READING, Pa. - The Reading City Council took its first step Monday in its involvement with the reauthorization process for the Downtown Improvement District.
Although it did not vote on or discuss the issue in any detail, the council heard a presentation on the proposed plan from Bradley Segal, president of Progressive Urban Management Associates.
The company, based in Denver, Colorado, was hired to develop a future plan for DID.
"The Reading DID is an important but underutilized and underfunded tool," Segal said. "There is a need for a greater partnership and collaboration among entities working to revitalize the downtown."
Segal announced that a public hearing with the city council will be held on the matter on Oct. 20, as well as two virtual public open houses for business owners in the DID on Sept. 30 at 5 p.m. and on Oct. 6 at 9 a.m.
There are 551 property owners in the downtown district, of which about 470 pay an assessment to the DID.
If 45% of the property owners who pay assessments vote against DID reauthorization, the current proposed plan would be dead.
The DID was originally formed in 1995. The current agreement ends Dec. 31, and a new reauthorization would renew the organization for another five years.
The DID authority has already approved the proposed plan.
Segal said the DID is underfunded because the current rate of 4.754 mills has not changed in the past 20 years.
"The net effect is that the resources for DID have eroded," Segal said.
The plan proposes gradual rate increases starting in 2022, for a total rate increase of 18% at the end of the five-year period.
There is also a plan to add a frontage assessment for properties on Penn Street from Second to Eighth streets.
The plan would also seek financial commitments from tax-exempt properties in the district.
In addition to finances, Segal said the DID would benefit from fresh leadership.
"The DID would evolve with a different management model with the consideration of a nonprofit model," Segal said. "A nonprofit would be a way to have an independent champion focused on the downtown."
Segal said a nonprofit is a national best practice for DIDs and also protects the DID from shifts in political leadership.
A national search would be conducted for a seasoned executive director with industry experience, Segal explained.
The leadership changes would also be implemented beginning in 2022.
"We want to excel in the core services as well as expand the scope of services," Segal said. "We want to celebrate Reading's diverse Latino population with new services and initiatives that support and elevate a multicultural downtown.
"To make a downtown work, all the stakeholders have to be working together. As outsiders, we have been able to provide a straightforward and honest evaluation and we don't get the sense that all the groups work together.
"This is a huge opportunity. There is a big trend nationally for downtown investment. There is a new energy and vision for the downtown."
James Cinelli, chairman of the DID authority, said the results of the study have shown him that the DID has a lot of untapped potential.
"We're running it the same way as we did in 1995," Cinelli said. "That's not to criticize, but best practices have changed and expectations are higher. I am excited to see the DID transform."
Councilwoman Lucine Sihelnik said it is important to understand the reauthorization process.
"This is inclusive and open to all," she said. "The gates are now open [for us] to move forward. We believe we will have a strong and vibrant DID."
Council President Jeffrey Waltman expressed some preliminary reservations.
"I want to do a deeper dive into the rates and the long-term structure," Waltman said.
Proposed resolution tabled
Also Monday, the council tabled a proposed resolution that would have authorized the settlement of the litigation among the Reading Area Water Authority, the county and the city.
City Solicitor Elizabeth Kraft said she wanted to discuss the details of the resolution with the council in a closed-door executive session.
After the closed session, the council announced it was pulling the resolution from the agenda, with Waltman only saying that the matter needs further deliberation.
The proposed agreement calls for the county to pay $750,000 to resolve an issue involving nearly three decades of unbilled water service at the Berks County Services Center.
RAWA estimated its loss to be $1.5 million, but under the proposed settlement, both the city and the water authority would receive $375,000 from the county in lump sum payments.
The county commissioners announced the tentative agreement had been reached among the three entities last week.