Faster than a roller coaster, a new amusement tax for Bethlehem unanimously was approved by City Council Tuesday night -- with no discussion and no comments or questions from the public.
It was all over in less than one minute, including a 6-0 vote by council.
The five percent tax will be charged on any form of entertainment where admission is charged in the city, including but not limited to circuses, shows, concerts, lectures, sports events, athletic contests, auto races and, yes, even amusement parks.
But there are some qualifiers, explained Mayor John Callahan after the meeting. “It only impacts venues with more than 200 seats and it starts at tickets over $10, so a $10 ticket has no tax at all.”
Callahan also said if a venue charges $50 a ticket, but has less than 200 seats, it does not have to pay the tax.
He said the tax will be 50 cents on a ticket costing more than $10, beginning at $10.01. He added the cap will be a $1.50 tax, on tickets costing more than $30.
The mayor said he proposed the tax “as a way to diversify our income streams and raise revenue, away from property taxes.”
He added: “These types of venues do place a burden on our public safety personnel and this is way to recoup some of those costs.”
Callahan suggested there was no public uproar about the tax at the meeting because “we worked very closely with the organizations that were impacted and worked out a deal that was fair.”
The issue of wind energy also quickly blew by during council’s meeting.
At 6 p.m. Jan. 31 in Town Hall, council’s public works committee will discuss a wind energy development project being proposed by Bethlehem Authority.
For more than three years that authority has been discussing the idea of developing a wind energy project in its watershed property in Penn Forest Township, Carbon County.
City Clerk Cynthia Biedenkopf said in March 2011 City Council approved a letter of intent with Call Mountain Wind to develop that project but negotiations were ended.
On Dec. 13, the authority approved a new agreement with Atlantic Wind and sent it to City Council for consideration. Council president Eric Evans referred the agreement to the public works committee, chaired by David DiGiacinto.
City Controller Robert Pfenning briefly skirmished with a council member and city administrators when he presented his quarterly report to council.
In a memo given council and the media, Pfenning reported that at the end of December, 59 administrative accounts had exceeded their budget appropriation limits by more than $10. In 33 of those cases, he reported appropriations were exceeded by $2,500 or more – for a total “overage” of $440,066.
Pfenning said that never should have occurred and questioned whether City Council has a firm grip on the purse strings of the city.
He said he will work with the administration “to attempt to get a handle on this.”
Council member Michael Recchiuti asked how many expenditure accounts there in total.
Pfenning replied: “It doesn’t matter, it’s my encumbrance system that is being violated.”
Said Recchiuti: “Can you just answer how many there are?”
Replied Pfenning: “No.”
Dennis Reichard, the city’s business administrator, told Recchiuti there are 915 expenditure accounts and confirmed 59 were over budget at the end of 2012.
Pfenning said: “None should be over under the encumbrance system.”
Callahan indicated the problem was resolved by the annual budget transfer process.
The mayor offered different numbers, saying there were 854 accounts. He said 94 percent of them were at or below budget, adding 748 of the 854 were under budget.
Said Pfenning: “I don’t care about the numbers of it, I care that it’s happening at all. In my opinion, it’s a violation of state law.” Yet he insisted he was not knocking the administration. “I clearly said this is not an overall problem.”
Noting budgeting involves some guesswork, Recchiuti said: “The administration is doing pretty good if they’re hitting 94 percent.”
Also during the meeting, resident Dana Grubb complained to council about city administrators e-mailing, texting or tweeting during City Council meetings.
He said they should be giving their full attention to what’s going on at the meeting. “It’s rude and it should stop,” said Grubb.
Resident Roger Hudak stood to tell council of his concern about a proposal to transfer the city’s dispatch services for fire, police and EMS to the Northampton County dispatch center. He said it seems unwise to abandon the city’s dispatch center “that is working so well for us.” He said city residents will not save that much in taxes if that transfer happens, but will lose instant communication with city emergency personnel. He also said the county staff will not be able to monitor surveillance cameras that now “keep watch over the city’s streets.”
Hudak said he wants Bethlehem to remain the safest city in the Lehigh Valley and one of the safest in Pennsylvania.
After the meeting, Callahan said certain members of City Council want to roll the city’s 911 system into the county system. He said that this is not his administration’s plan.
"This is going to require a great deal of investigation,” said the mayor. “As of right now, I am not convinced that this makes economic sense or sense from a public safety standpoint.”
But Callahan said he is willing to begin the process of looking into the possibility of a potential consolidation just to understand more about it – including costs.
The mayor said he does not want to see any decrease in the level of emergency service city residents now receive. “I’m not going to rush it,” said Callahan. “There are very few things we do on a day-in-day-out basis that you say, without hyperbole, it‘s life or death. But 911 is one of those things that is life or death.”