Update on the Polk Street Garage (78)

(78th in a series of posts on parking)

Recap: Gadfly followers will remember a rather tense situation in the last half of last year revolving around a parking study and especially plans for a contested Polk Street garage, a situation that ended with the Parking Authority raising parking meter rates but City Council balking on adjusting parking fines until there was some clarity on Polk Street.  Here’s the pertinent section from the Mayor’s presentation at the Nov 7 Council meeting that temporarily quieted the controversy: “Bethlehem Parking Authority is exploring all areas of financing future capital projects, including borrowing with or without City guarantee. Once they have completed their analysis and I have reviewed the options, I will ask the Bethlehem Parking Authority to seek the fine increase and to brief City Council on the recommended method of financing at that time. It is important that the Authority research all the possible options including eliminating risk to the taxpayers of the City of Bethlehem. I expect this to occur early 2019.”

Gadfly’s notes indicate that the Mayor expected the financial report in the first quarter of 2019 (over today), at which time what people on both sides felt would be the awkward disjunction between the rates and the fines could be addressed. But we are not going to have that financial report for at least another three months. Gadfly supposes financial matters can’t be rushed, and it doesn’t look like the end of the world is nigh as predicted because it may be more economical to pay a fine than feed a meter.

BPA Board Chairman Joseph Hoffmeier explained at the Board meeting last Wednesday that garage size right now is estimated at 470, that financing is being explored, that a construction manager is being sought, that other development (retail, residential?) here would be included, and that it would be another 90 days for the report before Council. Board member Lynn Cunningham argued for consideration of increasing the projected size of Polk, supported by member Diana Morganelli.

Here’s the audio of the section of the Board meeting devoted to Polk Street:

And some clips:

  • Hoffmeier: “We’re still trying to figure out how big to make this thing, and, of course, that’s going to have an impact on the cost. We thought we had a number of 470, but it may grow or it may stay at 470. We’re trying to get a lot of the stakeholders involved and actually come to the table and make a commitment. Also looking at any ancillary development that may take place down the road that may require parking.”
  • Hoffmeier: “We’re at a very good rate right now, so we could take our time and price this out. We’ve had some very good offers from some private banks. We can do a City guarantee in a full-blown bond, but all those will be looked at depending on our actual cost.”
  • Hoffmeier: “We also have an RFP out for a construction manager.”
  • Hoffmeier: “So it’s still up in the air right now, but I imagine that within 90 days we should have some better idea, and at that point we will move in front of Council.”
  • Hoffmeier: “And also in front of that there’s about 10,000 square feet on the front on Third Street which includes an RFP for a retail or residential or some sort of development.”
  • Cunningham: “With the current projects that are on the books right now, that’s pretty much going to fill that garage, and there’s so much more open space there that is going to be eventually developed, to fill the garage at 470 spaces where it’s going to be filled immediately, I think is not thinking ahead.”
  • Cunningham: “Especially because the lot behind Northampton Community College at ArtsQuest, that lot is not actually owned by ArtsQuest but people use it as a free lot . . . by Sands, and when Wind Creek comes in that’s one of the projects that I think they have highlighted as something they are going to develop.”
  • Cunningham: “It is my opinion that it would be foolish to build a garage that’s going to be filled right away , and we should think in a larger scale. . . . And I think we have to look at what happened with this garage. This garage when it was built was not filled. . . so we need to just look at that and think hard about it before we decide.”
  • Solicitor Broughal: “The Ruins lot is the wild card . . . from a monetary standpoint . . . so much of this is up in the air and guess work .”
  • Hoffmeier: “So we just need more time. It’s all being looked at. . . . It’s just a matter of how big we are going to make it.”

BPA is MIA (77)

(77th in a series of posts on parking)

Gadfly was hoping to give an update on things related to the Parking Authority today, but they canceled their February meeting.

As they did their January meeting.

What’s up with that?

They postponed their December meeting twice, and Gadfly was not able to make the third time, so the BPA has been a news desert for Gadfly for some time.

A proposed Polk St. Garage is a pretty hot issue.

Gadfly thought for sure there would be a meeting today because he remembers the Mayor expecting the BPA to report to City Council on funding for the Polk Garage within the first quarter of this year (which means March). And the plan was to have the discussion of the parking fine increase at the same time. (Gadfly followers don’t get fines, so you might not have noticed that the meter rate and violation fines are out of balance. The rates went up January 1, but the fines didn’t.) He assumed that there would have to be discussions of these matters if they were going to meet a March deadline.

Here’s the pertinent section from the Mayor’s presentation at the Nov 7 Council meeting: “Bethlehem Parking Authority is exploring all areas of financing future capital projects, including borrowing with or without City guarantee. Once they have completed their analysis and I have reviewed the options, I will ask the Bethlehem Parking Authority to seek the fine increase and to brief City Council on the recommended method of financing at that time. It is important that the Authority research all the possible options including eliminating risk to the taxpayers of the City of Bethlehem. I expect this to occur early 2019.”

Also, Gadfly was interested to hear about BPA progress on several things the Mayor asked the BPA to do when he approved the parking rate increase, like investigating neat-sounding ideas like variable rate parking. See the mayor’s letter to BPA: Mayor Parking Meter Rate Increase.

O, well.

But let me tell you about a few other interesting things relating to the BPA while you’re here.

Followers know that this is the 77th post in the series because of wild times parking-wise in the final quarter of 2018. And that the BPA and I were not on very good terms.

I found the BPA culture off-putting.

I don’t really understand “Authorities” anyway. How they fit. How they run.

So I asked (Right to Know request) for the executive director’s contract. I wanted to see who hired him, who paid him, whom he reported to, whom he answered to. I don’t get this independent status. What was the chain of command? And I assumed I could tell that from the contract.

I didn’t expect to get the contract, assuming it would be personal, but I did think I might get a redacted copy. Much to my surprise, though, I was told “No employment contracts exist” for the executive director.

Now that’s odd, isn’t it? Did the current exec move here from Massachusetts five years ago on a handshake?

Same rationale, I asked for performance reviews. Who’s evaluating if the exec does a good job or not? The answer, “To the extent that any such documents exist, this information has been withheld as performance evaluations are exempt.” Makes it sound as if there may be no performance reviews either.

I’ve also often wondered if there is any “training” for some of the volunteer boards. Like Planning and Zoning are really pretty technical at times. So I asked if there were handbooks or orientation materials for new BPA Board members – Human Resources kind of stuff – that might guide people as to what their job and responsibilities are. The answer was no, nothing of the sort.

I’d already been balked from getting direct emails of the BPA Board members, thwarting any direct contact, which was my purpose.

I can’t seem to get to first base with this outfit!

Reducing carbon emissions and making money H.R. 763

(The latest in a series of posts relating to the environment, Bethlehem’s Climate Action Plan, and Bethlehem’s Environmental Advisory Council)

“There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil.
The triumph of anything is a matter of organization.”
(Kurt Vonnegut)

Remember that Bethlehem under the leadership of CM Reynolds and the good volunteer folk on the Environmental Advisory Council chaired by Lynn Rothman and with the cooperation of City Hall has a Climate Action Plan abirthing.

Martha Christine, “The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act deserves bipartisan support.” Morning Call, February 10, 2019.

Here is one of Martha’s latest drumbeats in favor of the The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act H.R. 763.

Valentine’s Day brings thoughts of love, friendship and cooperation. But can members of the federal government cooperate? Yes, and it’s happening right now.

The House has introduced a bipartisan bill to address climate change. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763) will reduce carbon emissions while providing a monthly dividend check to offset higher costs of energy. It will create new jobs and improve health. It’s revenue neutral so it won’t grow the government.

Senators are cooperating, too. They’ve re-introduced bipartisan legislation to reduce drug costs. I believe Republican and Democrat senators will work together to support the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. The Chamber of Commerce has recognized that bipartisanship benefits business, so they should also endorse this business-friendly legislation. Even the president has called for cooperation between Democrats and Republicans.

So, there’s hope for bipartisan action on climate change. I love the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act — a simple, effective solution to climate change. I encourage you to urge Representative Wild and Senators Casey and Toomey to love it, too!

You can find email links to Wild, Casey, and Toomey on the Gadfly sidebar.

Martha introduced me to the national organization the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

The local Lehigh Valley chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby meets the Tuesday after the 2nd Saturday of the month at:

Friends (Quaker) Meeting House
4116 Bath Pike (Route 512)
Bethlehem, PA 18017

6 pm: potluck supper, welcome & introductions
6:30 pm: business meeting

That means tomorrow, Tuesday, February 12!

It’s Monday, February 11, do you know where your local Climate Action Plan is?

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?

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?



“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.