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Bethlehem Council shelves garbage collection plan; smaller tax hike in proposed 2013 budget

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Dec 17 2012 09:54:19 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 18 2012 05:17:27 PM CST

Bethlehem garbage

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

City council put the finishing touches on a proposed 2013 budget Monday night following a flurry of eleventh-hour changes that included shelving a controversial plan to institute a single- hauler system for garbage collection and trimming a proposed 8.5 percent tax hike to 7 percent.

Council will vote on adopting the budget Thursday night.

Monday night's five-and-a-half hour session was peppered with unexpected twists and turns as council considered a string of proposals from Mayor John Callahan and its own members that arrived an hour or two before the meeting.

Chief among the surprises was council's 4-3 vote to further study the single-hauler collection plan. Council members voted to implement the system when they approved the 2013 budget two weeks ago, despite loud public opposition from residents and private haulers. But apparently four of them had second thoughts, despite Mayor Callahan's backing of the plan and the prospect of it bringing the city an extra $500,000 in revenue in 2013.

Council president Eric Evans, who voted in the majority with David DiGiacinto, Robert Donchez and J. William Reynolds for further study, promised council's community development committee would be open to public comment about the plan. "We're looking for ways to imporve the system," he said.

For his part, the mayor presented council with a list of general fund adjustments that would have cut the 8.5 percent property tax hike, or .
5 mills, proposed in his original budget to 5.1 percent.

Council finally settled on an increase of 7 percent, or .28 mills. The vote was 6-1, with Jean Belinski dissenting. A homeowner with a house assessed at $$50,000 would pay an extra $52 in 2013 if the budget is adopted.

Callahan's original proposed budget of $72,120,000 now stands at $71,053,000.

One of the major changes unanimously approved by council Monday night was the refinancing landfill bonds, which administration officials said will save $614,000 in 2013 and $372,000 in 2014.

Another was the trimming of the unforeseen contingency fund from
$275,000 to $23,910, in part as a way of sending a message to city employees not to expect raises in 2013.

Council refused, on a 3-4 vote, to do away with the new 911 director's position. DiGiacinto wanted to use the money to hire a police captain and bring the force back to 150 members.

Mayor Callahan and police chief Jason Schiffer said the man who would be taking over as 911 director, Robert Haffner, is currently a police captain who is doing that very job. Callahan said when Haffner retires from the force and takes on the director's job, he will be earning
$70,000 -- $23,000 less than what's he's earning now. "And we'll be able to keep a pivotal employee," he added.

Council also refused, on a 3-4 vote, to make a $70,000 cut that would have cost members their medical insurance. "You're cutting into someone's compensation ... and council hasn't had a raise in at least the six years I've been here," said Dolan. "The pay is far less than the minimum wage."