When it was all over, there was no applause and no wishes for a Happy Holiday from Christmas City Council Prez Bob Donchez. Instead of Christmas cheer, City Council's gift to residents was a 3/4 mill tax increase, its first in the last five years. Ironically, it comes despite the casino revenue generated by the Sands.
In enacting the tax hike, Council restricted the anticipated $1.1 million in revenue to the City's aging EMS facility and a fire pumper. Their approval is required before the money is spent, and it must be maintained in a separate account. These restrictions were imposed after approving a $6 million lie of credit for projects like the EMS facility, only to learn that the money was diverted to medical coverage for City workers.
It's a budget that shares the pain. 54 City jobs were eliminated, including 2 fire fighters and another four who are expected to retire next year with no replacement. Firefighters union president David Saltzer grumbled, "I feel safer already."
Step increases for non-union workers were eliminated, and a scheduled 1 1/2% pay hike was delayed until July.
A last-minute attempt by David DiGiacinto to restore them failed to garner enough support, even though the Public Works Director Michael Alkhal had found the money in some non-priority projects. "I think it's important for morale," he quietly stated.
Karen Dolan sided with DiGiacinto, calling it "the right thing to do," noting that a City department had come forward at the eleventh hour and said, "Here, have some extra money, we can live without it." DiGiacinto said he sat down with City officials on Friday afternoon. "It didn't take long to find the money. ... It just makes you wonder."
Eric Evans, who also proposed the tax hike, argued "it's not consistent with what we've done." J William Reynolds and Bob Donchez joined Evans in voting against DiGiacinto's proposal, effectively killing it. DiGiacinto had four votes, but needed five.
In addition to the tax hike, Council set the wheels in motion for a $16 million loan to pay for unpaid bills, including the City's annual pension contribution. In an August Finance Committee hearing, city officials had assured Council President Donchez that this year's payment would be timely, but the money must now be borrowed. Callahan had sought approval for a $20 million borrowing plan, which included the same projects for which Council had already borrowed $6 million. DiGiacinto voted No.
Although Mayor Callahan opposed a tax hike, he increased City fees wherever he could. Recycling fees will increase from $40 to $60. It will cost you more to golf, too.
Disgusted, Bethlehem resident Chuck Nyul asked Council, "Have you no regard for this City? I love this place, but i'm starting to hate some of the people that are governing it."
Firefighter Union President David Saltzer: "I feel safer already."
City Resident Chuck Nyul: "Have you no regard for this City?"