City council continued poring over the numbers in Mayor John Callahan's proposed 2013 budget Tuesday night, looking for areas that could be trimmed in hopes of reducing a recommended 8.5 percent increase in the real estate tax.
It was the third public hearing on the proposed budget, and council members spent almost two-and-a-half hours amiably quizzing administration officials about expenditures for water and sewer, parks and public properties, the golf course and public works. The discussion turned contentious only once -- when council member Karen Dolan kicked up a fuss over the cost of leaf collection.
Public works director Michael Alkhal estimated that $300,000 to $400,000 -- about a quarter to a third of a mill -- is spent each year on city workers using trucks with vacuums to pick up leaves that property owners are encouraged to put into the street. The workers also pick up bags of leaves when property owners call city hall.
Dolan said, "That seems to border on what conservatives call a nanny state. It takes [city workers] away from a lot of other things that could be getting done, core city services. It's also an overtime issue. I don't understand why this is a sacred cow, why we have to do it this way, because this is the way we've always done it. Why can't we look at this?"
Joe Kelly, director of community and economic development, said state law requires municipalities to have a system to remove leaves from streets so the leaves are not sent to landfills. Most cities in Pennsylvania have a system similar to Bethlehem's, he added.
Dolan said she was not against the city's leaf pickup, just "dialing it back."
Dolan said that would be accomplished if Bethlehem switches to a single-hauler system of garbage collection, a controversial idea that the mayor has proposed in his 2013 budget as a way of raising $400,000 in new revenue. The hauler would be responsible for picking up leaves and yard waste gathered up by property owners, Dolan said.
The public was not allowed to comment on the single-hauler plan at Tuesday night's hearing, but will be allowed to do so early in Wednesday night's city council meeting.
Dolan said urging property owners to put their leaves in the street creates a safety hazard for bicyclists and motorcyclists as well as for pedestrians where there are no sidewalks.
After the meeting Dolan said, "Picking up leaves is a homeowner's responsibility, not a taxpayer's responsibility to do it for everybody. What's wrong with dealing with your own leaves?"
Only one member of the public spoke at Tuesday's hearing. Lynn Cunningham, vice president of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, read a letter signed by three other downtown officials in support of the city spending $250,000 to purchase and repair the Sun Inn Courtyard.
Council president Eric Evans announced that council will hold a fourth and final public hearing on the proposed 2013 budget on Dec. 17, and that a final vote is set for Dec. 20.