Allentown City Council unanimously passed a no tax increase 2013 budget Wednesday.
As Mayor Ed Pawlowski promised when he first presented the proposed budget to City Council in early November, the $88 million budget will require no increases in real estate taxes, fees or charges.
Pawlowski has said 2013 will be the ninth consecutive year without a tax increase in the city.
After the meeting, he called it an austere, no-nonsense budget.
“We’re using taxpayers’ money wisely and judiciously and trying to deliver quality service at the most affordable cost possible,” said the mayor.
“I’m very thankful to council,” said Pawlowski. “We worked really hard on this. I think it’s a good budget.”
Council president Julio Guridy said it was the seventh time he was passing a budget without a tax increase. He thanked the mayor and the administration for their hard work, especially in light of financial constraints being faced by the city.
Council held multiple hearings on the budget this year, rather than conducting marathon sessions that lasted long past midnight.
"I don’t know if this is a fact, but you probably have more budget hearings than Bethlehem, Easton and the counties,” said Pawlowski, adding that also may include Allentown School District. “You guys do a very thorough job of examining this budget.”
The budget was approved with little controversy.
Just before it was passed, Ryan Hunsicker, Allentown chapter leader of the Service Employees International Union, objected to two vacant positions being eliminated from the parks department.
“I cannot see eliminating two positions just because they weren’t filled,” said Hunsicker.
The mayor responded: “Would you rather have me eliminate positions that were filled?”
“I’m trying to keep what I’ve got,” said Hunsicker. “I don’t see the reason that we have to eliminate something because you see the need not to fill it. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on other issues. People are looking for work out there and we have openings we’re not filling.”
Hunsicker said the parks department’s entry-level positions have been reduced from 10 positions in 2008 to three in 2013. “It’s ridiculous,” he said, adding manpower is decreasing but the workload is not. Later said those positions are critically needed to do a variety of parks maintenance work.
Hunsicker asked council to reinstate the two positions for 2013, even if they were funded with just $1, so they would not be eliminated. He was told it was too late in the approval process to make such a change in the budget. Council president Julio Guridy said if Hunsicker had brought it to council earlier, it probably could have done what he requested.
Council member Jeanette Eichenwald told Hunsicker she is interested in looking into the matter, which she called an important issue, and said she was glad he brought it to council’s attention.
Resident Lou Hershman stood to claim the 2013 budget is not balanced, that expenditures outweigh revenue by $359,000. He said council legally is required to pass a balanced budget.
But both Guridy and the mayor said the budget contains a surplus. That was confirmed by council member Peter Schweyer, who said: “We are not operating in a deficit. We are using surplus dollars from years past, as we have done for the last couple of years.”
During council’s meeting, Pawlowski again warned Allentown residents will face a 100 percent tax increase if his plan to lease the city’s water and sewer systems does not succeed in 2013.
“I don’t believe the city can handle that,” said the mayor. “It would absolutely destroy the economy of the city and I am not going to let the city go down that way.”
He intends to use up to $200 million in anticipated revenue from leasing the systems to end a multi-million pension crisis being faced by Allentown.
Long before council passed the budget, the water and sewer lease issue was raised by resident Tom Hahn, who insisted the administration has not done enough to explain how much residents will pay in rates if the systems are leased.
Pawlowski again explained the projected rates, adding that information is posted on the city’s website.
Hahn suggested the mayor should explain the rate increases by making presentations in neighborhoods. Pawlowski said he has been to “every single community group” but will be happy to meet with “anybody, anywhere, anytime” to explain the importance of the lease in putting the city “back on a solid fiscal footing” by getting rid of the pension problem for decades to come.
Hahn refused to yield the podium more than four minutes after his allotted three minutes to speak were up, although some of that seven minutes was used by city officials responding to his comments.