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CITY COUNCIL

Committee of the Whole Summary 04/12/21

 

April 12, 2021
5:00 P.M.
Virtual Meeting

 
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COUNCIL MEMBERS PRESENT:
M. Goodman-Hinnershitz, D. Reed, J. Cepeda-Freytiz, L. Sihelnik, J. Waltman (all electronically), M. Ventura, S. Marmarou (via dial in)

OTHERS PRESENT:
L. Kelleher, S. Smith, M. Rodriguez, C. Jones, A. Acevedo, S. Rugis, J. Long, R. Tornielli, F. Lachat, W. Stoudt, A. Amoros, C. Crespo, D. Talarico, E. Stock, S. Keppen, T. Krall (all electronically)

 

The meeting was called to order at 5:07 pm by Mr. Waltman. Due to the COVID-19 Emergency Declaration, the public is prohibited from physically attending the meeting. The meeting is convened via virtual app.

  1. Traffic Signal at S 18th St & Perkiomen Ave

    Mr. Waltman stated that a traffic study was done at this location in the past and PennDOT determined that a traffic signal is not warranted.

    Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz noted her understanding that there are many areas throughout the City that are in need of traffic studies. She noted the need for alternatives to traffic signals and stop signs. She stated that more youth will be crossing Perkiomen Ave to visit the newly rehabbed Pendora Park and the Olivet Club.

    Mr. Abodalo arrived at this time.

    Mr. Waltman questioned if this need can be discussed at a future RATS meeting. Ms. Reed stated that she would be happy to bring this to the attention of RATS. She stated that Mr. Jones, Mr. Rugis and Mr. Krall can also discuss this with RATS.

    Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz noted the need to look at all alternatives for this location for the overall safety of the neighborhood.

    Mr. Waltman reminded all that Perkiomen Ave is a state road and PennDOT must be involved.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz reminded all that the City received a petition to study the 2nd & Buttonwood intersection. She stated that this traffic study has been delayed due to the closure of schools during COVID. Mr. Rugis stated that he will follow up.

    Ms. Sihelnik stated that she was pleased to see this agenda topic. She stated that there are also problem locations in District 1 and that there was a recent accident at one of them. She stated that residents need to be educated about the process to bring these locations forward and understand how they are addressed.

    Mr. Oppenheimer arrived at this time.

    Ms. Sihelnik noted the need to ensure that these areas are not ignored. She stated that even after residents bring these needs forward there is no future communication with Council or the residents.

    Mr. Denbowski joined the meeting at this time.

    Ms. Reed noted the need to understand the City’s policy about studying intersections. She suggested that all Councilors submit problem intersections for the Administration to address. She stated that Sen. Schwank is currently working to have pedestrian crossings marked on the Penn Street Bridge at the ramps. She stated that this project will also involve PennDOT and West Reading. She noted the need to explore traffic signals, stop signs, and other traffic calming techniques.

    Mr. Marmarou agreed that there are problems with intersections in every Council District. He suggested holding a meeting with State representatives and PennDOT to discuss these intersections. He noted that speeding has become problematic on Hampden Blvd again.

    Mr. Waltman stated that Councilors should submit their problem intersections to Ms. Kelleher. He stated that Ms. Kelleher will compile the list and forward it to Mr. Amoros. He noted the need for the intersections to be reviewed strategically. Mr. Amoros agreed with this approach.

    Mr. Waltman stated that N 5th & Oley Sts has been studied several times over many years and PennDOT continues to indicate that a traffic signal at this intersection is not warranted. He noted the need for all drivers to slow down. He stated that warmer weather has once again brought out dirt bikes and ATVs.

    Mr. Marmarou expressed the belief that there are more vehicles in the City than ever before.

  2. Youth Commission – Next Steps

    Ms. Sihelnik stated that the first meeting was held last week. She stated that all members attended except two. She stated that MDJ Johnson swore the members in and they are ready to move forward. She stated that Mr. Zabala led the meeting and that they have much to learn. She noted the need for open communication with these future leaders. She stated that the City will be fortunate to get their perspectives and input.

    Ms. Sihelnik thanked all who assisted in activating this group and those who attended this meeting. She stated that Rep. Guzman also attended. She stated that Rep. Guzman assured the members that their voices will be heard.

    Ms. Sihelnik stated that meetings will be held monthly. She noted the need for the Commission to elect officers and choose projects.

    Ms. Reed stated that she was unable to attend the meeting live but she watched the replay. She expressed the belief that the meeting went well. She suggested that members receive the BCTV guidelines to ensure that they are followed. She expressed the belief that the minor infraction is a teachable moment.

    Ms. Sihelnik agreed that this is a teachable moment.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz thanked Ms. Smith, Ms. Sihelnik and Ms. Ventura for their work to activate the Commission. She stated that she is excited and requested time on future agendas for updates. She noted the need to livestream the meetings to increase outreach. She congratulated Mr. Zabala and stated that he did a great job. She expressed the belief that Reading’s young people are great assets.

    Ms. Sihelnik stated that the Youth Commission will make a presentation to Council annually, in the same manner that other BACs make their reports. She noted the need for Councilors and members of staff to speak and work with members of the Youth Commission as it is needed.

  3. Downtown Plus Plan Update

    Mr. Waltman noted the need to keep this update brief and explain Council’s next steps. He stated that Councilors should have received an email to schedule an interview as a stakeholder. He stated that there is not time this evening for a deep discussion.

    Mr. Abodalo shared his screen and stated that this information is live and can be expanded by the consultant. He stated that the map defines the boundaries of the Plan and that bi-weekly meetings are being held. He welcomed all Council’s input.

    Mr. Abodalo stated that once the stakeholder interviews are complete a survey will be placed online for wider input. He stated that the group is currently drafting the survey questions and it is hoped that many will participate. He stated that he is unsure at this time if the survey will be available in Spanish.

    Mr. Abodalo stated that community meetings will also be held. He reminded all that Desman has been chosen to perform the City’s and the Parking Authority’s parking studies. He stated that the Parking Authority (RPA) is working to expand parking lots into neighborhoods. He stated that the studies will also take into account the re-establishment of the passenger railroad to Reading.

    Mr. Waltman requested that Councilors respond to the email and get their interview scheduled. He stated that after this step is complete there will be a more in-depth review of the study. He suggested that these updates be held every 3 – 4 weeks and include representatives from Stantec. He stated that he has participated in one meeting with Mr. Amoros, Mr. Abodalo and the Mayor about the Plan as an overview.

    Mr. Waltman noted his hope that Council interviews will be completed by the end of April.

    Mr. Abodalo stated that the interview will take place at the convenience of Councilors. He stated that the interview can be conducted virtually or by phone but that those who interview by phone will not have the benefit of visual information.

    Mr. Waltman requested that the May 10 COW agenda contain one hour for an in-depth meeting with Stantec.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if the map will be shared with Council. Mr. Abodalo stated that it will be. He stated that interviews can focus on a specific area or be a wider conversation. She stated that additional digital post-its will be added during the interviews.

    Ms. Sihelnik questioned the timeline. Mr. Abodalo stated that the study began in early February and is moving forward quickly. He noted his hope that the Plan would be complete by the end of July or early August.

    Mr. Waltman noted his hope that Council interviews would be complete by early May. He expressed the belief that a great consultant was chosen and noted his hope that the City will be at a great place at the end of the process.

    Ms. Reed expressed the belief that this Plan is critical. She noted the need for the Plan to contain realistic actions so that it does not simply sit on a shelf when it is completed. She noted the need for a shared vision. She expressed the belief that the economy will rebound after COVID. She noted the need to translate actions to outcomes quickly.

    Mr. Waltman agreed that the Plan should be front-loaded for early successful outcomes.

    Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz noted the need for Council to determine if legislation needs to be amended or created in order for the Plan to be successful. She also noted the need for Council to allocate proper funding to move initiatives forward.

    Ms. Sihelnik noted the need for the Plan to be supported by all. She stated that Council must be part of the entire process. She questioned if Mr. Waltman would be providing updates to Council as he receives additional information.

    Mr. Waltman stated that he will provide updates to Council as he receives additional information. He expressed the belief that the Plan will begin taking shape this summer. He noted the need for all to be clear about what is included in the Plan. He agreed that the Mayor and Mr. Amoros must understand that Council is an integral part of this process. He agreed that it is very important to keep the body updated and stated that updates will be held more frequently as needed. He noted the need for the Plan to be deliberate and measured. He reminded all that the Plan will extend beyond downtown and noted his hope that many new ideas will come forward.

    Mr. Marmarou questioned if he should contact Mr. Abodalo since he doesn’t use email. Mr. Waltman stated that he should. Mr. Abodalo agreed.

  4. STATE FIREWORKS ACT AMENDMENT UPDATE

    Mr. Waltman stated that he is very worried and frustrated about this issue. He noted his hope that the State Legislature would take action soon.

    Mr. Denbowski stated that the State changed the fireworks regulations in 2017 allowing residents to purchase aerial fireworks. He stated that since then PA urban locations have been very concerned and there have been many complaints.

    Mr. Denbowski explained that HB988 which would rescind the 2017 Act was introduced on January 13, 2021 and is currently in the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. He stated that there has been no movement and there is no Committee vote scheduled to move the bill to the house floor.

    Mr. Denbowski explained that the rural districts oppose the repeal because it will reduce State revenue. He stated that he is unsure of the amount of revenue generated. He encouraged all to contact the Committee members to advocate for passage of the repeal. He suggested sending joint letters supporting HB988.

    Mr. Waltman stated that $6 million in revenue was generated. He stated that he would love to testify before this Committee about the costs of enforcement on local municipalities that would easily exceed $6 million. He stated that the constant explosions cause great stress and trauma.

    He stated that conditions in Reading have been unbearable and it sounds like a war zone. He stated that there is no grey area here. He agreed to send a letter but also noted the need to verbalize to the Committee directly through testimony.

    Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that many times there are pre-emption clauses in State regulations. She questioned if changes could be made at the local level.

    Mr. Lachat expressed the belief that local pre-emption is prohibited but stated that he will review the Act again.

    Ms. Reed stated that it is already mid-April and summer is quickly approaching. She expressed the belief that the State will not take action this year. She questioned what Reading is doing to be proactive. She noted the need to use the noise ordinance and other public safety regulations to issue citations. She noted the need to use the laws that are already in place.

    Mr. Waltman stated that Reading police and fire are put at unnecessary risk and noted the need for legislators to understand that risk.

    Police Chief Tornielli stated that the City already bans aerial fireworks because there is no place in the City that is 150 feet from another structure. He stated that the Fire Marshal denies all permits to sell fireworks in the City but that residents simply buy them elsewhere. He stated that he places all available officers on the street. He expressed the belief that fireworks being addressed by the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee did not seem to be appropriate.

    Mr. Lachat agreed that the State regulations already preclude the use of fireworks in the City. He stated that it is difficult for officers to be on location at precisely the right time to catch someone in the act.

    Mr. Denbowski agreed that the officer must catch someone in the act of setting off fireworks. He stated that tons of fireworks are confiscated.

    Ms. Sihelnik agreed that advocacy takes time. She noted her faith in State Legislators and reminded all that Sen. Schwank is the minority leader on the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. She suggested that Sen. Schwank, Rep. Rozzi, and Rep. Guzman advocate on Reading’s behalf. She also noted the need for the State to replace this income source.

    Ms. Sihelnik suggested that the City begin a public safety campaign. She praised the work of police officers and fire personnel during last summer’s fireworks activities. She suggested that Police and Fire work together on the public safety campaign to generate awareness of the dangers of explosives and explain that setting them off is against the law. She questioned if funding is available for such a campaign. Fire Chief Stoudt stated that he will work with Chief Tornielli and the Fire Marshal on a safety campaign. He stated that he will find funding.

    Mr. Waltman suggested that the Mayor also be involved in the safety campaign to expand its outreach. He expressed the belief that people don’t care about public safety and believe that if they can buy fireworks they can use them. He expressed the belief that setting off these fireworks is stupid. He also expressed the belief that State legislators must realize the residents are setting off fireworks everywhere and not just in rural communities.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz agreed with Ms. Sihelnik’s idea to have a public safety campaign. She noted her appreciation when she receives robocalls with reminders about City laws and regulations. She suggested producing videos. She also suggested locating a safe space within the City for residents to set off their fireworks. She also suggested holding a professional display and to be pro-active.

    Mr. Waltman agreed to support these efforts but expressed the belief that if the sales are allowed to continue it will lead to disaster. He stated that it will already be too late when a first responder is seriously injured or killed.

    Mr. Marmarou reminded all that if PA stops the sale of fireworks residents will drive to another state to purchase them. He noted the need for a regional approach.

    Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that a professional display was done last July 4th and there were so many other fireworks going off you couldn’t differentiate between them. She stated that travel throughout the City is dangerous and many worry that the City will go up in flames. She suggested that the Youth Commission be active in the public safety campaign to reach a younger audience. She expressed the belief that those who set these devices off have no sense of the danger they are causing. She noted the need for spokespeople from the community to be engaged in the public safety campaign.

    Mr. Waltman suggested that Mr. Denbowski supply the Committee names and contact information to Council. He noted the need to impact the future and to repeal this Act.

  5. American Rescue Act Update

    Mr. Amoros stated that the City is still waiting to receive the guidelines.

    Mr. Waltman noted the need for Council input on recommendations on the use of the funds when they become available.

    Mr. Amoros stated that internal meetings have begun and it is estimated that Reading will receive $63.5 million. He stated that projects cannot begin until the funding guidelines are issued by the US Treasury Dept. He noted the need for good investments. He stated that Sen. Casey indicated that the guidelines may take weeks to draft and release.

    Mr. Amoros explained that ½ of the funding will be received in May 2021 and the other half received by May 2022. He stated that PFM has opined that the funding should not be used on personnel. He noted the need for creativity and flexibility of projects. He stated that he will provide a comprehensive report to Council once the guidelines are received.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned the amount that Reading will receive. Mr. Amoros stated that Reading was told to use $63.5 million as the estimate until the final details have been worked out.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned when the guidelines will be released. Mr. Amoros stated that this is unknown as they are currently being drafted by the US Treasury Dept.

    Ms. Sihelnik stated that she has been getting many inquiries about potential projects. She noted the need for Council to be kept updated on the internal meetings and for the City to be sure to have projects ready when the funding and guidelines are released. She noted the need for Council involvement in choosing priorities. She noted the need for all City officials and staff to communicate with a consistent message. She noted the need for chosen projects to be part of the City’s shared vision.

    Mr. Amoros suggested that Councilors contact him to provide project suggestions. He stated that staff has been discussing façade programs and other projects to beautify the City and make it more livable. He stated that streets, sidewalks and parks are top priorities.

    Mr. Waltman stated that the Administration understands that Council approval of projects is required.

    Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Patchen joined the meeting at this time.

  6. Agenda Review

    Council reviewed this evening’s agenda including the following:

    • Commendation

    A commendation will be issued recognizing National Library Week. The commendation will be read by Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz. Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz stated that she is honored to read it.

    • Public Comment

    Ms. Kelleher stated that one person will be giving comment during the meeting and there are five written comments. Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz and Ms. Ventura will read the comments since their Districts are affected.

    • Award of Contract for the purchase of a 2021 Ford E450 AEV Ambulance to Speclin Emergency Vehicle Sales and Service, Scottsdale PA in the amount of $178,286

    Mr. Waltman questioned if this purchase is part of the regular replacement program. Chief Stoudt stated that it is. He stated that this ambulance will replace one that has gone out of service. The typical life span of an ambulance is eight years.

    • Resolution authorizing the disposal of all Information Technology system / server backup tapes from 2013 and earlier

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if these records could be accessed digitally after they are disposed. Mr. Amoros stated that they can be accessed as needed.

    • Resolution authorizing submission of a PA DCED Keystone Communities grant for the 800 block of Penn St South Courtyard Improvement Project

    Mr. Waltman stated that this is an RRA property.

    Ms. Sihelnik stated that Council received an update from Ms. Castner about the work of this task force. She stated that safety, littering, loitering and inappropriate uses of the area will be addressed. She noted the need to protect this open space.

    Mr. Denbowski agreed with Ms. Sihelnik. He stated that this project will open the space for community events to increase its use and will change the current design.

    • Ordinance amending the Police Chief’s contract by adding the benefits he is entitled to under the PA Chief’s Act due to his extended service as a Police Officer on June 1, 2000 followed by his promotions to Sergeant, Lieutenant and Captain working in multiple capacities for the City of Reading

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if Chief Tornielli would be receiving additional pay increases for 2020 and 2021. Mr. Lachat stated that Chief Tornielli would be receiving additional pay increases.

    Chief Tornielli explained that the amount for 2020 is higher because he did not get an increase in 2019. Mr. Lachat agreed that the increase is retroactive.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if this additional increase would also be paid to the rest of the officers. Chief Tornielli stated that the rest of the officers have already received their increases.

    Ms. Sihelnik questioned if this agreement would violate the collective bargaining agreement with the FOP.

    Mr. Lachat stated that it will not.

    • Ordinance authorizing the acceptance of the MS4 Pollution Reduction Plan by adding two rain gardens in District 5 to benefit the Tulpehocken Creek

    Ms. Reed thanked Mr. Amoros, Mr. Jones and Mr. Krall for their work on this project. She stated that a community meeting was held and positive feedback was received. She stated that the rain garden will enhance the existing community garden at the Warren St location. She stated that this neighborhood was built without a storm water collection system.

    Mr. Jones left the meeting at this time.

    • Ordinance amending the 2021 Position Ordinance by reassigning two police officers from the Patrol Division to the Criminal Investigation Division who will be assigned to the State Police Auto Task Force, fully funding by the PA State Police Auto Theft Taskforce

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if two additional officers will be hired. Chief Tornielli stated that there will be no new hires. He explained that these officers have been performing in this capacity since 2004 but the Position Ordinance has never been corrected. He stated that these two officers are included in the 168 total officers.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if this funding has been accounted for. Chief Tornielli stated that it is accounted for.

    Ms. Sihelnik questioned if this amendment is compliant with the Act 47 Exit Plan. Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that it is.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if additional amendments would be coming forward. Chief Tornielli stated that this is the only correction to the Position Ordinance that he is aware of.

    • Ordinance amending the City Code Chapter 77 Part 1 Police Department by amending the experience requirements for the position of Captain and striking Section 110 College Credits for Sergeant, Lieutenant and Captain and reserving this section

    Chief Tornielli explained that there are two parts to this issue. He explained that the requirement to promote to Captain may no longer skip over the rank of Lieutenant and requires two years of supervisory experience. He stated that this will ensure that Captains are well-trained and experienced.

    Chief Tornielli stated that he has researched the college credit award during the civil service promotion process. He stated that he would like to discontinue this practice as it is potentially discriminatory. He stated that Reading’s population is 67% Hispanic and the Dept continues to recruit from this population. He stated that officers of Hispanic descent will better understand the culture in Reading and respect its residents. He stated that 35% of Reading residents live below the poverty level and are not able to attend college. He stated that the City currently does not have a college tuition reimbursement program in place. He stated that Reading’s sister cities do not award points for college credits. He explained that the test scores are generally close and there is much competition. He stated that removing the college credits would level the playing field for all applicants.

    Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz noted the need for a deeper discussion on this issue. She suggested that Reading’s higher education institutions also be part of the discussion at the next COW meeting.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz agreed with Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz. She noted the need to raise the bar for high-ranking police positions and compare their data on performance. She noted the need for incentives for recruitment and the forgiveness of student loans if a graduate commits to serving for a specific period of time. She also suggested that the educational institutions may pay for some additional learning opportunities for students.

    Mr. Waltman suggested that additional questions be submitted to Mr. Amoros and Chief Tornielli.

    Chief Tornielli stated that he is open to other ideas and suggestions.

    • Ordinance authorizing the Agreement of Sale for 423 Schuylkill Ave to the Reading Parking Authority for $25,000

    Ms. Reed stated that she is glad to see this sale moving forward. She expressed the belief that this will be good for the neighborhood and thanked RPA for moving forward.

    Ms. Sihelnik questioned who owns 313 A S 8th St. Mr. Lachat stated that this property and 423 Schuylkill Ave are both owned by the City.

    Ms. Sihelnik noted that there may be additional property purchase opportunities in the future. She noted the need for the public to understand this process.

    Mr. Lachat stated that he is currently working with the Redevelopment Authority solicitor to draft a process.

    • Ordinance authorizing an appropriations transfer of donations from the Samuel Pottiger Trust currently in Fund Balance into an Agency Fund Account for active use

    Ms. Kelleher stated that Mr. Kelly requested that this ordinance be withdrawn from this evening’s agenda and addressed after he returns.

  7. Executive Session

    The seven members of Council, Ms. Kelleher, Mr. Lachat, Chief Tornielli, Chief Stoudt, Atty. McLaughlin, Atty. Patchen and Mr. Amoros remained in the meeting. All others were removed.

    Council entered executive session regarding litigation at 6:42 pm. Council exited executive session and the meeting adjourned at 7:04 pm.

Respectfully Submitted by
Linda A. Kelleher, CMC, City Clerk