Lehigh Valley

First Allentown budget meeting of 2018 a quiet affair

Proposed budget calls for no property tax increase

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The 2018 budget season in Allentown didn't kick off with a bang. It kicked off with a backfire.

A few minutes after 6 p.m., six of the seven members of city council walked into their public meeting room with freshly-minted copies of the 2018 budget sent to them from Mayor Ed Pawlowski.

But those copies arrived about 30 to 60 minutes before the meeting. Not enough time to review, yet alone absorb a document a few pages shy of an old phone book.

Instead of issuing Columbo-like questions from the dais, council members were page-turning like undergraduates cramming the night before a final examination. So the first meeting by council about Allentown's financial future was over in a flash and generated no questions for the Pawlowski administration.

That was probably a good thing.

Pawlowski would not have been able to answer anything because he wasn't in attendance. City Finance Director Brent Hartzell, who typically pinch hits for the mayor during council meetings, wasn't at the plate or even in the room.

In fact, no representative from the administration showed up.

"There's not a whole lot we can do tonight," said a befuddled President Ray O'Connell on the season's empty first budget affair.

"I never saw a mayor avoid council like this," said Lou Hershman, a bulldog critic of Pawlowski and council candidate during a public comment session. "I can't believe it's happening."

The mayor said he had notified the city clerk days in advance that he had a scheduling conflict and could not attend Thursday's meeting.

The $107.8 million spending plan released Thursday afternoon holds the line on property taxes for the 13th consecutive year.

"The proposed 2018 budget and program of services will see a continuation of austere spending and employment practices that this administration has pursued in the past and continues to build upon," the mayor said in the news release to council.

Pawlowski added that the success Allentown is experiencing is the result of "the tremendous investment and job development projects coming to fruition in the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ)."

The budget is balanced on the basis of "conservative revenue estimates and careful prioritization of necessary expenditures," the mayor wrote.

The city's business privilege tax remains unchanged; the $52 local services tax remains the same; and the garbage collection fee remains flat.

Pawlowski added that the budget allocates new short-term financing for fleet replacement acquisition and a new generation of the city's first responder communication system.

The news release noted that pension contributions would be increased to meet the more conservative investment return projections. Funds from the 2013 water and sewer system concession lease assigned for repayment of pension obligation bonds would support the city's 2018 additional pension obligation in support of its active and retired employees.

Another item of interest in the prepared statement was that non-personnel expenses would remain nominally flat compared to the 2017 budget.

The mayor also touted what he termed "new initiatives" in the 2018 fiscal plan.

One of those initiatives concerns the creation of "several new positions designed to increase fiscal accountability and increase tax compliance".

Also, the budget proposes purchasing two new fire engine pumpers, a new ambulance, 12 new police cars, and one prisoner transport van.

The administration has developed a multi-year plan to address upgrading the city's radio communications equipment, IT, infrastructure, and rolling stock, the release noted.

The city will borrow money to pay for the upgrades.

The amount of capital or terms of the transaction were not included in the mayor's news release.

Pawlowski called the improvements "necessary" and said they would "enhance the services offered to city residents...and protect the investments in city infrastructure."

However, the mayor also plans to roll out a new fee for storm water management.

The money will address the impact of federal environmental mandates and mitigate ongoing erosion to public works facilities. This additional levy will cost $20 per 500 square feet of impervious surface.

O'Connell, who has also been a fierce Pawlowski critic and is also a candidate for mayor, made a few comments on the budget Thursday night. The president noted the budget was devoid of a five-year-plan.

"There should be a five-year-plan," he said.

Controller Jeff Glazier replied there could be a five-year plan submitted "by the end of the year." He later added he wasn't sure if that would happen or not.

With the uncertainty having to suffice, O'Connell dropped the issue and continued.

Pawlowski, he said, had changed the position of "managing director" to the title of "chief of staff."

While the wording of an administration title does not usually qualify as a news flash, O'Connell said the position of "managing director" requires council approval. The position of "chief of staff" does not.

The president also added that Pawlowski had issued a 3.5 percent wage hike for non-bargaining employees.

Council and the mayor should have ample opportunities for questions and answers over the next month. Budget season in Allentown contains several meetings, each of which correspond to a specific city department and will be held during November into early December, if needed.

The first of those meetings will take place at 6 p.m. Nov. 6 at City Hall. The topic will be finance.

Hartzell is expected to be in attendance that evening, according to comments made by the city Clerk Michael Hanlon.

The budget is available for review on the city's website.

Councilwoman Cynthia Mota was absent from Thursday's meeting.

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