bethlehem: I do not and will not. Therefore, I am at liberty to work in the best interests of the public. I can be fair, negotiate in good faith to bring the best development possible into Bethlehem, and do it in a way that allows us all to “believe in a better Bethlehem.”

Addendum #2 to Gadfly forum on development

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

ref: Council mayoral forum #2: development

Yep, it’s development week on Gadfly.

Even the post on the affordable housing meeting fits in. And additional posts on that meeting will follow soon.

But the Mayoral forum on development brought in what Gadfly thinks are two other good prompts.

As I said in the post on Addendum #1, the candidates have done their assigned homework, but they (even the Council candidates) should feel free to weigh in on these subjects.

At the very least, these are good points, points that we should keep in mind as we think about development in the city.

— The examples in Gadfly’s prompt to the mayoral candidates about development were all, I think, in regard to the Southside. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that there is a long unresolved issue on the Northside that the candidates should speak to. Commercial Airbnb operations continue to operate there in the Historic District several years after initial citation of violations. [See Airbnb and Short term lodging links under Topics on the Gadfly sidebar for context.] The same issue of the tension between dollars and history operates there, and the candidates should be asked if they see it as a problem, and, if so, how they will move to resolve it.

— Gadfly’s prompt on development focuses on the role and responsibility of the mayor. But the volunteer historic boards, the Planning Commission, and the Zoning Hearing Board all play key roles and arguably have not always served us well. How do the candidates see themselves vis-a-vis these entities? They are making recommendations and decisions that affect the whole city. In your view, how well have they been functioning? Are you comfortable with the current staffing of those entities? What will you be looking for when it comes to staffing these entities?

What questions or comments do you have on the subject of development? Gadfly would be pleased to have some feedback on both the mayoral and council candidate responses Friday. What have they made you think about?

Addendum #1 to Gadfly forum on development: the Armory

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

It’s development week on the Gadfly!

Gadfly started attending City Council meetings on January 2, 2018, six months before he officially became a Gadfly. Virtually the first thing he heard at that meeting was Westside resident Christy Roysdon talking about the Armory project during public comment. The resident commentary beat on the Armory continued January 16 and February 6 as the discussion moved to the “vacation” of Second Avenue as part of the development. The discussion troubled embryo-Gadfly. He made his first public comment at a City Council meeting the very next meeting, February 20. It would not be off-base to say that tension over the proposal to develop the Armory set him on the road to becoming a Gadfly.

Decisions were made, and the Armory developer pretty much got his way. And things were quiet on this front for a while.

But as you can see and scan for yourself, Gadfly-now-Gadfly opened a file thread on the Armory April 30, 2019, well into the “history” surrounding this project. as things began to heat up again. In his inimitable way, Gadfly described a “defibrillator moment” at one meeting and because of another meeting even floated the need for a City ombudsman as trouble with the project approval process morphed into trouble with the construction process.

That’s where we are now on this project that keeps on giving — trouble with the construction process.

And this week’s Forum topic generated this letter below from some Armory neighbors as a suggested prompt for the candidates, especially the mayoral ones.

The new construction, whose design they were not happy with from the get-go and which secured an inordinate number of variances from the City, some of them now find disrupting the quality of their lives and threatening the very stability of their homes.

And they feel nobody seems to care.

Welcome to the place where the buck stops, candidates — these Armory neighbors invite your comments. However, you have already done your homework on this Forum #2 development topic. If you choose not to comment, at least you (especially new folk Hillary, Kiera, and Rachel) are aware of another example of the devilment of development awaiting your attention.

———–

Dear candidates,

Since the city (including the city council members) authorized the redevelopment of the Armory site, giving green light to 11 variances, making a joke out of the Zoning Ordinances, with the clear opposition of the neighborhood who attended meeting after meeting and expressed their concerns to all the parties involved, we, the adjacent neighbors of this site, have been living under war-like conditions since the beginning of the construction.

view from neighborhood homes

Our physical and mental health are rapidly deteriorating due to the constant, noise, pollution, fumes, construction dust, and temblors inside our old houses, which are more than 100 years old. We cannot even open our windows nor sit on our porches. Since the pandemic, many of us are working at home, a task that has become extremely difficult when you have the noise and vibrations coming from all the pounding, excavation, and drilling.

We have expressed these concerns to multiple city council members as well as city workers, and they have answered that there is nothing they can do to protect us during these stressful times. We specifically asked them to do follow-up inspections of the surrounding homes, utility pipes, etc., during and after the construction is over. The answer we received was that the city “does not do that.”

— A lot of previous city members have washed their hands after they approved this project. What would be your response to issues like this?

— Do you think that it should be up to the neighbors to spend thousands of dollars to deal with the damage or to hold the developers accountable?

— Is it too much to ask that after placing such a burden on this community that the city takes some steps to protect the homes, mental and physical health of the surrounding neighbors? Shouldn’t this be a common practice anyway that when constructions of this size are approved especially in historic neighborhoods, that there is a follow-up with the homes around?

This project is supposed to last at least 18 months. We do not even have the weekends off since the construction takes place even during this time

Are we citizens of Bethlehem and taxpayers supposed to live under these inhumane conditions for the remainder of this time?

What are you planning to do to limit the power of developers and protect the mental, physical health, and the homes of the community who are unfortunate to live surrounded by sites like this?

Neighbors adjacent to the Armory

Gadfly council forum #2: development

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

The Council candidates comparison chart

“I have always tried to balance everyone’s needs and concerns.”
Bryan Callahan

“It is possible to experience and live in our history while also exploring
and innovating architecturally.”
Hillary Kwiatek

“There is middle ground between economic development and our
commitment to history.”

Rachel Leon

“Thoughtful development exists, change can have conservation at its heart.”
Kiera Wilhelm

A tip o’ the hat to everybody who’s running.

Gadfly’s depending on you to match the time the candidates gave to responding to his prompts from hell by thoughtfully reading everybody’s statement. He’ll vary the order of presentation each time — this time we are in alphabetical order.

———–

The prompt:

Good people: Bryan, Grace, Hillary, Rachel. Kiera

Let’s have some fun. Go down Memory Lane with me.

You talked about budget in Forum #1, arguably Council’s most important responsibility.

Next for me in terms of importance is the role Council plays in “development,” the role I might call “The Court of Last Resort,” the City’s “Supreme Court.”

There has been significant tension in the City over development decisions. I probably don’t have to tell you that. Think Armory, Martin Tower, the Zest building at 306 S.New, etc. And there are a couple major proposals floating on both the North and South sides now that I am sure you know about and might encounter if you are on Council.

Bryan has been around a long time. He’s seen it all. Grace has been around long enough to see some of the all. But this might be totally new to the rest of you.

Let’s look at one case that I think you can get your arms around fairly quickly by looking at a few newspaper articles. A developer has had approval to build a 9-story building at 4th and Vine (the Déjà Vu, Goosey Gander corner) since 2015. We haven’t heard anything about it for a while, but it is the contentious approval process I want you to think about.

Background:

  • The City has 3 historic districts
  • The Southside historic district is governed by design guidelines administered by the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission (HCC)
  • The HCC guidelines are here: for our purpose in this prompt, see pages 8-9
  • The HCC is a recommending, an advisory body, and reports to City Council, which has the final say on proposals
  • The HCC is made up of volunteers appointed/approved by the City

Focus on the issue of the 9-story height of the approved building at 4th and Vine. You will see that in the guidelines 2-3 stories are considered the norm to be used as the point of reference for new buildings on the Southside. I have heard HCC members at meetings push that up to 4-5 stories as the norm. But either way 9-stories is quite a departure.

Think of that, the height of the building, as the issue for our discussion.

I would say that you will find 2 issues in this case that I would like you to think about, 2 issues that you will likely see again on Council.

  • how closely need the historic guidelines be followed by Council?
  • does economic development outweigh our commitment to history?

Like with the choice in the budget prompt, these are tough calls that I feel very confident you will be called on to make (or make again, Bryan). Think of this as a practice field.

Talk it out in your Forum #2 response.

———-

See Morning Call articles attached

March 19, 2014: HCC approves developer proposal for 7-story building

April 2, 2014: City Council approves HCC recommendation for 7-story building

Sept 30, 2014: developer pitches 9-story building to HCC

Oct 22, 2014: after floating a 12-story building, the developer gets HCC approval for a 9-story building

Oct 31, 2014: as this proposal heads to City Council at Nov 5 meeting, opposition to a 9[story building mounts, including from the South Bethlehem Historical Society

Nov 6, 2014: City Council supports 9-story building – marathon, heavily attended meeting

April 26, 2015: a local gadfly calls Council decision absurd

April 29, 2015: SBHS appeals Council ruling to Northampton County Court

May 28, 2015: Court denies the appeal

———–

For real immersion in the issue, go to the minutes of the Nov 5, 2014 City Council meeting, where 3 dozen residents spoke (!), almost all against the approval that Council eventually gave for the 9-story building by a 5-2 vote (almost all the Council members also spoke to support their votes – don’t miss their rationales).

(Public comment on this topic is not all together, scroll through the public comment section at the beginning of the minutes for headings “Certificate of Appropriateness – 24-30 W. Fourth Street – Benner Project.”)

That’s what makes the case so interesting. Council voted against public opinion rather massively arrayed right in front of them.

Ha! Profiles in courage, or . . .

Hard choices, indeed.

Bound to be in your future!

Do you see the (rather perennial) issues in development?

Thanks for your service, and your willingness to serve.

————

Bryan Callahan

Ed,

I think it was during last year’s budget hearings when Mr. Reynolds asked a very direct but important question to the Mayor and the administration. How much

extra money, each year, does the City need to bring in to pay for health care increases, pension liabilities, and negotiated contract increases? The answer was approximately $2 million each year!! Where will that money come from? As I stated in last week’s prompt, it has to come from one of two sources . . . tax increases or economic development.

Depending on who you are, those are not two great choices. Last year the Mayor proposed and got the votes from the other Council members to increase your taxes 5%. That increase of 5%, which I did not support or vote for, brought in roughly $1.5 million. If that continues for just 5 years, with no economic development, taxes would increase 25% above what they currently are, and that still leaves us with a shortage of $500,000 per year.

Now imagine sitting on Council and having to make that decision. Raising taxes on residents is not a good option for people on fixed incomes, the elderly, the poor, businesses, or, in fact, many at all. Raising taxes also directly causes monthly rents to increase on many renters in our City. This in turn makes Bethlehem less affordable for everyone, but even more so on lower and medium income residents to live here. Shouldn’t Council members be concerned about affordable housing? What other options are there? Oh, oh  . . . Economic Development projects!  Should Council approve and support economic development projects in the commercially zoned areas of the City, so it brings in more jobs for City residents, more customers for our local businesses, more taxes coming in without raising taxes on our residents?  Very hard decisions. Especially when some of the local residents show up to oppose it. What would you do? Do you keep taxing the current residents more and more and make Bethlehem less affordable to live in, do you approve more economic development projects in commercial zones, or do you do a balancing act and weigh the pros and cons of each?

The other issue is that our neighboring cities are always competing with us every year to take economic development dollars from Bethlehem and the customers that come along with it. Should we let that happen and just keep raising taxes? Big decisions. What would you do? (See below from The Express Times)

I have always tried to balance everyone’s needs and concerns.

EASTON, Pa [March 17]. – The city of Easton could be about a week away from approving the sale of the former Days Inn lot to Peron Development. Peron’s design, called the “Confluence,” would be a massive development for downtown Easton. “Iconic. It’s going to be an iconic project for the city, it really is,” said Mayor Sal Panto. Panto said the city is waiting for Peron Development to sign the agreement of sale. Then city council can vote to approve. 

The city bought the property, the site of the former Days Inn, for nearly $6 million. Panto said it was appraised at and will sell for $3.9 million.

He said the hotel was a rundown but successful business that attracted the wrong crowds and crime to downtown Easton.

“Anybody who knows real estate knows we bought a thriving business with a building on it. So . . . we had to buy the thriving business and what we’re selling is vacant land,” Panto said. “The city will recover its money, its $2 million, within 4 years with no tax increase, just real estate taxes.” The redevelopment will include condos, apartments, a two-screen movie theatre run by ArtsQuest, a grocery store and space for retail stores. The development will be built 10-feet above ground, a flood plain, with 300 parking spaces below.There had been discussion of including a hotel, but Mayor Panto said that changed during the pandemic. Panto said the development will bring over $100,000 in taxes to the school district during its first year up and running and more than $1 million after 10 years. “I see this as the city making a good investment in their downtown . . . which is going to help our residents and not have to raise their taxes,” said Panto.

———–

Hillary Kwiatek

The votes taken on November 5, 2014, by Council on this project were twofold – 1) a certificate of appropriateness for the demolition of existing vacant structures and

2) a certificate of appropriateness to construct a 9-story building on the site conditional on the approval of details and materials at 24-30 West Fourth Street.

Having studied historic preservation as part of my graduate degree in folk studies at Western Kentucky University, I am familiar with the Secretary of Interior’s Standards and the principles involved. The standards call for taking “great care” to maintain a cohesive ambience, to pay particular attention to proportional siting, scale, materials, roof, etc.

While I personally do have concerns when a building is proposed that is significantly taller than those on the block on which it will be situated, thinking about this issue also reminded me of a visit to London I was lucky enough to take several years ago. The city has a history that dates back 2,000 years, and tourists flock to see Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London. Yet, there you will also see tall steel and glass buildings situated near 300 year-old pubs once frequented by the likes of Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens. It reminded me that it is possible to experience and live in our history while also exploring and innovating architecturally.

Having said that, I also recognize that providing guidance on historical appropriateness of a building project in the South Bethlehem Historic District is the domain of the Historic Conservation Commission (HCC). Their role is to advise the city on matters such as this. Council tends to affirm the HCC’s decisions (though not always, and not always unanimously) because the HCC is composed of knowledgeable professionals who are well-versed in the secretary’s standards as well as the history of Southside Bethlehem.

The HCC approved the certificate of appropriateness for the project conditionally, which is a very important point. Those conditions mean that the building’s design and plans will have to continue to undergo review by the HCC as the project moves along. In this situation, a majority of Council members felt that with the conditions as stated, they should approve the COA.

Development projects such as the Fourth and Vine project are really a prolonged negotiation. A developer will understandably start by shooting for the moon — eleven stories! It is the job of various bodies of city government, including Council, the HCC, or HARB, the Zoning Hearing Board, and others, to bring the developer back to Earth and to use the process to gain as much benefit for the community as possible. So the November 2014 COA vote was the beginning and not even close to the end of this project’s approval process.

Designating a historic district in a city brings benefits to those who reside within it, including increased property values and an assurance of relative stability of the built environment. But it also creates a tension between private property and community interest. The development approval process, with all its bureaucracy, is where these tensions are addressed and resolved.

Private real estate development projects, even those developed with tax incentives, have the potential to put properties back on the tax rolls and add jobs.They can also bring more residents and visitors to our community and its small businesses. However, projects can jeopardize the balance of a community if they result in upward pressure on the rental market or diminish the sense of place that has been a hallmark of our historic districts in Bethlehem.

As a Council member, I would welcome the opportunity to be a part of the development process to find solutions that can help us preserve what is great about Bethlehem while also growing our tax base. As with everything a Council member does, it is likely the outcome will not please everyone. That’s part of the job and why there are elections.

One last note. I will not be accepting donations from developers for my campaign. When I vote on projects, I want the people of Bethlehem to have complete confidence that I am making those decisions based on my principles and what I believe is in the best interest of the city.

————

Rachel Leon

After reading multiple articles about development in South Bethlehem (where I live) and having conversations with South Side residents about the topic of

development (specifically high-rise structures), I can confidently say this is a topic that evokes a lot of emotion. The amount of feedback I received would take me ten pages to convey, so I would like to stick to the specific talking points we were presented: 1) How closely should the historic guidelines be followed by city council?, 2) Does economic development outweigh our commitment to history?

Regarding city council’s adherence to the historic conservation district guidelines, I believe the court ruling provided a legal argument about the advisory status of the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission (SBHCC). According to the court ruling discussed in the articles provided by the Gadfly, legally, city council does not need to adhere to the SBHCC recommendations. I believe in some instances this has its benefits. From my understanding, the SBHCC was created by city council, and its members are confirmed by a vote of city council. Part of its obligations are to adhere to historic guidelines, which specifically address the replacement of older structures with new structures built within the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation District. However, because council can choose to accept or reject SBHCC recommendations, it’s important to explain how I would approach development in historic areas of our city.

If elected to council, my process would be to listen so the feedback from the community as well as to listen to the case presented by the SBHCC. I believe that residents of this city will want to do what is best for their families and their community. If the residents are coming out against a certain development project, then I believe they will have weighed the benefits of the additional tax revenue to the city against what they would be asked to sacrifice. If they are seeing these additional tax revenues spent in their community to offset their sacrifice, I believe they would be more accepting of slight deviations from the historical guidelines. But these deviations should be met with overwhelming support from the community if it is going to override historical preservation.

The issue of economic development and historical preservation is just as complex as whether to accept recommendations of advisory bodies such as the SBHCC. Bethlehem is a beautiful city with pockets of history scattered everywhere. In many cases developers have been able to marry their modern concepts to the historical preservation that makes Bethlehem what it is. Just recently, a developer in our city has demonstrated what it means to go above and beyond what local laws require to make sure that the needs of the City and its natural environment were placed before the project’s economic success. When it comes to growing our tax base, these are the developers that we should be actively seeking out and attracting. Developers that truly put the core of Bethlehem at what they do.

Bethlehem makes the news on a regular basis as one of the most festive places to visit. Part of the success of so many of our small businesses is due to the charm that brings tourists to our historic city. The argument could be made that we should allow more over-development in the urban cores of our city because it would have a positive economic impact. But my concern is that we could lose all the old world charm to high-rise, modern buildings. This too would have an economic impact, but it would be a negative impact because it would undermine the historic value of our city. To quote a south side resident, “Historic preservation is our brand.” If we diminish the quality of our historic districts by allowing out-of-scale development, we diminish our attraction to tourists who come here for a uniquely historic experience. And I believe the south side historic district deserves the same commitment to preservation that prevails on the north side of the City. Another important point when it comes to development and our commitment to history is that the guidelines for the south side historic district are readily available. Developers who buy property within the borders of the district know that approval of their project are subject to compliance with the historic guidelines. They should not assume that these guidelines will be ignored for the sake of their profits.

I firmly believe that there is middle ground between economic development and our commitment to history. I love to see interest in the City, especially when it shows areas like South Bethlehem to be what I know it is—a beautiful diverse, culturally rich, and exciting area of the city. If the interest in this area comes at the expense of the families that already live here and have for multiple generations, then I believe that is when the City should step in and stand up for the community that is already here. There is so much more to our communities and how they are developed than just the HCC and its guidelines. City Council needs to ask questions about how development will impact traffic, congestion, air quality, and other factors that may undermine residents’ quality of life. In front of my house right now a parking lot is being built. In my community this field has been the green space that children have played in for decades. In the winter it is where they sled, in the summer it is where they played football. Many of the children learned how to climb trees on the giant locust, a native tree crucial to our ecological diversity, that once stood in the field. As development projects eliminate these spaces, we also need to be attentive to recreating accessible greenspace, in places that are safe and equally accessible to our neighborhoods.

Responsible development is a crucial part of keeping Bethlehem’s economy strong, especially in these difficult times. While we continue to grow and develop as a city, we cannot lose focus of the fact that our primary concern needs to be the health, welfare, and happiness of our residents, not our developers. And I say this knowing that developers that love the city as much as I do feel the same.

———-

Kiera Wilhelm

To say that Bethlehem has a rich history is an understatement.

Bethlehem contains multiple National Historic Landmarks and National Register Historic Districts. One of those districts, Historic Moravian Bethlehem, has been designated a World Heritage List candidate. Our industrial history is not only honored by landmarks in our own City, it is felt nationwide: it quite literally helped build our nation. It stands to reason that preserving that history—those histories, really—and our historic districts, is of great meaning to many.

Prompt #2 asks us to consider economic development vs. our commitment to history. In a nutshell, I believe these two things don’t need to be (nor should they be) framed as mutually exclusive. They can coexist.

Gadfly, you shared in a recent post the very thoughtful list of ten Community-Centered Principles for Responsible Southside Development put forth by Southside resident and former CACLV Director Anna Smith. These principles are, in my estimation, an ideal balance. In the interest of honoring the present needs of our community, the principles suggest supporting projects that incorporate locally-owned businesses; that create diverse, accessible, and affordable offerings; that include green and public spaces; and that encourage sustainable development practices. They suggest avoiding projects that cause displacement of long-time residents, low-income residents, and local businesses. In the interest of preserving our history, the principles encourage projects that blend with surrounding historic architecture in both design and size and prioritize development on vacant properties over demolishing historic properties. They reflect attention to both things: our responsibility to preserve history and our responsibility to serve the needs of our community today and into the future.

In certain cases, exceptions within an historic district have been made, and likely will be made again. But a valuable new project that requires a departure from any one of the agreed-upon guidelines can be asked to compensate by generously benefiting another. (Or perhaps it requires a departure from one of the guidelines because it generously benefits another.) If, for example, a structure is taller than standard, perhaps it incorporates more truly affordable and accessible housing. If its design departs from historic design guidelines, perhaps it actively supports locally-owned business with particular attention to the needs of residents. Or maybe it is a model of sustainable building practices, or it incorporates vibrant public and/or green spaces that are fully accessible to the wider community.

(It’s also worth mentioning here that thoughtful development exists, that change can have conservation at its heart. We’ve been fortunate to have seen it very recently in the redevelopment of the Masonic Temple and Wilbur Mansion. Regular readers of this blog know well the story of local teacher and nature advocate Jennie Gilrain’s fateful email to developer John Noble and his swift [pun acknowledged] decision to painstakingly preserve the building’s chimney in order to preserve the habitat of the birds within it. This is a shining example, and hopefully will inspire a local trend, in ethical development.)

I love living in a City full of history I can see; there is inspiration and significance in preserving what came before us and in being literally surrounded by it. The history of Bethlehem is part of what drew me here as a college student over 30 years ago. I value deeply that our City honors, with great pride, the landmarks that serve as a tribute to our origins, our resiliency, our path. It’s not just charm; it’s who we are.

I also love living in a City that innovates with creative vision for a vibrant and sustainable future for all of its citizens. A City that embraces its diversity, supports local business, and cares for its environment and those in need. That is invigorated by public art, green spaces, and walkable streets. That builds on its successes, learns from its mistakes, and keeps at its heart the well-being of every resident. All of these things are Bethlehem. Here, we don’t have just one or the other. We get to have both.

————

Residents are welcome to fashion reflections on candidate comments, sending them to ejg1@lehigh.edu. On Gadfly we seek the good conversation that builds community, so please be courteous at all times. Gadfly retains the right to abridge and to edit your reflections and to decline posts that are repetitive or that contain personal attacks. Gadfly will publish resident reflections on the week’s Forum at noon on Friday.

Gadfly mayoral forum #2: development

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

The Mayoral candidate comparison chart

Tip o’ the hat to candidates Reynolds and Grubb for helping us better understand their views, positions, and minds so that we can become better voters.

The candidate responses are presented in reverse alphabetical order this time.

—————

The prompt:

For 50 years as a writing teacher, I would say to students that the first thing you need to do is identify and imagine your audience. You know that you would give a different set of remarks to senior citizens in the commons room of a high-rise than you would to a lunch meeting of the Rotary. Last time I gave you a scenario. I asked you to imagine your audience as an anguished Facebooker who said, “They raised taxes in the middle of a pandemic?!” This time I would like you to imagine the scenario of addressing a highly emotional guy who needs to be “talked down,” a guy who during the current administration has witnessed and participated in such big “development” controversies as the Armory, Martin Tower, and 306 S. New, as well as such smaller ones as 2 W. Market, 1st Terrace, and 11-15 W. Garrison. Imagine talking directly to a guy who is a bit out of control, whose voice is quavering slightly, who may be prone to exaggeration. Have some serious fun doing this. How would you talk this guy you hear below in a perhaps not so fictional a scenario down into trusting your administration?

————

the scene:

— Steelworkers Hall, a chilly March night, not much heat in the hall

— a concerned resident steps to the microphone, generating some heat

Dana, Willie :

Thank you for your willingness to take on the tough job of mayor. And thank you for coming here to talk with us about your views on a variety of topics.

I have to tell you right off that my main concern is with the way development has been going lately. I think I speak for many in that regard. I see some people nodding their heads.

My vote is going to depend on what I hear from you on this issue.

Let me try to explain the dark place I’m coming from by remembering three specific moments:

  • First, when I picked up the morning paper at breakfast one day and saw that Wind Creek announced plans for a mammoth waterpark in historic Machine Shop #2. I lost my appetite. Yes, don’t laugh, I see you smiling, I did, I truly did. People were celebrating this as an economic godsend, but to me it felt so egregiously out of place to our town’s character and, well, brand, that I wrote a 6-word story on my napkin: “Southside: Stacks, Steeples, and (Water) Slides.” (Telling a story in 6 words, an interesting exercise, the most famous is Ernest Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) It felt like we were powerless. Rich arriviste Wind Creek could do whatever it wanted there.
  • Second, when Louis James, President of the South Bethlehem Historical Society, delivered a letter imploring (figuratively begging) the Mayor and City Council to consider the negative effects that development, that economic progress has had on the residents of South Bethlehem. A letter so polite, so diplomatic it was almost embarrassing. David tugging at the shirttails of Goliath. How was it that we went so far yet overlooked this sentiment in our community?
  • Third, when, compelled by an “existential threat” to their neighborhood, a group of residents came to the Town Hall podium turned soap box to announce the formation of “Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development.” Residents forced to mobilize to fight for the quality of their lives. How did it come to this? We have heard high-ranking City representatives talk of the danger of driving developers away. In this case we drove a Black family away from an ideal neighborhood, a neighborhood “racially and ethnically diverse, mixed income, stable, integrated, a healthy neighborhood of single-family homeowners and working-class renters, the kind of neighborhood where people know each other by name, shovel each other’s walks, look after each other’s kids, look out for each other.” How could we be so stupid?

The common denominator here is a feeling that outside forces, that economic forces are controlling our destiny, driving our decisions, encroaching on our neighborhoods.

I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve had this same feeling quite recently.

  • a developer was told 12 stories was too high, and, without so much as an acknowledgment of that fact, he came back the next meeting with a plan for 13
  • a developer lectured a caller — yes, a caller — a caller urging a Commission to stick to its guidelines, lectured that caller on the reality that “Economics is a huge factor in development today, if you [the Commission] say no, we can’t do it, it will never get developed, just pointing out facts here, it’s not going to happen.”

What did I hear? Entitlement. Condescension. Cocksurety. Power.

Who’s in charge, guys? The City or the developers?

It sometimes feels like we have nothing to do but follow the money.

It sometimes feels we do nothing but follow the money.

Now the recent regulation of student housing around Lehigh feels like a step in the right direction.

Tell us, how do you see the relationship between the City and developers?  How will your administrations maintain a proper balance between our rights and needs and theirs?

Sorry, I took so much time. But I had to get this off my chest. Thank you.

Thanks for your service, and your willingness to serve.

—————-

J. William Reynolds

Bethlehem has maintained its high quality of life because of the public and private economic investment we have seen over the past 25 years.  Billions of dollars of investment have rebuilt our economy, expanded our tax base and provided jobs to thousands of our residents. Without that investment, we would be facing the very difficult financial decisions that most other cities have had to face. Without that economic growth, we would not be able to provide the high quality services that our residents expect and deserve. We may have even had to consider selling off our capital assets such as our water system. When the Steel closed, our public and private economy took a huge blow. It knocked us down, but we recovered thanks to the public and private sector working together to rebuild our city.

As we look at future development, we need to balance a series of interests. Does the project enhance the quality of life in Bethlehem? Where appropriate, does the project respect the history of our city? Does the project help achieve our goals of increasing affordable housing? Does the project need economic incentives to happen? Does the project help our small business community? These are just a few of the considerations and questions our community must collectively face as we continue to economically revitalize our city.

In order to redevelop the former Bethlehem Steel site, the largest brownfield in America, we needed to offer economic incentives. The cost was simply too high for anyone to take on without incentives. A question that arises every year is “Are the incentives needed?” A few years ago, with that question in mind, I created our Financial Accountability Incentive Reporting (F.A.I.R.) ordinance. Every year our Community and Economic Development releases a report on the effectiveness of our current economic incentives. F.A.I.R. looks to quantify the tax revenue and jobs that our incentives help to create on an annual basis. This is important information as we consider where to offer economic incentives in the future. We also must target our incentives towards community priorities (for example, a new grocery store tenant to replace Ahart’s in South Bethlehem as has been discussed this week).

As new development occurs, we must do everything we can to keep housing affordable for everyone in our community. Councilwoman Crampsie Smith and I have been working on an Affordable Housing Task Force with non-profit leaders, community service providers, and City staff to study the issue and offer potential policy recommendations.  We have an upcoming Community Development Committee meeting (3/23) where we will discuss some potential actions the City can take in the short and long term (the student overlay district in South Bethlehem is a good first step, but there must be many more).  A version of this Task Force must become a permanent structure in our community as the issue of affordable housing is affecting more and more Bethlehem families every year.

While the redevelopment and revitalization of our community has unquestionably been positive, there have been development mistakes in Bethlehem. Closing Broad Street, the Rooney Building on the South Side, and other examples of urban renewal are a few of the projects that I bet City leaders of the 1970s wished they had back. During my time on City Council, I have been impressed with the work of our Zoning Hearing Board, Planning Commission, and Planning Department in making sure we avoid the mistakes of previous eras. There are still, of course, moments when development ideas need to be altered to fit into the context of appropriate development for our community. Recently, a proposal to put a 135-foot-high building on S. New Street (40 feet higher than the 3rd and New building across the street) came before the Historic Conservation Commission.  Thankfully, the Historic Conservation Commission encouraged the applicant to come down in height. Their strong feelings on the issue were almost certainly going to be mirrored by the Planning Commission and City Council when faced with the same opportunity to weigh in on a building that was 135 feet high. There are multiple governmental entities that publicly discuss, consider, and decide if a project is appropriate and congruent with the historical context, priorities, and goals of our community. This system of checks and balances is essential if we are going to continue to produce high quality development projects.

When a project comes before the Planning Commission, Zoning Hearing Board, etc., future Administrations may be able to do a more effective job of communicating City Hall priorities as they relate to the project. How does the project reflect city planning goals? What did the Planning Department push for that they didn’t get? Why weren’t those potential changes included in the final project? What are the environmental challenges that the developer is facing with this project that influence the final design? Often times, it is challenging to understand the various factors that affect the practicalities of a project. Explaining those various moving parts in a complicated development project should be a priority for City Hall moving forward.

We want people to invest in our city.  There are still hundreds of acres of the Bethlehem Steel brownfields that need to be redeveloped.  We have to work with those who want to invest in our city while balancing the various priorities of our community. It is a delicate balance and one that the City has maintained since the closing of the Steel. It is also one that we must continue if we are going to keep rebuilding and revitalizing our city.

————-

Dana Grubb

Dear Gadfly,

Make no mistake about it, we need development to help grow the tax base in Bethlehem. It helps with maintaining a reasonable tax rate so that the real estate tax burden

doesn’t overwhelm property owners, particularly homeowners. However, development must be compatible and appropriate for the neighborhoods and areas in which it takes place.

Some background first.

Although my focus as a city employee and administrator came more on the community development side, my single greatest role probably came during my participation as a lead negotiator with Bethlehem Steel on Tax Increment Financing negotiations and obtaining a HUD Section 108 Loan. Both have been used to create the SteelStacks campus, make renovations to the Stock House Visitors Center, adapt the Hoover-Mason Trestle and construct the Levitt Pavillon, expand adjacent parking lots, build the Southside Greenway, and complete the construction of the public road system and the installation of public infrastructure.

In addition, alongside City Councilman Mike Schweder, City Historic Officer Christine Ussler, representatives from the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, and City lawyers, I participated in crafting the ordinance that created the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation District, which is now a National Register Historic District.

As the city’s Grants Administrator, I provided oversight on the CDBG-funded Facade Improvement Program and the Fund for Revitalization and Economic Development, and administered the revolving loan fund to which repayments were made.

So, my work experience on the economic development side of city government is extensive.

It is frustrating to watch as development proposals are embraced by City administrations at the expense of quality of life for residents, in detriment to the charm and ambience of our neighborhoods and business districts, and in direct contradiction of City ordinances.

Developers may see the city’s Southside Conservation District as an opportunity to be taken advantage of; additionally, the Southside District does not seem to be as highly-respected as is the Bethlehem Historic District on the Northside.

I have attended live and virtual meetings of the Historic Conservation Commission to reinforce what I know to be the intent of of the Ordinance that created this particular National Register Historic District. I am amazed at the ways in which proposals for demolition of historic properties and for the construction of tall buildings have become routine. I would think these developers conduct their due diligence so that they understand the zoning and preservation requirements. Yet they still make outlandish proposals, often with a compromise in the back of their minds that still doesn’t comply with City ordinances.

They seem to think that the Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines are aspirational but not applicable. They are wrong. Scale, height, and mass of new development are relevant. The continuity of a streetscape matters. And, yes, development can still take place that respects the already existing built environment.

So, as Mayor how will I handle these situations?

In my administration, proposed projects will stand on their own merit, not the size of campaign contributions or any other potential inducements.

I am not soliciting nor am I accepting campaign contributions from the large developers who dominate Bethlehem’s development scene.

As a City Councilman, my opponent has made it a habit of accepting these kinds of contributions: based on the available data from his campaign finance reports, those contributions totaled more than $26,000 as of the end of 2020.

As Mayor, when a proposed project is brought to my attention, I will have a series of questions and checklist for the developers of those projects:

  1. How will your project benefit Bethlehem and the neighborhood in which you’re locating?
  2. Have you met with the surrounding residents and property owners? How do they feel about your project?
  3. How many and what variances will you be seeking? Are you in compliance with all city ordinances?
  4. What if any assistance do you need from City Hall?
  5. Are your taxes current on all of the real estate that you own in Bethlehem? Are your properties in good condition and code compliant? We want to make sure that you are a responsible property owner.
  6. What are the parking needs for your project, and how will they be addressed? Are you stressing an already existing short supply of parking?
  7. What is the environmental impact of any proposed demolition and/or the actual project?

The informed answers to these questions will determine the level of support that a developer receives from my administration.

The attitude surrounding development needs to be changed in Bethlehem. Yes, economics are a part of the development equation, but that must not come at the expense of quality of life for Bethlehem residents, and certainly not as a result of compromising city ordinances.

Developers will find me a willing partner as Mayor if they engage residents and others affected by their proposals, are a good citizen of the community, and show respect for what already exists.

This city can do better, it must do better, and so I ask the voters to believe that it can be better and to “Believe in a Better Bethlehem.”

—————

Residents are welcome to fashion reflections on candidate comments, sending them to ejg1@lehigh.edu. On Gadfly we seek the good conversation that builds community, so please be courteous at all times. Gadfly retains the right to abridge and to edit your reflections and to decline posts that are repetitive or that contain personal attacks. Gadfly will publish resident reflections on the week’s Forum at noon on Friday.

Getting to know the candidates, sing along with Gadfly

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

click to sing along:

Reminder that we hope for responses to Gadfly Forum prompt #2 on “development” today at noon (the mayor candidates) and tomorrow at noon (the council candidates).

Please check us out.

Gadfly has given the candidates a couple prompts from hell.

The idea in this Forum is, of course, that (especially over the span of a few weeks) the candidates (especially the new faces) have an opportunity for you to know them better and for you to have an opportunity to get to know them better — and to compare them right there in front of you.

But is anybody arranging Zoom events where we can see the candidates “on stage” together, where they can both talk at some length and engage in some back-and-forth?

That would be sooo good.

Gadfly has fond memories of such a “live” event at Steelworkers Hall before the primary two years ago, remembering that he was so proud that we had so many candidates all there together and who spoke so very well.

Gadfly has yet to hear of anyone scheduling something like that. Please prod the organizations most likely to do it. Please alert him if he’s missed an announcement.

The May 18 election day may feel a long way off, but Gadfly has been thinking that “mail-in” ballots will probably be going out in about 3 weeks.

Now the dynamic may be different than last November. Less urgency to vote maybe. More people with shots feeling comfortable with in-person voting maybe. Less worrying about social distancing while standing in line at the polls maybe.

However, the Gadflies have signed up for (ha!) in-perpetuity (and beyond death) mail-in voting and probably will be filling out the ballot pretty quickly after receipt before it gets lost in house clutter. Maybe many more “super-voters” like us around.

It would be interesting to know how that dynamic will work out and how/if it will change campaigns, which probably traditionally did full court presses in the days close to Election Day.

Candidates: please keep Gadfly apprised of events where he can cover you, please use Gadfly when you have something valuable to get out to the public, please alert him if you want him to use different pictures, and so forth.

Wilhelm reflects on Gadfly Forum #1

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

Good morning-

Having been given the opportunity to offer a brief reply to Tuesday’s post, I simply wanted to say thank you to my fellow candidates for participating in this experience; it was clear to me that everybody put heart and thought into their answers, and spoke to their unique perspective. This very first forum gave us opportunities to go in a number of directions with our responses. I particularly appreciated the fact that several of us expressed, in similar terms, the nuance, complexity, and challenges that can surround decision-making on Council—and even that we can question our decisions sometimes. And that ultimately we will, all of us, strive to return to what we believe is best, for the greatest number of Bethlehem residents, as possible.

Kiera

The Word of the Day: “BLARNEY”

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

The Mayoral Forum #1
The comparison chart

The Council Forum #1
The comparison chart

A wise head just advised the Gadfly that there is a meaningful distinction between “bullbleep” and “blarney.”

Hmmm, something to think about.

Well, over the past two days our candidates for mayor and our candidates for City Council dished out a lot for us to think about on the Gadfly Forum

What did you see?

With hope, not a lot of either bullbleep or blarney.

But, rather, thoughtful responses to prompts on the City budget.

Gadfly suggested to the candidates that Wednesday and Thursday be days in which they can add to their statements or respond to each other.

And he’s saving Friday at noon for your comments.

Please take advantage of the opportunity to talk back to the candidates.

Even a cursory review of the candidate  comments shows that they took the homework assignment quite seriously.

We need to repay them in kind.

We need to show them that we are paying attention.

We need to show them that we are taking our votes seriously.

Events like the Forum happen virtually nowhere else.

We are fortunate for the opportunity to engage in some depth with our candidates.

This is conversation that builds community.

So Gadfly is looking forward to comments that he can post Friday.

And that’s no blarney,

Gadfly council forum #1: the budget

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

ref: Announcing Gadfly candidate forum
ref: Gadfly forum starts today at noon
ref: Gadfly mayoral forum #1: the budget

Welcome to the second stage of the first week of the Gadfly Forum!

Yesterday we heard from the candidates for mayor, and we hope we will do so each Monday at noon as we run up to election.

Today — and we hope each Tuesday at noon as we run up to election — we hear from candidates for City Council.

The idea is to know as much as we can about the candidates so that we can be the most informed voters we can be.

Gadfly presents the Council candidates here in the order in which their responses were received in Gadfly headquarters.

Tip o’ the hat to the candidates for participating!

————

The prompt:

Good People: Bryan, Grace, Hillary, Rachel, Kiera

‘Tis said that the most important job of City Council is approving the budget. The Mayor proposes, Council disposes. Budgets demand setting priorities. Budgets require hard choices. Choices that often need to be explained to a questioning public. We’d like a window into your thinking about budgets by focusing on a specific complex issue that came before Council last November, and thus in which some of you were involved, and which issue, frankly, gave me pause.

Walkable and bikeable cities are “in.” “Green” is in. The idea of a pedestrian/bike bridge over the Lehigh had been percolating for several years. The idea of such a bridge had substantial support, among individuals, from several dozen community organizations, and the business community. The idea had gained $100,000 in outside support toward a feasibility study. The issue before Council was committing $40,000 of City money toward that feasibility study.

I am a walker and biker, I was enthused about the possibility of a study as the first step toward the reality of a bridge on the other side of it. But remember that this was a pandemic year, a year in which, as the Mayor said, the City got a “punch in the gut” and was, for instance, in an $87m budget eliminating 4 firefighter positions and raising taxes 5%. Serious cutting. Serious increase. So I could not easily discount Councilman Callahan’s view that, though he supported the idea, money spent on the bridge now was a “luxury” and should be put off.

The Gadfly blog covered the heated conversation on this issue, familiar, of course to you incumbents, but with which I encourage you new candidates to gain familiarity by scanning  through pedestrian bridge under Topics on the blog sidebar.

There are good arguments on both sides.

In Gadfly you will find such arguments to eliminate the $40,000 from the budget as it is only putting the study off for a year, such projects should be paid for by private not public money, much more pressing needs (necessities) could be found for that money (trees, sidewalk repair, ADA ramps), and it simply looks bad in the current economic climate.

Defenders of the study made such arguments as the long-range economic value of a bridge, the long-time concerted community support and effort, the outside support, the minuscule impact on so large a budget

We’d like to know how you incumbents thought through this issue. We’d like to see how you new fresh-eyed candidates think through it. I should say that your thought process is perhaps more important than your conclusion. How did you frame the issue? What reasons carried the most weight? The bridge feasibility study is in the past. We’re interested in a sense of how you will approach the next hard choice. We’re interested in how your mind works.

Thanks for your service, and your willingness to serve.

————-

Kiera Wilhelm

Thank you, first of all, for inviting us to participate in this forum! Your blog provides an energetic and prolific source of information around so many important happenings in this City we love, and I’m grateful for the thoughtful platform—both as a reader, and now as a contributor.

Your prompt contains many rich topics, and I enjoyed the opportunity to consider all of them. The primary question you posed, however, focuses on budgeting: in particular, the complexity of making difficult decisions around budgeting. And in particular, the ways in which each of us approach/will approach such matters. I hope this response provides some insight into my approach to complex scenarios such as the one you posed; how I “frame” such things.

As Councilperson, one is charged with the task of doing research; it is an integral part of the job. (But especially as a new Councilperson—not having been privy to all previous conversations, documents, debates, community conversations, etc.—it is particularly incumbent upon us “non-incumbents” to invest the time required to information-gather.) Whether by reviewing documents and data, viewing or listening to previous Council meetings, or seeking feedback from members of the community and/or Council who participated in the matter at hand, we must approach all Council matters with as much information and insight as possible. In fact, I did many of those things in preparation for this post.

Budgeting matters can be complex and nuanced. The case of the pedestrian bridge—and the discussion around eliminating $40K from a pandemic-strapped budget—is no exception. With this in mind, we then ask questions like:

-What stage is the project in? Have financial and logistical commitments already been made, by the City and/or other entities?
-Does the project already enjoy wide support from multiple constituents?
-What impact does the investment have relative to the budget at large? Is it a large percentage of the total budget?
-What negative impact, if any, will the expense have on other areas of the budget?
-What negative impact, if any, would a one-year delay have on the project, or its existing funding?
-What is the scope of potential positive impact of the project, economically or otherwise?

I am aware that in the case of the pedestrian bridge, the research—copious research—had been done, over many years. The project was unanimously supported by Council and enjoyed wide support in the broader community. $100K in county and state funds had been secured. It has already been deemed a worthy project with anticipated positive impacts on local economy, the environment, public health and safety, tourism, and access/equity. It is with all of these factors in mind that Council ultimately voted to keep the funding allocation in the budget.

For what it’s worth, I am one of those members of the community who supports plans for the bridge—for these reasons, and more. Gadfly, your November 16, 2020 post captures the very “human” experience of moving through a City on foot, or on two wheels, or via public transportation. I know this experience, having spent 14 years living in Cambridge, MA—a city that actively engages with the iconic river that runs between it and neighboring Boston; a city in which public transportation is normalized and widely used by all; a city that actively supports and promotes walking and cycling. And now that I am back in Bethlehem, I am fortunate to live and work Downtown, and can engage with our City in a similar way. It unequivocally contributes to my quality of life. Increasing these opportunities for our residents stands to benefit our City and so many of us in it, in ways quantitative and qualitative alike.

————-

Bryan Callahan

The most important thing that residents need to understand is that there are basically just two ways our City can generate additional revenue to pay our bills. The first is to

raise taxes and fees on all the existing properties and property owners in the City. The second way is through smart economic development, by taking an empty lot or rundown property that has a very low tax assessment and then building something on that lot that has a much higher tax assessment/higher taxes paid by the developer, when the project is completed.

The new projects on 3rd and New St (The Benner Building) and the 510 Flats building on 3rd St. are great examples of the latter. The 510 Flats building was an empty stone parking lot forever that paid a couple thousand dollars in taxes per year. The 3rd and New St (Benner Building) was an empty lot for over a decade and also paid a very small amount of taxes due to the fact both lots were empty with no buildings of any value on them. The two developers invested close to $30 Million each into both of those sites and are currently each paying close to $300,000 per year in taxes.

My point in bringing this up is, I’d much rather prefer to increase everyone’s property values in our City than raise taxes on existing property owners. Every time the City raise taxes on existing property owners, we make our City less affordable for lower and middle income residents.

This is even more true for renters. The bottom line is that the owners of rental units are in business to make money on a long-term investment. They are not investing their money into the rental units to lose money. Thus, whether you want to believe it or not, every time the City raises property taxes/fees, the owners of the rental units don’t absorb the additional taxes/costs. The owners of the rental properties are only passing those costs on to the renters. If you are renting in our City, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Bethlehem is becoming unaffordable to live in for many because we keep raising taxes instead of promoting more smart economic development.

When I ran for council 8 years ago for my first term, I promised to keep Bethlehem Safe and Affordable. I have fought hard on Council to try and make needed cuts in a bloated permits and zoning department and to hold the line on taxes by promoting smart economic development. In 7 years I voted 6 times against raising your taxes. Why? Because every time I’ve been asked to vote to raise your taxes, I think of the parents of my old Kaywin Avenue friends and neighbors who still live in the same middle class ranch homes on the West Side. They are all retired now and living on fixed incomes. They don’t live extravagantly, they love Bethlehem and what it has given them. They pay their bills but because of continued yearly tax increases, they struggle to be able to even afford a simple week vacation each year.

If Bethlehem is going to stay as the cultural center of the Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania, we will have to continue to support smart economic development on vacant and condemned properties so we can hold the line on taxes for our current residents and let the developers generate the new tax revenue needed for increases in wages, retirement, and health care costs.

This year I was stunned when my fellow City Council members voted 6-1 to raise your taxes 5% in the middle of a World Pandemic and to cut 4 Fire public safety positions. I was the one and only vote against it!

———–

Hillary Kwiatek

Approving the city’s budget is indeed a weighty responsibility of the City Council. It can also be a thankless task, as there are bound to be people who are upset regardless

of which way you vote during good times or bad. If I am elected, it will be my responsibility to seek the most complete information possible, including resident input, and join that with my own inner compass of what is in the best interest of the city and my fellow residents.

It is not my style to take a decision in the heat of a particular moment. I will develop a deep knowledge of what each line item in the budget represents so I am prepared to make those tough choices. This can’t be accomplished over a few meetings once a year, so I expect I will be very busy digging in and learning about everything the city does

When I reflected on whether I would have approved the $40,000 allocation for the pedestrian bridge feasibility study, I first looked to see where the funds would come from. As it was money from the capital budget, I knew that it couldn’t be used for ongoing city operations and therefore wouldn’t have impacted city services during a difficult year.

I also recognized that Bethlehem’s financial participation in the feasibility study was our “skin in the game” in response to the $100,000 provided by the Commonwealth and Northampton County. During my 10+ years of fundraising for institutions like the Allentown Art Museum and PBS39, I worked on projects that involved partnerships between nonprofits and governments. Whether seeking federal or state grants, we were always required to demonstrate our commitment to the project by providing matching funds. So, I knew that putting Bethlehem funds into the feasibility study represented not only the city’s commitment, but also a show of respect for the willingness of other government entities to share their own money toward a city initiative. These are important relationships that we should consider when making decisions as well.

As someone who criss-crosses the river regularly to walk between home and work, I think a pedestrian bridge is an awesome idea. But my own personal preferences aren’t among my top criteria. A council member can’t only vote for projects they like or would personally get use from. We’re a diverse city with diverse viewpoints and needs. For any major undertaking, I would want to listen to residents, business owners and other stakeholders from impacted neighborhoods.

This particular project emerged from city residents themselves who dedicated years to building a coalition on both sides of the river. Business owners and other major institutions also weighed in with their opinion that the bridge would serve as a community and economic asset.  For me, that matters a lot.

Finally, as a city, Bethlehem has shown remarkable resiliency during some of the most challenging times. We have done so by looking to the future not with blind hope, but with plans and determination. When The Steel shut down, we moved forward, diversifying our economy through heritage tourism, business incubators, micro-distilleries, and adaptive re-use of our brownfields. We dwell alongside our colonial and industrial ancestors, but we aren’t defined by them.

Yet we remain a city divided, not solely by a river. So, that last gut check for me, after putting in the research and listening to the community, and understanding the context of relationships, will be to ask: Will this project help us move forward as a whole community? Will the result invite all of our residents to more fully take part in the life of our city?

If I can answer that with a firm “yes,” then I am likely to vote aye.

————

Grace Crampsie Smith

I remember when I was running for council my family members and friends who were in political positions always said, “as long you vote your conscience, you’ll be

fine.” As a counselor, it is vital to look at the total picture and consider all perspectives. While not easy, I have made every effort to vote my conscience, consider all perspectives, and vote for that which I believe to be in the best interests of my constituents and my city.

Having lived in poverty at times as a child and being a student of the free/reduced lunch program, I learned early on in life the value of a dollar and, consequently, have been quite fiscally conservative throughout my life. This is why the most difficult votes this past year were certainly the budgetary votes.

While I supported the pedestrian bridge in the past, I thought to myself how could I dare support monies toward a feasibility study during a pandemic. A pedestrian bridge is an ideal concept. However, is it really necessary? Ultimately, I made my decision to support the study based upon the fact that monies from the study could not be transferred to an area where it would make a significant impact, many of our community members put forth much effort and time into securing the grants for the study, the grants were time limited, and I directly saw the significant, positive economic and social impact the pedestrian bridge in Jim Thorpe had on that community and beyond this past year. I also consulted with my brother who was County Controller and had a role in making that bridge become a reality.

I really agonized over the budget as a whole — tax increase, new stormwater fee, loss of 4 firefighter positions. So, I met with the mayor and administration and expressed my concerns. I asked the tough questions and based upon the answers decided to do an amendment to the budget to reinstate the firefighter positions. Unfortunately, I did not get the votes to support that. The stormwater fee had been in the works for some time and was a necessity. I proposed a tier fee system such as Carlisle recently implemented. I negotiated with administration, and they came back with an appeal system for those who find the fee a hardship and for those who take measures to offset stormwater runoff.

While my heart breaks for the many individuals and families that suffered financially due to the pandemic, the city also suffered a significant financial blow, and the tax increase could not be avoided — unless of course we waited and then were forced to implement a much larger tax increase next year. I felt it best to do an increase this year vs a much more significant one next year.

Overall, I still have some doubts re: my budgetary votes, but that is the nature of the beast, and I will continue to vote my conscience knowing that often votes can be quite heart-wrenching.  Did I make the best decisions during these budgetary votes?  I still question if I did and probably always will. Ultimately, I made the decisions I thought needed to be made at that time, and I must live with that and move on.

I will continue to vote my conscience and consider all perspectives!

————

Rachel Leon

Looking into City Council’s previous discussion of the pedestrian bridge provides insight on how the current council approaches citizen-driven initiatives. Council’s focus has

been on economic and aesthetic issues related to the bridge, which are important, but I think we need to bring the issue of accessibility and safety into the conversation.

During a time of economic uncertainty, a bridge may, at face value, seem to be an unnecessary expense. But this issue does not concern me for two reasons. First, there are many grants for infrastructure that can be used to pay for the construction of the bridge, and these funding opportunities may increase as the federal government devotes more money to infrastructure in coming out of the economic downturn related to the pandemic. Second, a bridge that connects pedestrians to restaurants and businesses on Main Street and leads to the restaurants and businesses that also exist in South Bethlehem will encourage more exploration of what our city has to offer. Although I believe a pedestrian bridge will be of constant value to our community, I think it will really shine during our festival season. Musikfest is, in the words of Mayor Donchez, an economic engine. A pedestrian bridge would also become an attraction to visit as festival goers move from one portion of the city to another. The bridge would be a real investment in the economic future of our city.

The bridge is important because we have an increasingly pedestrian population in Bethlehem. Many choose to walk for environmental or health reasons. But it is important to note that others walk because owning a vehicle may not be practical or even possible. When I returned to Bethlehem from my time in service,*** I was without a vehicle until my household goods were delivered. As a pedestrian, I quickly learned how dangerous the walks to and across the bridges can be. Specifically, the New Street (Fahy) Bridge at peak hours is so loud that it is difficult to hear another pedestrian or cyclist behind you trying to pass. While cyclists can share the road with vehicles in some areas, they also ride in the walkways. This is often a safer option, given some tragic accidents that have occurred. Pedestrians on the bridge are also exposed to a lot of air pollution from traffic, and this is especially concerning to me when I think about younger residents who have to cross the bridge on foot every day to get to and from school.

One issue that I don’t think has been given sufficient attention in considering a new pedestrian bridge is accessibility. The walkways on our current bridges are on average 6 ft wide. Although this may seem to be ample space to navigate a crossing situation between pedestrians, I think it would be wise to consider not only our cyclist population but also the members of our community that rely on the use of motorized wheelchairs. The PA Department of Transportation manual governing highway design indicates that a 96 inch width is necessary for pedestrian facilities to comply with ADA standards. While there are some variations in width depending on other factors, that is still a two foot discrepancy between our current walking paths and what would be considered accessible by ADA standards. We have a large elderly population in our city, and anyone in a wheelchair should be able to enjoy traversing our beautiful city as a pedestrian. The current bridges do not really make this possible. Foot traffic is what our city needs to thrive economically, environmentally, and as a recognized destination for visitors. A bridge that connects people and businesses on the north and south side of the river while making it easier for people to get out of cars that create traffic and air pollution can add a lot to our city. Council should also support initiatives that emerge from residents, and this one has a great deal of resident support. The current bridges are also insufficient for meeting the ADA accessibility standards, and that problem will be addressed by a pedestrian bridge.

The more I dove into this topic, the more articles I read and audio clips I listened to, the more I realized that there is overwhelming support for this project. Even now, with everything going on, there is still overwhelming support. If our community is saying that this is where they want their tax dollars to go, and they have been loud and clear on this topic, then city council should listen.

*** I enlisted in the US Navy after high school keeping with a family tradition of commitment to service. I spent 10 years as an Operations Specialist/Air Intercept Controller. I was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, and served on an Arleigh Burke-class Destroyer. I returned to Bethlehem in 2017 and am now a full-time student at NCC majoring in Global Studies with a concentration in Environmental Studies. Since my time in service, I have become an environmental advocate and a non-profit organizer.

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Residents are welcome to fashion reflections on candidate comments, sending them to ejg1@lehigh.edu. On Gadfly we seek the good conversation that builds community, so please be courteous at all times. Gadfly retains the right to abridge and to edit your reflections and to decline posts that are repetitive or that contain personal attacks. Gadfly will publish resident reflections on the week’s Forum at noon on Friday.

Gadfly mayoral forum #1: the budget

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

ref: Announcing Gadfly candidate forum
ref: Gadfly forum starts today at noon

Stop by the Gadfly each Monday at noon running up to the election to find, with luck, our mayoral candidates responding to a Gadfly Forum prompt on a significant subject designed to help you make informed voting decisions. And look for Council candidates contributing to the Forum, again with luck, on Tuesdays at noon. Let’s make it a date each day!

The prompt:

Willie and Dana, we’d like a window into your thinking about the City budget. In this case, all we have is a rear window. As mayor perhaps your most important responsibility is handling our money wisely. Mayor Donchez memorably declared that in 2020 the pandemic “delivered a punch in the gut” to City finances. Consequently, in the 2021 budget, the City eliminated 6 positions, including a controversial 4 positions from the Fire Department, and raised property taxes 5%. Now we can agree that when it comes to budget trimming, nothing is easy. But many of us thought public safety virtually sacrosanct. We can agree that raising taxes is as pleasant for the residents as having teeth pulled, but our neighbors Allentown and Easton held steady. So I’d ask you both to please reflect on the 2021 budget. Willie, you proposed no amendments, so can we assume that you agreed with the Mayor’s proposal? Dana, you were not on the hot seat like Willie but no doubt had your mayoral spectacles on. What were you guys thinking with that proposal on the table? To focus your response, perhaps imagine that you were addressing that equally memorable anguished Facebooker who said, “They raised taxes in the middle of a pandemic?!”

Thanks for your service, and your willingness to serve.

[This prompt was also sent to John Kachmar when we learned he was in the race. John is running unopposed on the Republican side and may not participate in the Forums. This budget topic, however, is “key to [my] decision to run.” he says, so he has joined this Forum.]

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Dana Grubb (D)

Dear Gadfly,

Let me begin by urging everyone to remember that those who voted “yes” on the 2021 budget, including my opponent, also supported the inclusion of a stormwater

fee AND salary increases of between 10.4% and 23.3% for seven (7) positions in City Hall.

I am appalled that anyone would support further burdens on city taxpayers during a pandemic when so many are experiencing financial distress.

As both the Acting Director of Community & Economic Development and Deputy Director of Community Development, I coordinated the department’s entire budget. Bureau heads who reported to me in the deputy position will tell you that my review of their budgets was the toughest they faced: I treated the taxpayers’ money as if it were my own tax dollars.

As Grants Administrator, I was involved with various departmental budgets and the Non-Utility budget to ensure that grants were accounted for accurately. I am the ONLY Democratic candidate for Mayor with that kind of budgeting experience and acumen.

As Bethlehem’s Mayor here is how I would have approached this year’s budget.

First, no stormwater fee without a separate series of public hearings outside of the budget timeframe so that taxpayers and any stakeholders could learn about stormwater fees and weigh in on whether or not the City should implement them. Only then would it have been considered.

Second, how can anyone justify to struggling taxpayers double digit increases in salaries of 10.4 %,11.2%, 11.8%, 11.9%, 12.2%, 20.9%, and 23.3%? My opponent approved these as well.

I will restore the former practice of listing each classified city position by grade and step in the budget, for clarity and transparency.

Next, I would not have cut four (4) firefighter positions from the budget. There were other positions inside city government far less critical to the health and safety of city residents which could have been modified or eliminated: this would have been part of my overall plan to reorganize and streamline city government operations. These efforts would result in more than enough money in the budget to keep the firefighters at full strength without a tax increase.

Finally, City Councils of prior years told administrations that they would not accept increasing real estate taxes. Historically, council gives the administration the opportunity to make the necessary cuts in the budget before they weigh in on it, because of the administration’s familiarity with the budget. The 5% increase in the real estate tax in the current budget, which my opponent approved with his “yes” vote, would have been a perfect opportunity for him to tell the administration that he would not support a real estate tax increase, and urge them to find the money expected from the proposed increase elsewhere. However, he did not, and with his “yes” vote exhibited the “go along to get along” mentality that offloads the fiscal burden onto the taxpayers, rather than those whose job it is to ensure fiduciary efficiency and accountability.

In summary, as Mayor I would have proposed no tax increase, no cuts to the firefighters and no salary increases that could not be proven affordable. Additionally, only after a separate non budget related review of the stormwater fee would I have been ready to make a decision on it. The COVID pandemic’s effect on many taxpayers’ finances would have driven my final decision, which would have been to wait at least one year if a stormwater fee were mandated.

I’m not sure whether it’s my opponent’s budgeting inexperience or “politics as usual” mindset, but none of these items in this year’s budget were warranted or necessary, and should have been challenged. Bethlehem can’t afford rubber stamping budgets.

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J. William Reynolds (D)

Gadfly, let me start by thanking you for the venue to talk about Bethlehem and our future! In these difficult times, it is great that there is a place for a conversation about our city.

One of the highlights of the year for me is budget time. As a city, one of our tasks is to deliver services — police, fire, EMS, water, and sewer, to name a few – to the residents of our community. We need to deliver these services in the most effective and efficient way possible. During budget season (generally five two-to-three-hour budget sessions that I know you attend religiously!), Councilmembers and the public get to hear about all of the accomplishments of City departments over the past year as well as goals and priorities for the upcoming year.  As our department heads present their budgets, it is always educational and wonderful to learn how much is accomplished on a day to day basis.

As a community, we want governmental jobs that possess salary compensation levels (as well as pension and health care benefits) that attract the best applicants and lead to a high retention rate (which the City of Bethlehem does year after year). It is our job as elected officials to make sure the City is financially healthy enough to keep our promises (contracts). Those promises include being able to continue year after year to provide salaries, pension, and health care benefits that provide a consistent, reliable, and stable source of income for our employees, retirees, and their families. As a Councilmember and a citizen, you learn very quickly how much of our budget is fixed. Personnel costs make up about 80 percent of our budget, which includes those salary, pension, and healthcare costs (the other 20 percent include building energy costs, paving materials, etc.)

As a Councilmember, I can tell you it is very difficult to add anything responsibly by the time the proposed budget is released. With that in mind, I have learned that in order to locate funding (or state or federal grants) for an initiative, it is a twelve month long process. Working with the Administration and my colleagues, that year long budget engagement process has allowed for funding of initiatives that I have introduced including our Climate Action Plan, NorthSide 2027, and Open Bethlehem (more to come on that in a bit). That same process of collaborating with the Administration and Council colleagues leads to worthy community initiatives like the Bethlehem Food Co-op (how about that location in the middle of NS2027?!) accessing grant opportunities and funding for their projects. While that funding was included when the budget was released in November of 2020, the hard work is done throughout the year (including grant applications discussed and approved at Council meetings), thus often minimizing the need for “amendments” at the last minute.

You might remember during the budget hearings that I asked the question, “How much revenue do we need to find every year for our personnel costs above and beyond what we had the previous year?” The Administration responded with an estimate of two million dollars. That two million dollars covers contracted salary increases, mandatory increases in pension contributions, health care increases, etc. That is a sobering number when one wants to fund anything new. The Administration provided a graph that showed despite the fact that our workforce has decreased in the last ten years from about 670 employees (2010) to about 600 employees (2021), our budget has increased by almost 15 million dollars. It is our responsibility as elected officials to keep our promises to our current (and retired) city employees. The only way to keep our promises is by being financially responsible every year with the budget. How do we do that? We work with our Administration throughout the year to see increased costs on the horizon. We find ways to save money when we can. We avoid taking money out of our fund balance (like our savings account) to pay recurring costs (such as salary). We also trust our department heads and bureau chiefs when they say “This is what we need to provide the services to the City of Bethlehem residents who pay taxes.”

We also must continue our economic development efforts which provides revenue to help offset annual contracted increases in pension, health care, and salary. It is only because of our incredible economic redevelopment success over the past two decades that our city has been able to avoid many of the difficult economic situations almost every city in Pennsylvania has had to make.

I have definitely learned that one can easily avoid making difficult decisions on a legislative body. It is always easier to criticize than it is to offer actual, responsible solutions. That is why, year after year, every budget includes one or two things that a few people aren’t enthralled with. Responsible alternatives, however, usually do not materialize. There are, of course, irresponsible alternatives. Picking those options, however, isn’t what responsible elected officials do. Irresponsible short-term decision-making leads to long-term financial pain that leads to cities selling off assets (like water systems), borrowing to pay for operating expenses (and increasing debt), and breaking the financial security promises to their employees and retirees. Responsible elected officials think about the financial picture five, ten, or twenty years down the line. A few years ago, I launched Open Bethlehem, an initiative that makes our budget more transparent by allowing residents to follow on a daily basis our budget through our open data portal. Open Bethlehem can be accessed through our city website, and I encourage residents to check it out and take a look at the real-time breakdown of our revenues, expenditures, and budget cost drivers.

Bethlehem has always had a history of financially responsible elected officials. It is part of the reason why our community remains a city with a high quality of life. Our bond rating is currently the highest it has been in decades. Our pension fund year after year is healthier than almost any other mid-sized city in Pennsylvania. As we continue to redevelop and revitalize our economy, our five- and ten-year financial models show a city poised to continue its upward economic trajectory. When the Bethlehem Steel closed, our community could have gone two ways. Thankfully, through leadership and responsible financial planning, Bethlehem has continued to be a community where people want to invest, live, and raise a family. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about Bethlehem! Keep the questions coming Ed!

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John Kachmar (R)

In my 35-year career, I have constructed 28 budgets submitted to City and County Councils or Commissions, the majority of which were to full service government

John Kachmar (R)

entities. (I have specifically advised 6 separate local governments on their budgets in Lehigh County PA, MN, MD, SC, and 2 in GA ).

Good budgets are readable and transparent. What decision makers and citizens usually see are final-approved budget documents. If I were to rate Bethlehem’s on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being most readable and transparent, 1 being not at all), Bethlehem’s budget gets a 5 or 6. Definitely not the worst I have ever seen but hardly the best. I will save my comments for the general election on how “things” can be improved but will comment on this budget year.

First, this year’s budget (2021) contains a 5% property tax increase plus a new $3 million dollar Stormwater fee. This is Bethlehem’s 3rd tax increase in the last 4 years. The stated rationale for this 2021 tax increase was for revenues lost as a result of the pandemic as well as a requirement to feed the pension systems of the city. I am deeply disappointed by the decision to increase Bethlehem ‘s property taxes in a pandemic year. I also have many questions about the Stormwater fee execution. Most importantly, I have serious concerns about the financial health of our city given the quick succession of 3 property tax increases in the last 4 years. My concerns were heightened after seeing the city’s independent audits of the past several years and the alarmingly high ($60 million plus dollars) amounts of unfunded liabilities in pension and post-retirement health care costs. Something is radically wrong here. I believe I know how and why this is happening, but once again I will save that discussion for the general election.

The STORMWATER FEE . . . . . . . Experience matters. I have previously instituted a Stormwater utility in another governmental entity. We invested 24 months to create a Stormwater fee that was fair to all property owners in a lowlands geographic area. We conducted multiple public hearings. We distributed pamphlets to every land & home owner, sharing the science of how the fee was constructed. Public neighborhood meetings were held to explain the need for the fee. In stark contrast, Bethlehem instituted a $3 million dollar fee program during a pandemic with next to no citizen input and a platform of non-visibility involving online meetings. This is bad form, any way you look at it. Stormwater management has traditionally been funded out of the city’s general fund. Why change the revenue source now?  It appears that the City is looking to hide the new fee. Although there is a rational for user fees, the approach rushed through in Bethlehem was not “transparent.” Citizens are going to get “hit’ with this new fee in their water bill. As I visited with Bethlehem residents while getting signatures for petitions to run for mayor, I asked them if they knew about this new “fee.” Only 1 in every 10 or so households knew a new fee was coming. The city stated that it was a “state mandate,” but this is a half-truth. The State may have approved the allowability of the fee, but they did not order the City to implement it. This is the kind of selective/deceptive communication we need to rid Bethlehem of once and for all. I never witnessed this City being untruthful growing up here. We all deserve to know the whole truth.

FIREFIGHTER POSITIONS -BUDGETED CUTS . . . . . . . Bethlehem is a historic city with many dwellings dating back over a hundred years. Therefore, fires are a real threat.

There are several organizations that recommend “standards” when it comes to manning-levels based on responding equipment (i.e., vehicles and types of firefighting vehicles, etc.). The generally accepted norm is 4 firefighters per piece of equipment. In my discussions with firefighters, I was told we only average 2 firefighters per responding vehicle. If that is the case, cutting firefighters seems to be reckless. We need to look elsewhere for cost reductions that do not endanger public safety. Cutting employees is a quick and easy way to lower costs, but it leaves the remaining employees worried about the stability of their employment. I want firefighters to have good morale when they come to our citizens’ rescue. Once again there are ways to bring budgets in line. I have 35 years’ experience doing so.

My fear is that a lack of competent, financial decision-making and the lack of transparency of our city’s budgets is masking/ hiding unpleasant surprises that lurk around the corner and may create real future financial harm for all of us in this great city.

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Residents are welcome to fashion reflections on candidate comments, sending them to ejg1@lehigh.edu. On Gadfly we seek the good conversation that builds community, so please be courteous at all times. Gadfly retains the right to abridge and to edit your reflections and to decline posts that are repetitive or that contain personal attacks. Gadfly will publish resident reflections on the week’s Forum at noon on Friday.

Gadfly Forum starts today at noon with mayoral candidate comments on the City budget

Latest in a series of posts on the Gadfly Forum

So, we’re doing this feature called the Gadfly Forum.

With luck, we may have something going every day of the week at noon during the run-up to the May 18 election.

Gadfly’s excited!

The candidates will get a chance to let loose a bit.

And we can weigh in too.

Here’s a bit more about how it will work if a sufficient number of candidates and residents will participate.

Gadfly will pose a prompt each week on the same general subject (help him, send suggestions of topics or questions) to the candidates. Mayoral candidates reply Mondays, Council candidates reply Tuesdays.

Wednesdays and Thursdays respectively the candidates can reply to each other or expand on their responses.

During this whole period, you are invited to respond, and I’ll collect those responses for posting on Fridays.

To begin, we look for participation in the Forum by the mayoral candidates today at noon.

Their prompt is related to the City budget.

A good place to start, no?

Are you on board??????

Announcing Gadfly candidate forum

Latest in a series of posts on candidates for election

March 9. Ok, all candidates for office in the May 18 election have to file by sundown (or is it midnight?).

Gadfly saw on Facebook that Kiera Wilhelm filed her papers. Did everybody else get the required number of signatures and complete the other paperwork? I hope so.

Unless some signatures bounce or other documentation is found wanting, we have the fields for Bethlehem mayor and City Council positions.

And remember that the winners in May are de facto, because of Bethlehem’s one-party  dynamic, the winners in November.

Willie Reynolds and Dana Grubb for mayor. See comparison chart here.

And Bryan Callahan, Grace Crampsie Smith, Hillary Kwiatek, Rachel Leon, Adam Waldron, and Kiera Wilhelm for 4 seats on Council. See comparison chart here.

Gadfly has always said that one important part of his mission is to provide the kind of information that would help us cast informed votes.

It’s time to reflect on the basis for our votes.

Yard/street signs? I saw a Van Scott sign over the weekend. Legal? I thought there was some set date for the beginning of the sign barrage. I’m not sure the sign epidemic has been officially unleashed yet.

But signs can get you name recognition, and name recognition can get you elected.

Not the way it should be.

Gadfly got a laugh during public comment at City Council early on in his tenure by detailing his reasons for voting for the good councilors in the previous election.

He voted for Adam Waldron because Adam made a great impression on his porch during a neighborhood canvas, for Michael Colon because Michael struck up a pleasant conversation with him outside a polling place, for Paige Van Wirt because she was fervently endorsed by a colleague, for Shawn Martell because his Dad gave jobs to his kids at the Boy’s Club, for Bryan Callahan because he knew Bryan’s nephews as great wrestlers from matches against a grandson, for Willie Reynolds because he was a neighbor and a runner who would run half-naked through our back alley to his great delight (and runners are always good people), for Olga Negron because she had a reputation for being a cross between Mother Teresa and Muhammad Ali.

Colorful as they are, there isn’t one good reason in the bunch. Sigh.

We need to do better than that. We need to know what these candidates stand for, what they believe, what they want to do.

And Gadfly has tried to help, especially on the current office holders who are running. If you’ve been following, you can find much information as well as audio and video clips of the incumbents during their term of office. You should have a sense of them in action.

But some of you long-time followers might remember one other thing Gadfly did in a previous election to help us get to know the candidates in a meaningful way.

In the May 2019 election, 7 people were running for 4 Council seats.

Gadfly invited them to participate in a forum in the weeks leading up to the election. 6 of the 7 did so. Each week for 7 or 8 weeks he gave them a prompt to which to respond. The same prompt. And then he published the responses to each prompt together so that followers could easily compare. (See sample here.)

6 of the 7 people running for Council were unbelievably cooperative and responded to all of the prompts, creating a significant collection of portfolios on which we could do comparison and contrast, on which we could make informed judgments. (The candidate who did not participate did not win a Council seat, not that Gadfly would have you see causation there!)

That forum two years ago went really well. Gadfly followers really appreciated and valued deepened knowledge of the candidates. And the candidates got another channel for getting their “messages” out.

So Gadfly would like to do this again for this election.

He has invited all the candidates to participate.

He would like to post the mayoral candidate responses at noon every Monday beginning next Monday March 15. He sent the first prompt out to Willie and Dana yesterday.

He would like to post the council candidate responses at noon every Tuesday beginning next Tuesday March 16. He will send out the Council prompt to candidates later today.

Gadfly could use your help formulating the prompts. What do you want the candidates to talk about? You could send Gadfly the topics you’d like to see raised in the prompts, or even the exact questions you’d like to see asked.

All this is voluntary. Gadfly doesn’t know who will participate. The forum could be a bust. But he knows from experience this forum can be valuable, and he urges you to urge the candidates to participate, and he urges you to tune in each week and weigh their contributions.