Mayor's State of the City Report

Mayor's State of the City Address

 

Office of the Mayor
Vaughn D. Spencer

 

City of Reading, Pennsylvania
2013 Mayor’s State of the City Report
 
When I assumed the Office of the Mayor one year ago, I immediately began implementation of a bold and aggressive vision that required strong leadership in confronting the challenges facing our city.
 
That vision was clear, specific, and goal-oriented, and I promised to hit the ground running on day one. Then, something went wrong. What it was, and who is responsible are questions that today serve no useful purpose in asking. In fact, the disputes that arose in the early days, for all practical purposes, have been resolved.
 
Nevertheless, the attacks and obstructionism on the part of several members of Council have continued; sometimes openly and sometimes in the shadows. This has to stop.
 
Today, I call upon all reasonable members of Council to encourage their colleagues to engage in open and constructive dialog rather than avoidance and delay.
 
Why is this needed? The challenges and opportunities we face in 2013 are monumental. The decisions we make this year will set the direction for Reading in the decades to come: amending the Act 47 recovery plan, updating the comprehensive plan, the work of the charter review commission, the future of our authorities and related assets, implementation of the housing strategy, adoption of performance management and accountability, and renovation of the wastewater treatment plant are all top priorities.
 
There’s no question that we’ll have many disagreements working through all these things, but the only way we will serve the citizens and be successful is by open and constructive dialog.
 
The state of our city depends heavily on the state of our finances.  The degree to which we are able to provide public services and the quality of those services is a function of our ability to hold the line on expenses and generate revenue through taxation and other means.
 
Absent a sea change in the attitude of the Commonwealth toward its urban areas, my Administration is committed to increasing revenue and reducing cost in new and innovative ways. This will require greater coordination among our boards and authorities, greater emphasis on regionalization of services among inner-ring municipalities, new services which are self-funded, and most importantly, holding city managers accountable.
 
So I begin my State of the City Address today with an overview of the city’s current and projected financial standing. This assessment is not mine alone.  It is a product developed in consultation with key members of my Administration and Public Finance Management, our Act 47 coordinators.
 
On a cash basis, 2012 was, essentially, a break-even year: the City began the year with $9.2 in general fund cash, and ended the year with $9.3 million. The 2012 operating result stands in contrast to 2011, when PFM estimated that the City had a $2 million General Fund operating deficit. In late 2010 the City needed a $17 million unfunded debt borrowing, including approximately $8 million to meet its annual General Fund obligations for that year.  So the City’s financial results have been trending in the right direction.
 
Last year the Greater Berks Development fund repaid a $2.2 million debt to the City ahead of schedule and the City refinanced long-term debt to save $1.0 million in 2012, in addition to some longer-term savings.  These are legitimate short term actions to address the gap if they are coupled with the structural changes that the City needs to bring its spending permanently into balance with available revenues. In 2012 the City also spent $2.3 million more than it budgeted in its police and fire departments.  These departments provide critical public safety services to residents, businesses and visitors.  But, if the City spends more than it budgets in its two largest departments, it will be difficult to bring the finances into recurring balance.
 
Looking ahead, the City faces big challenges in 2015 as the non-resident earned income tax phases out and the lease/contribution agreement with the Reading Area Water Authority expires.  In the interim the City should focus its community and economic development efforts on activities that will stabilize or grow the local tax base instead of raising the tax rates.
 
Responsibility for providing the climate to develop clean, safe and vibrant neighborhoods and business districts rests first and foremost with our Police Department.
 
2012 continued to be a time of transition for the Reading Police Department. After losing over 80 officers over a two-year period, the department ramped up its hiring and promotional activities. We hired 38 officers in 2012, adding them to the 31 hired in 2011 and the five hired just this week. A record number of promotions also occurred, with 11 sergeants and 3 lieutenants being added to the staff within a year. In addition, almost the entire criminal investigations division is staffed by officers new to the division, replacing experienced investigators who retired or were promoted. 
 
On the crime front, we had ups and down during the year. Homicides increased from 12 to 15, with arrests already made in 13 of the cases. Although gun violence remains a top concern of mine, the number of people shot dropped from 65 to 57. Overall, the crime picture has been steady over the last few years, much better than 10 years ago, but not nearly as low as we would like. There is much to be done; and as emphasized by the recent Crime Summit, we all share in the responsibility to make Reading a safer city.
 
Despite having one of lowest ratio of officers per population in the region, the department is gearing up to reduce crime in 2013.  With 74 new officers on the force there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm. One of the initiatives the Chief is launching in 2013 is having the patrol officers, especially the newly hired, take time to walk a beat, visiting neighborhoods and small businesses to gather information and talk to our citizens about crime prevention techniques. The City is also adding about 20 additional cameras to its video safety system, which will improve the safety of our downtown and our neighborhoods.
 
The Department saw the completion of a new state-of-the-art firearms training facility built on Fritz Island in 2012. The PA Department of Community and Economic Development contributed to this project. This facility enables officers to receive the best training in the use of weapons and tactics. Already the department hosted an FBI SWAT team, who trained our officers in advanced tactics for high risk situations. And you may have noticed the police fleet has started to sport a more modern look on its police cruisers, representing the pride we have in our police department and in our city. And finally, all of our city departments, including police, have been preparing to implement a new radio system, spearheaded by the County, that will enable all public safety and public works departments to communicate with each other with ease and result in a more effective system.
 
The Fire Department said goodbye and wished happy retirements to two long serving members:  Fire Chief Jeff Squibb and Firefighter Larry Fisher.  The Department welcomed new Fire Chief David Hollinger and 11 new recruits in June.  The addition of the new firefighters should help to boost staffing levels and reduce overtime going forward.
 
In 2012, the Department responded to 16,325 calls for emergency medical services.  The EMS Medic trucks transported 12,508 individuals to area medical facilities.  An additional 7,800 citizens were transported through the EMS Division’s non-emergency service.  
 
The fire suppression units responded to a total of 7,422 calls for assistance, 3,800 of which were first responder or medical assistance.  Fire loss was estimated at over $1.5 million dollars; conversely $66 million dollars in property value was spared by the quick response and tactics employed by our firefighting forces.  There was no loss of life due to the effects of fire in 2012, but 19 civilians’ sustained injuries.  24 employees suffered duty-related injuries.   
 
Three new Lieutenants were promoted into the Office of the Fire Marshal.  The Office, led by the Fire Marshal and responsible for fire investigation, fire code enforcement, and public education reached new heights in 2012.  Adding value to the City by community risk reduction techniques, the Office investigated 149 fires, inspected 801 occupancies, and promoted the fire safety message to over 30,000 citizens.
 
In addition to police and fire protection, cultivation of clean and safe neighborhoods requires well-maintained streets, adequate street lighting, and inviting parks and playgrounds.
 
Two significant street paving projects were completed during the year.  First, North Sixth Street from Amity Street north and Bern Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets was resurfaced with Federal Transportation Funds.  This route is used by heavy truck traffic to and from the salt storage area on Sixth Street.  Second, Court Street from Fifth Street to the railroad bridge was resurfaced using Community Development Block Grant funds.  This project included structural improvements and resurfacing of the railroad bridge itself.
 
A major street lighting improvement project was completed in the downtown area, on the Penn Street Bridge, and in the Oakbrook and Glenside areas of the City.  More than 600 streetlight fixtures were replaced with high efficiency LED fixtures.  My office is now in the process of procuring rebates and efficiency savings worth over $100 thousand for these energy-efficiency efforts. The City also remains committed to resolving the long-standing street lighting outage in Wyomissing Park.
 
Our program of improvement to our City parks and playgrounds continued during 2012.  With the assistance of the Gilmore/Henne Fund, rehabilitation of Barbey’s playground was completed.  Projects at Third and Spruce, Reading Iron, Lance Place, and Eleventh and Pike are all at different stages of construction at this time.  In 2013, design improvements to the Keffer Park and Eleventh and Pike field houses will begin.
 
During 2013 work will continue on the replacement of roofs at the EMS building and the Ninth and Marion firehouse.  Construction will also begin on minor improvements at the branch libraries and interior improvements including plaster work and painting at the main library.
 
A major goal of mine was to improve the City’s solid waste services. Over next several weeks, all city solid waste operations including household recycling, school district and city recycling, household trash collection, trash collection at municipal sites, and yard waste collections will be placed under the newly constituted Solid Waste Division, allowing for greater efficiency and flexibility. We will also explore expansion of commercial recycling services to increase compliance of small businesses.
 
Human Resources has been the long neglected stepchild among our city Divisions. Staffing was woefully deficient with no professional oversight. In the last half of 2012, under new management, the following progress has been made.
 
A Human Resource Benefits System has been implemented which provides employees with service options and the ability directly update information such as address changes, dependent information, tax with-holding information, and other pertinent employee data directly into the system.
 
A companion system, Carrier Connection, allows for changes to flow directly from our HRB system to our multiple benefits providers in a seamless fashion and in real time.
Over $1.3 reduction in medical insurance premiums, being paid out for ineligible retirees and dependents, is projected for 2013 and an additional  $94,000 of cost savings has been realized from eliminating overpayment of life insurance premiums.
 
Developed a formal new hire orientation and exit interviewing process as well as developed formal policies and procedures for consistency with the administration these policies.
 
However, there remains an enormous amount of work to be done including the creation of an accurate and up to date job descriptions, reforming an inconsistent and arbitrary system of discipline, and eliminating the perception of preferential hiring and promotion.
 
To make the City more business-friendly, we are working on software improvements in permit applications and payments andconsolidating the first floor plans to make all property maintenance, building and trades, zoning, planning, and historic preservation and other related offices centrally located.
 
During the past year, my administration has engaged in creating an environment for growth. We have tilted the soil and laid the seeds for a prosperous year. My three initial priorities for Community and Economic Development have been to forge a Business Friendly City Hall; Develop an Economic Development Plan; and start to revitalize Downtown Reading.
 
To better coordinate economic development projects in the city, I have aligned the visions and strategies of the Community Development Department with other City authorities. This has helped my administration streamline operations, and provide a more effective and efficient development process.
 
We were fortunate to attract a world famous and multi-platinum rock band +LIVE+ to invest in Reading. Think Loud Development LLC, the development arm of the York, PA band, acquired, first the ROC 1 Building also known as Reading Outlet Center 1, with the vision of creating 150 market-rate apartments. In addition, they invested in the third and last parcel of the Buttonwood Gateway Redevelopment Project. Thanks to their investment, Reading will have a Data Center and is posed to attract over $20 Million dollars of new construction. With this last acquisition, the Buttonwood gateway industrial park will fully utilized as it currently houses Sun Rich Fresh Foods as well as Hydrojet.
 
Six months ago, I was concerned that the City was not a major player in downtown revitalization initiatives. There were multiple entities trying to coordinate several projects and no real City intervention. To support the good initiatives and provide assistance, I took three (3) actions: First, I created the Mayor’s Task Force for Downtown Revitalization with the following committees: Organization; Promotion; Design; Safe, Clean and Green; and Economic Restructuring. Second, we partnered with the Pennsylvania Downtown Center to benefit from their technical assistance. And lastly, I designated the Downtown Improvement District as the Main Street Program Manager.
 
I take this opportunity to thank our over 100 volunteers, 55 committee members and the four (4) Chairs of the Mayor’s Task Force: Sean Moretti, Lee Olsen, Jim Snyder and Marcelino Colon.
 
It is my pleasure to share with you that as of today the Task Force has completed the application for Main Street Designation and we are ready for submission. This has been possible thanks to the public input, the work of our committees as well as the technical assistance provided by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania through the Pennsylvania Downtown Center.
 
The Main Street initiative was approved by Council earlier this week and we expect final approval form DCED in 2013.
 
Our mission for downtown is now clear: Ensure vibrancy and economic vitality in Downtown Reading through design, promotion and revitalization to attract and retain businesses, residents and visitors to the City of Reading. 
 
Over the past six years, the WWTP renovation project has had more than its share of setbacks and difficulties. 2012 was the turnaround year and I can now say with confidence in 2013: the City will have signed IMA’s with nearly all municipalities; the City will obtain the necessary financing at favorable terms to complete the project; the City will have DOJ approval on an Amended Consent Decree and; the City will meet the new deadline completion of the project.
 
The City has been working closely with the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PaDEP) to address the wastewater consent decree.  A wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) large flow meter project is substantially complete.  A new force main is being installed from the Sixth and Canal Streets Pumping Station to the wastewater treatment plant.  This force main project includes tunneling a 42” pipe under the Schuylkill River.  A cleaning and rehabilitation of two secondary anaerobic digesters project is in the process of being awarded, and the City is conducting the request for proposal process to hire a designer of the regulators’ approved wastewater treatment plant modifications. 
 
A Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection required Act 537 Sewer Facilities Planning study was completed, and the City has entered into new Inter-municipal Sewer Agreements with two of the municipalities that contribute wastewater to the sewer system.  The City has also started a rate study and bond feasibility study in preparation for issuing bonds to finance the upcoming wastewater projects.
 
In the interim, the City continues to maintain regulatory compliance at the wastewater treatment plant.  The City continues to repair equipment, rehabilitate process units and replace roofs, etc.  These steps are necessary for the City to maintain the wastewater treatment plant and pump stations in reliable operating order.
 
The Mayor’s Office managed a number of major initiatives in 2012 which will remain ongoing through 2013 and beyond.  One of the larger projects underway is the coordination of a comprehensive assessment of solid waste and recycling practices. Currently under review are a waste to energy plant located at the WWTP, a state of the art composting facility, yard waste collections, trash collection, bailing and sorting of recyclables,  long haul mega-fill disposal of MSW,  and 3P arrangements  dealing with  automobile  towing/ disposition and mattress recycling.
 
In addition members of my staff now serve on the Reading Water Authority, the Reading Parking Authority, and the Recreation Commission. In 2013, I intend to appoint high level members of my Administration to the boards of the Redevelopment Authority and the Housing Authority.   All of this is keeping with my policy goal of developing an integrated system of public service delivery which takes full advantage of economies of scale, service transfers, and core competencies.  The vehicle to achieve these ends will be the ASG and two of our Authorities have already made a substantial financial commitments to fund the project Ultimately, we plan for participating entities to aggregate public capital to gain leverage and higher returns.
 
My office is also coordinating a joint effort between the City, the Downtown Improvement District and the Reading Parking Authority to develop a comprehensive parking management plan. In recognizing the significance of parking in creating a vibrant downtown, my recent leadership changes and planned policy changes at the Reading Parking Authority were a critical first step toward bringing all parties together with the Mayor’s Office at the head of the table. Expect big improvements in this area in the year to come.
 
In 2012, my staff negotiated the successful transfer of sewer billing to RAWA and will very soon have completed negotiations on the transfer of trash and recycling billing by the end of the first calendar quarter of 2013. Annual savings projected on both these arrangements will exceed $400,000.
 
Other areas of progress include work to organize and engage neighborhoods so that my Administration can better serve the people I represent. I’ve also committed to tackling the complex sustainability challenges we face, and see enormous opportunities for job creation as part of green infrastructure and economy initiatives. And finally, all of the policy and daily operational decisions will begin to be data-driven through the introduction of our CitiStat performance management system.
 
I hope that I’ve given you a good overview of just some of the many accomplishments my administration has achieved last year, as well as a clearer picture of my plans for the year yet to come. It’s been a challenging first year, no doubt, but my resolve has never been stronger to keep my word to the people and turn this city around. I thank every one of your for the support you’ve given and feel confident that together we will succeed great things.
 
In the immortal words of President Theodore Roosevelt,
 
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
 
We have and will continue to have a strong mayor form of government. I am the Mayor; I am the Chief Executive of the City of Reading.
 
As your Mayor, I am the one in the arena.
Thank you.