Some folks in the audience gasped when Donchez said: “Last Monday we had 24 people.” He added the first were there at 9 o’clock and they kept coming until 3:30 p.m.
He said he’s been averaging 18-25 people since he started that program in February.
“We follow up with all the concerns and complaints,” promised the mayor.
After acknowledging he’s been criticized for giving out his home phone number, Donchez immediately advised those in the audience to grab pencils and write it down: 610-868-4680.
“Leave a message on the machine; I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
He said he gets 30-40 calls every day.
Those in the audience included Lehigh County Executive Thomas Muller – west Bethlehem is in Lehigh County – and state Rep. Daniel McNeill, whose legislative district now includes west Bethlehem.
The meeting was arranged by the Kaywin Block Watch. Donchez said he plans to attend meetings of all the city’s block watch organizations at least once a year.
Here’s more about some of the issues discussed:
Taxes going up?
Donchez said the biggest issue facing Bethlehem is that two items – pensions and health care costs -- are going to increase the city’s 2015 budget by $5 million.
“This is the most difficult budget I have seen in my 18 years as an elected official,” he said, noting: “Our revenue is not increasing by $5 million.”
He said cities and counties across Pennsylvania are facing that same financial challenge and the state legislature needs to enact pension reform. “It’s not sustainable. We cannot keep increasing the bills to the school district, the county or the city by $2 million to $3 million a year.”
The mayor, a Democrat who described himself as an extreme fiscal conservative, has formed a financial advisory committee of five CEOs to help the city fashion the 2015 budget.
“We may have to make some very hard choices,” said Donchez. “I’m willing to do that. I’m willing to lead the charge. If we have to have a tax increase – and I’m not saying we will – I want to make it the smallest one possible.”
Zoned trash hauling
The mayor proposes implementing zoned trash hauling, which means all trash would be picked up on specific days in different parts of the city.
He said Bethlehem would be divided into four zones -- south side, west side, north and northeast – and all trash would be picked up on two days in each of those zones.
For example, south Bethlehem might have a Monday/Tuesday pick-up and west Bethlehem’s might be Tuesday/Wednesday.
“That means if you’re in west Bethlehem and it’s picked up on Tuesday/Wednesday and garbage is there Thursday, we know we can go and cite the property owner,” said Donchez. “It gives us some control.”
He said the city has 22 private trash haulers, plus some “renegades.” That results in trash being out on the streets all over town and everyone has it collected on different days.
“Today we have no control over this,” said Donchez. ”We’ve lost the battle of enforcing garbage. We have no idea when your garbage is going to be picked up. This is a quality of life issue for you. I would not want to be living next to someone where there’s a lot of garbage. We need some teeth.”
He said the city has met with five “representative” trash haulers and plans to meet with them again. If they respond favorably to his plan, he will meet with all 22 haulers.
“If the 22 haulers are receptive to the idea, then I’m going to present it to City Council at the end of the year. I’m hoping the haulers buy into it and I’m hoping council buys into it.”
Donchez said his goal is to implement zoned hauling in Bethlehem next July 1.