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Bethlehem Council discusses watershed, festival vendors

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Oct 03 2012 05:44:41 AM CDT
Bethlehem City Council
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

Two items important to the city of Bethlehem's well- being shared the spotlight at Tuesday night's council meeting -- its watershed, which serves more than 115,000 customers, and its festivals, which draw more than a million people each year.

On the former, council member J. William Reynolds presented his colleagues with a draft letter urging municipalities that surround the Tunkhannock watershed and Penn Forest and Wild Creek reservoirs in Carbon County to oppose fracking as a method of extracting natural gas. Reynolds said the city's 8,500 acres of watershed property contain 9.9 billion gallons of "high quality" drinking water, "and we need to do everything we can to protect it."

On the latter, city controller Robert Pfenning reported to council that 4 to 14 percent of vendors at Musikfest, the Blueberry Festival and the Celtic Classic this year did not pay their business privilege tax. Making sure festival vendors pay the tax is important "so the people with bricks-and-mortar businesses see that vendors who show up on the weekend don't get a free ride," Pfenning said.

Reynolds said that as far as he knows, none of the almost 9,000 Marcellus shale drilling sites in the state is near the watershed. But he added that it's important for municipalities to be prepared should gas deposits be discovered in the future. "We're not sure what [the municipalities'] legal strategy is," Reynolds said. "We don't know if they plan changes in their zoning regulations, but we want them to know council and the Bethlehem Authority [which owns and operates the water system] are on board with this concept."

The letter points out that the city and the authority are not opposed to natural gas production, only to "the hazardous chemicals associated with the fracking process."

Council will vote on whether to send the letter at a later meeting.

In his oral report, Pfenning broke down the vendors' compliance rate in obtaining business privilege licenses. Musikfest was the highest, at 96 percent, Pfenning said. He pegged the Blueberry Festival compliance rate at 87 percent, and estimated the minimum compliance rate of the just-completed Celtic Classic at 86 percent. "It could be more," he said of the Celtic Classic number. "We're gathering information."

Pfenning said it might be financially worthwhile if council provided the tax bureau with "a little more manpower" to make sure the vendors have licenses. "There's a $600 fine per person for each [vendor] who did not pay," Pfenning noted.

Pfenning also pointed to "some shortfalls" in the agreements between the city and the Celtic Classic.

After the meeting, Pfenning explained that the city had a three-year agreement with the Celtic Classic from 2008 to 2010 and another that runs from 2011 to 2013. The Celtic Classic agreed to pay a certain amount for non-uniformed city workers who help with the festival, but a total of $56,000 in fees were never paid, Pfenning said.

The city administration negotiated a deal with Celtic Classic which reduced the bill to about $26,000, Pfenning said, although he was not informed about the new arrangement.