A proposed $1-per-ticket increase in Bethlehem’s amusement tax generated controversy on City Council Tuesday – not because of the amount, but because members of council were being asked to act on it too quickly.
The city’s administration backed away from expecting council to take an initial “first reading” vote on the proposed increase at Tuesday night’s meeting, something members of council said they didn’t learn they were being asked to do until late Friday afternoon.
Mayor Robert Donchez repeatedly accepted responsibility for what he called a miscommunication. At one point, he referred to it as a breakdown in communication within his administration.
Members of City Council have received “some outrage and bad feedback” to that proposed increase, said council member Michael Recchiuti.
The city imposed a $1.50-per-ticket amusement tax early last year. Now the administration wants to raise that to a maximum of $2.50 on admission tickets that exceed $50, said the mayor.
The $1 increase would generate an additional $200,000 a year for the city, said Donchez.
The sooner that increase would be approved, the sooner the city could start collecting more money.
Donchez initially wanted council to approve it by Oct. 1.
While that’s not happening, he still hopes it will be passed soon so the city can start collecting the increased tax in the final months of this year.
“There was urgency in this particular instance because of the timing involved,” said David Brong, the city’s business administrator.
The proposed tax increase is just one of about a dozen options Bethlehem is considering to eliminate what Brong called an “epic” $5.9-million deficit in the 2015 city budget.
City officials warned wiping out that deficit is going to involve other painful decisions.
“We’re required by law to have a balanced budget,” said the mayor.
Donchez told council that $5.9-million gap is not anyone’s fault. “It’s the increase in medical and pension.”
Council members complained that they didn’t find out until late Friday afternoon that the administration expected them to take a first-reading vote on the amusement tax increase at Tuesday’s meeting.
Some felt that did not give them enough time to study the issue.
Council president J. William Reynolds said on Friday, council received an email from Mark Sivak, the city’s budget and finance director, asking it to do a first reading vote on the proposal at Tuesday night’s meeting.
But on Tuesday, said Reynolds, council received a request from Donchez to delay that first reading vote until its Sept. 16 meeting, with a final vote at its Oct. 7 meeting.
Atty. Jack Spirk, council’s solicitor, said if council approves the increase, the mayor then has 10 days to sign the ordinance, adding: “He could sign it the same day.”
Spirk said an ordinance becomes law 20 days after it is signed, unless council declares an emergency by resolution and has it immediately become law.
Reynolds said even if council had given the proposal first reading approval Tuesday night and final approval on Sept. 16, the increase could not have taken effect by Oct. 1.
Council member Bryan Callahan suggested that, in the future, the mayor advise members of council about an issue on the same day that he informs “stakeholders.”
“I don’t want to get phone calls and questions from a stakeholder who is going to be drastically affected by a tax increase, and have to answer questions on a subject I didn’t even know about,” said Callahan.
“I really did not know anything about this until about 4 o’clock on Friday, on a holiday weekend. It didn’t smell right.”
“I’ll take the responsibility for the miscommunication on this issue,” said Donchez.