Archive for category eric evans

What’s next for Bethlehem’s municipal golf course

A meeting on the course’s future drew a crowd Tuesday night.

It was a packed house Tuesday night to discuss the future of Bethlehem’s public golf course.

The Bethlehem Municipal Golf Course has lost almost $1 million since 2009 causing council to schedule the committee meeting to discuss how to reverse the losses.

More than 75 residents and golfers turned out to hear council lay out five options for the 18-hole and 9-hole courses and the driving range on Illick’s Mill Road.

Parks and Recreation Committee Chairman Eric Evans favors the city putting out a request-for-proposal to privatize the course and requiring the leasee to make needed improvements.

After about an hour-and-a-half of debate and public comment, the informational meeting ended without council taking any action.

Mayor Bob Donchez and his administration are expected to review the options and return with an update at the Nov. 16 parks and rec budget meeting. Evans hopes there will be a plan in motion by the first quarter of next year, he said.

But Council President J. William Reynolds, an avid golfer, argued for a much slower approach, developing a five to 10 year plan for the course. Nothing is going to happen to the golf course in the short term, he said.

Witha $74 million general fund budget, losing $50,000 a year on the golf course is  not a budget breaker, Reynolds said. That may be the cost of the asset, he said.

“There’s very few things in our city that make money,” he said.

Council Vice President Adam Waldron said he thinks the course is a great city asset. But the course must get its expenses under control or the city must weigh privatization, he said. He’s open to either option.

“I don’t think it is acceptable to lose money every year,” Waldron said.

City financial documents show the course has operated from $35,105 in the red in 2009 to a high of $203,913 in 2014. It lost $122,064 in 2016 and is on track for a similar 2017.

Should Bethlehem privatize its money-losing golf course?

City Business Manager David Brong said the losses at this point are an “irritant,” not a “boat anchor” for the city. The course’s losses are getting more attention now because the city has dug itself out of a major deficit and improved its finances, he said.

The course is supposed to pay the city about $150,000 annually for various services, like attorneys and human resources, determined via an third-party cost study. Since 2011, the course has paid about $171,000 and $700,000 is outstanding, Brong said.

Evans laid out five options: sell the course, maintain the status quo, create an independent authority to operate it, close the 9-hole course or lease it.

None of the solutions are easy and there may not be the political will to enact them, Reynolds said.

“I have serious concerns about privatization,” he said, adding if someone invests hundreds of thousands into the course they’ll want a long term lease.

Golfers who spoke Tuesday night were mixed on whether privatization is the answer. The majority praised the course conditions and offered suggestions to make the course more attractive to play on.

Resident Al Bernotas said one of the reasons he moved to Bethlehem in 1983 was for the course and privatization is the way to go.

Others questioned why the city can’t find a way to make money if a private operator could make the course profitable.

An outside operator would likely be able to slash the courses labor costs. Currently, the course employs eight full-time workers and spends about $919,000 on salaries for its full-time and seasonal employees. 

Bethlehem’s municipal course is one of the busiest in the region with 34,000 to 36,000 rounds played annually. But nationally interest in golf is down and so is revenue, Evans said. 

Golfing is weather dependent and a soggy summer can quickly sink operations.

Its budget holes make it impossible to take on needed infrastructures repairs, like its sand traps, bathrooms, cartpaths and parking lots, Evans said.

Golfer Bruce Gardener shared ways his brother-in-law helped turn around the municipal golf course he operates in Conneticut. The course now has an $850,000 surplus and is willing to share what its done, he said.

Sara K. Satullo may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sarasatullo and Facebook. Find on Facebook.

Should Bethlehem privatize its money-losing golf course?

Bethlehem City Council is holding at 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday to discuss the future of the courses.

How Bethlehem finished 2016 $3.2M in the black

The city’s draft 2016 audit tells the story of Bethlehem’s financial turn around.

The city of Bethlehem finished 2016 with a $3.2 million surplus, completing a financial turn around that’s been years in the works.

That’s according to its draft audit, which was presented to city council on Tuesday night. 

The strong financial year helped push the city’s unassigned fund balance — a key indicator of a government’s fiscal health — to $12.5 million or about 18 percent of the $74 million general fund. That’s just slightly higher than the 17 percent recommended. 

“I think we have turned the fiscal ship in the right direction,” Mayor Bob Donchez said.

It’s a pivotal point for a city that seven years ago ended 2010 with a $14.2 million deficit, prompting officials to enact a financial turnaround plan that included staff reductions and other cost-cutting measures. 

“From a financial standpoint, it is nothing short of a turn around and I think it needed to be,” said David Brong, city business administrator.

City Councilman Eric Evans said the city had some very tough years financially, but things are changing.

“It’s a real nice trend,” he said Wednesday.

Why Bethlehem schools are owed almost $500K from the state

Then on Wednesday, Donchez announced that the city received the good news that Standard & Poor’s had again upgraded its credit rating from A to A+ with a stable outlook. Its the third rating increase in the last two years.

The administration had feared the uncertainty surrounding the city’s $9.8 million casino host fee might hurt its credit rating, but the 2016 audit actually helped it.

“The unprecedented improvement is an indication of my team’s focus on the task of improving the city’s financial stability,” Donchez said.

S&P pointed to the city’s healthy fund balance, strong budget performance and adoption of a long-term financial plan as reasons for the upgrade.

“The stable outlook reflects our opinion that the city will maintain its very strong budgetary flexibility and liquidity as well as sustain its strong budgetary performance,” according to the rating.

Donchez praised Brong and Mark Sivak, city director of budget and finance, and his department heads for their hard work. 

“We made some very difficult decisions with the cooperation and great working relationship of city council,” Donchez said.

In 2016, Bethlehem raised taxes by just over 2 percent to bring in $865,000 more in property tax, and raised the recycling fee by $10, generating an additional $292,070, Brong said the draft audit found.

The city saw more income and mercantile taxes coming in thanks to an improving economy and collecting more delinquent taxes, Bron said.

He noted 10 years ago the city collected at most $1.4 million a year in business privilege tax. Now, it is bringing in $2.5 million annually.

“The reason for that is we weren’t that good at it and we’ve been improved that,” Brong said. “People are not flying under the radar screen.”

In 2016 and prior years, Bethlehem’s focused on improving its revenues and cutting expenses everywhere it could, including an internal reorganization, Brong said.

“Our staffing has been consistently being driven down,” he said.

Employees have agreed to new medical plans that include higher premium cost sharing and added deductibles.

“Our bargaining units ratified packages where they’ve acknowledged the city has big financial challenges,” Brong said.

All of this contributed to the city’s improved financial health.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’ve done an awful lot,” Brong said. “We’ve asked an awful lot of all parties and at this point in time they have really responded to the challenge.”

The administration is working to craft the 2018 budget, which is sure to be complicated since Harrisburg has not solved the casino host fee legislation.

An upcoming refinancing will net the city substantial savings and the administration is working on major cuts to city energy costs, Brong said.

Sara K. Satullo may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sarasatullo and Facebook. Find on Facebook.

No more gifts in the Christmas City

Bethlehem City Council passed a gift ban unanimously Tuesday night.

There are no more gifts in the Christmas City when it comes to city government.
Tuesday night Bethlehem City C…

Good news in 2017 Bethlehem tax bills

There won’t be a tax increase in 2017, although sewer rates will rise.

Bethlehem City Council gave residents an early Christmas present Tuesday night when they approved a 2017 budget that holds the line on taxes. 

bob donchezBethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez got a no tax increase budget passed. file photo) 

The $74.05 million spending plan passed in a 6-1 vote with Councilman Bryan Callahan, who had wanted a tax cut, dissenting.

“I wanted a variety of cuts that did not go through,” Callahan said. “I just had a problem with a few line items.”

While the budget does not include a tax hike, council already has voted to raise sewer rates by 10 percent. 

When crafting the budget, Mayor Bob Donchez said he focused on providing basic services to city residents and prioritized investing in streets, parks and the downtowns.

Councilman Eric Evans praised the administration for its hard work getting to a no tax increase budget. The city’s spending on roads next year will move from about $600,000, where it has sat for years, to over $1 million, Evans said.

The city began the budget season with a projected $1.9 million shortfall, which was closed through a refinancing, departmental consolidations, higher employee health care contributions and an early retirement program.

Why this charter school is suing 2 Lehigh Valley districts

Both Evans and Councilman Shawn Martell praised the budget’s investments in the two downtowns and its responsiveness to merchants. The budget includes funding to hire a firm to complete a market analysis of the downtowns, studying the businesses they’re attracting and who they should be courting. 

It also includes a comprehensive parking study of the entire city.

In 2017, the city workforce will drop to a low of 606 employees. The budget cut four positions, three by reorganizing the parks department and a civilian job in the police records office. No one lost their job in the consolidation.

Evans pointed out that the fire and police departments remain at full force.

The city plans to tackle bridge projects next year, including Lynn Avenue and High Street, and residents should expect better snow removal services due to 2016 investments.

The city has completed a study of its park system and the spending plan includes almost $600,000 to tackle renovations to fields, tennis courts, playground equipment and the like. In fact, new equipment has been bought for Elmwood, Martin Luther King, Sand Island and Bayard parks.

The budget continues the Donchez administration’s renewed focus on tackling vacant and blighted property. It includes $500,000 for the city to buy lingering blighted properties where the city’s been unable to spur owner action. 

One of the most high profile such buildings is the old Goodman Furniture building on East Third Street. Owner Alvin Kanofsky has fought the city for years in its efforts to get the property cleaned up and back in use.

The 2016 budget raised taxes by a little more than 2 percent and increased the recycling fee by $10.

Sara K. Satullo may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sarasatullo and Facebook. Find on Facebook.

Bethlehem says thanks, but no thanks to free land

The federal government will be free to sell the former Wilson-Kramer Army Reserve Center.

Bethlehem will pass on a free 7.5-acre former Army Reserve center because it needs …

Bethlehem City Council votes to close two pools as part of budget reductions

Bethlehem City Council on Thursday voted to cut $196,000 from the city’s $71.3 million 2015 budget, which will save the average taxpayer about $6.50.

Bethlehem City Council on Thursday voted to cut $196,000 from the city’s $71.3 million 2015 budget, which will save the average taxpayer about $6.50.

A resident in the city’s average assessed home of $50,000 was facing a $50 property tax increase as part of the 2015 budget. Council’s cuts Thursday will reduce that increase to about $43.50, Bethlehem Director of Budget and Finance Mark Sivak said.

One of the biggest cuts – of $47,868 – is the result of a plan to close Saucon and West Side pools. Council voted 4-3 in favor of that cut, with Councilmen Bryan Callahan, Eric Evans, Cathy Reuscher and Louis Stellato voting yes.

Evans proposed the pool closures. He said he’s been monitoring pool attendance for several summers and has been very disappointed in their continued reduction.

Evans reasoned that West Side swimmers could instead go to Clearview Park and Saucon users to Yosko Park. He also suggested the two closed pools could be turned into splash parks in the future, which are cheaper to run and more popular.

Council President J. William Reynolds said he didn’t feel comfortable voting to close the pools without hearing from residents.

“I think the public speaks every day when they’re not there,” Evans responded.

Along with Reynolds, Councilmen Michael Recchiuti and Adam Waldron voted against closing the pools. The reduction leaves the city with four open pools.

Council will take a final vote on the 2015 budget – including the pool closures – at its 7 p.m. Tuesday meeting.

Council also voted 6-1 Thursday to cut $40,000 from the budget intended to plan for the city’s 275th anniversary celebration in 2016. Mayor Bob Donchez said more than $100,000 was spent on the city’s 250th anniversary, and while he hopes to have the celebration fully sponsored, he needed some seed money.

Reynolds and Waldron strongly objected to the expenditure, especially the suggestion part of the money might be used for a down payment on a gala.

“A tax increase is proposed to pay for a party for the elite,” Waldron said.

Donchez said he’s hopeful Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem would waive the $9,000 down payment for the gala at its event center. Lynn Collins Cunningham, senior vice president for Bethlehem initiatives for the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, explained that the gala is intended to be the major fundraiser for the entire yearlong anniversary celebration.

Council voted 6-1 to cut the $40,000 from the budget, with only Stellato supporting its inclusion.

Councilwoman Cathy Reuscher had proposed an alteration to the city’s amusement tax, to increase the minimum ticket price amount subject to the tax from $10 to $25. She said the increase would reduce the tax’s burden on both nonprofit arts organizations and lower-income residents.

Reuscher said she’s still researching what minimum amount would both most help nonprofits and residents while not cutting city revenues too much. She asked council instead consider her suggestion Tuesday.

Lynn Olanoff can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @LynnOlanoff. Find Bethlehem news on Facebook.

Blamed for tax increase, Bethlehem again debating merits of own 911 dispatch service

With the cost of having its own 911 dispatch service up by almost $1.7 million in five years, Bethlehem officials are again investigating whether the service should be kept.


Proposal to shorten Musikfest hours on Main Street panned at Bethlehem meeting

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez had said last month that he wanted to look into reopening Main Street to cars at 9 p.m. instead of 11 p.m. to dissipate teens who gather there but even he backed off the idea tonig…

Bethlehem officials: 2013 budget surplus insignificant with $5.9 million budget gap looming

Bethlehem ended 2013 with a $1.6 million surplus, but the windfall was largely based on one-time revenues and was short-lived, officials said Wednesday.

Bethlehem ended 2013…