Bethlehem City Council heard about financial challenges the city's Parking Authority is facing during COVID-19. (Patrece Savino/B&W Staff)

Rapid rundown: Bethlehem council talks COVID-19, financial challenges for Parking Authority

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Bethlehem City Council met on Oct. 20 to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the community as winter draws near. The council also discussed reports from the Bethlehem Parking Authority regarding upcoming projects, among other items.  

COVID-19 updates 

Mayor Robert Donchez gave an update on COVID-19 with information from Bethlehem Health Bureau Director Kristen Wenrich. 

As of the morning of Oct. 20, there were a total of 1,569 positive cases in Bethlehem. Of that number, more than 200 have come from Lehigh, which the university’s dashboard confirms. Moravian College currently has two positive cases at Moravian and 22 total since opening. The Bethlehem Area School District currently has six positive cases and 26 total since opening. 

In terms of the impact Pennsylvania’s restrictions have had on businesses, Donchez said he will “do everything in his power to help these restaurants” heading into the winter months. He said the city will permit parklets — or sidewalk extensions — until Dec. 4 before making a final decision in November to possibly extend parklets until Dec. 31.  

These outdoor parklets have been a necessity for restaurants due to restrictions in indoor dining. However, with winter approaching and the likelihood of snow, these parklets will have to move. 

Donchez said they will look into permitting tents, since most restaurants already have outdoor heaters. 

Bethlehem Parking Authority updates

 Steven Fernstrom, executive director of the Bethlehem Parking Authority, accompanied by Tim Tracy from the consulting firm DESMAN, gave an update on the financial status of the Bethlehem Parking Authority and the future of the Polk Street and Walnut Street parking garages.

“Like many other businesses, the BPA was not unaffected by the pandemic,” Fernstrom said. “Early on, we were able to partner with the administration to provide free parking, a relaxation of violations and meter bagging. Thankfully, we were able to provide these benefits to the residents and visitors of the city, but we also needed to balance our own survival.”

 As of Sept. 30, the Bethlehem Parking Authority is 24 percent under budget for their total revenue, garage revenue is down 12 percent and parking meter revenue is down 41 percent. Their largest savings is coming from a 20 percent reduction in payroll. 

The Bethlehem Parking Authority was scheduled to break ground on the $16 million Polk Street Garage in September 2020, but had to pause progress because of the pandemic. 

As for the Walnut Street parking garage, the Bethlehem Parking Authority worked with the consulting group DESMAN in November 2019 to conduct a condition survey. The 45-year-old garage needs major repairs to keep it operational. According to the study, the authority will need to spend $12.6 million to keep the garage operational for the next five years.

The Bethlehem Parking Authority board approved a sight feasibility study for a new Walnut Street Garage. 

“When this pandemic turns around, having performed these studies in the early stages, it’ll put us in a good position to make a final decision,” Fernstrom said.     

As of now, there have been no final decisions made with respect to both garages and they are still under review.  

Councilwoman Paige Van Wirt raised questions about the Bethlehem Parking Authority’s relationship with DESMAN. 

“I get uncomfortable when an authority has such a close relationship with a consultant, in that the consultant will be getting more work when this garage comes down,” Van Wirt said. “It makes me wonder if there is a clear-eyed vision of the condition of the property if the person who’s doing the survey stands to benefit financially.” 

She said she would feel more comfortable if the Walnut Street feasibility study was done by a group that did not benefit financially. 

“Walnut Street is going to be and can be a catalyst for a lot of what we need in that area of downtown,” said Councilman J. William Reynolds, noting there is a lot of empty retail around Broad Street and the area needs revitalization.  

Other business

There were no new ordinances passed. City Council voted on resolutions regarding Rose Garden improvements and approved permits for Christmas Huts on Main Street.  

Councilman Bryan Callahan offered comments regarding the standstill of the gender wage equity ordinance. Callahan said he spoke to a lawyer who said it is not the city’s job to figure out how to adjudicate the cases — a concern raised by other council members — but rather just to pass the policy to make inquiries into women’s wage history illegal in the city.

The next Council meeting will be rescheduled to Nov. 4 since Nov. 3 is Election Day.

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