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Bethlehem public seems satisfied with proposed budget

By Tom De Martini, WFMZ.com Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Nov 21 2013 11:36:13 PM CST
Bethlehem Council Budget hearing
BETHELEHEM, Pa. -

No member of the public who listened to Bethlehem City Council's second budget hearing Thursday night bothered to step up to the microphone and comment on a proposed 15 percent water and sewer tax hike nestled in the city's 2014 budget.

Instead, Bethlehem City Council members heaped praise on Water and Sewer Director David Brong and his staff for the fine job the department has performed over the last two years.

Outgoing Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan's $71 million budget for 2014, which does not raise taxes, includes a 15 percent water and sewer tax increase that doesn't appear to ruffle anyone's feathers.

Brong called the $19.9 million water fund in balance with consumer water prices "in the middle of the pack in regional competition."

Brong said the $14.5 million sewer fund is also balanced with $400,000 of those funds targeted for capital improvement plans. "(Sewer rates) are among the lowest in the region, still," Brong said.

The money from the rate increases is targeted for improvements to the city's 60-year-old waste water treatment plant.

The average city customer will pay an extra $59 a year for water service and an additional $33 a year for sewer service, if the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission approves the hikes.

"We'll see how the PUC looks at it," said Bethlehem Council President Eric Evans. "They'll review it to see that it's fair. It's certainly fair in pricing. People look at it differently (from a tax increase). It is what it is."

Brong met with city council members and city council-elect members this week to examine the water and sewer budget in depth. As a result, council members had few line item questions during the budget hearing session.

"You've turned around the department," council vice president J. William Reynolds told Brong. (The water department) is one of the most prized assets we have. We will have some tough decisions to make ahead."

"There are challenges ahead with capital requirements and personnel changes, but you have the initiative to make it work," Evans said.

Evans noted that there will be some savings in the water and sewer budget, due to position attrition at the waste water treatment plant.

Brong said the list of capital improvements planned by the water and sewer department, including those made to a spillway, will likely take more than one year.

The next budget meeting is scheduled for Monday, Dec. 2 at Bethlehem Town Hall.

In other business, Evans said city council is currently accepting applications for the seat that will be vacated by mayor-elect Robert Donchez at the end of the year. Evans said any city resident can apply for the open seat that will span the remaining two years of Donchez's elected council term, running through 2015.