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Bethlehem Mayor Donchez encourages questions, complaints

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Jul 23 2014 05:26:33 AM CDT
Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

You already may know that Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez uses his own car for work.

You also may know that he opens up his office in City Hall once a month to take complaints and comments from city residents – no appointments required.

You may even know the mayor has been conducting town meetings with residents around the city, something he intends to do on an annual basis.

But did you also know Donchez gives out his home phone number at those meetings?

He did it Tuesday night during a town meeting held for west Bethlehem residents in Church of the Manger United Church of Christ, at 1401 Greenview Drive.

Not only did the mayor give out his phone number, but said: “If we don’t get back to you, give me hell.”

Donchez, a former City Council member who took office as mayor in January, presents himself as a politician who really wants to hear what his constituents have to say.

When was the last time you heard any local elected official say this at a public meeting: “Fire away with any questions, complaints or concerns you want to have me answer.”

Or this? “If you have any potholes on your street, I want you to let us know before you leave, so we can take care of that right away.”

Donchez didn’t climb into the pulpit of the church’s chapel to speak or even use a microphone as he addressed about 50 people.

While he spent most of the hour responding to questions and comments from the audience, he also shared some news.

He did not rule out the possibility of a 2015 city tax increase, he plans to change trash collection all over Bethlehem by the middle of next year and he said PennDOT’s reconstruction of Route 412 is way behind schedule and won’t be completed for at least two and a half more years.

Issues raised by residents included the future of Martin Tower and Westgate Mall, as well as when Pennsylvania Avenue will be resurfaced.

One resident complained about people having illegal backyard fires in the city, another about too much trash downtown on Sundays.

The mayor took his entire cabinet with him to the church, including the police chief and fire chief.

The town meeting was held after Donchez and his department heads spent four hours walking streets in west Bethlehem Tuesday.

It was the third such meeting he has done since becoming mayor.

He said the first two were in May and June in south Bethlehem, one of which followed another four-hour walk through that part of the city.

He plans to do one more town meeting this year, in north Bethlehem at the end of September.

During the hot Tuesday walk, Donchez said city officials knocked on many doors along Spring Street, Valley Road and part of Greenview Drive. They distributed and installed nearly 100 free smoke detectors as well as handing out a couple of dozen batteries for smoke detectors.

He said city officials also issued warnings to some property owners, giving them 30 days to cut high grass, fix broken windows and make other repairs -- or face fines.

“We have to have very strict code enforcement because a neighborhood can go down very quickly,” explained the mayor. “If one or two properties deteriorate, it can change the character of that whole neighborhood, affect your property values and lead to people putting up for sale signs.”

Donchez explained going out into the city gives him and his department heads a good feel for the concerns of city residents.

The town meetings are in addition to his open door policy. From 9-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. on the second Monday of each month, people can go to City Hall to meet with the mayor “unannounced, no appointment necessary.”

“We try to keep it to 15 minutes if possible.”

Some folks in the audience gasped when Donchez said: “Last Monday we had 24 people.” He added the first were there at 9 o’clock and they kept coming until 3:30 p.m.

He said he’s been averaging 18-25 people since he started that program in February.

“We follow up with all the concerns and complaints,” promised the mayor.

After acknowledging he’s been criticized for giving out his home phone number, Donchez immediately advised those in the audience to grab pencils and write it down: 610-868-4680.

“Leave a message on the machine; I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

He said he gets 30-40 calls every day.

Those in the audience included Lehigh County Executive Thomas Muller – west Bethlehem is in Lehigh County – and state Rep. Daniel McNeill, whose legislative district now includes west Bethlehem.

The meeting was arranged by the Kaywin Block Watch. Donchez said he plans to attend meetings of all the city’s block watch organizations at least once a year.

Here’s more about some of the issues discussed:

Taxes going up?

Donchez said the biggest issue facing Bethlehem is that two items – pensions and health care costs -- are going to increase the city’s 2015 budget by $5 million.

“This is the most difficult budget I have seen in my 18 years as an elected official,” he said, noting: “Our revenue is not increasing by $5 million.”

He said cities and counties across Pennsylvania are facing that same financial challenge and the state legislature needs to enact pension reform. “It’s not sustainable. We cannot keep increasing the bills to the school district, the county or the city by $2 million to $3 million a year.”

The mayor, a Democrat who described himself as an extreme fiscal conservative, has formed a financial advisory committee of five CEOs to help the city fashion the 2015 budget.

“We may have to make some very hard choices,” said Donchez. “I’m willing to do that. I’m willing to lead the charge. If we have to have a tax increase – and I’m not saying we will – I want to make it the smallest one possible.”

Zoned trash hauling

The mayor proposes implementing zoned trash hauling, which means all trash would be picked up on specific days in different parts of the city.

He said Bethlehem would be divided into four zones -- south side, west side, north and northeast – and all trash would be picked up on two days in each of those zones.

For example, south Bethlehem might have a Monday/Tuesday pick-up and west Bethlehem’s might be Tuesday/Wednesday.

“That means if you’re in west Bethlehem and it’s picked up on Tuesday/Wednesday and garbage is there Thursday, we know we can go and cite the property owner,” said Donchez. “It gives us some control.”

He said the city has 22 private trash haulers, plus some “renegades.” That results in trash being out on the streets all over town and everyone has it collected on different days.

“Today we have no control over this,” said Donchez. ”We’ve lost the battle of enforcing garbage. We have no idea when your garbage is going to be picked up. This is a quality of life issue for you. I would not want to be living next to someone where there’s a lot of garbage. We need some teeth.”

He said the city has met with five “representative” trash haulers and plans to meet with them again. If they respond favorably to his plan, he will meet with all 22 haulers.

“If the 22 haulers are receptive to the idea, then I’m going to present it to City Council at the end of the year. I’m hoping the haulers buy into it and I’m hoping council buys into it.”

Donchez said his goal is to implement zoned hauling in Bethlehem next July 1.

He said time will be needed to educate the public about the change and so trash haulers can change their schedules. He also doesn’t want to implement it in winter, when snow and ice could delay trash pick-ups.

He predicted some haulers will want to start picking up trash at 5 a.m. rather than 6 a.m.

“We’ll have to debate that issue. In other communities, they pick up trash from midnight until 6 in the morning. I think our sister city Allentown does that. I’m not in favor of that.”

The mayor said he’s also not in favor of a single hauler getting a contract to pick up trash for the entire city. He told residents: “I’d like you to keep your own haulers. Prices really vary and competition is good.”

Sunday trash downtown

On another issue, Donchez agreed with a woman who said accumulated trash in downtown Bethlehem on Sundays is “a disgrace.”

That trash apparently is a result of the popularity of center-city restaurants, many featuring outdoor dining, on Saturdays.

The mayor said the city may bring in people on overtime to empty trash containers on Sundays and it already has asked some merchants if they are willing to do the same.

He said the trash is an eyesore.

“If you’re coming to Bethlehem for the first time on a Sunday, and you’re going downtown to eat, and you see trash on the sidewalks, it looks like hell. If you’re coming into the city, it’s your first impression. And if you have a negative impression, you’re not coming back. It’s not the image we want.”

He added: “The downtown is vibrant and that’s very good. Restaurants are good, they’re a destination. But I don’t want to have a downtown of all restaurants. I want a balance of restaurants and retail.”

He said downtown business vacancies are difficult to fill because of competition from the Promenade shops in Upper Saucon Township and more competition anticipated from the Hamilton Crossings shopping center planned in Lower Macungie Township.

Roads and bridges

The mayor reported that PennDOT’s reconstruction of Route 412, which links Interstate 78 with the heart of the city, is a year behind schedule and won’t be completed until Christmas 2016, at the earliest.

He said the first thing developers interested in property in the nearby Lehigh Valley Industrial Park want to know is when that road work will be done. “The answer they’re getting is not the answer they want.”

He reported an 18-month, $30-million reconstruction of the Fahy Bridge, which carries New Street traffic over the Lehigh River, will begin next spring.

And he said six to eight years from now, the Hill-to-Hill Bridge over the Lehigh will get a complete makeover.

Michael Alkhal, the city’s public works director, told residents Bethlehem has not spent enough to properly maintain its 258 miles of roads, adding doing so would cost up to $2 million a year but the city has been spending no more than $600,000 a year.

Donchez said the city will prepare an estimated $5 million bond early next year that will include money for street improvements, possibly including resurfacing Pennsylvania Avenue, which he agreed is a major street.

New city website

Bethlehem’s new website will be unveiled the beginning of next year, reported Donchez.

The current “antiquated” website is being redesigned and will become more interactive when completed.

He invited residents to let him know if they want to be part of a small focus group to review the new website to make sure it’s right before it goes public, saying: “I don’t want to roll this out like Obamacare and let it be a disaster.”

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Martin Tower

The long-vacant and privately-owned Martin Tower building is large, inefficiently designed, contains asbestos and lacks a sprinkler system, said the mayor.

The 21-story building, tallest in the Lehigh Valley, is the former headquarters of Bethlehem Steel.

Saying its owners face a challenge to develop Martin Tower, Donchez estimated renovating it will cost $40 million-$50 million.

Donchez said about two months ago he met with one owner of the 53-acre property, which contains the tower and other buildings. He said he has not seen any plans to turn the site into either low-income or high-income housing.

He said any plans for development of that property will be carefully scrutinized by city officials “because we understand neighborhood issues.”

He also said there have been rumors, but no discussions with the city, bout demolishing the tower and/or other buildings on the site.

Westgate Mall

Donchez said six or seven months ago, a representative of the new owners of the Westgate Mall said they were developing plans to do a complete overhaul of that shopping center, which is along Schoenersville Road near Church of the Manger.

He was told that work will include making Westgate’s exterior facade more attractive.

The mayor said he always hears rumors that Lehigh Valley Hospital is interested in buying the shopping center property, but the owners’ representative told him that was not true.

He said the long-closed Dempsey’s restaurant in front of Westgate probably will be torn down because it would have too many code violations to reopen. “If you remember, the bathrooms are downstairs.”

Key factors in success

Stressing the importance of tjhe Bethlehem Area School District in the city’s success, the mayor said if people did not view it as a good district, “we’re going to lose middle-class people coming into the City of Bethlehem. And a city cannot survive without middle-class people.”

He said local leaders in the 1960s had the vision to create an area school district rather than a city school district, which is what neighboring Allentown has.

He said they took the Bethlehem School District and merged it with districts in Fountain Hill, Bethlehem Township, Freemansburg and Hanover Township to create a city/suburban school district.

“It has saved us financially to have a solid school district,” said Donchez. “Allentown had that same option. They could have incorporated Salisbury and Parkland, but they opted to stay as a city school district.”

The mayor said another part of Bethlehem’s success has been its industrial parks, including those across from Lehigh Valley International Airport.

He said former government and business leaders of both political parties had the vision to realize Bethlehem could not survive as a one-industry town, so they formed industrial parks. He said those industrial parks now employ thousands of people.

“We’ve actually seen a trend of manufacturers coming back into the United States, which 10 years ago I don’t think any of us thought that would have been possible.”

He said one or two manufacturing companies have come to the city just in the last two months.

“We need more people in trade schools now. You talk to any company and they’ll say ‘I could use plumbers, I could use electricians, I just can’t find enough.’ Maybe not everyone is meant for college. When we meet with business people they’ll say ‘I wish I could hire somebody right out of trade school.'"