Bethlehem mayor endorses expansion of development bureau

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez voiced his approval of the proposed plan for expansion and reorganization of the Community and Economic Development Department on Wednesday.

Department Director Alicia Karner laid out the proposal before city council that would upgrade one position and add another entirely to deal with the increased labor anticipated by growing business in the region.

"I support this reorganization very strongly," said Donchez, who stressed the importance of using the department to bolster the efforts of the newly minted City Revitalization and Improvement Zone. 

"It is CRIZ-driven, there's no doubt about it," he said. "We have the golden opportunity to move this city forward [and] we have to run with it."

Council members, however, remained skeptical of the plan due to lingering concerns that they will be unable to balance the budget as is, let alone with new added positions.

"My whole concern is purely financial," said Community Development Chairman Bryan Callahan. "At some point we need to give the taxpayers a break."

Karner, however, maintained that the positions would more than pay for themselves by serving as liasions to what the city hopes will be an influx of CRIZ-related revenue.

"There's a potential revenue stream for the city for 30 years," she said. "It's just an opportunity that I don't think we should pass up."

Funding for the new positions is expected to be raised from Keystone Innovation Zone fees and the Bethlehem Economic Development Corporation, each to the tune of $30,000.

They would allow the city to then create the planned Economic Development Administrator and Economic Coordinator positions.

Council members proposed a potential savings compromise that would make the two openings contract positions, thereby saving the city over $26,000 in healthcare and pension costs.

"If that's what it took to get more hands on deck, I'll support it," said Karner.

At Wednesday's meeting, the board also accepted a three-year, $40,000 grant from Lehigh University that will allow the city to upgrade a building inspector position from part-time to full-time and in doing so help them monitor housing blight and devaluation on south side Bethlehem.

 "Aging housing stock is a critical area that needs to be addressed," said Councilman Eric Evans. "To be able to focus on compliance and work with folks to maintain the housing stock is critical."

Mayor Donchez echoed his support of the initiative.

"I do want to commend Lehigh University for putting up $40,000 for a full-time inspector."

The board tabled discussion of the reorganization plan until the next board of finance meeting on April 15th.

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Allentown, PA 18102




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