Council: Budget tops the list
The six democratic candidates vying for seats on Bethlehem City Council squared off in a May 2 debate sponsored by the Bethlehem City Democratic Committee in Prosser Auditorium in the Haupert Union Building on Moravian College's campus.
Current council members Karen Dolan and Eric Evans were joined by Bryan Callahan, Steve Melnick, David Sanders and Adam Waldron in the debate moderated by former Bethlehem Mayor and Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham.
Callahan is the brother of outgoing Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan and a department chair at Freedom HS.
Dolan has been a member of city council since 2006 and if reelected will either be the longest or second longest tenured council member depending on the outcome of the race for Bethlehem mayor. She is the Executive Director & CEO of the Fox Environmental Center at Illick's Mill.
Evans is the current city council president and has served on the board since 2010. He also teaches at East Hills MS.
Melnick is a retired economic development official. Melnick, who is running for council for the first time, said he was drawn to Bethlehem for two reasons. "I married the first reason and the second reason was the positive energy I found in this vibrant city of ours."
Sanders has owned and operated Lump's Deli on 901 Center St. for more than 20 years. He has been a resident of Bethlehem for 64 years and is a board member of the Bethlehem Housing Authority.
Waldron is the owner of Adam Waldron Painting. If elected, he would be the first West Bethlehem resident hold a city council seat since Don Cunningham in 1995.
Biggest issue facing the city (other than the budget)
Dolan said the biggest challenge is preserving and protecting what makes the city unique and special.
"I think very often these issues are overlooked, but as your city councilwoman and if reelected I would continue to make sure what makes Bethlehem a walkable, livable, exciting city remains," Dolan said.
Evans said resources have been stretched thin and appropriations can't always go to things like recreation and street repair. He said that last year, the board tried to take that issue on by buying a few extra machines to do some work with the machines with a non-utility capital bond.
"We bought a miller and a paver with the hopes that the payback is very good and we're able to do twice as much production in-house versus what was being done outside when it was contracted," Evans said.
Melnick said that economic development is one of the biggest issues facing the city. He said that there has recently been a large flurry of warehouses coming into the city, but almost all of the products stored in those warehouses were made somewhere else.
"I think we have to start reenergizing our economic development and go after companies that make things and make jobs rather than just warehouses that are notorious for taking up a lot of land but hire very few people," Melnick said.
Sanders said that he is concerned about the rumors that 911 call center in Bethlehem might be cut and the calls would then be handled from Northampton's County 911 call center.
"I can guarantee if you called 911 from your home, [the operators at the Bethlehem call center] know where to go," Sanders said. "They are all city oriented they know all the police officers. If I called from Lump's Deli, I wouldn't even have to tell them where it is. When we start changing stuff, we must let people know what that change is."
Waldron said one of the great things about Bethlehem is it's different neighborhoods, which all have their own identity and characteristics. He said council should focus more on the quality of life issues in those neighborhoods.
"Making the streets more walkable or more ridable on a bicycle," Waldron said. "We have a very unfriendly area crossing the Fahy Bridge for pedestrians and for cyclists and that's something that needs to be addressed."
Callahan said the continued economic growth of the city, the steel site and development of the brown fields are important to grow the city's tax base.
"I don't want to raise taxes, I don't want my taxes raised, but you know and I know city wages are going to go up, healthcare is going to go up," Callahan said. "If we don't expand the tax base, those costs are going to be pushed to the people that are already living here and the businesses that are already here."
The current budget contains $2 million in onetime revenues. How does the city remedy that for next year?
Callahan said he was unsure what he would cut, but said that he does not want to cut down the city's safety services any further.
"The last possible thing I would ever, ever do is raise taxes so I would have to look at the budget and see what we can cut."
Dolan agreed with Callahan that there is not much wiggle room in the budget, but said that council could "work a lot smarter." She said that the city is currently mowing and tending 64 swales that it does not own. She suggested that the city could stop tending to them all together or encourage people to garden them.
She also said the city should be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to severe weather events and getting rid of wasteful services like extraneous leaf pickup.
"If you missed your leaf pick up, sorry we're not going to come back and pick it up again," Dolan said.
Evans said council needs to look at the debt and debt service and try to refinance where it can.
"Not lengthening the term, but taking advantage of lower interest rates," Evans said. "The economy is starting to pick up, so rates are going to pick up."
Melnick said that the city should move toward priority based budgeting.
"That means sitting down with department heads and going over every budget item and making hard choices," Melnick said. "By going to priority based budgeting you eliminate the worry that if they don't spend their entire budget they're going to be cut the following year. We'll be able to fund the most important projects by eliminating those that are extraneous."
Sanders said Bethlehem needs more small businesses, who can help raise money for the city through the mercantile tax.
"If we can promote small businesses, get more businesses on board, I think we can make a lot happen in Bethlehem," Sanders said.
Waldron said when he first decided to run for council he sat down with the 2013 budget with the idea of highlighting all the places he could eliminate unnecessary costs. He said he didn't highlight very much.
"The city budget is very tight, there's not much room to cut," Waldron said. "The solution is not cutting, but increasing revenue and not through tax increase, but bringing more businesses into Bethlehem and increasing our tax base."
Four council seats are up for election this year. Chris Morales, owner of Easy Weenies, is the only Republican running for city council. The primary election will be held on Tuesday, May 21.