Council oversight of hot-button City committees: Gadfly makes the case for making a case

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So you know about the Mayor. And you know about City Council. But what you might not know so much about are what Gadfly calls the ABCs, the 25 or so Authorities, Boards, and Commissions volunteer-staffed by maybe 125 residents. These ABCs do much work for the City, for you. Your non-tax dollars at work.

The Mayor nominates residents to serve on the ABCs; Council approves them. Historically, those mayoral appointments have been met in virtually all cases with a Council rubber stamp.

Most times that’s ok.

Just three days ago you saw Gadfly extol the work of one of the ABCs — the Environmental Advisory Council. And there are many other individuals and groups he could single out for praise.

But there are problems. And, in Gadfly’s mind, the Bethlehem Parking Authority has been one of them.

What Gadfly modestly proposed on April 29 last  — going on a year ago — was that mayoral nominations for reappointments on the ABCs be supported by evidence of performance on the ABC on which the reappointee served.

In other words, it should be expected that the Mayor “make a case” when reappointment is involved.

Seems harmless enough to Gadfly.

Last Council meeting February 4 there were nominations from the Mayor for several ABCs, one being the Parking Authority. Gadfly raised the question of evidence of performance. There ensued later in the meeting an interesting and important discussion on this and related issues. Gadfly would like to spend 2-3 posts fleshing out that discussion and suggests, for context, we begin by re-reading his April 29 post.

Gadfly specially calls your attention to the audio clip below of the short presentation he made at the Parking Authority meeting April 24.

Hear him first make the case for making a case.

————-

April 29, 2019

“A Modest Proposal: regarding Council oversight of hot-button City committees”

So Gadfly went to the Bethlehem Parking Authority meeting last Wednesday April 24. Perhaps more on the substance of that meeting later.

The meeting was at 4PM. Gadfly recently reported that at a Planning Commission meeting both Diane Szabo Backus and Paige Van Wirt made what we might call “vigorous proposals” [ha! not modest!] for later meeting times to accommodate the large number of citizens who work at that hour and are unable to attend such meetings. And Gadfly was later able to report that the Mayor heard those vigorous proposals and has pledged to require later times across the board in City committees for 2020.

A solid blow for citizen participation. Another shout-out to Backus-Van Wirt-Donchez.

There are many City Authorities, Boards, and Commissions. Take a look. Made up almost entirely of resident volunteers. Gadfly doesn’t know exactly, but he guesses the volunteers probably number in the vicinity of 125. A small army.

That’s a lot of people the Mayor has to round up. I mean, I’m not sure that people are thronging the Mayor during “Open Door” days and clamoring for such positions. He no doubt has to recruit. Though I hope we never see the day when he has to set up a card table in a mall and hawk for warm bodies.

Gadfly goes to a lot of these meetings. And can say without hesitation that there are a lot of wonderful people doing wonderful work. Good for the Mayor, good for the great people volunteering.

The Mayor nominates resident members, Council approves. Most of the time the approvals are pro forma. But there was one significant denial recently, probably for conflict of interest, a person serving on two closely related bodies.

Approvals should not be pro forma, especially for certain committees, and the Parking Authority is one such group. The Parking Authority was a center of controversy in the latter half of 2018 as 70+ posts in the Gadfly parking thread will attest (see the link on the sidebar).

Gadfly could not tell and had suspicions about the range and quality of Board member involvement. The New St. Garage, the Polk Garage, the Desman Parking Study, the conflict with Council, etc., etc. — strangely to Gadfly, it’s almost impossible to tell from the Board minutes that these things were going on much less that there were “hot” public “issues” about them. The Authority then had a powerful, involved solicitor and a long-standing Chair — Gadfly wondered if there was any debate or discussion at all, wondered what the role, if any, of the appointed members was.

For we must depend on the Board members to be our “voice” in Authority decisions. Gadfly would like to make sure that they are.

Reviewing minutes, Gadfly saw no evidence of conflict, dissent, alternative opinion; Gadfly is not sure that he saw a motion that truly originated with a Board member or new business that originated with a Board member. And if it were not for routine responses to “asks” by the chair for a motion and a second, you might not even know who is on the Board. Attendance at a few meetings suggested that the Authority authority resided in the Executive Director, the solicitor, and the Board chair.

Which is not to say that hot issues weren’t ever aired and that all Board members were not heavily involved. But the minutes — basically the only official public record of what transpired — don’t reveal much in that respect.

When those Board members come up for re-appointment, on what basis will Council make its oversight decision? Evidence of the quantity and quality of their participation and contributions in deliberations about non-trivial and non-routine matters — as attested to in the minutes — should be a prime body of evidence.

At the April 24 meeting, Gadfly suggested to the Parking Authority Board that the minutes be improved to at least capture the flavor of all viewpoints in discussion, that votes that are not unanimous clearly indicate who the yays and nays are, and he suggested to the members that they be sure not only that they contribute but that their contributions are detailed in the minutes. If they want to be re-appointed, that is.

You can hear Gadfly talk about this as an aspect of his “passion for public participation in city matters” (soooo pompous is your Gadfly!) here:

My modest proposal is that Council let the Mayor know that proposals for re-appointment of members of “hot” committees, commissions, and boards should include — in addition to resumes*** — specific and substantive evidence of the quality and quantity of member contributions as attested in the minutes.

At the last City Council meeting Backus made the interesting point that since such Board members are appointed by elected officials, they too are in a sense elected. And the public needs accountability, especially on the “hot” committees, and will call for it from Council when re-appointment time comes around.

*** Instructive here is the good dialogue about oversight initiated by Councilwoman Van Wirt and joined by Council President Waldron and Business Manager Evans sitting in for the Mayor at the January 15 Council meeting and recorded in the minutes on pp 11-12. But for re-appointments, Gadfly is suggesting more than resumes and contact info. There should be evidence of performance.

Climate Action Plan: “This is a big deal”

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In a surprise addition to Monday’s City Council agenda — so surprising it occasioned a procedural question — City Council voted on and approved a contract with a firm to develop our Climate Action Plan.

An exuberant Councilman Reynolds, who — working with the Administration, the Environmental Advisory Council, and others — brought us to this moment, called the plan a “big deal.”

Which it certainly is!

Kudos all around.

Beautiful Reynolds’ words about the plan we love to hear:

  • City-wide energy reduction plan
  • Sustainability initiative
  • An Education piece
  • Connection to social justice
  • Discussion of pedestrian bridge
  • Discussion of Food Co-Op
  • Discussion of walkability

It’s Wednesday January 8, 2020. Do you know where your Climate Action Plan is?

Yes!

Southside magistrate has difficulty dispensing equitable justice in marijuana cases

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Nicole Radzievich, “District judge questions how Bethlehem treats minor marijuana offenses.” Morning Call, December 16, 2019.

We thought that the difficulty with decriminalizing uses of small amounts of marijuana in Bethlehem would come because of our bi-county status.

Because of the different views of the respective District Attorneys, marijuana use in Lehigh County Bethlehem would remain a criminal offense whereas in Northampton County Bethlehem it might only be a summary defense at the discretion of the arresting officer.

Different legal jeopardy on two sides of the same Bethlehem street, as it were.

Gadfly has not heard problems or complaints about this anomaly, however.

But the disparity is of another kind — unregarded, though probably easily enough foreseen, when the legislation was discussed.

In the following letter, Southside magistrate Nancy Matos Gonzalez points out that Southside residents are penalized much more severely than Lehigh students for the same marijuana offense.

Lehigh generally charges students under the city ordinance with a summary offense on the order of a traffic ticket. But city officers, with discretion to file either a summary or a criminal charge, choose the criminal charges against Southside residents 3+ times more than Lehigh police do against Lehigh students.

The disparity is so great, says Matos Gonzalez, “that the differing policy practices between the two agencies has, in my professional opinion, brought forth a situation which constricts my ability to dispense equitable justice.”

In short, it would appear that the Lehigh students are getting a break that Southside residents aren’t from our well-intentioned legislation to decriminalize use of small amounts of marijuana.

By a big margin.

Sensitive to the “vastly differing” demographics “between both communities” unarguably based “on race, ethnicity, and economic levels,” Matos Gonzalez asks how this disparity can be justified.

The differential financial burden of a criminal charge is severe, as Matos Gonzalez documents, but the part of the decriminalizing legislation rationale that Gadfly remembers most vividly from City Council discussion as well as the horror stories at the local public hearing held by Lieutenant Governor Fetterman was the “residual sanction of a resulting permanent criminal recordfor using a small amount of marijuana.

By and large, Lehigh students are being spared that career impediment.

Hmmm.

Gadfly remembers vigorous public comments last year at Council meetings by Jeff Riedy, Executive Director of Lehigh Valley NORML and would welcome hearing from him again on this situation.

And also some expanded remarks on marijuana enforcement by the Chief beyond what he said about drugs in Bethlehem during the recent budget hearings (the last few minutes of this video).

The question would seem to be whether enforcement practice by Bethlehem police is undercutting the intent of the legislation and whether that enforcement practice is different on the Southside than in other parts of the City.

A tip o’ the hat to Magistrate Matos Gonzalez for calling attention to a possible “systemic issue” that should be addressed.

Gadfly always recommends going to the primary source. The magistrate’s full letter is printed below.

Dear Chief DiLuzio,

I recently received your letter referencing my previous discussions with both yourself and Mayor Donchez. To be clear, I initiated contact to voice my concern regarding a noted potential for disparity in sanctions, permanent records, and financial cost for Individuals prosecuted for small amount of marijuana. This noted potential for disparity is solely based upon which one of the two police departments operating within this district prosecutes the case. Further, expressed that the differing policy practices between the two agencies has, in my professional opinion, brought forth a situation which constricts my ability to dispense equitable justice.

As you are aware, Bethlehem Police and Lehigh University Police both operate in South Bethlehem. Understandably, as independent agencies, each has its own Standard Operating Procedures. I am fully cognizant it is not my role, practice, nor desire to critique those procedures. I do, though, unabashedly feel compelled to illuminate what is potentially an undetected consequential result of policy implementation and absolutely believe it is my role to speak out to systemic matters affecting my rulings and sworn oath to uphold justice.

As the presiding Magisterial District Judge in this district, I offer the following summary of happenings since the enactment of the law up until the date of meeting with the Mayor on September 26, 2019. These are the pertinent factors relating to these case filings on which I base my concerns:

  • Lehlgh University PD has by general policy and practice filed the local summary ordinance in the Small Amount cases, which decriminalizes the possession of marijuana.
  • Bethlehem PD policy allows for “Officer discretion to use ordinance, state law or both. By practice, the Bethlehem Police officers have, in this district alone, filed the criminal grading of Poss of a Small Amount at a rate” of 3.25 times more often than the ordinance offense. Additionally, for cases that a Bethlehem Police officer has filed a Poss of Drug Paraphernalia charge related to Marijuana, the officer is 7 times more likely to file the criminal Poss of Small Amount charge.
  • Defendants who are charged with a city ordinance of Poss of a Small Amount of Marijuana are ordered to pay a set fine and cost amount of $116.25 for a first offense and a maximum set fine and cost of $241.25 for up to a offense within one calendar year.
  • Defendants who plead guilty to the criminal charge of Poss of a Small Amount of Marijuana can be ordered to pay fine and cost of up to $1073.75 and up to 30 days incarceration.
  • In an effort to balance the scales for parties prosecuted for the criminal charge rather than the summary offense, I, by practice, set the fine at $1.00 minimal amount. Unfortunately, once the cost for criminal processing fees are attached the total minimal amount due is $574.75. These parties are subject to cost almost 5 times higher than the summary cost and they are subject to a potentially more serious residual sanction of a resulting permanent criminal record.
  • Unfortunately, there are many individuals who wish to plead guilty to the charge at the Preliminary Hearing but do not have the means to post the $574.?5 fine and cost assessment. The district court does not supervise fine and cost collection of criminal cases and those parties, more often than not, waive their preliminary hearings, often by necessity to have time to raise some funds. In the interim months awaiting their case, they are subject to bail and with the potential for supervision with specified conditions. Once their case comes to resolution, they are subject to a significant increase in cost at the higher court level.
  • For the defendants who do not dispute the merits of the case but are interested in preserving their record, they often chose to waive their Preliminary Hearing to the higher court and seal: the ARD program. They are then subject to the assessment of bail with potential conditions, often subject to further cost to hire legal counsel to maneuver through the process of the higher court application process; face even more significant court cost at the higher level; and may be Subject to probationary Supervision.

For the sake of transparency, I will state my motive in addressing my concerns is not based on a philosophical stance regarding how Marijuana cases should be prosecuted. Undoubtedly, the approach towards the prosecution of Marijuana cases is in a transitional time period on the national, state, county, and city level. I am also aware that has complicated circumstances specific to the City of Bethlehem, which lies within two differing counties. My motive is purely to strive for an equal playing field for all who appear before this District Court. Right now, that does not currently exist and the result is polarizing. To be as frank as possible, if you are arrested for the charge at hand by Lehigh University, which is a long standing prestigious academic institution, you will likely, by far, be subject to less sanctions, court supervision, and permanent effects than if you are a citizen in the same circumstance from the city streets charged within the same Magisterial District that is all contained within a one square mile radius. I ask how that can be justified. I will not ignore that the demographics between both communities are unarguably vastly differing based on race, ethnicity, and economic levels. Therefore, I stand by my comment made earlier that there is a systemic issue to address here, of which I do not wish to be complicit. I remain hopeful this writing will prompt a closer look at the circumstances at hand and potential for disparity, particularly with the order “Officer discretion to use ordinance, state law or both.”

Sincerely,

Nancy Matos Gonzalez

Bethlehem’s Catch-22: what attracts can also erode

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Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development, and deputy director of community development.

Gadfly,

It’s a “Catch 22” situation in Bethlehem, maybe more than ever before. What is attracting visitors, new residents, and development to Bethlehem is a city with many opportunities and amenities. However, with each of those advances it begins to erode the very quality of life and aura that Bethlehem offers. When will enough be enough? Individually an AirBnB, an out-of-context development, non-compliance may not seem that intrusive. But, when you start looking at the sum total of what is happening, the very characteristics that people find attractive become tarnished, and that sought-after quality of life is no longer maintained. Bethlehem has to be better by establishing standards so that those that come respect those that are already in place in Bethlehem. That is often not happening and is why residents are showing up to defend what they want and like about this town. Unfortunately, greed is often overwhelming what makes sense and builds a sound community, and some politicians are weak-kneed and often influenced by campaign contributions. We who are already here deserve better.

Dana

Concern that our original short-term lodging ordinance isn’t working

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In our last post in this series about the Planning Commission consideration of this proposed new Short-Term Lodging amendment to the City Zoning Ordinance, we listened to discussion led by one Commissioner about limiting the duration of a transient’s stay in short-term lodging and limiting the total time annually in which a home-owner could offer short-term lodging. Both questions related to the impact of short-term lodging on the quality of neighborhood life. Good.

Next, to understand the concern of Bruce Haines, managing partner of the Hotel Bethlehem — and “representing a neighborhood” — one has to back up to the passage in 2017 of the original attempt to control the perceived and experienced dangers of short-term lodging to the Northside Historical District represented by Airbnb: Article 1741.

Article 1741 was designed to address the concerns of neighbors about Airbnb (and no doubt similar businesses), and the current proposed zoning amendment requires that short-term lodging hosts must comply with “all aspects” of 1741.

So here’s Haines framing the purpose of 1741:

Haines’s present “beef,” if you will, is that the zoning amendment under consideration by the Planning Commission does nothing to address the shortcomings of 1741 (shortcomings of enforcement?). He identifies, for example, two specific properties in the Northside Historical District that have separate apartments and thus are not single family homes yet are licensed by the City for short-term lodging — even after being reported to the City.

“The ordinance that’s in place has been an utter failure . . . . and this isn’t going to help it. . . . The only time you should allow transient visitors in a residential community should be if they are sharing the space.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Haines seems to have run into the wall of compartmentalization. The Planning Commission chair focused just on the zoning amendment at that moment before the Commission and not this shortcoming of what we might call the “parent” 1741 ordinance.

And thus all Mr. Haines could do was make known his disappointment that persisting problems with short-term lodging in his neighborhood weren’t being addressed.

And so the long-standing “Airbnb” issue in the Northside Historical District is still not resolved despite legislation supposed to address their concerns.

Still wrestling with Wind Creek

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There are some people with whom you just don’t argue.

One is your barber.

While you are in the chair. Especially for your holiday haircut.

Somehow Wind Creek came up.

And Gadfly stupidly said — as he has said several times in these pages — that the Wind Creek desire to make Bethlehem “the #1 destination in the Northeast” with a waterpark troubles him greatly.

Call him “Mohawk Gadfly” now.

Gadfly has taken somewhat of a beating in circles other than that surrounding the barber pole for holding the negative feeling about Wind Creek’s plan, making remarks about it here, and refusing to automatically genuflect to the Economic Deity.

(After all, he hasn’t even seen any plans or heard any details of the Wind Creek project, so how fair is that feeling?)

And he hasn’t quite been able to articulate why he feels that way. But he’s getting there.

Gadfly has the kind of mind where particles float around looking for a point of coalescence.

Particles like Wind Creek’s #1 destination quote, the goal of Festival UnBound, Dan Church’s line “the city has no jurisdiction over architectural style” (except in the historical districts), the “blending” architecture promoted by the Smith women, a line from one of the Festival UnBound panel members that “it matters who is at the table,” multiple posts and conversations about residents trying to control the quality of life in their neighborhoods, and the  “imploring” letter from the South Bethlehem Historical Society (remember that one?).

Coalescence occurred when a follower recently used the term “creative placemaking,” a term Gadfly had never heard, and a practice fairly new but apparently well known by people who work to shape public spaces, neighborhoods, cities, regions.

Gadfly did some quick google searches. So he’s no expert on “creative placemaking.” But he liked what he was able to glean from some surface reading.

If Gadfly understands “creative placemaking” correctly, artists are instrumental, catalytic in design processes.  And design comes bottom up, design grows out of the community, design is community-led.

Here’s one description of “creative placemaking”:

Creative placemaking refers to the process in which “partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.” Creative placemaking advocates believe that community development projects benefit from the participation of artists at the onset of projects, and on the planning and design teams that shape our communities. . . . Forget the traditional, staid public meeting format and instead imagine artists engaging community members using multiple languages to generate meaningful dialogues, capturing their creativity and local knowledge to better inform the ultimate design of the project.

Or, again:

Creative placemaking is a process where community member, artists, arts and culture organizations, community developers, and other stakeholders use arts and cultural strategies to implement community-led change.

Wind Creek has bought some space in “our” town and is now going to give “us” a new identity of its own choosing.

(Or at least so it seems. Maybe there was more interactive discussion behind the scenes.)

Gadfly, as your self-appointed and — ha! — maybe self-serving representative resident, feels forced on his back, forearms at right angles, palms facing up, resisting the overpowering and unquestioned weight of economic argument.

Gadfly is soooo dramatic.

Simply put, Wind Creek is telling us what’s good for us.

Gadfly’s having a hard time with that.

It’s not like we are without an identity now.

Steeples and stacks.

It’s not like we cannot evolve a new identity.

That’s what Festival UnBound was all about.

But steeples and stacks and slides?

Gadfly’s learned there was a different way.

What if Wind Creek had engaged in a collaborative process with us of creative placemaking for that several acres in the southeast end of town instead of decreeing our destiny?

When it comes to creating identity, Gadfly would like to participate.

———

Gadfly’s quick google search on creative placemaking:

American Planning Association

Defining Creative Placemaking (NEA)

Approaches to Creative Placemaking

What is creative placemaking?

2020 budget approved

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City Council adopted the 2020 budget. Gadfly found the budget hearings interesting as always but “un-remarkable” in regard to blog-worthy doin’s, so he didn’t post too much about them.

The handy article in the Morning Call this morning provides an overview of the new budget highlights.

Tax bills won’t go up (yay!) but note bullets #2 and #3 below from the article for increased fees (boo!) for homeowners.

Nicole Radzievich, “What Bethlehem taxpayers can expect from next year’s budget.” Morning Call, December 17, 2019.

  • Real estate taxes will stay the same
  • Sewer bills will be going up
  • Expect a new stormwater fee mid-year
  • The new Memorial Pool will open, but it will cost more to swim there
  • Rentals will be inspected once every three years
  • The city will complete a Climate Action Plan
  • And encourage all residents are counted

Gadfly expects to spend the day watching impeachment coverage — can you?

The Planning Commission discusses the City short-term lodging proposal

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Your tax dollars at work!

Let’s look at the Planning Commission in action.

We looked at the “short-term lodging” ordinance newly proposed for the zoning code last time.

And Gadfly asked if it seemed reasonable, asked if you saw anything discussable.

Let’s suppose that almost all of us reading here are not offering short-term lodging.

One thing for us to think about is how this ordinance would affect you if you wanted to offer short-term lodging.

Gadfly, for instance, has a five-bedroom house. Suppose he wanted to offer two of them per the proposed ordinance for short-term lodging.

Is the new ordinance reasonable for his purpose? Yes, seems so.

But another thing to think about is how this ordinance would affect you and your mainly residential neighborhood if one or more of your neighbors went into the short-term lodging business.

Yeah, now there’s an issue Gadfly is familiar with.

A single woman on the block was offering short-term lodging in the early days of this business, before the others of us were familiar with the concept, and, besides a bit of a crimp in available parking sometimes, we were bothered by the coming and going of strange men at all hours of the night. It gave the neighborhood a different feel. An insecure feel.

Well, what did the Planning Commissioners see?

In this interesting clip, we see the Planning director frame the fair positive purpose of the ordinance (in a time in which affordable housing is an issue, this ordinance allows people to stay in their homes and make a few extra dollars) and then one of the Commissioners (Mr. Malozi) think out some potential problems.

We should note in passing that the Planning director says that when homes are owner occupied, there is no problem with short-term lodging — the problems come in situations when the owners don’t live there — that was the rub in the contentious issue in the Northside Historical District..

Mr. Malozi has two questions, the first being could a “transient” (the language of the ordinance) stay the 30 days allowed, leave for a day, and return for another permitted 30 days, and on and on. Gadfly is not sure he sees the problem here. Actually, he feels longer duration of transients might make the situation more comfortable for neighbors. You could get to know or at least recognize the transients, for instance.

The second question seemed more important to Gadfly. Should there be an upper limit of days that lodging could be offered? For instance, could you book your rooms 365 days a year? Hmmm. No specific upper limit was nailed down, but 90 days and 180 days were floated. Mr. Malozi, laudably, was concerned about the quality of the neighborhood with a high number of transients. Yeah, Gadfly gets that.

The PC seemed to favor a revision to accommodate concerns in regard to this second question and, unable to agree on a limitation, they tabled consideration till the next meeting.

Gadfly wondered about some limitation on the number of short-term lodging homes in a particular area. Gadfly lives near Moravian College, a good market, especially at certain times of the year. What if, for instance, instead of the just one short-termer on his block, there would be five. Now that would seriously change the neighborhood. And would be a great worry.

What do you think of the questions Mr. Malozi raised? See anything else?

We aren’t done yet with discussion at the meeting.

to be continued . . .

“This ordinance as proposed would hinder visitation to our beautiful city”

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Dave Ruhf is a retired 35-year veteran of the Bethlehem Fire Department and avid traveler living the dream.

Gadfly:

I believe this ordinance as proposed would hinder visitation to our beautiful city during our festive events.

I for one use Homeaway or AirBnB to visit out national parks in the western portion of our country. My wife and I usually travel with another couple with smaller children requiring at minimum 3 bedrooms.

Under the proposed ordinance someone who travels as I do couldn’t rent a short-term residence.

An example: I rented 5 different residences when I visited the national parks in Utah, and my longest stay was 2 days at any one place.

The two-bedroom rule is detrimental in my opinion.

I suggest the authority having jurisdiction should investigate the average stays that people require when visiting vacation venues.

Dave

Keeping the heat on the plastic bag ban

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

Followers know the sad news that the proposed ban of single-use plastic bags coming from our Environmental Advisory Council (EAC) under the leadership of Beth Behrend was hit with the pause button because of a one-year legislative moratorium at the state level in order to study the issue.

At the October 15 meeting, however, City Council passed a resolution from the Administration supporting passage of the ban:

Plastic Bags Support Resolution-1

But Behrend and the EAC are not the kind of people to rest on that laurel and to sit back and wait for the year to tick away.

Behrend spoke before Council December 3 to present 100 signatures from residents in support of “some kind of action” taken by the City to reduce plastic bags. In speaking at the October 15 meeting, for instance, Councilman Reynolds pointed out that the effort to reduce single-use plastic bags would take more than an ordinance and that there were things that could be done before the ban on banning expired. Behrend also requested Council to send a letter in support of another State bill regarding beverage containers.

Gadfly has come to learn that the EAC travels in packs for greater impact (2 other EAC members spoke preceding Behrend) and is far from innocent about political strategy.

To wit: enter Mary Jo Deseridino in Behrend’s wake to call for City Council to pass a single-use plastic bag ordinance now effective date in July 2020, that is, before the 2021 budget is passed and before the opportunity to extend the ban.

You gotta love these people!

Gadfly enjoys every opportunity to showcase such high quality community involvement of his fellow residents.

What they can do, we all can do.

Your non-tax dollars at work!

It’s Monday, December 16, do you know where your local Climate Action Plan is?

Good conversation building community at the Moravian block watch

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“Good conversation builds community,” sayeth the Gadfly.

Block watches are good conversation.

What’s a block watch like? Well, read and view on.

On December 4 Gadfly attended the Moravian block watch in north Bethlehem coordinated by Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith and Katie Regan.

Attending were police officer Kopp, Representative Steve Samuelson, William Penn principal Joe Anthes, and a dozen or so neighborhood residents.

Topics discussed included traffic and growing drug problems.

Here office Kopp responds to a question about speeding:

To which Representative Samuelson added info about times when outside money helped benefit the traffic situation:

The conversation took a dramatically serious turn when resident Eddie Rodriquez opened the conversation to drugs and gang-related activity growing in the northside.

Officer Kopp picks up the conversation and fills the group in on what it takes to make a drug bust these days.

The Moravian block watch usually meets the first Wednesday of the month (2nd Wednesday in January because of the holiday) at 6PM in the HUB Building, Moravian College.

Contact Councilwoman Crampsie Smith at Crampsie150@gmail.com

Gadfly would love to hear about other block watches across the City.

Airbnb . . . short-term lodging: why should we care?

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As we move into a series of posts on the short-term lodging proposal just introduced before the Planning Commission, Gadfly would like to recycle part of post from October 6, 2018, fourteen months ago, and just 3 weeks after Gadfly-became-Gadfly.

The Northside Historical District is not Gadfly’s neighborhood. It is not the neighborhood of you, the vast majority of Gadfly followers.

Why should we care what happens in the Northside Historical District?

First things first, why should the general “we” of the City care? Why is Gadfly spending time on this? Why should you read on if you don’t live in the Northside Historical District?

Good question, Gadfly.

And Gadfly answers that it has to do with the perfectly understandable concern over the nature of your neighborhood. Something everybody has or should have. Every time Gadfly uses that word “neighborhood,” he thinks with pleasure of Fred Rogers, “Mr. Rogers” (did you see the recent Tom Hanks’ movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”?). It’s about the quality of life in your neighborhood, about caring for and about your neighborhood, and “control” of your neighborhood. This is or should be a concern across the City and has much wider implications than just Airbnb.

Mr. Gadfly’s neighborhood is changing. Has changed. Of the 15 houses in Gadfly’s block, 6 are now rentals. Porch palings are missing. Parking is harder. Some sidewalks want to hurt you. Mother Nature is sometimes the only sidewalk snow-shoveler. Glaring, spooky feral cats have taken over the once carnival-like street (40 kids playing there at one point). Yards aren’t all that well taken care of. Gadfly’s lawn is “crop-circled” by dogs on leashes. Where have all the flowers gone? Some porches have become utility sheds. We were once a tree-shaded lane; now Gadfly’s tree (“Secundus,” since it is a replacement) stands alone, sole respecter of City ordinance.

Poor maudlin Gadfly. He doesn’t live in the Northside Historical District. But he gets it. We all should get it. Neighborhoods change one rented house, one dog pee at a time. Often imperceptible change. Till one day it’s too late. Gadfly gets it. We all should get it. And be invested in what happens in the Northside Historical District.

It pays to fight for our neighborhoods. Gadfly always says that. You may have noticed.

We must speak up.

Airbnb has provided some of the most dynamic resident-involved meetings in Gadfly’s Council spectatordom history. Take a look at “Our neighborhoods are under attack” (the quote is Frank Boyer’s), about the September 4, 2018, meeting that Gadfly called “one of the best of the year . . . The air crackled. Tension was thick. The issue was urgent, resident commentators were passionate, Council was involved and concerned.”

It’s up to the City to protect our neighborhoods.

Whether it’s First Terrace or West Goepp or whatever, Gadfly will always be following “developments.”

Let’s see what’s going on with this proposed zoning ordinance.

to be continued . . .

Proposed zoning ordinance dusts off the Airbnb issue

logo Latest in a series of posts on Airbnb and short-term lodging logo

Short-term lodging, short-term rentals, home-sharing: sometimes conveniently referred to by the short-hand of Airbnb, the company with which this practice is most associated.

Airbnb locations in Bethlehem

“The Uber of the hospitality market, Airbnb acts as an online broker, connecting people who need a place to stay with hosts who have a spare bedroom, apartment or a full house to rent.”
————

The Airbnb issue is before us again. It’s been out of sight for over a year. Brought back by a proposal introduced at the Planning Commission December 12 for a change in the zoning code to complement an ordinance passed last year.

We’re going to spend several posts on this proposal. So it’s time to refresh ourselves on the background.

Click Airbnb under Topics on the right-hand Gadfly sidebar for access to previous posts.

For a deep background timeline, see: The Airbnb Controversy (1)

Though the roots of this controversy long precede Gadfly-becoming-Gadfly, the issue seems to have begun with neighbors’ reacting to a specific Bethlehem couple in the Northside historical district renting their home (and then homes) on a short-term basis.

In the next post we will want to ask why all of us should be attentive to what’s happening in one section of the City.

Charles Malinchak, “Bethlehem planners delay recommendations on short-term lodging changes.” Morning Call, December 13, 2019.

Bethlehem is considering a proposal to regulate short-term rentals — akin to renting rooms or whole houses to overnight guests — in its zoning code for the first time. While the city has an ordinance to license such uses, the new ordinance would actually spell out in what zoning districts they can be.

The proposed changes are in an zoning amendment aimed at what is being called “short-term lodging” which the commission discussed, but members determined at least two sections of the regulations need to be fined tuned. The two questions the commission requested be looked into further were how many days per year the home or room can be rented and what zoning districts should the activity be permitted.

According to a copy of the proposal, a short-term lodging facility is a single family home occupied by the owner who rents no more than two bedrooms for up to 30 days. The home would not be licensed as a hotel or a bed and breakfast and no exterior alterations or expansions of the home would be permitted to expand the rental operation, according to the amendment. The areas where the rental activity would be permitted or with a special exception permit include the following zoning districts: rural residential, single family residential and medium and high density residential.

Hotel Bethlehem Co-Partner and city resident Bruce Haines told the Planning Commission that the amendment doesn’t really mesh with an existing ordinance regulating housing. “The point is, these places need to be single family homes where the visitor has access to the entire house like the kitchen, living room and dining room,’’ he said after the meeting. One of the problems, he said, is that several homes in the center city historic district are already operating under the pretense of short-term lodging but are actually apartments with no access to the rest of the house.

The commission will continue discussion of the issue and possibly make recommendations at its January meeting. Those recommendations would be forwarded to City Council. The city began looking at the zoning issue after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case earlier this year that ruled in favor a Monroe County municipality’s zoning of short-term lodging. The city’s current licensing ordinance is under appeal in Northampton County Court.

The ordinance was created after residents complained about the houses being rented out in their neighborhoods. Critics say they have no problem with homeowners licensed to rent out a bedroom or their house to overnight guests, but oppose investors buying homes for that sole purpose, creating a commercial intrusion into their neighborhood.

to be continued . . .

Councilman Callahan proposing a wage equality ordinance

Councilman Callahan will be introducing this “wage equality” ordinance at Council next Tuesday night. Click the link for the full text.

Callahan Wage Equality Ordinance

“The premise of this ordinance is that salary offers should be based upon the specific job responsibilities of a position, and not based upon an applicant’s prior wage history, so as to avoid the perpetuation of gender wage inequalities.”

This idea has been aborning for a while. Gadfly first heard Councilman Callahan talk about it a meeting of Bethlehem Democrats last February. He provides good context.

See also: Nicole Radzievich, “Councilman Bryan Callahan wants to stop Bethlehem businesses from asking job applicants this question.” Morning Call, January 31, 2019.

Callahan 2

A pedestrian/biking bridge: “The possible is a big deal”

logo Latest in a series of posts on Walkability and Bikeability logo

Doug Roysdon is a member of the Bethlehem Pedestrian-Biking Bridge Committee.

A Note on the Pedestrian/Biking Bridge

Like Festival Unbound, the pedestrian/biking bridge project is focused on a unified vision of the future city. At its core is the concept of a wholly contemporary “walking city” serving the needs of a pedestrian and biking population. In a series of public meetings on the bridge, a seemingly unending flow of connections associated with the bridge were advanced by Bethlehem citizens.  Among them are:

Reconnection of the city to its river for environmental and recreational purposes

The creation of a pedestrian cultural hub between Sand Island and the Banana Factory

Joining Historic Bethlehem and the Industrial History Museum — an advanced walking tour of Bethlehem History

Expansion of running and walking marathons, charitable events and city promotions

Social and communal links between Lehigh University and Moravian College

Connecting downtown businesses to South Side attractions

Creating a new, more physical  dimension to Bethlehem tourism

Opening new real estate markets for people dedicated to inner city life

Creating a safe,  environmental corridor from Illick’s Mill to the Greenway for walkers and bikers

Providing a superior walking experience in support of senior living in Bethlehem

Linking downtown festivals to both sides of the river

Creating an exciting new platform for night life in Bethlehem

Promoting the integration of Bethlehem’s diverse cultures

Producing a vital link in the rail trail network of Eastern Pennsylvania

Opening of the river banks to cultural and commercial activity

And more…….

Would a pedestrian/biking bridge make all these good things magically happen? No…..

A pedestrian/biking bridge would  make them possible.  The possible is a big deal.

Doug

The Bethlehem Parking Authority asks for detailed proposal from Council on a free parking pilot program

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The Parking Authority Board meets today: 4PM at their headquarters.

See the memo below: the exec dir did move immediately after the October 23 Board meeting to contact City Council about the free parking pilot program suggested by Councilwoman Van Wirt.

Gadfly — certainly skeptical of BPA’s intention, for the Board has shown noooo interest in such a program — sees the memo as an attempt to stifle the idea with a daunting homework assignment.

He’d have hoped for a meeting of the Board with interested Council members out of which a cooperative plan for a pilot might have emerged.

Of related interest is the provision for free parking in the Northside downtown for the holidays: see https://bethpark.org/news.

BPA pilot

Competition for the Tasteless Architecture Award

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“But the city has no jurisdiction over architectural style.”
Dan Church

“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” laments Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in the classic A Streetcar Named Desire film.

Jerry reminds us that we depend a lot of times on the kindness of developers.

And sometimes the developer is not a stranger. The owner of 548 lives right there.

Jerry DiGiulio, “Bethlehem buildings don’t fit historic neighborhood.” Morning Call, December 9, 2019.

I thought the Skyline West project in Bethlehem had the Tasteless Architecture Award wrapped up, but incredibly a late entry at 548 N. New St. may win. Both are by the same developer/design team. Apparently their aesthetic was greatly influenced by early episodes of “The Jetsons.”

These proposed buildings are in or adjacent to the Historic District of Bethlehem. In researching how it is possible that these buildings could be approved, I found that City Council, the Planning Board and the Zoning Commission have no say over design, unless the building is in the Historic District.

Not to pick on Bethlehem, the same group has a like building proposed for Easton, also in a historic area. Looks like an alien structure giving birth, waiting for the mother ship to call them home. Neighborhood residents appearing before Easton’s Historic District Commission opposed the project. Hopefully, Easton will listen to them.

I hope the people of Bethlehem will Google these buildings, their locations and voice their concerns to the city.

“Neighborhoods are worth fighting for,” Gadfly always says — we must keep making our ideas known.

Other Council members show warm heart, healthy hope, and a good head

logo Latest in a series of posts on Ethics and City Government logo

Councilman Callahan suggests the possibility of unethical behavior. The Mayor calls him out at a Council meeting. Councilman Callahan returns the favor before the press. Council reprimands Councilman Callahan.

It ain’t over.

The Mayor mentioned sending some sort of letter to Councilman Callahan. Councilman Callahan is the “comeback kid.” He doesn’t give up.

It ain’t over.

We’ve got serious controversy cookin’ here.

The reputations of Mayor Donchez, Councilman Callahan, the head of the Department of Community and Economic Development Alicia Miller Karner, and the City itself are out on a limb.

And the significance of the situation is compounded by the fact that the main antagonists — Councilman Callahan and Councilman Reynolds — may both be candidates for Mayor next time ’round.

Gadfly has said we can learn a lot about leadership qualities from the way people respond to a controversy like this.

Stress reveals the person.

Crisis reveals character.

This is a great opportunity to see what people are made of.

And who might make a great next Mayor.

So we have seen Councilman Callahan and Councilman Reynolds go at it virtually head-to-head and thus have had opportunity to judge their leadership qualities.

What about the rest of Council?

Councilmembers Negron and Colon were silent on the ethics issue at the December 3 meeting, which is not too surprising. Both are normally on the quiet side. In Gadfly’s experience, neither is glib, neither compulsively seeks the spotlight, neither needlessly repeats what’s already been said. Negron voted for the motion, Colon sided with Councilman Callahan, but since both were silent, we cannot know what they were thinking.

However, there’s an interesting range in the responses of the other three Councilmembers, though none touched directly on the central ethical issues of the controversy. Councilwoman Van Wirt apologized to AMK, Councilwoman Crampsie Smith tried to patch the wounds of Callahan’s removal and move Council forward peacefully and cooperatively, and Councilman Waldron — President Waldron — looked at the business side of things: listing the available City mechanisms to handle suggestions of unethical behavior and identifying an obstacle to productive discussion.

Van Wirt showed warm heart, Crampsie Smith healthy hope, and Waldron a good head.

Take this opportunity to complete the circuit of this first round of responses after Councilman Callahan’s challenging press conference.

Listen below.

Paige Van Wirt:

  • This is a tawdry, tawdry business.
  • And we have such better things here in Bethlehem.
  • So the first thing I wanted to say is Ms. Karner, I am so deeply sorry for what you have gone through.
  • We have not always seen eye-to-eye on everything, but this is not how we would treat our City employees who are doing a good job.
  • And while I can’t speak for the rest of Council, I think I do in saying we are deeply sorry for what you have been through here.
  • And thank you for your service to the City.

Grace Crampsie Smith:

  • In my high school . . . our motto is our diversity is our strength.
  • We have students from all over the world, and it’s just wonderful to see the differences in students and co-workers on a daily basis.
  • And I think that here on Council and in our City our diversity is our strength.
  • We all come from different backgrounds and different frame of references, and that’s ok.
  • At the same time, we need to recognize that our diversity is strong, but our similarity is a bond that keeps us together.
  • Our similarities are such that we all love this great City, and we want what’s best.
  • And we all have the privilege and honor to have been voted to represent the City, the citizens of this great City.
  • So that being said, I really hope that moving forward, we can value our diversity, respect each other, treat each other, every one in this room with professionalism and appropriateness.

Adam Waldron:

  • There is a whistleblower protection in place.
  • It’s not something that has to be done on a case-by-case basis, it’s automatic.
  • We have an H.R. department that investigates those issues.
  • There is a policy in place . . . There is a system, and as far as I can tell, it is working.
  • To bring in the state ethics board . . . I don’t think is necessary.
  • Additionally, we have a Controller anonymous tip-line.
  • There is many different outlets . . . there are outlets within the City that do function and serve the purpose of some of the issues that have been brought up tonight.
  • So I don’t think we really need to talk about why the system is broken.
  • I think the process and policies in place are fair.
  • (Speaking now to Councilman Callahan) There are three different issues . . . they get conflated, interwoven, and interchanged at the convenience of you.
  • And I think when that happens, it muddies the waters, and those issues can’t be handled individually.
  • So it’s a bit confusing to follow along.

to be continued . . .

“Once the public dollars are spent, gathering data for monitoring benefit can be like pulling teeth from a crocodile”

logo Latest post in a series about Wind Creek Casino logo

Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development, and deputy director of community development.

Gadfly,

Having administered many economic development grants in my time with the City, I absolutely agree that performance measurements would be extremely important to determine whether there is actually a benefit to the expenditure of public dollars on economic development projects. Philosophically, I have always taken issue how over time public dollars have evolved from paying for public infrastructure in support of development to actually funding the development itself, which I believe banks should be doing.

Grant applications for state and federal funds generally require that public benefit be measured. How many jobs and what kinds of jobs (salaries?) will be created, how many construction jobs were created, what is the projected increase in taxes, is there any spin-off benefit to other local businesses, etc. are the kinds of projections that can make or break an application for funding assistance.

However, once the public dollars are spent, gathering data for monitoring benefit can be like pulling teeth from a crocodile. Cooperation by businesses isn’t stellar. I also used to wonder whether anybody, particularly elected officials, even cared if that data was gathered. After all, the positive press and political benefit of having delivered a grant is all about re-election and public image of “bringing home the bacon” for politicians. As the City’s grants administrator, my leverage to get data dropped drastically once the money was spent to help a business be constructed. Perhaps that has improved over time, but my cynical side tells me that this kind of business development assistance was more about politics than anything else. It’s kind of like your grocer collecting for a charitable cause at check-out and then touting that they contributed $1 million to some cause. They didn’t, you and I and many others did!. Public dollars belong to us and politicians like to act like Santa Claus with everyone else’s money!

So, Peter’s thought is sound, but I’m not so sure whether the cooperation and/or political will exist to pursue data driven results when public dollars go into business development. At least in days past when public infrastructure was built to support that development, the public had a tangible asset in place such as roads, traffic signals, public utilities, landscaping, and information technology infrastructure.

Dana

TIF revisited

logo Latest post in a series about Wind Creek Casino logo

Gadfly:

I think you’re maybe confusing TIF and CRIZ.

The taxes that were captured under the TIF were used on public improvements throughout the TIF area. They were not returned to the casino in any fashion.

The end of the TIF is not a loss to Wind Creek, who pay their real estate taxes no matter if there is a TIF or not. When the TIF expires, those taxes will now go to the BASD, COB, and NC.

There was no direct benefit to the casino unless one considers public infrastructure that was built using TIF funding having a spin-off effect.

For example, completion of the Hoover Mason Trestle or SteelStacks using TIF created an attraction that might draw hotel business, restaurant business or gambling clientele to the casino complex.

The end of the TIF simply means that there will no longer be that public funding component to complete projects like those I mentioned earlier.

Dana Grubb

Thanks, Dana!

Pausing on Peter’s posts

logo Latest post in a series about Wind Creek Casino logo

Peter Crownfield made two comments on posts recently that are easily missed because of the WordPress format for comments — and I’d like to foreground them here.

Peter: Is this [the newly proposed Wind Creek hotel and etcetera] to be a climate-neutral (net zero) building? Is it to be fossil-fuel free? If it doesn’t meet these basics, they should not be allowed to go forward.

We don’t have a real Climate Action Plan in place yet.

But Gadfly thinks we should be thinking that we have a figurative one in place and acting as if it were real.

That is, that every new building now should be held to the rigorous standards of the plan that we will have.

For instance, I’m afraid that the Polk Street Garage will get through without the kind of thinking about solar power that the Environmental Advisory Council folk prompted the Parking Authority about.

The BPA response to the EAC was, to me, far too vague.

For instance, Gadfly is not sure at Planning Commission meetings etc that he hears questions about energy saving design and so forth.

We should be thinking that way even though rules aren’t in place, shouldn’t we?

If Wind Creek doesn’t pass the kind of scrutiny Peter suggests, they should be stopped. No reason why, with their resources, they are not a model of energy efficiency, even without being forced to be.

Gadfly might feel good about Wind Creek’s plans to make Bethlehem the no. 1 destination in the Northeast for a water park if at least their campus was a model in this respect.

Peter: I have not analyzed the TIFs in question, nor have I seen any comprehensive analysis by the city. I have seen quite a few comprehensive studies of TIFs (and similar tax incentive programs) in other areas, and most of them indicate a net loss to the municipalities, even after the TIF ends. I thought Bethlehem was going to start analyzing all these incentive programs in terms of financial results, jobs added, and other predicted benefits.

Yeah.

I would very much like to see a comprehensive analysis of the first 10 years of the Sands, for instance.

These incentive programs come with a lot of promises, a lot of hype — have those things been delivered? I almost feel that such an analysis has to be done by an independent body.

So we’re seeing hype surrounding the recent announcement of Wind Creek’s first major phase.

But what’s our experience with such forecasts?  Can we trust?

A modest proposal: restraining Council repetition

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Bill Scheirer is an economist who grew up in Bethlehem, spent 40 years in DC, and retired here in 2003. He is a life member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and was on the Mayor’s Task Force for the City of Bethlehem Comprehensive Plan, Zoning Ordinance, and Zoning Map.

Gadfly:

As I recall. there are 15 council rules, number 12 of which is that Robert’s Rules applies in all other instances. I would like to propose a Council Rule 16, which would read as follows:

“A councilmember may not state the same fact, opinion, argument, or representation more than twice in the same speech, nor more than three times in the same meeting.”

Councilmembers will find, with this rule modifying Robert’s Rules, that meetings will be shortened not insignificantly and that other councilmembers and members of the press and the public will be more attentive to what they are saying.

Bill
Gadfly #2

Do you suppose that this rule is aimed at any one Council member in particular?

Councilman Callahan’s coup de gras: bar Councilwoman Van Wirt from acting on Parking Authority matters

logo Latest in a series of posts on Ethics and City Government logo

Councilman Reynolds here refines the basis for his motion to relieve Councilman Callahan as liaison to the Parking Authority by focusing on conflict of interest, that is, BGC’s advocacy for the proposal of the company for whom his brother works: it doesn’t matter that you didn’t have a vote; it doesn’t matter that you may disagree with your brother a lot; it does matter that you promoted a plan from which your brother would benefit.

  • It’s not about criticizing [the Polk Street project].
  • Your brother [John Callahan] was a great Mayor, and there are great projects that they are doing in the City of Bethlehem.
  • They don’t look nearly as good when you advocate for them.
  • Our behavior is not just determined by whether or not we vote, but it’s whether or not we advocate, how we have conversations . . .
  • This is more about whether or not . . . the way you handled yourself is representative of this particular body.
  • It doesn’t matter if you disagree with somebody that you are related to nine times in a row, it doesn’t make it any better to be able to advocate for any individual project.
  • [You can believe that that report was biased but] I’m hard pressed to find that that’s an appropriate comment when somebody in your family is the one who benefits from this.
  • As far as representing City Council to another entity, I believe the point has been made.

Councilman Callahan does not address Councilman Reynolds’s conflict of interest argument but stresses the context of AMK’s actions, that is, the recent corruption cases in Allentown and Reading, as the reason for his concern. He denies any active involvement in the BPA decision, indicating — as he has done many times — that he prefers to discuss matters out in the open, in public at Council meetings. And he ends — doing what he also has done many times — implying, without elaboration or specifics, that a Council member was acting “backstage.”

  • I had no input in that [BPA] decision [on the Polk Street Garage].
  • I did not speak at the meeting.
  • I had no conversations with anyone on the Parking Authority that was voting.
  • I had no voting rights there.
  • And as I have said numerous times, I prefer to handle things here in front of this body instead of backstage.
  • I feel . . . that in the wake of Allentown and Reading for [AMK] to make that phone call on the day of the vote and try to persuade people on the Board to go with Nova . . . I thought that was unethical.
  • I feel in the wake of Allentown and Reading again, everybody’s sensors were up.
  • My comments that I made were made here, I wasn’t hiding anything.
  • I didn’t make any phone calls behind the scenes early in the morning.

Councilman Callahan offers to resign as Parking Authority liaison, but Council progresses with Councilman Reynolds’s motion to relieve him by Council action, and the motion passes 5-2 (Councilman Colon voting with Councilman Callahan). BGC again references a kind of predetermined plot by JWR, but in a dramatic coup de gras BGC asks that Councilwoman Van Wirt be barred from discussion or voting regarding the BPA because of an easement she has with them on her home property. What’s fair is fair, he claims. Gadfly doesn’t understand the correlation. Gadfly cannot understand this move by BGC at all. Anyone who has paid even the barest attention knows that PVW has been at virtually continual loggerheads with the BPA. To suggest favoritism, if that’s what BGC is doing, because of a deal in her benefit makes no sense. Very odd behavior, if you ask the Gadfly. This final move by BGC is an attempt to turn tables, to attempt to slur PVW, to intimate — what? — possible unethical behavior, possible conflict of interest on her part? Council doesn’t even stop to acknowledge much less consider BGC’s request.

  • Obviously this was something Mr. Reynolds was working on
  • I resign as liaison to the Parking Authority.
  • I think parking is a very important thing in the City of Bethlehem.
  • I would ask from this point on that Dr. Van Wirt not vote or have any discussion on anything dealing with the Parking Authority due to a easement that you have with the Parking Authority for access to your garage.
  • I mean, if we’re going to be fair, we’re going to be fair.

to be continued . . .

A TIF Tutorial

logo Latest post in a series about Wind Creek Casino logo

Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development, and deputy director of community development.

“And the additional real estate taxes the new construction will generate will immediately help the city’s bottom line. In past years, county, city and school district tax revenue generated from improvements there went into a special taxing fund — the Tax Increment Financing — to pay for infrastructure improvements at the former Bethlehem Steel land. The TIF expires next year.”
                                                            Morning Call, December 4

Gadfly,

Along with then City Solicitor Joseph ‘Jay’ Leeson and Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority Executive Director John Rohal, I was the 3rd member of the City’s negotiating team to deal with Bethlehem Steel representatives to bring about Tax Increment Financing (TIF) at the site that comprised what was then known as Beth Works. It roughly encompassed the area from the Fahy Bridge to the property that is now Lehigh Heavy Forge just east of the casino. It was looked at to be a financing mechanism for providing public funding to support the construction of public infrastructure for new development on a portion of what at that time was the largest brownfield site in the United States.

What is TIF? It is the set aside of real estate taxes collected on new development within a defined area. The taxes being collected on the unimproved property continue to be paid to the taxing entities, in this case the Bethlehem Area School District, City of Bethlehem, and County of Northampton. Once development takes place the property is reassessed to include those improvements. So, if an acre building site is assessed before any improvements at $500,000 and reassessed after improvements at $2.5 million, the real estate taxes on the $2 million increase would be diverted into a TIF account and not be paid to the taxing entities.

Public meetings were held, and all three taxing entities bought into the idea of diverting tax proceeds into a fund reserved for making public improvements to support new for-profit development.

As those funds accumulate they can then be used to pay off bonds that are floated to fund public improvements such as streets, public utilities, parking lots/garages, etc. The TIF in Bethlehem was structured for a 20-year term, which if my memory serves me was the term limit in 1999 when we negotiated this deal with Bethlehem Steel. The aforementioned public improvements were the kinds of public improvements envisioned back then to be built and funded with TIF. Of course, Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt and development concepts evolved, so different kinds of “public improvements” were made.

The singular project that made TIF viable was the casino development and the roughly $4 million in annual real estate tax increases that were then going into the TIF account. This allowed the Redevelopment Authority to float bonds for a variety of initiatives that include the Hoover Mason Trestle, Stock House, parking lots, public areas of SteelStacks, and the South Bethlehem Greenway. TIF money also went into other questionable uses as well, such as the private 510 Flats project ($800,000) across from the NCC Fowler Center and funding the South Side Ambassadors Program, and reimbursing ArtsQuest for staff time to unlock/lock the Hoover Mason Trestle access gates.

As with many government initiatives good intentions can often lead to unintended consequences, and TIF ended up being used in ways that some would question, including me as an original negotiator. Politics and the desire to feed at the public trough tended to trump intentions.

Although I’ve been informed that it is possible to extend the TIF term so that additional improvements could be made, I do not believe that the political will exists with any of the three taxing entities to do that. Increasing needs in individual budgets do not make it attractive to forgo tax revenue beyond the original 20-year term.

I hope this makes it more understandable.

Dana

So Professor Dana or others: let me see if I understand. Let’s see if I can put this in my own words.

Under the TIF, the property owner (the Sands) paid taxes as usual on their now developed and more valuable property, but the amount of the tax increase solely attributed to development went not to the taxing agencies but into a fund solely directed at improving their property. The taxing agencies’ revenues from the property stayed the same (in that sense, they didn’t “lose” money), but they agreed to take a hit on increased taxes from the increased value of the redeveloped property, and, in effect, the property owner saved some money on improvements. The taxes on the increased value of the property flowed back in to the property owner enabling it to do more improvement.

So is it true to say that the end of the TIF is a loss to Wind Creek? That they are the ones to lose the benefit? So is it true to say that the end of the TIF is a gain for the City (and the other taxing agencies)? If so, that sounds ok to me. But it sounds to me that you see “us” losing a benefit when the TIF ends and that you would like to see the TIF continue — can you explain that further? Does Wind Creek need the “help” of the TIF? Are there things on that property that won’t get done without the TIF? I think I’m still missing something here.

Gadfly still needs your help.