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Rats not taking over Bethlehem neighborhood, say city officials

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Jun 04 2013 10:02:41 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 05 2013 02:25:11 PM CDT
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

Two top city officials maintain rats are not taking over a Bethlehem neighborhood.

Several weeks ago, people living in the 100 block of East Garrison Street were asking the city to do something about the infestation.

“There is no infestation,” said Mayor John Callahan, who added the city continues to monitor that neighborhood. “There was not a significant rat problem.”

Judith Koch of 113 East Garrison St., who first brought the rat problem to the city's attention, said she's seen none of the rodents recently, but disagrees with the mayor's assertion.

"There definitely were rats," said Koch on Wednesday afternoon.

In April, Koch pleaded with City Council for help. She told council she killed nine rats in the last year and even shared photos of  dead rats. She said she got no help from the city health bureau, a fire inspector or the mayor’s office.

Koch said the problem was so bad that rats stole her dogs' toys and used them to build their nests; that she used a baseball bat to kill a rat she found hiding in a bucket, and that she could hear them scurrying across the floor of her home and inside the walls.

Emily Frye, of 115 East Garrison St., backed up Koch's account, and feared the rats posed a danger to her 1-year-old son, who crawls on the floor.

Both Koch and Frye told City Council the source of the problem seemed to be a vacant nearby home owned by an elderly woman in a nursing home.

On Tuesday night both the mayor and Joe Kelly, the city’s community and economic development director, said no rats were found inside that vacant home. “It was clean,” said the mayor. “There was no infestation.”

Koch disagreed. She said three rats were found inside that vacant house before it was cleaned out. Two were killed and one got away. She was told by someone from the city health bureau that a first-floor bed inside that house "was covered in rat feces."

While the city initially could not get approval to enter the vacant house, eventually it did and Callahan said the city health department pursued the matter "vigorously."

Kelly added: “We’re continuing to monitor it.”

When asked if all three homes in that neighborhood now are rat-free, Kelly said: “I might make the argument they were rat-free to begin with. But there is no infestation.”

"I can't believe he said that," said Koch Wednesday. "I'm a teacher. I wouldn't lie about this."

Despite Koch saying she killed nine rats, Callahan reported that, “based on what everyone had said,” only three rats were in that area.

As for Koch making a number of calls to the city for help, Kelly said: “That proved not to be true either.”

Added Callahan: “She made one phone call in March.”

"I may have called the mayor's office one time, but I called the city health bureau at least 10 times for help," said Koch.

While she's seen and heard no more rats, she said her dogs still are scratching at the walls in her kitchen.

The rat issue was raised by resident Stephen Antalics near the end of Tuesday night’s short Bethlehem City Council meeting.

Antalics questioned what happened to the city’s vacant property review committee, which would publish lists of such properties with suggestions regarding what might be done about them, often leading to citations and fines.

“How many years has it been since this vacant property review committee has met?” asked Antalics. “Why are these committees, which serve the public interest in terms health and welfare, not meeting on a routine basis?”

Antalics suggested that committee could have solved the rat problems reported by the two women, by doing something about the vacant home they thought was infested.

But Callahan said the vacant property review board deals with blight, adding: “This house wasn’t blighted.”

He said the property in question also was not vacant that long and “by all accounts” the exterior of the building was maintained.

Callahan said he chaired that vacant property board when he served on City Council.

“One of the frustrations I found when I chaired that committee was that the process of taking these vacant properties by eminent domain is a very long process.”

Antalics said a member of the vacant property committee told him it has not met for more than a year.

With two of council’s seven members absent, the remaining five members quickly approved two appointments – Tracy Oscavich to the Environmental Advisory Council and Barbara Pearson to the Fine Arts Commission – then passed three ordinances and three resolutions without comment.

Antalics was the only member of the public who stood to address council during the 14-minute-long meeting.