Bethlehem Mayor J. William Reynolds presented the 2024 city budget, saying the city is in a better financial position than it has been in a while. He also brought new purchases, hires and an increased property tax to the table at the address a few weeks ago.
Reynolds discussed buying a new fire truck, six new police cars, upgraded radios, and new police body and dash cams. Additionally, he discussed hiring four new paramedics and a property tax increase of 2.6%.
City council member Wandalyn Enix said the city is in “an excellent position” and that was one of the “major selling points of the mayor’s initial address.”
She said the total budget is $113 million.
Eric Evans, the city’s business administrator, said there are several factors they look at regarding the health of the city.
He said Bethlehem currently has a structured budget with sustainable revenues equal to its recurring expenses.
The closing of Bethlehem Steel in the early 2000s did, however, impact Bethlehem’s economic success. Enix said the following income deficit resulted in $170 million in debt for the city.
She said the town has paid over $114 million of its debt from 2015 to 2024, and the balance is now down to $56 million.
In the budget address, Reynolds said the city took out a 20-year bond to purchase the street light system in 2009, and the city took out a 10-year loan to upgrade over 5,000 non-decorative street lights to LEDs in 2014. He said this reduced energy costs by approximately 70%.
Now the city switched to LED lights, Evans said the bond is paid for and the street lights are no longer a concern.
“It is always nice to pay off a car — in this case street lights,” Evans said. “It is a celebration that the 20-year investment is now concluded.”
Evans said the reduction of the city’s debt supports Bethlehem’s lack of structural deficits, the balance sheet liquidity — the ability to pay off short-term liabilities — and the opportunity to fund “rainy day” needs.
He said having to pay off larger sums of debt means losing services, support or programming, but the progress with Bethlehem’s debt means there can be “more flexibility and opportunity in the future.”
Enix said controversial concerns over police activities on a national level have resulted in local police departments requiring police to wear cameras.
Although there haven’t been any similar controversial events in Bethlehem, she said the city wants to remain safe in this area. Therefore, they budgeted nearly $1 million on cameras and other equipment for police to wear and use.
Erin Zebertavage, a lifelong resident of Bethlehem and the SouthSide Arts District downtown manager, said the city’s businesses generally support the police force and “the value they bring to keeping our community safe.”
Evans said Bethlehem is bringing on four new paramedics for the first time since 2007, increasing the fleets on the road from six to seven.
In his address, Reynolds said the city should hire new paramedics because there were 119 more mutual aid — supplemental emergency medical services — responses in 2023 compared to 2019.
Enix said the fire engine is from Pierce Manufacturing and was driven from Wisconsin to Bethlehem.
Three budget hearings were hosted on Nov. 15, 28 and 30 to discuss the fund revenues and expenses for the public works department, fire department, police department, and community and economic development department.
Enix said it takes about three hours at each hearing for the City Council to hear the heads of the various departments and discuss their particular budget.
On Dec. 19, the City Council will have its final vote on the 2024 budget.