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CITY COUNCIL

 

Committee of the Whole Summary 07/19/21

 

COMMITTEE of the WHOLE

CITY COUNCIL

SUMMARY

July 19, 2021

5:00 P.M.

Hybrid Meeting

 

DOWNLOAD PDF HERE

 

COUNCIL MEMBERS PRESENT:

M. Goodman-Hinnershitz, D. Reed, L. Sihelnik, J. Waltman, M. Ventura (all electronically), S. Marmarou (in person)
 

OTHERS PRESENT:

L. Kelleher (in person), M. Rodriguez, F. Lachat, S. Smith, F. Denbowski, S. Rugis, J. Long, N. Judge, C. Crespo, A. Amoros, W. Stoudt, R. Tornielli, M. Oppenheimer, J. Abodalo, J. Kelly, B. Ayers-Fisher, G. Mann from PFM, and G. Shumate & J. Salzman from Desman Consultants (all electronically)

The meeting was called to order at approximately 5:07 pm by Mr. Waltman. 

Due to COVID-19, the public is prohibited from physically attending the meeting.  The meeting is convened via virtual app.
 

I.       Parking Study

Mr. Abodalo introduced the consultants from Desman Design Management - Mr. Shumate and Mr. Salzman.
 

Mr. Salzman stated that the study has four (4) components: Parking Demands and Administration, Public Participation, Parking Policies and Programs, and Recommendations and Implementation Strategy. He explained that the areas of focus include the Central Business District (downtown), the North - N 13th to Clinton Streets & Walnut to Spring Streets, and the South – Franklin St to the River and South 19th to South 2nd Streets.  Parking statistics pre-COVID and current were examined during peak hours with the use of a drone.  Interviews with stakeholders are underway.
 

Mr. Shumate explained that most stakeholders noted safety concerns in parking garages, exorbitant parking rates, a massive amount of illegal parking, the need to calm zoning requirements for parking and the need to reserve the first floor of garages for transient parkers who are coming to the downtown for short periods of time, rather than for work.
 

Mr. Shumate stated that they found the Reading Parking Authority’s 5 Year Strategic Plan to be ambitious.  The field work was conducted over the 1,600 acres using a drone during peak hours.  The link to the film taken is available in the report distributed prior to the meeting. He stated that their review of the downtown showed 714 parking metered spaces, 9,107 spaces on surface lots and 6,186 spaces in garages.  He noted that the garages are underutilized at only 24% on average. He stated that the poor appearance of the surface lots, owned by the RPA and privately, contribute to the perception people have about the downtown.  He also stated that improvements in wayfinding signage and branding are sorely needed.
 

Mr. Shumate stressed the great disregard people have for parking regulations in all areas of the City. He expressed the belief that this is caused by parking shortages and lack of consistent enforcement. He suggested ramped up enforcement to change behavior.
 

Mr. Lachat connected to the meeting.
 

Mr. Shumate stated that the drone photos show an abundance of potential parking behind residential properties and he suggested that the poor condition of the alleys limits people from utilizing this space. He stated that virtual community meetings are scheduled for August 3, 4, 10 and 11 at a time to be disclosed, followed by the dissemination of the full report.
 

Mr. Marmarou emphatically stated that the City does not have enough parking and more parking enforcement needs to occur in all areas.
 

Ms. Sihelnik questioned why there is a disregard of the parking ordinances.  Mr. Salzman expressed the belief that this is a chicken and the egg problem as the continued lack of enforcement allowed the growth of unchecked and improper/illegal parking practices.  He suggested using a combination of education and enforcement in a consistent manner to counteract this issue.
 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz agreed that the City does not have enough parking and she noted that the increase in the conversion of single family homes to multi-family properties increased the parking stress in all areas. She also agreed with the need to create more parking in neighborhoods with off-street lots.
 

Ms. Reed noted the need to incentivize the de-conversion of multi-unit properties to reduce the number of cars in neighborhoods and increase the public transit availability to lessen the need for a car. She expressed the belief that the average resident will continue to take parking risks before paying a fee to park in neighborhood off-street surface lots. She expressed some skepticism that the study will be implemented and will likely end up on a shelf with the many other studies.  She stressed the need to examine and address parking for the long term in a multi-pronged approach.  
 

II.      Act 47 – PFM Exit Plan Priorities

Mr. Mann stated that the City is likely entering its last year of Act 47 oversight.  He stated that the last public update occurred just prior to the pandemic.  He stated that the 2019 Exit Plan contains approximately 50 initiatives and a good number have been completed.  He stated that the City’s priorities for this last year are:

  • WF08: Collective bargaining contract with AFSCME 2763 (rank-and-file)
  • RB03: Defined contribution retirement plan for new AFSCME and non-union hires
  • CP02: Improve Capital Budget document and progress reporting
  • ED04: Finalize and execute blight remediation strategy
  • ED06: Return the Fifth and Penn Properties to productive use
  • CP07: Adopt a debt policy (New addition and can be done as part of multi-year plan)

Mr. Mann stated that PFM makes monthly reports to the PA DCED about the City’s progress. He explained that at the end of the three (3) year exit plan municipalities can take one of three paths: 1. Exit Act 47, 2. Enter fiscal emergency, which usually leads to receivership, or 3. receive an 18 month extension due to the pandemic.  He noted that Scranton received an 18 month extension to help them ease out of Act 47 as their exit coincided with the pandemic.  However, he expressed the belief that Reading will not need an extension. He noted that the rescission process is underway and a recommendation will be made to the DCED Secretary next July. 
 

Under the Act, the municipality needs to satisfy the following requirements to exit Act 47:

  • Operational deficits have been eliminated and the financial condition of the City demonstrates a reasonable probability of future balanced budgets;
  • Obligations issued to finance the municipality’s deficit have been retired, reduced or reissued;
  • All claims or judgments that would have placed the City in imminent jeopardy of financial default have been negotiated and resolved; and
  • The City is projected to have positive operating balances for the first five years after the termination of distressed status. “Projections of revenues shall include any anticipated tax or fee increases to fund ongoing expenditures for the first five years after a termination of distress.”

Mr. Mann explained that the City has achieved the first three (3) requirements; noting that the 2020 external audit anticipates a $2.9M surplus despite the pandemic.  He stated that although the EIT revenue continues to lag, the City is bolstered by the sharp increase in Real Estate Transfer Tax revenue.  He noted that if the DCED Secretary removes the City from Act 47, the collection of the Commuter Tax will promptly end, eliminating $6-7M in Capital funding annually.  The City will then need to decide on the handling of the resident 3.6% EIT with 0.3% of the tax funding the Capital Budget. 

The City could consider reducing the resident EIT and/or continuing to defer a portion of the EIT into Capital funding.
 

Mr. Mann stated that PFM is currently working to determine the City’s COVID related revenue losses, noting that the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding of $61M can be used to recover the lost revenue.  He added that this funding can also be used for capital projects, which can free funding from the Capital program.  He stated that as the City now has a Capital Projects manager, the City should be able to execute the projects listed, noting that PFM will measure the City’s success in this area. 
 

Mr. Mann stated that to leave Act 47 the City must also show its ability to have positive operating balances for the first five years after the termination of distressed status and show there is a true possibility that the City will continue to have balanced budgets. He noted that the receipt of the ARPA funding, the renegotiation of the Water Authority lease and Parking Authority agreement, and the potential end of the cap on the WWTP funding are all factors to consider.  He added that the four (4) collective bargaining agreements expire at the end of 2022 and the renegotiation process will need to restart next summer.
 

Mr. Mann noted that for the first time since 2010, the City will go into the negotiation of new collective bargaining agreements without Act 47 protections.  He stressed the need for sound decision making to avoid new financial problems. 
 

Ms. Sihelnik noted the City’s continued problems with properly executing its Capital Program pre and post COVID. Mr. Mann agreed, noting the need to reconsider the staffing of Public Works. 
 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz suggested the enactment of an overarching ordinance to mandate post Act 47 management and sound financial planning and management.
 

Ms. Reed inquired about the retention of a consultant to assist with the use of the ARPA funding.  Mr. Mann stated that the City should only consider the retention of a consultant if the City plans to use a large portion of its funding for non-City related projects and programs due to the need for monitoring and reporting of sub-recipient activities, which is how Philadelphia is approaching the issue.  He stated that if the funding is retained for City related projects, the reporting is much easier and is similar to the reporting staff currently handles.
 

Mr. Waltman agreed that the City will need to reconsider capital funding due to the loss of the commuter tax.  He promised to continue to push the State legislators to make changes to the Act 511 tax laws, as the programs municipalities need in Act 47 are the same programs they need afterwards.
 

III.    Convention Center Funding

Mr. Amoros stated that the administration met with Convention Center representatives at 11 am this morning in preparation for tonight’s discussion. 

Mr. Waltman introduced Mr. Ehlerman, Mr. Gombar and Mr. Farrar.
 

Mr. Gombar, Vice Chair of the Convention Center Authority, stated that the pandemic related closure of the convention center and SPAC (Santander Performing Arts Center) resulted in the loss of $6.2M in revenue split between ticket sales and Hotel Tax revenue.  He stated that event bookings are restarting in the fall, which is also the 20th anniversary of convention center.  He stated that like FirstEnergy Stadium, the convention center and SPAC attract approximately 400,000 people a year.  He noted that the lack of operating revenue over the past 1 ½ years created a lapse in available capital funding to replace aging components and making “wear and tear” repairs which will cost approximately $6.5M. He asked the City to consider making a $3M contribution.
 

Mr. Ehlerman reminded the group that the convention center is a regional asset owned jointly by the City and County. The Authority Board of seven (7) is split between City and County appointments with one alternating appointment between the City and County.  He stated that the financial recovery of these venues is in question due to the COVID variants and the restoration of pre COVID travel.
 

Ms. Sihelnik inquired if the requested funding would be used for capital needs.  Mr. Ehlerman stated that the requested funding will go towards capital needs and upgrades.  He noted that the Authority managed through the last 1 ½ years “by hook and crook”, noting the Authority’s financial institution’s agreement to defer the debt principle payment of $1.3M for a 2 year period, which will become due soon. He stated that the board also had to issue rebates for tickets purchased and renegotiated the center’s management contract to a reduced rate. 
 

Ms. Reed noted the historic opening of the convention center a few days prior to 9-11 and the 49 years of planning that went into the creation of the center.
 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz reminded the group about the iconic status of the SPAC and its similarities to theaters in New York City. She inquired about the needs at the SPAC.  Mr. Farrar stated that the mechanical systems needs to be updated along with features in the lobby and lower level dressing rooms, adding that painting needs to occur as well.  He highlighted the upcoming bookings.
 

Mr. Waltman agreed with the request for $3M in funding assistance to the center, noting that these facilities, like FirstEnergy Stadium need to stay in top notch condition.  He reminded the group that over many years nay-sayers repeatedly said that the center would fail and people would not come; however, the nay-sayers were wrong.  He expressed the belief that the center and SPAC will assist in the revitalization of the downtown.  He thanked the County for assisting in providing funding for these regional facilities.
 

Mr. Ehlerman highlighted the Authority Board’s contributions to the community.
 

Mr. Marmarou left the meeting at this time.
 

IV.    Energy Savings - Sustainability

Mr. Rugis introduced Ms. Judge and Ms. Ayers-Fisher.
 

Ms. Ayers-Fisher stated that the City is forming a partnership with the PA DEP on energy

efficiency with the goal of reducing energy consumption at the WWTP by 25% and entering

into an energy management plan.
 

Ms. Judge described the work to prepare for the use of electric vehicles by adding charging

stations at various RPA facilities.  She noted that various automobile manufacturers are

shifting from the manufacture of gasoline powered vehicles to electric vehicles.  She noted that

many municipalities are beginning this preparation.
 

Ms. Sihelnik questioned if any municipalities within Berks County have started this transition.
 

Ms. Judge stated that she is unsure about the municipalities in Berks; however, similar sized

cities have started the transition. She stated that the RPA is assisting with the funding for the

stations at their facilities.
 

Ms. Reed inquired if there will be a fee for charging and inquired about the vandalism

prevention features that are included. Ms. Judge stated that the fees will be set locally along

with options for a wait list and penalties for various infractions. She stated that the

management company covers vandalism damages and provides local 24/7 support.
 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz agreed with this forward-thinking initiative.
 

Ms. Judge described the partnership with the Electrification Coalition to begin to replace fuel

powered City vehicles with electric vehicles.
 

Mr. Waltman thanked Ms. Judge and Ms. Ayers-Fisher for the report.
 

VI.    Other

Mr. Rugis stated that additional discussions with the Schlegel Pool contractor restored the repair of the baby pool at no additional cost. He noted that the spray pad will also be included.
 

Ms. Reed noted the need to discuss enhanced communication between the administration and Council.
 

Mr. Waltman stated that there were two (2) events in Reading today with State dignitaries; the mayor attended one of the events.  He stated that Council was not made aware of either event and it would be beneficial for Council to have this information so they can provide support as well. Mr. Amoros stated that he was unaware of the events noted. 
 

Ms. Sihelnik stressed the need for Council to communicate with each other about events, especially if the District Councilor is unavailable to attend. She noted that no one from Council attended the event at Goggleworks with the Secretary of Agriculture, as that Councilor is out of town.  She stated that she became aware of the event at the last minute due to a press release shared by the Goggleworks.  She noted the importance of the Secretary’s attendance celebrating urban agriculture in Reading.  She stated that the mayor attended, and the body of Council should have been informed about the event as well.
 

Ms. Reed expressed the belief that this type of breakdown shows a division between Council and the administration; which is unfortunate as the two seem to be in tandem on many issues.  She stated that when the mayor attends events and Council is absent, that speaks volumes about the City’s leadership and the divisive picture that paints for State and Federal officials. She stated that support for community initiatives needs to come from both the administration and the legislative body.
 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz agreed with the need for Council’s participation at events and to communicate about various needs and issues with County, State and Federal officials.
 

Ms. Reed questioned if the issue with the Pagoda lights was resolved.  Mr. Rugis stated that there is a light timing issue that will be addressed.

The COW concluded at approximately 7:30pm.
 

Respectfully Submitted by

Linda A. Kelleher, CMC, City Clerk