EASTON, Pa. -

There was a traffic jam in city council chambers Wednesday night, as a half-dozen members of Easton's business community lined up to deliver a unanimous thumbs down to proposed higher meter rates and extended enforcement hours.

Connexions gallery owner Anthony Marraccini said he was "deeply concerned" about how the plan would affect the downtown's retail sector, including his business. "I'm in a prime location. I should be thriving, but I'm struggling," he told council.

Activist and downtown booster Curt Ehly said, "The small business community is kind of at a tipping point. Recently there was a bit of a waiting list for space. This could push it the other way."

Ray Thierrin, who runs the School of Rock, said his clientele "will be more and more inclined to go elsewhere where there is free parking,"
if council goes ahead with its plan.

And American Printing Unlimited owner Fran Pinter called the extended enforcement hours "anti-business," and predicted, "You're going to piss off people who come to our restaurants, because we have high- class restaurants."

Mayor Sal Panto balanced the 2013 budget he proposed in October by including a projected $190,000 in extra revenue from raising parking meter rates from 50 to 75 cents an hour and extending the hours of operation from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday in the downtown area.

But at a budget workshop meeting Tuesday night, Panto told council that a larger-than-expected increase in costs at the city's wastewater treatment facility punched a $161,690 hole in his $31.1 million budget.

A 2.75 percent boost in sewer rates or a half-mill hike in property taxes would be needed to fill the hole, if new revenue sources or budget cuts were not found, Panto said, and that led to a discussion about raising the meter rates even higher -- to $1 an hour -- and further extending the hours of operation -- from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Monday through Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday throughout the city.

Wednesday night, city administrator Glenn Steckman estimated the $1 an hour meter rate and extra enforcement hours would bring in at least another $20,000 in revenue.

As he did on Tuesday night, council member Jeff Warren expressed reservations about the $1 an hour rate and extra enforcement hours.
Dr. Elinor Warner, who was absent Tuesday night because of illness, also had doubts. "Is it overkill?" she asked rhetorically.

Council member Michael Fleck said years ago, it was important to have low parking rates to draw people and business to Easton's struggling downtown. Now that things are better, it's time to increase the rates to generate revenue, he said.

Mayor Panto tried to assure business owners that he and council were not trying to make up the $161,690 budget hole with the changes to the parking rules. He pointed out there is $430,000 in his budget for programs that benefit downtown businesses, including the Ambassadors, Weed and Seed and the Greater Easton Development Program, and that changing the parking rules would generate only 55 percent of that amount.

Ehly and Marraccini both asked about passing along the $161,690 increase in the form of higher sewer rates.

Panto told Ehly that Easton rates are already the highest in the Lehigh Valley, $6.90 per unit, which is about 40 percent higher than other municipalities in the area.

Fleck told Marraccini, "Why must it fall to the poorest of the poor to subsidize downtown businesses?"

Marraccini said he would "do whatever it takes to keep these [downtown improvement] programs running. I'll bleed for them. But I don't want to be a stoolie, and have the downtown built on my bones."