Bethlehem City Council met on Nov. 17 to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the city’s financial standing and the public health of the community.
Proposed tax increase
Mayor Robert Donchez proposed a five percent property tax increase to balance an $87.4 million spending plan in 2021. For a home assessed at $50,000, that means an additional $46 in taxes.
Donchez reported the loss of $1 million in revenue in 2021 in the areas of casino activity and economic development. Donchez proposed using the city’s cash accounts to help balance the budget, though he admitted in his Nov. 5 budget address that doing so is “not desirable.”
Donchez stated that he was hopeful that the effects of the pandemic would begin to improve by the end of next year, which could negate the need for ongoing cash infusion.
Donchez’s budget plan shows the impact the pandemic had on Bethlehem. Six more city positions will be eliminated — four at the Fire Department and two at the Bethlehem Service Center, saving the city $500,000 each year. The city will employ 588 people in 2021, “the lowest in many decades,” Donchez said.
The reduction in staffing has made it a “challenge to complete primary functions and meet daily responsibilities,” Donchez said.
“The continued increase in pension obligations is more concerning, as it is not a one-time event,” he said. “Difficult decisions were made in order to implement the corrective action needed to flatten the curve. Police and fire pensions have continued to increase at rates that are just not sustainable to a budget. Our revenues do not mirror the increase in pension obligations.”
Growing concern over COVID-19 hospitalizations
Donchez provided a community update for COVID-19 hospitalizations in Bethlehem.
As of Nov. 16, during a seven-day period from Nov. 6 to Nov. 12, the city reported about 239 cases per 100,000 people. Donchez reported that 7.6 percent of these cases were associated with an outbreak, noting that case numbers at work sites are also increasing. About 30 percent of cases were from contacts to a known case, implicating high levels of community spread.
Donchez announced the Bethlehem Urgency Shelter will open this weekend, while the Bethlehem Health Bureau at St. Luke’s University Health Network is working on developing a more efficient process for screening, testing and isolating any sick individuals as hospitalization rates continue to soar across Pennsylvania.
Approved contract for pedestrian bridge feasibility study
Bethlehem City Council voted to approve a contract with Wallace Roberts & Todd, an urban planning agriculture firm, for the planning of a pedestrian bridge feasibility study. The study is expected to be completed by January 2022, with the total cost of the contract totaling to $140,000.
The city plans to use $40,000 in city funds to supplement the study cost.
Organizations in the City of Bethlehem that support the study include the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, Backyards for Wildlife, Lehigh University’s South Side Initiative and ArtsQuest.
“This proposal encourages us to think about a vision for what our community can be,” said Councilman Reynolds.
Wage equality conversation continues
Following a discussion of several proposed amendments, the council voted unanimously to build a full committee governing issues of wage inequality in Bethlehem.
Councilwoman Paige Van Wirt announced an amendment to the proposal that would prohibit retaliation for sharing wages within a company, as punishment for sharing salary has been a traditional source of wage suppression. Councilman Bryan Callahan had previously proposed an ordinance banning wage inequities based on gender in the city.
“This amendment is for those who already work for a company and may have hit a ceiling because they don’t realize they are being paid less than their coworkers,” Van Wirt said.
Additionally, the council noted an addendum amendment that would mandate employers to disclose a report on company wages to an overarching body to ensure that their wages were equal and non-discriminatory.
Councilwoman Olga Negrón added the ordinance would also address issues of wage inequality within the LGBTQ community.
“This proposal is for all genders; every day there are more and more gender orientations that we’re finding exist, so I think it’s really important that we are conscious of that,” she said.