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Bethlehem's bid for single-hauler trash collection clears 1st hurdle

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Dec 05 2012 06:00:00 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 06 2012 05:12:38 AM CST

Bethlehem Trash Saga

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

Mayor John Callahan's $72.1 million budget, which includes an 8.5 percent property tax increase and a controversial plan for a single-hauler trash collection system, cleared its first major hurdle Wednesday night.

A majority of city council backed all 11 sections of Callahan's proposed budget on separate votes, by either 6-1 or 5-2 margins.

Council also unanimously approved a resolution that drew the ire of some citizens -- asking major non-profits who use city services but do not pay real estate taxes to contribute to the 2013 budget.

City officials are negotiating with non-profits such as Lehigh Valley Hospital-Muhlenberg, Lehigh University and Moravian College in hopes they will pony up a million dollars to help balance the budget.

After the meeting, Mayor Callahan downplayed council's favorable decision on the proposed budget. "The ultimate test will be the second vote," he said.

Council president Eric Evans said council members will offer amendments to the budget on Dec. 17, with a final vote scheduled for Dec. 20.

Council member Jean Belinski voted no on all parts of the budget. Asked after the meeting why she did so, she said only, "I don't approve of Mayor Callahan."

Council member Dave DiGiacinto voted no on about half of them, including one that raised property taxes 1.26 mills, to 16.11 mills, which means the average homeowner would pay about $60 more in 2013.

DiGiacinto said after the meeting that "there are things in the budget that cannot be substantiated." At first he declined to cite specifics, but later he said .76 of the proposed millage increase -- about 60 percent -- is earmarked for the continued operation of Bethlehem's 911 emergency dispatching center, a service that could be turned over to Northampton County.

The budget is "still open-ended," he added. "We may have to change things. We have to look where the revenues are coming from."

The proposal to ask non-profits to contribute to the 2013 budget came under fire before and after council voted on it. "Why now?" asked Stephen Antalics, of 737 Ridge St. "To single out individual non-profits is discriminatory. Budget deficits were created by mismanagement ... and because of this mismanagement we're now going to lean on non-profits? It's not fair."

Council member Karen Dolan pointed out that the bulk of the increased costs in the 2013 budget -- $4 million of $4.8 million -- are from pension fund payments, not mismanagement.

She said that the non-profits "bring a great deal to the city, but it's a two-way street. We provide the environment for them to prosper." She noted that the non-profits "pay large salaries [to their top people], have large endowments, qualify for more funding than the city does and they sit on a tremendous amount of [tax-exempt] land."

DiGiacinto and his colleagues J. William Reynolds and Robert Donchez echoed Dolan's sentiments, with Donchez saying, "We're just asking for our fair share."

Mary Pongracz, of 321 West 4th St., angrily asked council after the vote, "How can you tax profits from a non-profit? It's an oxymoron beyond belief! ... This is theater of the absurd! If you shut your non-profits down, you shut your city down. Thanks for nothing."

At the beginning of the meeting, several residents and trash collectors spoke against the single-hauler proposal, which the mayor says will bring in $400,000 in revenue and save residents an average of $110.

Don MacRae, of 418 High St., disputed a survey showing that 65 percent of people are in favor of the single-hauler system, saying the survey wasn't "properly weighted." He also said even if 85 percent of communities use the single-hauler system, "It doesn't meet my parental approval test. Just because everybody is doing it doesn't make it right." And as for $110 in promised savings, MacRae said it will be closer to $50 because of the bag-rate households will be charged.

Atty. Blake Marles, representing Sterner Sanitation of Allentown, gave council members a letter outlining ways the current system of private haulers could be made more profitable, and he predicted that 150 people employed by private haulers would lose their jobs if a single-hauler system was instituted.

Karen Yob, of 1885 Bayard St., said she could not support any system "that would cause unemployment." She said people should not be annoyed at the sound of trash trucks going up and down their streets. Instead, she advised, "Open your doors and say, 'That's the sound of employment!' "

Only Joseph E. Long, of 2117 Montgomery St., spoke in favor of the single-hauler system. He said it will save him money, which is important because he is on a fixed income, as well as cut down on illegal dumping, save alleys from being torn up by garbage trucks and reduce carbon emissions.