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Allentown Council hears issues ranging from homelessness to a $500 fine

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 06 2014 05:03:35 AM CST
Updated On: Mar 06 2014 05:04:01 AM CST
Allentown City Council 3-5-14
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

An unusual joint resolution is being prepared for consideration by both Allentown City Council and Lehigh County commissioners, to get both bodies represented on a local committee aimed at ending chronic homelessness.

In an unrelated matter, City Council soon will consider whether it wants to impose $500 fines on anyone who removes "any official notice or placard" placed on a property by a city official - including but not limited to notices posting a property as uninhabitable or on illegal housing units.

Both issues came up during Wednesday's City Council meeting, where City Clerk Michael Hanlon was recognized for 25 years of service to Allentown.

The 58-year-old Hanlon has worked with four mayors - Joe Daddona, William Heydt, Roy Afflerbach and Ed Pawlowski - and more than 100 City Council members in the last quarter century.

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Hanlon said he started on March 6, 1989, as a legislative aide to City Council.

"Thank you very much for all those years," City Council president Julio Guridy told Hanlon.

"We really appreciate all the work you do for the city and for us. You're kind of like the mediator for us in a lot of things and you do a lot of research. I'm sure everybody on council would agree with me that we really need you."

Hanlon and Deputy City Clerk Tawanna Whitehead serve as City Council's administrative staff in City Hall.

"I always say I'm the city's chief paper pusher," he joked.

Hanlon said what he enjoys most about the job are the people he meets and works with, adding: "I get to do something different all the time."

The $500 fine

The proposed ordinance imposing a $500 penalty for removing city notices and placards was referred to council member Joe Davis' community and economic development committee.

That committee will discuss the proposal at its 5:15 p.m. March 13 meeting. Davis said his committee will make a recommendation at City Council's March 19 meeting.

The proposed ordinance warns that "any unpaid charges relative to this penalty may be subject to a lien being placed upon the property."

Davis said no fine is imposed now if someone removes an official city notice or placard from a property.

He explained the penalty "is just another tool the city will be able to use to combat these situations where somebody just takes a tag off."

He said such notices might be removed by property owners, by someone trying to sell a neighboring property or even by people who go to abandoned houses and try to rent them out. Davis said "that doesn't happen a lot, but if it happens once, it's too much."

He said council member Peter Schweyer said is the author of the proposed ordinance.

A proposed joint resolution

Schweyer also is developing the homeless commission resolution for his colleagues on City Council to consider, while county commissioner Geoff Brace is doing the same for his fellow commissioners to consider.

Their goal is to get one member of City Council and one county commissioner on the local Commission to End Chronic Homelessness.

"In my six years on council, I've never seen a joint piece of legislation between the county commissioners and the city," said Schweyer.

'There hasn't been a lot of cooperation between Lehigh County Board of Commissioners and City Council. Frankly, we've been at odds with each other over things like the LCA {water and sewer lease] deal and certain KOZs."

Schweyer said both he and Brace want to do something about the homeless issue.

With more direct government involvement, he said if there's a need for additional dollars to help the homeless, "we can look for resources to do so."

He said the resolution also will encourage better communications be established when cold weather requires the opening of emergency shelters.

Schweyer said council members Cynthia Mota and Joe Davis already have signed on as co-sponsors of his proposed resolution and other council members also may do so. He expects it will be introduced to City Council later this month.

Safe Haven inspections?

Also during the short and poorly attended council meeting, resident Diane Teti pressed the city to send both fire and health inspectors to Safe Haven, a homeless shelter in the basement of St. Paul's Lutheran Church at 8th and Walnut streets.

"Two of you have seen the conditions at Safe Haven, yet nothing has been done," she told council. She argued homeless people seeking shelter at Safe Haven should have fire and health regulations enforced for their own benefit.

City managing director Francis Dougherty told council that Teti's initial suggestion had been conveyed to the city fire department, but he did not know if it has done an inspection of the shelter in the church's basement.

Guridy asked Dougherty to check on the status of both inspection requests.

Teti, an advocate for the homeless, figures if the city prohibits Safe Haven from operating next winter, better shelters for the homeless will be created.

She stressed that the Allentown YMCA is not a good option "for people who are trying not to freeze to death" because of low temperatures at 10:30 p.m. - the earliest homeless people are allowed into the Y - and at 5 a.m. - when they must leave the building.

Teti said the immediate problem is providing better emergency shelters for the homeless in Allentown. She told council some churches are looking at solutions but none have come to fruition yet.

She said Safe Haven will close at the end of March, but homeless people still will need shelter in April.

She hopes having a member of City Council and a county commissioner serve on the Commission to End Chronic Homelessness will give it more teeth "to move toward a more sustainable and humane way to shelter people, while connecting them to the services needed to get them back on their feet."

Teti and council member Jeanette Eichenwald recently met with Allentown School District officials about the possibility of using schools as emergency shelters for the homeless - a proposal first made to City Council in January by ASD board president Robert Smith.

Teti said schools are opened in emergencies under the management of the American Red Cross. But she learned the Red Cross only does that for major disasters. She said Red Cross officials have offered the use of cots, so homeless people don't have to sleep on floors inside shelters.

Snow removal costs

Schweyer, who chairs council's budget and finance committee, reported that overtime, private contractor and other city costs from winter's cold and snow went $250,000 to $500,000 over budget, "which isn't as bad as I expected it to be."

He said the city's administration has promised a full accounting of those costs by his committee's April meeting "at the very latest."

On Feb. 26, Dougherty gave Schweyer's committee a higher estimate, saying snow removal costs have put the city as much as $750,000 over budget.

Whatever the final figure, Schweyer predicted it will be a number that the city will be able to reasonably absorb in its annual budget.

He said the city financially plans to handle up to 35 inches of snow a year, adding it got nearly twice as much this winter.

"But ultimately, it is not a dollar figure that is insurmountable for us," said Schweyer. "I feel comfortable that it's not going to have any long-term implications on our operations for the rest of this year."

He said the city already has four crews working on pothole repairs.

Weighing in on a national issue

A proposed resolution on a national issue was introduced at council's meeting.

It recommends that Congress and the president work on a comprehensive immigration reform package "that includes a humane, practical path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and the reform of temporary worker programs that exploit immigrant workers."

The resolution also states that City Council recommends enactment of the Dream Act, which gives high school graduates who grew up in the United States the opportunity to become citizens if they go to college or serve in the U.S. military.

The proposed resolution was referred to council's intergovernmental relations committee, chaired by Guridy. He said that committee will schedule a meeting very soon.

If approved, the resolution will be sent to U.S. Senators Robert Casey and Patrick Toomey as well as U.S. Rep Charlie Dent.