Bethlehem City Council on Monday night voted to kill Mayor John Callahan’s proposal to hire – by the end of 2013 – a single hauler to cart away residential garbage.
In its final budget hearing of the season, council also voted in favor of a 7 percent real estate tax hike. That is lower than the 8.5 percent increase Callahan initially suggested in the budget proposal he made on Nov. 9.
Callahan came to the last budget session armed with a proposal to cut the tax hike to 5.1 percent, but council rejected the mayor’s tax proposal along with a couple of new administration proposals for budget cuts – such as an elimination of health care benefits for City Council members.
In rejecting the mayor’s controversial proposal for a single-hauler collection system, council rejected $500,000 in new city revenue from garbage fees and had to find a way to replace that as well.
The vote for the new tax rate, which came at the end of a six-hour session, was 6-1 in favor, with only Councilman David DiGiacinto dissenting. The final official vote on the budget and a new tax rate is scheduled at council’s final regular meeting of 2012 Thursday night.
If the budget is adopted as it is currently conceived, the real estate tax rate will rise by 1.04 mills and have an impact of $52 a year on the average homeowner with an assessed property value of $50,000.
Three-quarters of that tax increase will be dedicated exclusively to the continued operation of the city’s 911 emergency dispatching center.
Bethlehem is one of only two cities in Pennsylvania that operates its own emergency dispatching center. In all other corners of the state, with the exception of Allentown, 911 call centers are operated by county governments.
Council made the trash hauler decision at the very top of the meeting, casting a 4-3 vote to remove single-hauler from the discussion even before council President Eric Evans granted courtesy of the floor to what was again a packed Town Hall.
DiGiacinto, Evans, Bob Donchez and J. William Reynolds cast the majority vote to remove single-hauler – and a $500,000 revenue stream – from the table.
Dissenting votes were cast by Karen Dolan, Mike Recchiuti and, oddly, Jean Belinski, who had previously voiced her support for small independent trash haulers that had lobbied City Council to reject Callahan’s proposal.
Callahan was not able to obtain $1 million in payments in lieu of taxes from local nonprofits, as he said he intended when he first proposed a 2013 spending plan.
Instead, Callahan came to Monday’s session with news of increasing revenue from the refinancing of one bond to lower an interest rate, $400,000 in new earned income tax revenue based on higher-than-anticipated receipts this year and an expected increase in casino host fees because of a recently approved plan to add 31 new table games at the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem.
While council accepted these new revenue projections, it rejected some of Callahan’s proposals to cut expenses, including one that would have eliminated City Council’s taxpayer-funded health insurance benefit – a $70,000 line item.
DiGiacinto, Dolan, Belinski and Recchiuti voted against eliminating health insurance for council members. Evans, Donchez and Reynolds voted for it.