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Easton City Council balks at higher parking fees, but will increase earned income tax in 2014

By Tom De Martini, WFMZ.com Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 24 2013 02:59:42 PM CST
Updated On: Nov 12 2013 10:37:32 PM CST
EASTON, Pa. -

The dearth of available parking is a toxic topic in Easton and City Council members decided they couldn't stomach increasing hourly garage charges for tourists and residents alike as part of next year's budget.

Council members, and Mayor Sal Panto, Jr., voiced their collective distaste for a proposed $1 per hour increase at the city's parking garage at a 2014 budget workshop Tuesday night.

The decision to forgo the hourly parking fee increase, to $3 from its current $2, and the projected $160,000 it would have raised will force city administrators to go back to the drawing board and find an additional revenue or cuts to balance the 2014 budget.

What city council members did agree on Tuesday night, although somewhat grudgingly, was to increase the city's earned income tax for residents to 1.95 percent from 1.75 percent, with 0.5 earmarked for the Easton Area School District.

"If this isn't done, we'll have to take a substantial ax to the budget," City Finance Director Chris Heagele told council members.

The EIT hike will generate $800,000 in revenue that will close a gap in the city's $32.27 million budget, which weighs in approximately $700,000 larger than 2013. The budget will hike taxes $100 per year for a city household earning $50,000.

Council members will formally vote on the EIT increase at Wednesday night's regularly-scheduled meeting at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

Easton's well-known parking problem was termed as a "supply and demand" issue by City Administrator Glenn Steckman, who noted the city parking garage was full by 10:30 a.m. for last weekend's Bacon Fest.

"It's a convenience fee as I look at it," Steckman said. "In the summer, parking around City Hall is a scarcity. This year, it's been filled constantly. A good portion of our economy is tourist economy. I've never seen the garage sell out this late in the year. This is one way to help recapture the costs of Bacon Fest, Heritage Day and other festivals."

Panto, who participated in the workshop via telephone from the National League of Cities Conference in Seattle, said he could accept tourists paying more to park, but wants to keep fees fair for city residents.

"We need to generate more money from parking during the tourist season," he said. "We're not a tourist town yet; we have an arts, entertainment and tourist district. If we increase the parking fees to $3 (an hour), it's not just the tourists that have to pay it. We need to have a total review of our parking issues this year."

Council members clearly did not have a taste for casting their feet into the city's parking problem waters, at least not this year.

"You can't say the word parking in the city without it being front page news and riots breaking out," said council member Elinor Warner.

Council member Jeff Warren also voiced his concern, stating there needs to be more consistency in the city's parking regulations.

"We don't want to stick it to them," he said.

In other parts of the budget workshop, Steckman said health insurance usage "exploded" in 2013 with a numbers of employees suffering from illnesses that exceeded $50,000 in claims. However, Steckman added that none of those claims approached the current stop/loss level of $175,000.

Steckman added that city employees are contributing more to premiums every year, including union members and management.

"Everybody is about at the same level of co-pays for doctor's visits and pharmacy," he said.

City council, according to Easton's Home Rule Charter, must pass a balanced budget by Dec. 1.