Bethlehem City Council nixes mayor’s budget proposal

Published: Nov 20 2012 11:58:10 PM EST   Updated On: Nov 21 2012 05:49:24 AM EST
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

City Council on Tuesday night could not muster the votes needed to give initial approval to Mayor John Callahan’s proposed 2013 budget proposal that includes an 8.5 percent property tax increase.

During Tuesday’s meeting, council came up one vote shy of the four needed to give approval to the proposed $72 million budget on first ordinance reading.

Three of the five council members in attendance voted to approve the budget on first reading. Council members Jean Belinski and David DiGiacinto voted no. Council President Eric Evans was absent from the meeting, and Councilwoman Karen Dolan had to leave the meeting early, prior to the budget vote, for a personal reason.

Council is scheduled to reconsider the budget for initial approval during its next meeting. The final reading of the budget is expected to take place the Dec. 20 meeting, according to Council Vice President J. William Reynolds.

Callahan’s budget proposal includes an 8.5 percent property tax increase that would amount to an additional $60 on the average household. That amount, he has said, would be more than offset by a projected $110 average savings as a result of his administration’s proposal to switch the city to a single private trash hauler, according to the mayor’s budget presentation posted on the city website.

According to the mayor’s budget presentation, new sources of revenue are needed to cover large increases in various fixed costs, including a $2.7 million jump in the city‘s pension obligations. Callahan’s budget plan calls for covering these increases through the proposed property tax increase; a proposed 5 percent amusement tax on each concert and sports event ticket sold; the plan to switch to a single trash hauler; and a plan for local nonprofits coming up with $1 million in payments in lieu of taxes.

DiGiacinto, who voted against the proposal, said he believes there is “a lot of fiction” in the administration’s budget revenue figures.

He questioned the “reality” of revenue projections for the still-proposed amusement tax and garbage hauler switch, the two of which are estimated to bring in about $1.1 million next year.

Reynolds, who voted in favor of the budget on first reading, said he believes Tuesday’s decision not to approve the measure was “passing the buck” and an “unwise decision.”
Reynolds said if council wants changes to the budget proposal, it “must be part of the solution” and make substantive suggestions to the administration.

“If we disagree with revenue projections and sources, we will need to address expenditures,” said Reynolds, who noted that council has the ultimate responsibility of adopting the budget.

According to Reynolds, the budget vote on first reading Tuesday night was designed to simply further the budget process, and was not meant to be an indicator of council members’ positions on the current proposal.

Several residents in attendance spoke against the proposed switch to a single garbage hauler.

Resident Richard Skoff said the city should not take away the people’s decision to select their own hauler. Under the current system, he said, residents can switch haulers if unsatisfied with the service. He also questioned how the city would be able to manage unique situations such as his not needing trash collection for three months a year due to leaving the area during the winter. Right now, he is able to simply cancel and not pay for garbage service while away.

Skoff and a few other residents also raised concerns that a single hauler would “low-ball” their cost during the first year to get into the door, and then hike fees year-after-year. “In the long-run I don’t think we’ll save money on this,” he said.

Another resident said the city should let the voters make the decision on garbage collection through a ballot question.

Resident Dana Grubb, a retired city employee, said Bethlehem’s pension crisis is a result of poor decisions by elected officials.

“If they made some tough decisions in the past, we wouldn’t be where we’re at today,” he said. “This is not the fault of the city employees.”

Grubb blamed the city for under-funding the pension system for years and noted that the pensions received by retired employees are bestowed as a result of elected officials’ decisions.

Other proposals listed in Callahan’s budget presentation include reducing the city’s workforce by five additional employees, for a total of 69 over the last three years, representing about 10 percent of the city’s workforce.