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Allentown council approves 2014 budget with no tax increase

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 05 2013 04:58:28 AM CST
Updated On: Dec 05 2013 05:54:51 AM CST
Allentown City Council
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

It was, noted Allentown City Council member Peter Schweyer, almost anti-climatic.

City Council unanimously passed the 2014 city budget Wednesday night with minimal discussion, no debate and no controversy.

Final action on the $113.8-million general fund budget was in stark contrast to the early November City Council meeting, where Mayor Ed Pawlowski did a Power Point presentation to formally introduce his administration’s proposed budget, which is nearly an inch-and-a-half thick.

Approval of the budget followed many hours of numbers-crunching meetings where funding requests from each department were reviewed by members of City Council.

Many city officials were in the audience Wednesday night, but the mayor was not among them.

As Pawlowski promised on Nov. 6, the 2014 budget contains no increase in city property taxes for the ninth consecutive year. But it does include a very small decrease in the city’s earned income tax, which is paid by those who live or work in Allentown.

Council member Jeff Glazier said someone making $50,000 a year will save about $10.

Schweyer acknowledged that .02 percent cut in earned income tax is minimal, “but it’s a good-faith effort to demonstrate to our residents that we are being fiscally prudent.”

The budget was approved by five council members. Jeannette Eichenwald had to leave suddenly for a family emergency and Ray O’Connell is recovering from an illness.

Also during the meeting, council authorized depositing $150 million to fund the city’s unfunded pension liability.

That money is revenue from the $211-million lease of the city’s water and sanitary sewer systems to Lehigh County Authority.

“We just passed a budget and spent $150 million on pension, getting out of the pension mess that we had, in rather anti-climactic fashion tonight,” said Schweyer, who chairs council’s budget and finance committee, in closing remarks at the end of the meeting. “What we’re doing is paying off the unfunded liability of the pension.”

He continued: “The most under-reported part of this budget is that we’re operating in the black. Our revenues exceed our expenditures for the first time in years.”

Schweyer said other municipalities are dipping into their fund balance reserves on an annual basis just to be able to pay for their police, firefighters and streets workers.

“For the first time in years we’re not doing that. I’m very proud of the final product.”

Schweyer said Allentown has a healthy fund balance of more than $13 million, something no other city of its size has in Pennsylvania. “We have allowances for capital expenses next year, so for the first time in three or four years we’re not talking about what we’re not going to be able to do.”

After the meeting, Schweyer said the controversial 50-year water and sewer lease to LCA “ultimately put us on the path to fiscal solvency.
If not for that lease, we would have had a very significant property tax increase.”

He said council made no major changes to the budget proposed by Pawlowski in November.

But minor changes were made, via budget amendments from council members.

One change added $10,000 to the budget so the city can continue its gun “buy back” program for another year. Schweyer told his colleagues it’s been a successful program. He said the first year the city purchased more than 120 unwanted firearms. Last year, 67 weapons were collected and destroyed by melting them down.

“I don’t think any of us are under the illusion that any of these weapons were often used in the commission of crimes,” said Schweyer.
“But they are likely to wind up in the hands of a three or four-year-old child who is curious and can’t differentiate between a weapon and a toy. That’s where accidents happen.”

Schweyer later said not including that money in the 2014 budget was just an oversight by the administration. “It’s not that they didn’t agree with it.”

Other budget additions add a codes coordinator to the Department of Community and Economic Development, at a cost up to $60,311, and providing $3,500 for helmets for city fire police and $500 for crossing guard uniforms. Another $30,000 will be used on a multi-year project to organize and codify the city’s ordinances, resolutions and zoning decisions.

City managing director Francis Dougherty praised Schweyer’s leadership and tireless efforts, saying his work produced a much better budget.
He also said council member Jeff Glazier also made “fruitful contributions to the budget process.”

Dougherty also complimented Deb Bowman, the city’s deputy finance director, who was heavily involved in the budget process in the absence of finance director Gary Strathearn, who has been on an extended medical leave for the last several months.

Dougherty said the 2014 budget was extremely complicated because of the water and sewer lease.

Yet council president Julio Guridy called it the smoothest process to approve a budget in his 12 years on council.

During the meeting, council also approved a 25-cents-an-hour pay increase to crossing guards who ensure the safety of children walking to and from the city’s schools.

The city has about 40 crossing guards who work split shifts totaling three or four hours a day, said Amy Trapp, Allentown’s human resources manager. She added their current starting salary is $8.50 an hour.

Council also passed a resolution that the city will review whether its emergency medical services department needs a third ambulance crew working overnight.

But that review won’t be done until July.

Schweyer explained city officials want to wait to see what impact the new federal Affordable Care Act will have on revenue received from insurance reimbursements for ambulance service. He said the expectation is reimbursements probably will decrease.

Schweyer indicated officials also want to gather more data about whether a third ambulance is needed operate at night. He said a few years ago, city EMS crews had to ask outlying ambulance crews to assist them at night about 550 times. But in 2012, such mutual aid was needed only about 280 times.