Lehigh Valley

Bethlehem City Council will consider a hiring freeze

Finance Committee votes 2-1 to send ordinance to council

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - The Bethlehem City Council took a proactive step in attempting to tighten city government's spending belt by passing a proposed hiring freeze ordinance by a 2-1 margin Tuesday night.

The proposed ordinance, which the full city council will consider at its May 6 meeting, will freeze all hires except for the city's police, fire, EMS and other contracted employees through July 1.

However, the full council will reserve the right to extend that freeze date when considering the ordinance.

The savings from the proposed freeze will be used to bolster the city's General Fund and the city's water and sewer funds.

The three member finance committee was split 2-1 on the issue.

Finance committee chairman, Michael Recchiuti and Bryan Callahan voted for the measure.

Eric Evans cast the dissenting vote.

The hiring freeze ordinance was crafted earlier this year by Recchiuti, in response to budget overruns pertaining to snow removal costs.

However, earlier in the meeting, Director of Public Works Michael Alkhal told the committee that a $545,000 snow removal deficit for fiscal year 2014 will be plugged by postponing phase two of the Main Street Streetscape Improvement Plan, improvements scheduled for Sand Island, and the utilization of $112,900 in liquid fuel savings.

That, said Evans, in addition to the fact that the original ordinance was drafted in February, was enough to pull his support.

"It's up to the administration to run day-to-day operations," Evans said. "We need a plan that's more palatable. It's crossing the line and I don't see the need."

The proposed hiring freeze received significant pushback from city Business Administrator David Brong.

"We share the interest in fiscal restraint with council, but all of the administration finds this troubling," Brong said. "I will say you will see reductions in contracts, fee reduction, pension plans and capital spending restraint. The question is, how much mileage will we get out of this? It will be an irritant."

Brong told the committee that, although they probably didn't like hearing it, council needs to identify and eliminate non-core functions and consolidate operations.

"A hiring freeze would be epic and a distraction," Brong said. "Abandon this freeze and let us do our jobs."

Brong told the committee and three other council members present, including president J. William Reynolds, that three offers have been made on jobs that would be affected by a hiring freeze.

"The director of water and sewer isn't going to be happy without a manager of commercial operations," he said.

Seasonal employees, including the city's lifeguards, might also be affected by a freeze.

Callahan said that the ordinance states that hires can be made with council's specific approval.

"We're not going to be hard of hearing if you come to us," he said. "The bottom line is that our primary job is to be a fiscal watchdog for our city. We all know higher medical and pension costs are coming. We can't ignore that a crisis is looming."

Recchiuti noted that a 2015 tax increase is looming and the intent of the freeze is to reduce government by reducing costs.

In other business, Brong reported that first quarter of 2014 ended with the city's general fund at $16.6 million, an increase over $13.3 million at the same time last year.

Brong credited real estate tax collections that are $2.1 million ahead of last year's pace.

"All in all, it's very favorable," Brong said. "The bottom line is that we got significant tax receipts in the first quarter. The general fund is where we expect it, but we have to manage it very tightly."

Council meets again Wednesday night in its regular bi-weekly session at 7 p.m. at City Hall.

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