Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Statement to Bethlehem City Council: Oct 1, 2013

Last night, I watched the ping pong match of congress vs senate, with both sides losing, and seeing more citizen outrage piling up on social media. I contributed a few opinions on the matter myself, but thought more about a local matter that I had threatened to make an issue of after reading about it in a local newspaper. I didn't want to feel useless about government. I knew that if I cared about something, it would be better to find the guts to address the matter publicly and on the record.

I've been to a few City Council meetings, and occasionally tweet from them or engage in twitter conversations with others tweeting from the Rotunda if I can't make it there in person. I'm familiar with a particular theatre of the open floor; a couple of regular characters who "reflect" on the meeting's proceeding, rather "off the cuff." Each citizen gets five minutes to speak at the beginning of the agenda, on any items listed on the agenda, or at the end of the meeting, for any topics not covered in the agenda.

The agenda for the City Council meetings are posted the day before here.

[after stating my name and home address, I admitted to feeling very nervous, even though I rehearsed the statement a few times. I have great respect for all who serve in government; for those who take on the burden of decision making, who know that they will not make everyone happy, but do their best to do right for their community. I did not intend to point fingers or lay blame. I only wanted to share my perspective]

Good evening. I’m standing here to address the Bethlehem City Council on a matter that caught my attention in an article written in the Express Times on Sept 21st, stating that for a second year in a row, the Runner’s World Marathon events will not be charged the costs for the city services.

The article states that last year’s race had city services fees partially covered by two sponsors ships, St. Luke’s Hospital and Discover Lehigh Valley. Yet there was a remaining $13,000 that the city had to “pay out of its own budget.”

Runner’s World Marathon organizers put in significant efforts designing the course. While I can appreciate a concern over the possibility of them relocating the marathon to another city, they will most likely not any time soon. Marathon runners know that the Bethlehem course is challenging, and threads through some of the most beautiful parts of our city, both north and south sides. The race was incredibly well planned and praised by many runners; an assessment I collected by reading multiple reviews of last year’s events.

Runners return to familiar courses. They also pay registration fees set by marathon organizers to cover their costs, along with sponsorships. There are plenty of opportunities in these revenue collections to cover the city services fees.

When the administration arbitrarily waives the fees for public events that require city services, the tax payer will bear the burden.  

On February 5th of this year, City Council voted to impose a new Amusement Tax – to be applied to the price of admission to all amusements for which admission is charged or paid. The amusement tax, also dubbed a first responders fee, was one of several measures Mayor Callahan proposed to cover an expected $4.8 million budget gap this year.

The mayor advocated for this tax, saying the revenue would go into the General Fund that funds city operations, including the salaries of police, firefighters and EMS. This tax only applies to City of Bethlehem venues of a capacity greater than 200 and ticket prices greater than ten dollars.

The venues that have been collecting this tax can show record of sales that demonstrate a significant portion of those who are paying the amusement taxes are Bethlehem citizens.

But more than passing along the costs of the events to the tax payer, this practice sets up an uneven playing field for other non-profit organizations who present festivals in the city and sponsor charity events.  There is already a significant amount of competition for audiences, sponsorship and other assets in the community. Unfairly charging city services builds unfavorable relationships among the various organizations – leaving many to question what do they have to do to win favor of the city administration. But this also undermines the good will these efforts do to building civic engagement, civic pride and contributions to the greater good of Bethlehem. Thousands of Bethlehem citizens contribute their time, expertise, and dollars to providing amazing events for our city and visitors to enjoy. If the rules of the game keep changing, people will no longer be willing to play.

I was a little dismayed that the issue was not put on tonight’s agenda. I do understand that once a fee is reduced, forgiven or waived, it cannot be re-charged. I humbly ask the city council and the city administration to keep the fees and city service charges fairly charged to future events, to all organizations. This way, the citizens of Bethlehem will be more favorable to supporting events that occasionally disrupt traffic, or inconvenience our neighborhoods with noise and the inevitable aftermath on our lawns and shared public property.

Thank you for your consideration.