Lehigh Valley

Allentown City Council seeks to avoid budget ‘debacle' of last year

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - An Allentown City Council committee approved two proposals Wednesday that are designed to prevent a repeat of last year's budget process, when Mayor Ray O'Connell vetoed the council's amended budget with less than a minute to go.

Council's budget and finance committee, attended by the entire council, gave preliminary approval to proposals to move up the date for the mayor to introduce his budget by Oct. 15, two weeks sooner than required now. The committee also voted to require that a tax increase only be permitted if it is approved by a vote of four council members.

Both proposals must go to the full council for approval, and then be voted on by Allentown residents in November referendums before they could take effect in time for consideration of the 2021 budget. Referendums are required because the proposals would change the city's charter.

Last December, O'Connell vetoed the council's proposed amendments to his budget with 30 seconds left until it became final, not enough time for the council to override the veto. The mayor's budget raised taxes 27%; the council's amendments would have resulted in a 22% increase, the first in the city in 13 years. The mayor's proposed increase became law without a council vote.

Budget and finance committee Chairman Julio Guridy said last year's budget process resulted in a "debacle," but he said the council is ready to work with the administration. He said an extra two weeks to review the budget would benefit the city.

"We just want a little more time. We don't want to go through what we went through (in the past)," Guridy said. "The mayor has indicated he's able to provide us that time. "

When moving up the budget introduction date even earlier, to Oct. 1, was discussed, city finance director Brent Hartzell objected. He said planning would have to start in June, before first-half spending data would be in place and before projected health care costs would be available.

The shadow of former Mayor Ed Pawlowski, now serving 15 years in prison for corruption, has not receded yet from City Hall.

Managing director Joe McMahon noted that Allentown was in the position it was last year "because a former mayor decided to go 12 years without a tax increase," referring to Pawlowski.

McMahon also said that the current budget process has generally worked well, and that the budget does not change a lot from year to year. He warned of "unintended consequences" that may result from changes.

Guridy described the second vote, to prohibit a tax increase from taking effect "by default," that is, without a council vote, as a way to get the administration and the council to work together. He also insisted that the council have a say in tax increases.

"It is irresponsible not to do it ourselves, " he said.

The proposal would allow four members of the seven-member council to approve an increase.

Both proposals were passed by a voice vote. Amendments may be made when the charter questions are reviewed by the full council. If the proposals pass, they will be on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.

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