Bethlehem City Council’s Committee of the Whole met in October for an informational session discussing the recently approved 2022-2026 Capital Improvement Plan.
A capital plan had been presented in October of 2020, but the city did not fund any purchases or projects with a bond borrowing in 2021 due to the pandemic. Bethlehem’s business administrator Eric Evans said there are similarities between the current and previous capital improvement plans, with the items on the 2020 version being “pushed out another year.”
Evans said there is a necessity to obtain funding for the items in the plan, especially with the rise of two significant problems. One being that the $5 million every-other-year bond has not been enough to fund all of the city’s needs. These $5 million-dollar bonds have been issued by the city to fund capital needs, according to Mayor Bob Donchez’s budget address. Evans said infrastructure has deteriorated as a result. Additionally, he said Bethlehem’s debt service has grown, currently representing over 10 percent of the city’s annual budget.
The 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which provided Bethlehem with $34 million in federal funds, was “drafted with the intent of cities being able to use their portion of ARPA funding to recover lost revenue,” Evans said.
The current capital plan proposes using the lost revenue recovery provisions of ARPA to fund capital needs, replacing a bond borrowing.
Council President Adam Waldron heard from various city department heads for the remainder of the Committee of the Whole meeting, as they explained funding issues affecting their sections and raised questions about the capital plan.
Michael Alkhal, Bethlehem’s director of public works, spoke about the public works section of the capital plan. He said the first few public works items listed support 130 signalized traffic intersections, of which between 20 to 30 do not meet acceptable standards. Every upgrade is expected to be about $200, Alkhal said. He said all streetlights are expected to be upgraded to LED lights as well due to their efficiency and environmental consciousness.
Alkhal also talked about items relating to the New Street Streetscape Enhancement Project.
He said the Streetscape Project has been ongoing since 2018 and has received a grant fund as well as contributions from Lehigh University. Rebidding for the project is ongoing, as there has been some difficulty in securing bids. Lyndon and Center Streets are up for a possible conversion into a two-way intersection as a part of this program, Alkhal said.
“The biggest item on here in support of our street operations is of course, the overlays,” Alkhal said. “We’re hoping to have increased funding for that, as we have discussed repeatedly in the past. We’re significantly behind in terms of paving our streets to make them serviceable.”
Deputy Chief of Police Scott Meixell spoke about funds required for the city’s camera system funding.
Meixell said the plan requires the camera system’s 15-year-old infrastructure to be replaced before new cameras can start being brought in. At least a dozen cameras are faulty as a result of poor infrastructure in critical points such as intersections. Improving the system will deter crime and aid in criminal prosecutions, he said. Funding for the system is split between the $50,000 from the Northampton County Grant and $54,000 from the city.
Meixell said a company, Communication Systems Integrators (CSi) is contracted to work with Bethlehem in maintaining the cameras. Outside contractors and the city’s information technology personnel make up the rest of the maintenance crew.
Fire Chief Warren Achey presented on public safety issues, specifically on ambulance and fire apparatus replacements. When asked afterwards by Waldron how he would quantify the state of the current fleet of vehicles, Achey noted that many of them were close to retirement and that he would give them a “B” grade.
“We have been pretty aggressive in replacing,” Achey said. “When I took over as fire chief, there were only one or two trucks that were under 10 years of age. Once we approve this, I think we would be at an ‘A.’”
The entirety of Bethlehem’s ARPA allocated funds is expected to be spent within the next two years on community reinvestment and pandemic recovery programs, Evans said.