Lehigh Valley

Snowy winter may lead to hiring freeze in Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Because of the financial strain caused by this winter's cold and snow, Bethlehem City Council soon will be asked to impose a hiring freeze on non-emergency personnel in the city until at least July.

The plan was announced at Monday's night's meeting of council's finance committee by council member Michael Recchiuti, who chairs that committee.

"A hiring freeze might be enough to give us a little bit more before this becomes a dire situation,'" said Recchiuti. "With the savings there we can look to fix some holes in the budget down the road."

He stressed City Council is "the keeper of the purse; the budget is our domain. We have to be pro-active."

Recchiuti told fellow committee members Bryan Callahan and Eric Evans he was not asking them to vote on making a formal recommendation to council, but brought up the hiring freeze for discussion because it relates to finance.

After the meeting, Recchiuti said he will prepare a formal resolution for council's consideration later this week. He told his committee he is working on the language with Atty. John Spirk, City Council's new solicitor.

Recchiuti said he was making the proposal after consulting with borough council president J. William Reynolds. "He thought this was an appropriate time for me to make this proposal," said Recchiuti.

He explained one reason for the proposed freeze is in response to all the overtime paid to city crews to plow streets and remove snow from them.

Last week Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez told City Council dealing with snow had cost the city $300,000 in just one week.

Recchiuti said the city does not yet know the full extent of the financial impact caused by "this rash of bad weather and overtime. And winter's not over yet."

David Brong, the city's business administrator, told the committee:
"We think we know where we're going to land and where we're going to land is not in a great place. We do have a good idea of the magnitude of what we're dealing with.

"We're not going to say we'll increase the budget by $500,000 to accommodate the spending. So we have to compromise on certain things that are in the budget to make the numbers work."

Brong said he did not have a specific figure on how far the city is over budget, but added: "It's several hundred thousand dollars beyond the full year's budget."

Recchiuti stressed the city's public safety operations - police, fire and emergency medical services - will not be included in the proposed temporary hiring freeze.

The finance committee chair said the proposed hiring freeze would continue until at least July, so City Council can evaluate where the city budget "will be going forward and make any adjustments we need.
The second six months of the year is territory unknown until we get closer.

"Every year, come July or August, we worry about getting through that last six months. Most of our revenue comes in the first six months, with the real estate taxes."

Administration officials who met with the committee could not say how many positions currently are open in the city or quantify how much money might be saved by not filling them for several months.

Council member Adam Waldron, who does not serve on the finance committee but attended the meeting, was told the administration can provide City Council with a list of open positions and salaries, to see what a freeze potentially would save Bethlehem.

Brong suggested: "We ought to have a dialogue as opposed to a hard freeze." Recchiuti said language can be put into the resolution that will allow some hiring flexibility.

Brong asked if the proposed resolution is being driven by normal cash flow problems the city experiences every year or by the expense of snow operations.

Recchiuti said the cash flow problem is being amplified by snow-related overtime costs. "We're already overspending the budget for the first quarter of the year for snow removal."

Also during the meeting, the finance committee unanimously voted to recommend that council approves $100 increases in ambulance service fees. The fees were last increased in 2009, said Gordon Smith, the city's emergency services director.

He said the EMS transport charges still will be low compared to other ambulance services.

Said Smith: "With the proposed rate, we'll be more in line with what Allentown, Reading, Northampton and Hellertown are charging for EMS transports to hospitals."

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