Bethlehem City Hall sign

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Bethlehem City Council on Tuesday night approved an ordinance establishing a 2021 tax rate that would increase the burden on property owners by 5%. The ordinance was on the bill's first reading and is not final. 

Described by Council President Adam Waldron as a "good faith exercise and more of a formality," the council approved various department budgets without changes at its Tuesday meeting. Any amendments are likely to occur at a budget meeting scheduled for Dec. 3. A second and final reading is scheduled for Dec. 15. 

"Historically, we have gone through first readings without really making any amendments," Waldron noted.

Mayor Robert Donchez, who reread his budget introduction speech from Nov. 10, indicated the city has been hit hard by the pandemic. Bethlehem is anticipating at least $1 million in lost revenue in areas such as earned income tax, casino activity, and economic development. Rising pension obligations were also cited as a concern.

For these reasons, the mayor wants taxpayers to dig deeper. The proposed 5% tax increase of 0.92 mills would help balance his $87.4 million 2021 spending plan. The increase would correlate to $46 for a home assessed at $50,000.

If the tax increase is ultimately approved by city council, that would hike the millage rate to 8.61 in the city's Northampton County's portion and 2.72 for Lehigh County residents.

The proposed budget also cuts four positions in the Bethlehem Fire Department and two positions at the Bethlehem Service Center. Those cuts, according to the mayor, would save the city $500,000 each year and would mitigate future pension obligations.

In further belt-tightening measures, the city would postpone bond borrowing until 2022. Bethlehem's five-year capital plan typically includes a bond borrowing earmark of roughly $5 million. That money would be allocated to complete capital projects and purchases.

In other business, council approved two separate contracts with vendors. In the first, the city hired Philadelphia-based WRT to complete a feasibility study for a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the Lehigh River. The company will be paid $140,000 through three government sources: a Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & National Resources grant, a Northampton County grant, and city funds. The company is expected to produce the study in January 2022.

The second deal is with Armour & Sons Electric, Inc., of Langhorne, to upgrade traffic signals throughout the city. The action Tuesday night was to fix an error previously made in the bids for the work. Armour was still the lower bidder, and the amount of the deal was adjusted to $126,077.

The city also approved an ordinance formally amending the 2020 General Fund Budget, the Capital Funds Budget for Non-Utilities, and the Community Development Block Grant Budget to accept additional CARES Act-COVID funding.

In other news, council approved the appointments of Erin Hefferan and Patrick Herrity to the Blighted Property Review Committee and the appointment of John Filipos to the Bethlehem Revitalization and Improvement Authority.

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