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.

———–
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.]

————–

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.

———–

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!

————

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.

————

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.