A modest proposal: the more the merrier

(2nd in a series of modest proposals)

Gadfly has been reading back through distant past meeting minutes and newspaper archives and has noted in passing that there seemed to be a time when, for instance, the executive director of the Bethlehem Parking Authority attended Council meetings.

Gadfly’s not sure if that was on a regular basis or just special occasions.

But it struck him that some such attendance and reporting would be a good idea.

And not just the Parking Authority but all the “independent” authorities: Redevelopment Authority, Housing Authority, Bethlehem Authority. Maybe even the Environmental Advisory Council and Backyards for Wildlife that are identified under “Authorities and Boards” on the City web site. Maybe even important players like BRIA.

As the unofficial official representative of the public, Gadfly hungers for information.

Maybe Council needs information too. Council members might receive minutes from meetings of these groups, and that is good if so. But some personal contact would be better. There is a Council liaison to the Parking Authority (there may be liaisons to other Authorities, not sure), for instance, but he has not attended a meeting as far back as the publicly available minutes December 2017, though he has said he keeps in phone contact with the Board chair. A couple months ago there was some question about an action by the Redevelopment Authority when “no one” from Council was there.

The City Council meeting is “our” only regular, centralized, top-level meeting. It is the public face of city government.

Gadfly wonders if the City Council meeting could be thought of (to change the metaphor)bicycle wheel as the hub of the wheel of City governance – the one place at which if a resident paid regular attention (now via tv!), he or she could have a reasonable understanding of what’s happening along the various spokes.

Hence, a modest proposal:

that the half-dozen or so “independent” Authorities be requested to attend at least two City Council meetings per year, once in the first six months and once in the second, to report on current activities and future plans and to receive comments and questions from both Council members and the general public.

(As the new year begins, Gadfly has been thinking of adding some new occasional yet regular features, such as this one called “Modest Proposals.” Things – even really small things – that we’d like to see happen. Gadfly invites you to contribute your modest proposals.)

The timeline of the strange separation (76)

(76th in a series of posts on parking)

Here is the timeline of the interaction among City Council, the City, and the Bethlehem Parking Authority that resulted in the split responsibilities for the naturally linked revenue streams of meter rates and fines discussed in the previous post. Gadfly’s sources were City files (tip o’ the hat to Tad Miller and Louise Kelchner) and Morning Call files (Dan Hartzell was the main reporter in the 1980s).

  • May 26, 1958: Kate Zoll Laepple begins a 7-part series in the Morning Call entitled “Bethlehem’s Parking Challenge,” identifying, among other things, the need for a parking authority to solve a parking problem so bad that one solution proposed was to use the flat area under the Broad St. bridge and build an escalator up to Main St.!
  • June 2, 1970: The Bethlehem Parking Authority is established, called “a key to the renaissance of the downtown” – its purpose to provide the financing for the Walnut St. Garage, which is completed in 1976. The BPA provides only financing; parking operations and enforcement stay within City Hall.
  • July 1988: New mayor Ken Smith’s “sweeping proposals to restructure city parking operations” include raising parking rates and fines, doubling the number of parking meters, eliminating the large annual subsidy of the Walnut St. Garage, moving total control of parking from City Hall to the BPA, and planning for two parking decks.
  • City officials recognize “new space will be needed if the city is to be in its best position to lure developers. . . . We stand to lose development as a result of the parking shortage.” They also recognize that “There will be significant opposition to more meters and increased rates and fines,” but “a much more realistic and financially self-sufficient parking system will be the reward.”
  • August 1988: City Council’s Public Safety Committee unanimously approves the administration’s recommendation to raise the penalty for overtime parking violations because fines are too low to provide enough incentive for motorists to obey parking regulations.
  • October 4, 1988: Mayor Smith’s plan to reorganize parking administration wins first-reading approval of City Council. Council members express concern over several aspects of the plan, including whether differences in policy between the authority and council might cause problems. But the vote on first reading is 5-0, with two members absent.
  • October 18, 1988: Mayor Smith’s parking reorganization plan is given final approval by City Council, but questions remain over whether the administration’s funding estimates for the program will be realized. Some Council members, especially Paul Calvo, are still choking on doubling the number of parking meters in the city. The administration proposes to deal with this potential problem by instituting a residential parking permit program. Calvo warns of the potential for trouble, saying that differences between the operating authority’s goals and council’s decisions on funding matters could result in some difficult situations.
  • November 18, 1988: The BPA announces it will recommend that City Council increase the cost of using city parking meters and expects to unilaterally raise the rate at the Walnut St. parking garage next year. While council approval is needed for meter rate increases, the authority has the sole power to raise rates at the garage.
  • December 29, 1988: BPA and City reach a “cooperation agreement” that spells out the roles and services of each party.
  • January 1, 1989: The BPA officially becomes an operating rather than a financial agency.
  • January 23, 1989: City Council’s Public Safety Committee votes unanimously to allow the mayor and not council to review and approve BPA requests for the location of new parking meters and the rates charged for using them. Committee member Calvo suggests this transfer of power, and city and authority solicitors determine that it would be legal for council to delegate control over meter location and rates. Calvo says he will vote against the addition of a large number of meters, but to subject authority requests for new meters to council’s review would be to jeopardize the mayor’s parking plan. Calvo says he does not want to be put in the position of turning down new meters or fee increases only to be told later that his action resulted in the authority being unable to meet its income projections. And the city must repay any parking fund deficit. Calvo says his motion was not a way to escape responsibility but rather an assurance that the mayor’s parking plan has the best chance of working. Councilman James Delgrosso suggests that, if the change is approved by resolution of council, the mayor be required to conduct public hearings prior to making decisions.
  • February 7, 1989: Council approves on first reading, by a 5-2 vote, an ordinance empowering the mayor as the final authority over the number and placement of parking meters and the rates to be charged at the meters. Council President Jack Lawrence dissents, believing the BPA should have the power, and Councilman Otto Ehrsham Jr wants to retain the current law by which powers are reserved for council. Proponents, including Calvo, deny the change is a move to reduce the political heat for the placement of the new meters and for the increase in fees for their use. Calvo says Council wants to give the mayor’s parking reorganization a chance to work. Calvo opposes the wholesale installation of new meters but does not want that opposition to be misinterpreted as an attempt to thwart the financial premises on which the reorganization is based. Smith readily accepts the responsibility for meter placement and rate-setting. Council and City Hall agree on a provision calling for public input into large-scale meter placement.
  • February 21, 1989: at 2nd reading, an ordinance transferring the power to locate and regulate parking meters and rates from council to the mayor passes 5-1. The ordinance requires a public hearing prior to either the installation of new meters or to any rate increase affecting more than 10 percent of the meters.
  • In all of these recent deliberations, nothing is ever said about changing the responsibility for the amount of parking violation fines, so that power remains with Council.

The strange separation (75)

(75th in a series of posts on parking)

Do you remember the controversy centered on the Bethlehem Parking Authority that sucked the life out of the last third of 2018?

Is the Walnut St. Garage going to be repaired or rebuilt? Is there going to be a Polk St. Garage? Are the parking meter rates and fines going to be increased? If so, what is the new revenue going to be used for? Does the BPA have a business plan? Is the BPA acting in a good faith, transparent fashion? Are there straight answers to anything?

At the core of the controversy, the BPA wants more money from its twin sources of income, meter rates and fines, which should march in sensible relation to each other, which should increase in tandem – fines, for instance, living 10-15% higher than the meter rate.

The Mayor approved BPA’s proposed meter rate increase. City Council, however, denied their fine increases. The reasons are complicated and the subject of the first 73 posts in this sequence. So now there is no symmetry between rates and fines. The meter rates went up January 1, but the fines did not. A situation the two sides will attempt again to resolve in the near future.

But the question for this ol’ researcher is, how did we get to a system where such naturally joined elements as parking meter rates and parking violation fines are separated – the mayor controlling the former, City Council with responsibility for the latter?

The question was asked several times during the course of the controversy in the latter part of 2018. You can understand why. If responsibility for the two revenue streams were located in one agent, either the Mayor or City Council, there would be no gnarled dispute.

Nobody really knew the answer to that question. The answer that this must be a separation of powers/checks and balances element consciously envisioned by “the Founders” didn’t seem to satisfy and, indeed, is not the answer. The answer is the complete opposite. Rates and fines were separated precisely to eliminate tension between the two “houses” of city governance not to enhance it.

Here, in a nutshell, is what ol’ Gadfly found researching both Morning Call and City Hall files. See expanded information in the timeline on the next post.

The Parking Authority was established in 1970 to finance the Walnut St. Garage. Financing was all that it did. At that time and continuing into the 1980s, parking operations continued to be handled by the City, and City Council continued to set the fee structure for meters and fines. In 1988, for what seem like various and good reasons, Mayor Ken Smith proposed sweeping changes, giving the BPA complete responsibility for parking in the city, though Council retained responsibility for setting the finances. City Council not only acquiesced to the Mayor’s radical plan but went further. Councilman Paul Calvo proposed also relinquishing responsibility for the number of meters and meter rates to the Mayor so that 1) the BPA could reasonably control its budget without interference, and 2) so that Calvo (and others) could argue and vote against the Mayor’s plan for increased meters without being accused of “political” bias. Calvo was quick to deny that he was trying to escape the “heat” from the public that the Mayor’s plan to double the number of meters as well as increasing the rate would likely generate. In any event, any political fall-out would be borne by the Mayor. Fines were not part of the discussion or the legislation [was that an oversight?], hence fines remained in control of Council.

Now we know why we have what everybody seems to believe is an illogical system.

Call it the Calvo plan.

(Paul Calvo was a teacher, accomplished athlete, successful coach, 25yr. member of City Council, and a Gadfly neighbor. He died only six years ago.)

Was Gadfly’s research just an academic exercise? Or does it have some utility?

Gadfly kept an open mind up to a certain point in the controversy, but he ended up thoroughly negative about the culture of the BPA.

The majority of City Council likewise had problems of a serious nature that led to their denial of the BPA fine proposal as a means of getting some answers to key questions.

Resulting in the current limbo situation, a situation that cannot persist for long.

One wonders, then, now knowing the rather arbitrary origin of the meter/fine split, whether City Council could, if it so desired, legislate itself back into full financial control in order to be able to completely “call the shots” where parking is concerned.

If Gadfly remembers correctly, the Desman consultant to the BPA indicated that this split is unique. We are alone in having such a divided system.

Should the system be unified again?

Should what might be thought of as a “delegated” power be revoked?

Can you say “no” to a developer?

(17th in a series of posts on City Government)

Followers might have noticed Gadfly wrestling a bit about how he should feel about developers.

Let me tell you a story.

Gadfly began shadowing city meetings one year ago, January 2018. He described it as “auditing,” as one might do in college, going from meeting to meeting getting a sense of what was going on in each.

He found the historic commissions most interesting of all. Sometimes bigger projects, but sometimes discussion and decisions were about the color of paint, the height of lettering, the script on a sign. Fascinating in the commissioners’ attention to detail.

Immediately in January he watched Philadephia developer Robin Reshetar pitch renovations for the Grace Mansion, 114 W. 4th. Having worked on the Southside, Gadfly knew the property well. There even used to be a restaurant there at one time.


The developer described his knowledge of and substantial portfolio in historical renovation. Conversations with commissioners was always cordial and thoughtful. Reshetar presented plans on January 22, February 26, especially April 16, where you can find great images of his proposed work.

Gadfly watched the commissioners work with national guidelines (the property has an historical designation) and local historical district guidelines.

Each time, Gadfly repeats, the interactions were cordial and thoughtful. The developer listened and came back twice with revised plans. The commission hesitated on his most developed plans, which included town houses. Take a look.

Gadfly wondered about past history with the property. He assumed that there had been other developers who looked promising but eventually disappointed. Here was one who looked very interested, who had invested in several rounds of plans. As I sat there on the sidelines, I worried that the commission was going to chase him away.

But they stuck to their principles.

And, yes, he disappeared.

I felt a sense of loss. I wondered how the commissioners took it. Would, then, the Grace Mansion continue to decay? Perhaps never to be saved. Would it have been better to bend a bit to save the place?

Must have been on some level a tough decision for the commissioners.

But they stuck to their principles.

And six months later another developer – Dallas Basha, only two years out of college — showed up and now renovation is moving along.

Nicole Radzievich, “What’s on tap for Bethlehem’s other Grace mansion?” Morning Call, November 20, 2019.

Historic Conservation Commission November 19

Lehigh University Brown and White

I’d like the moral of my story to be that you can say “no” to developers for the right reasons, and everything will eventually turn out ok.

Gadfly didn’t see a happy ending here.

A wind-fall from Wind Creek

(16th in a series of posts on City Government)

The Sands is changing hands. New Owners Wind Creek coming soon.

To tell the truth, the Sands has been invisible to me.

The Gadfly was aware of the hubbub surrounding its approval and construction. But did not feel especially involved one way or the other in the decision.

And he has not been involved since it opened. Though a regular at ArtsQuest/SteelStacks events, Gadfly has never been to the casino, never been to a show – maybe once or twice to the outlets, never even been caught in a traffic jam in the vicinity.

To tell the truth, Gadfly is hardly aware of the Sands’ existence.

So how should I feel about the fact that so soon after it started, the Sands is getting a new owner?

As I read the news stories yesterday, I could not help but remember CM Callahan’s claim at Council a couple of weeks ago that the Sands brings in more money for the City than the Bethlehem Steel Co did in its heyday.

He made me think that not only is the Sands invisible to me but the “good” it does for the City has been pretty much invisible to me as well – tax dollars that fund public services.

So maybe that’s where his thoughts should go when wondering how he should feel about the entrance of a new owner.

Because some serious money will be generated. One-time, not continuing. But a wind-fall from Wind Creek.

The City stands to gain a yet undetermined but significant amount of money from a “casino transfer tax.”

In fact, the City provisionally included $6m income from the casino transfer tax in the 2019 budget (see p. 278 – 7th column from the left).  Remember that is not a fixed number. It could well be considerably less. But the City will receive one-time income from the casino transfer tax when the sale is consummated.

Read down that 7th column and see what the City tentatively plans to spend that “extra” money on if it gets $6m.

When the exact amount is determined, the City and Council will have another conversation about the exact expenditures. But that list will give you an idea what’s on the radar.

For instance, Gadfly knows there are followers who will be glad to see $40,000 for a pedestrian bridge feasibility study and $50,000 for Rose Garden improvements.

So Gadfly guesses that he should be more aware of and appreciative of the benefit that this developer brings to the City.

Here are some links to bring you up to speed on the Sands/Wind Creek situation. Perhaps you will be amused as he is about speculation that there might be a water park on the old steel property. Now that might get Gadfly to break out some old 60s demonstrator duds and posters and take up a battle station on the Minsi Trail Bridge.

Timeline: “It’s been 10 years since the Sands Bethlehem opened: Here’s a timeline.” Morning Call, January 15, 2019.

Five key takeaways: Nicole Radzievich, “What we know about Sands buyer’s plans for Bethlehem Steel property.” Morning Call, January 16, 2019.

Main story: Nicole Radzievich and Jon Harris, “Sands Bethlehem casino buyer pitches $190 million investment, second hotel on Steel land.” Morning Call, January 15, 2019.

Video interview with new owners: Lehigh Valley Live

Public comment: “What they’re saying about Wind Creek’s plans for Sands Bethlehem casino.” Morning Call, January 15, 2019.

BPA-time again! (74)

(74th in a series of posts on parking)

New year. Girding my loins, as they used to say in the old days, for the first meeting of the Bethlehem Parking Authority.

Look at the number here. Gadfly devoted 73 posts in the old year to the BPA.

And didn’t come away unscathed. He was gruffly told he couldn’t question the Board at one meeting. And after another meeting the ticket machine in the parking garage ate his credit card.

Don’t mess with these guys.

They have powers.

I missed the December meeting. They changed the time twice, and I couldn’t make the 3rd time.

So I’m not up to speed on the latest developments.

But here’s what’s on my list:

  • It looks like the parking meter rates did go from $1.00/hr to $1.50/hr on January 1.  I don’t remember seeing any fanfare. Did anybody? Did I miss? For I understood there was to be a publicity roll-out, including keeping the old rate till June 1 if you used an app. Is anybody griping about the 50% increase? Did it go down smoothly?
  • The Mayor promised that the Redevelopment Authority would provide Council with a timeline of their involvement in the Polk Garage saga. I wonder if that happened.
  • The BPA is to meet with Council about funding options for Polk in the first quarter of this year (January-March). So we’ll be looking for that to happen.
  • Decisions about the fines are to happen at the time of the funding meeting as well.
  • The mayor included several things, like investigating variable rate parking, when he approved the meter rate proposal. So we’ll be looking for the status of those things. See the mayor’s letter to BPA:  Mayor Parking Meter Rate Increase.
  • Gadfly was to investigate when and why the strange system that splits responsibility between rates and fines between the mayor and Council started. Gadfly does have info on that which will be coming soon (shameless tease).

Have I forgotten anything?

Anybody have concerns?