“Makes no sense to me” (73)

(73rd in a series of posts on parking)

The parking system in Bethlehem: the mayor has responsibility for meter rates, the City Council for fines, and the Bethlehem Parking Authority for the parking lots.

Councilman Callahan

“When the Parking Authority was created, who came up with the rules that the mayor takes care of the meters and City Council takes care of the fines. . . . Who made the rules and how could they possibly be changed?”

Mayor Donchez

“I think the answer to your question is that I really don’t know. But what I assume is this. The Parking Authority used to be within the Police department, and I think we are probably talking about 1960s or early 1970s. It was removed, set up as an independent Board with an executive director hired by the Board to be less political and having all the tickets fixed within City Hall. And I think that the key reason was the Authority could take out bonds. I would think that when they established the Board, they came up with the trifecta, which makes no sense to me, to be very honest with you.”

Councilman Callahan

“I don’t agree with the structure. . . . I have no idea how it came up. . . . I don’t know if it can be changed or whatever.”

Sounds like homework for an historian to me.

Never totally satisfied (72)

“Now that it sounds like we are going to be tabling the fine increases. Are you still going to direct the Parking Authority in terms of the meter increases as of January 1.”
Councilman Colon

“The answer is yes.”
Mayor Donchez

So Gadfly had a feeling of substantial satisfaction about the handling of the gnarled parking issue at last week’s City Council meeting.

The Mayor outlined what is, in effect, a business plan on the Polk St. Garage, a good in its own right, but the main specific request of City Council in what President Waldron called the “infamous” set of questions posed to the BPA.

Great!

The one puzzling piece of last Wednesday’s action, however, was leaving in place the January 1 inception of the meter rate increases.

Everybody knows the rates and the fines need to work in tandem. There was plenty of discussion at the meeting of what will happen negatively if they are not in tandem.

Mainly complaints to City Council!

Councilfolk Colon, Van Wirt, and Waldron each brought it up. January 1 is an arbitrary date. The rates don’t have to go up then. We should work together on timing, said Van Wirt.

But the Mayor said yes.

I’m surprised nobody pushed him. I don’t understand why nobody pushed him.

What would a few months matter?

Why consciously court the kind of absurdity that Councilman Callahan repeatedly depicted, no matter how short the time?

Doesn’t make any sense to Gadfly.

The nasty interpretation: Public and business blowback will be directed at Council, who has responsibility for the fines, and such blowback is a backatcha by the Mayor and BPA for Council’s actions.

The benign interpretation: BPA had planned a soft opening of the new system, which wouldn’t really, really go into effect till June 1, so maybe the perturbation of the system is not seen as severe as has been forecast.

Gadfly just doesn’t understand why – during the Era of Good Feeling at the meeting – this last detail was not nailed down.

Gadfly also hopes that the examination of Variable Rate Parking doesn’t disappear and hopes that a detailed plan for studying it will emerge at the BPA meetings with Council early and mid-2019.

“Good conversation builds community” (71)

“Most things can be explained. . . . We could provide this information clearer.”
Councilman Reynolds

Gadfly believes strongly in the above tagline for his project.

The major process take-away for him from following this parking issue for several months is the need for better communication all around.

Some randomly organized thoughts about communication during this process, seen, of course, from Gadfly’s necessarily outside and possibly ill-informed perspective – and meant to be helpful:

  • The Parking Authority does not know how to “speak” to the public or even to City Council. Gadfly said at a BPA Board meeting that they need a public relations person. They had an enormous and no doubt competent parking study, but the tailoring, the transmitting, the marketing, the communicating of that study to important stakeholders was not tended to.
  • At the last City Council meeting, the Council liaison spoke of “numerous discussions” recently with the BPA Board chair, but Gadfly doesn’t see that there was a channel for those discussions to the rest of Council. Maybe there was; Gadfly is not aware of how Council members interact outside of meetings.
  • If Gadfly is not mistaken, according to the published BPA minutes going back to December 2017, the Council liaison has not attended BPA meetings.
  • If Council has liaisons to all the Authorities, do they periodically “report” back officially to Council? Gadfly believes there was recent reference to a Redevelopment Authority meeting where something important happened. And “nobody was there.” The whole general issue of announcing meetings, posting agendas, publishing minutes has to be tightened.
  • Gadfly, admittedly on slim observation, wonders about the “involvement” of BPA Board members. The chairman is an “institution” (nearly two decades on the Board), and Council liaison’s “numerous discussions” were solely with him, outside of Board meetings. Are the fresh new voices on the Board engaged? Or is the BPA power vested in one person?
  • It was not possible for Gadfly to communicate directly with BPA Board members. And some BPA leaders were not responsive to interaction with Gadfly.
  • Gadfly found the Mayor’s report and demeanor at the last meeting refreshing and reassuring. Gadfly felt the need for more of that. This will sound strange, but Gadfly found himself reflecting that he doesn’t hear from the Mayor much. There is little in the way of “reports” at City Council meetings. He is a kind of a “quiet” Mayor. Ha! Which, all in all, I think may be a good trait. But there are times when we need the firm voice of the leader.
  • the “trifecta” system – mayor responsible for meter rates, Council for fines, BPA for parking lots – though theoretically it might be seen as a mechanism for the trifectors to talk with one another, doesn’t seemed to have worked well.

The “parking issue” is not over, but Gadfly thinks there will be some quiet time for a while. Perhaps one or two more posts on it for now, and we can move on.

What’s behind the votes? (70)

(70th in a series of posts on parking)

We know that the vote was 6-1 in favor of indefinitely tabling the BPA proposal, but of as much interest as the final tally should be the reasons supporting the votes.

So here Gadfly gives you text and video windows on the main commentary preceding the vote. CM Callahan was the lone “no” vote, so we should pay special attention to his position as we judge the “ayes.”

Gadfly will post an overview reflection on the meeting and the decision in the near future, but in the meantime he invites you to engage with each of the positions and see where your opinion falls. With the video you can almost be there.

Councilman Reynolds

CM Reynolds framed the specific response to and specific questions he asked of the Mayor that Gadfly reported on last time with refreshing comments about what Gadfly would call communication problems. Reynolds pointed out the confusion and frustration some felt was created by lack of transparency and context. He expressed belief that all things could be properly explained but that “we” (the City) need to provide information in a clearer fashion. On the “large scale decisions,” it’s the administration’s job, not BPA’s, to “stand up” and articulate goals and rationale. Gadfly found those welcome sentiments and believes what the Mayor presented was aligned with those sentiments – a step toward better communication.

Councilman Callahan

CM Callahan was the lone “no” vote and he makes some good points. The video link is to Callahan’s initial and main comments, but Gadfly has added in points he made during two other comments.

  • The disparity between the meter rates and the fines will cause diminished parking turnover and more expenses for the BPA and will create a serious issue for the BPA that will inevitably become an issue for Council.
  • If Council action to deny the BPA proposal is for “leverage” against the BPA, that is a political act and not for the good of the City.
  • By the “rules” (everybody agrees the “trifecta” rules over responsibility for different parts of the parking system don’t make sense, and nobody seems to know who made them up!), fines should be tied to the rates. The Mayor made his decision, we should follow.
  • Denial puts the non-profits in a very difficult situation. They took a gamble situating there. They were promised a garage. Lots there are being bought up; there is no additional space. Some lots are on a 60-day vacate notice. The non-profits could face a situation where there is no parking, and it would take 16 months to build a garage.
  • Denial is basically telling everybody to not follow the rules. The whole point is to obey the law. It makes no sense to have a fine less than what it would cost to park. Some people simply won’t follow the rules.
  • We will eventually support a parking deck. BPA has provided a path to pay for it. There is no taxpayer money. The garage is paid for by people who use it. The only risk for the taxpayer is if BPA defaults, but BPA’s “financials are fine,” and they could get funding on their own but at a higher rate without City backing.
  • BPA as a whole supports the garages. Nobody has $20m to build a garage. The Walnut and North St. garages were not built with their own funds. The money came from the BPA as a whole.
  • He thinks that BPA sees tabling as politics and recommends voting not tabling even if the result turns out to be for denial. BPA is in to parking not politics. BPA was reading the “tea leaves” when it suggested tabling as ok.

Councilwoman Van Wirt

CW Van Wirt made 4 points:

1) The rates don’t have to go up January 1. We should work together on timing. Everybody understands the problem with rate and fine disparity, but rates do not have to go into effect January 1.

2) If BPA finances are so great, we should not have to be raising rates on backs of taxpayers. Authorities were created to leverage their own debt and not put it on the taxpayer. It’s ok for BPA to get their own bonds, taking risk off taxpayers, and if their finances are in good shape, they can pay the higher rate

3) The Walnut St. Garage is in the Central Business District, so there is a viable reason for City to provide financial support. Moreover, the Walnut already exists so that if it needs to be replaced, that’s a logical use of the money and of taxpayer-backed debt.

4) She’s hoping that CC and BPA can work hand in hand. They are stronger together. Being open and transparent gets things done faster and better. And everybody ends up more satisfied.

Councilman Waldron

CM Waldron was the clean-up man. Everybody agrees fines have to be raised. This is the first opportunity for Council to be part of the conversation of what parking means for our City. It makes sense to ask BPA what their 1yr goal, 5yr goal, and overall idea of parking within the City is. Polk is the “hot ticket item.” It is understood that the meter rate increase goes toward Polk and the fine increase to Walnut. But Walnut dollars are not needed right now, and “ultimately getting a full plan on what Polk St. will be, a timeline for that, what the funding will look like, is the best approach.” CC asked for a business plan and didn’t get it, so there’s not a lot of confidence in BPA long-term planning. It feels like they are making it up as they go because of lack of information. Maybe lack of communication rather than lack of planning is the problem. Tabling is the right move now and Council will approve fine increases when appropriate.

Video by Owen Gallagher

A big step toward clearing the air about the Polk St. Garage (69)

(69th in a series of posts on parking)

The Mayor’s statement (5 mins.) video
Mayor on BPA 11-07-18  text
Councilman Reynold’s follow-up to the Mayor (12 mins.)  video

So let’s pick up the long-awaited meeting of November 7 in which City Council considered the Bethlehem Parking Authority’s proposal to increase parking violation fines in tandem with the Mayor’s previous approval to raise the parking meter rates. This meeting came after the BPA answered a series of questions asked by Council. Council voted 6-1 to table the fine proposal indefinitely. The meter rate rise will still go into effect January 1.

Gadfly felt good about this meeting. He left the meeting with a feeling of satisfaction. He felt progress.

But Gadfly welcomes judgments of the many wise heads in attendance.

Remember that Gadfly had said that for him Polk St. haunted this whole process. So many ambiguous statements.

Remember that Gadfly asked the BPA Board directly, “is the Polk St. Garage going to be built?” And was told unambiguously by the bulldog bodyguard BPA solicitor, “Nobody interrogates the Board”!

Well — answer to Gadfly’s prayers — the Mayor went right to sole focus on Polk.

The Mayor – without being asked to make a statement – immediately created a positive atmosphere through a 5-minute prepared statement focused on the previously enigmatic Polk St. Garage in which he provided important background in addition to setting a timeline for key future developments. All exactly what Gadfly had been missing.

There was no kumbaya, but the interaction between Mayor and Council was calm and business-cordial. The Mayor and the strong majority of Council (and even the BPA) were agreed on the “table indefinitely” option. There was never doubt of passage. The one negative voice was strong and given plenty of time to articulate his position. All good.

For Gadfly, this meeting took a big step toward clearing the air of the cobwebs around this whole process that have enveloped him for the last 30 or more posts in this long thread.

Mayor on BPA 11-07-18.

From Gadfly, kudos to the Mayor for his clear, concise statement of where the Polk issue has come from and where it is going. His statement is linked above, transcribed from an audio recording. Gadfly hoped to have a copy of the Mayor’s actual statement to post, but it did not come in before press time. Take a look for yourself. Gadfly always suggests going to the primary source and forming your own opinion.

Also, especially, for a feeling of being there, check out the video of the Mayor presenting his statement.

Here are a few key bullet points from the Mayor:

  • The first concrete step on Polk St. happened in 2014 through the Redevelopment Authority.
  • The RDA project stalled, and BPA was given responsibility for the project in 2015.
  • In early 2017 the Mayor asked BPA to conduct a comprehensive parking analysis as a prelude to capital projects.
  • Attempts to secure land from the Sands were unsuccessful till plans for selling the Casino in early 2018.
  • BPA approved an agreement of sale in September 2018.
  • The goal for beginning construction was the mid-2019.
  • Construction should take 16 months.
  • The meter and fine increases are needed for Polk St.
  • The BPA is exploring financing both with and without City guarantee.
  • The Mayor has asked the RDA to compile a complete timeline of their involvement.

The Mayor was organized, provided chronology, provided facts – provided understanding.

Had Gadfly purring like a kitten.

Councilman Reynolds then completed construction of Gadfly’s Era of Good Feeling by asking direct follow-up questions and getting direct answers (see the video of Reynolds here):

  • Yes, there is an agreement of sale for 3rd and Polk.
  • Construction should start mid to ¾’s 2019.
  • Construction should take 16-18 months.
  • Yes, the increased revenue is needed for Polk.
  • BPA will discuss options for funding with Council early in 2019.
  • Possibly, BPA funding may not need City guarantee.
  • But even if not, BPA will discuss funding with Council.
  • The fine proposal will be taken up again when funding is discussed.
  • That meeting will take place in the first ¼ 2019.

Clarity. Transparency. Timeline.

Pretty damn close to the strategic plan the Council letter asked for.

Now, here’s the only hitch Gadfly could see. Councilman Colon asked the Mayor if meter rates were still going up January 1, thus causing, if so, a skewed proportion with the fine structure that will remain static till later into 2019.

The Mayor said yes.

Meter rates going up though fines remain static.

Gadfly doesn’t understand that. And we’ll return to this point later.

We live in a Fallen World (remember, Gadfly moonlights as a philosopher-theologian weekends), is all he can say.

Can’t have everything.

Video by Owen Gallagher

BPA fines proposal on hold (68)

(68th in a series of posts on parking)

Ok, is this the way you saw it?

Here’s the bottom line: City Council last night voted 6-1 to table indefinitely the Bethlehem Parking Authority’s proposal to increase fines, an action that BPA even suggested. The motion can be taken off the table at any time, and the legislative process will start over. The meter rate increase will still go into effect January 1 as planned. Mayor Donchez made his longest statement yet (which we hope to publish here) about the history of Polk garage planning and promised more info early next year. All agreed something will eventually have to be done about the fines. In a related development, Council voted 4-3 to deny re-appointment of the bulldog bodyguard BPA solicitor who famously told Gadfly that “Nobody gets to interrogate the Board” during a meeting, then also attempted to thwart his questions after a meeting as well.

The discussion of the fine proposal was long and very interesting. Gadfly will return shortly with a more extensive description and some analysis – and video.

For now, Sara’s article will fill you in nicely.

Sara K. Satullo, “Why Bethlehem is holding off on hiking parking fines.” lehighvalleylive.com, November 8, 2018.

Bethlehem City Council is holding off on a request to hike city parking violation fines until it can get more information from the city’s parking authority. A majority of council was reticent to back the ordinances that would hike the fines on first reading Wednesday evening and voted 6-1 to postpone them indefinitely.

Donchez said the authority wanted more time and planned to come back to council in early 2019 to discuss the fines and the financing options for a new parking garage planned for the corner of East Third and Polk streets. The authority is now exploring whether it will finance Polk Street independently or with bonds backed by a city guarantee, Donchez said.

“There’s not a lot of confidence currently in what is the long-term plan for the parking authority,” Council President Adam Waldron said. “It kind of feels like they are making it up as they go.” Waldron noted that’s likely more reflective of poor communication, rather than poor planning. Waldron emphasized that parking authority Executive Director Kevin Livingston himself requested the matter be tabled, which was echoed by Donchez.

Councilman Bryan Callahan, who is the liaison to the parking authority, adamantly opposed postponing votes on the measures indefinitely. He argued at length about how crucial it was to hike the fines and the meter rates at the same time. Otherwise, long-term parkers are likely to roll the dice, not pay the meters and risk getting a $10 fine, he said. This will hurt businesses that need meters to turn over, Callahan said. “All we are voting on is a ticket fine, not the Polk Street garage,” he said. “They (the authority) are willing to wait until we get our act together. They’re into parking. They’re not into politics. They get a mandate from the mayor. The parking authority director works at the will of the mayor.” He criticized other council members for using the fines as “leverage” over the authority and making them political.

The mayor does plan to still make the parking meter rate hike effective Jan. 1. Councilwoman Paige Van Wirt suggested the Jan. 1 date is arbitrary and the city could opt to hold off on raising meter rates until council is ready to pass the fine increase. Donchez did not respond to the suggestion during the meeting.

Councilman J. William Reynolds said council is hoping to bring more transparency to the discussions and more public understanding about the relationship between a city and its authority. He pressed Donchez to lay out a vision and be clear on the impetus for some “large scale decisions.” “The administration’s job is to stand up and say, ‘This is what we think is best,'” Reynolds said.

The mayor reiterated how crucial the Polk Street parking deck is to the ongoing redevelopment of East Third Street in South Bethlehem and to the success of Northampton Community College, The Factory, St. Luke’s Health Network and Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts. NCC and Charter Arts have committed to 265 spaces in the garage.

The mayor reiterated how crucial the Polk Street parking deck is to the ongoing redevelopment of East Third Street in South Bethlehem and to the success of Northampton Community College, The Factory, St. Luke’s Health Network and Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts. NCC and Charter Arts have committed to 265 spaces in the garage.

There’s a lot to chew on in this latest parking chapter. Been a busy week. The Planning Commission meeting today on 2 W. Market was riveting as well. So Gadfly has a lot to catch you up on.

Not “under the surface” any more (67)

(67th in a series of posts on parking)

Just last night Gadfly wrote: “There’s actually quite a bit of drama going on. But yet it’s under the surface. The news [regarding the parking issue] hasn’t really been covering this process in any intensive way. The town isn’t on the edge of its seats.”

Seems not to be under the surface any more.

Sara Satullo, “$800K in tax funds given to luxury apartment developer draws scorn in Bethlehem.” lehighvalleylive.com, November 7, 2018.

Gadfly is not exactly sure what to make of this at the moment. The situation has corners Gadfly has not explored yet. And Gadfly’s day is chock-full.  No time for much contemplation.

Does this change the dynamics of tonight’s meeting at all?

Gadfly is putting it out there to you to think about.

Here are some quotes from Sara’s article that jumped out at him:

Some Bethlehem City Council members were surprised to learn last week that a prominent city developer was awarded an $800,000 grant out of a tax fund they thought was almost empty. The same developer is a member of the investment group the Bethlehem Parking Authority is paying $2.1 million to buy land for a new city parking garage. And it left them wondering: If the city’s tax increment financing district fund had $800,000 in it, why wasn’t it put toward the cost of a new city parking authority garage planned for the corner of East Third and Polk streets instead of going toward private development?

“At the time we made the decision to fund Five10Flats, there was no discussion about the garage,” Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Tony Hanna said. “I’m not saying it’s not a legitimate question to ask, but it is a little late.”

“The Peron grant marks the first time TIF funds were awarded to a taxable, private development. Five10Flats also sits in the City Revitalization and Improvement Zone.”

[CRIZ, by the way, is chaired by the bodyguard BPA solicitor you have heard about here on Gadfly.]

“The money is there to spur development, not to enhance the private development that is already happening,” [Councilwoman Van Wirt] said. “It is not like this project was going to stop when it was already underway. It was already being done.”

“It was exactly what the TIF was intended to do: site remediation,” Hanna said Monday, noting the award was made in a public meeting. “We spent money on some appropriate issues.”

Questions surrounding the grant are interwoven with council’s questions about the future of parking and economic development incentive benefits in Bethlehem. It’s left some on council wondering about who benefits from the deal and if there were better uses for the money.

“I did not think there was money available,” Councilman J. William Reynolds said. “I was under the impression from the last couple of years that the parking authority was tasked with coming up with a plan for a Polk Street garage because there was no money left for the RDA to do it.”

Hanna sees the questions about using the grant for Polk Street as a bit of Monday morning quarterbacking. “Nobody asked me that question,” Hanna said. “We made the decision to fund Five10Flats as a standalone discussion. That was never on the table that the parking authority could use another $800,000.”

One of the most sought after properties in the TIF is a modest parking lot at the corner of East Third and Polk streets where city leaders have long envisioned a parking deck anchored by retail.

The plans date back to the Callahan administration when the redevelopment authority was spearheading the project. That authority spent almost $1 million designing and gaining city approval for the almost 600-space deck.

But plans stalled when a ground-lease deal for the property petered out and the authority began to question whether enough new projects would be built in the TIF to support an almost $13.3 million garage. The redevelopment authority and NCC have secured $2.5 million in state grants for the deck.

The redevelopment authority then handed over the project to the parking authority, which finally just inked a $2.1 million agreement to buy the land from Sand BethWorks Retail LLC, the development group that includes the Sands and Perrucci.

At one time, the Sands was supposed to sell the land for $1, Negron said, and now she is learning from meeting minutes that the parking authority bought the land.

“I am very frustrated because they keep making decisions without coming in front of us and then they come to us as if we have no other choice but voting in favor because the parking authority and the city will be in trouble if we don’t support it,” she said. “It is in the wrong order.”

Donchez’s administration hopes the luxury apartments atop a Starbucks and restaurants represents the first spark of economic resurgence in that stretch of the South Side. The mayor sees the parking garage as the crucial linchpin in that redevelopment, which will hopefully eat up the surrounding vacant parking lots that are all owned by the Sands development group.

Council is being asked Wednesday night to hike parking fines by almost 50 percent to encourage folks to actually feed the meters and to help fund the city’s parking infrastructure needs.

Waldron sent a lengthy memo to the parking authority pressing it to provide a long-term plan for how it is going to build a Polk Street deck, repair or replace the Walnut Street garage and maintain its other structures.

“The goals need to be clear, the financing needs to be clear and the idea that this Polk Street garage is the magic bullet that will draw development to East Third street is an antiquated notion,” Van Wirt said. “Development is there.”

Van Wirt is concerned about the authority’s ability to pay for another parking deck.

“I don’t want to stick my kids with paying for an out-of-date parking garage that is not going to be used,” she said.