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CITY COUNCIL



Committee of the Whole Summary 08/23/21

August 23, 2021

5:00 P.M.

Hybrid Meeting

 

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COUNCIL MEMBERS PRESENT:

S. Marmarou, M. Ventura, (in person), D. Reed, J. Waltman, J. Cepeda-Freytiz, M. Goodman-Hinnershitz (electronically)

 

OTHERS PRESENT:

L. Kelleher (in person), S. Smith, M. Rodriguez, S. Rugis, F. Denbowski, J. Long, R. Tornielli, W. Stoudt, A. Amoros, F. Lachat, C. Jones, C. Crespo, N. Judge, J. Kelly, N. Rivera, J. Abodalo (all electronically)

 

The meeting was called to order at 5:03 pm by Mr. Waltman. 

 

I.       Parks / Playgrounds Update

Mr. Denbowski reviewed a brief power point.  He stated that many park projects take 2 – 3 years to complete and the City is currently working on eight parks / playgrounds.  He stated that an internal park committee has been created and that Mr. Amoros toured all the City parks and playgrounds.  He stated that the use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds are available to use on parks and playgrounds and that may increase the number of projects in the near future.

 

Mr. Marmarou questioned the total cost of all potential projects.  Mr. Rugis expressed the belief that it would be approximately $4 - $5 million depending on material and labor costs.

 

Mr. Marmarou expressed the belief that this is not much money and that some parks haven’t been addressed for many years.

 

Mr. Jones stated that the park visits were very interesting.  He stated that he, Ms. DeGroote, Ms. Castner, Mr. Amoros, Ms. Klahr and Mr. Lubas participated.

 

Mr. Amoros thanked Ms. Klahr and Mr. Lubas for organizing the visits.  He stated that the ARPA funding occurs once in a generation.  He expressed the belief that improving the parks and playgrounds is a worthy investment.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz thanked the team.  She stated that Council was unaware of the park committee.  She stated that Ms. Klahr does provide updates at Rec Commission meetings.  She encouraged neighborhoods around parks to revitalize their park associations.  She questioned if ARPA funding could be used on play equipment.  Mr. Amoros stated that ARPA funding may be used for play equipment as it is considered infrastructure.  He stated that capital and CDBG funding is also available.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that play equipment gets a lot of wear and tear and some vandalism.  She noted the need to include new trash and recycling containers.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz thanked the Administration for this presentation.  She stated that she is glad to hear that additional splash pads will be installed.  She questioned if consideration was given to installing an ice rink or other winter activities.  Mr. Rugis stated that he previously worked with an ice rink.  He stated that ice rinks can be very costly to resurface between uses and bring a high risk of liability to the City.  He noted the need to purchase a Zamboni and increase staffing levels.

 

Mr. Kelly suggested hiring a contractor or seasonal employees to maintain the ice rink.  Mr. Rugis again noted the high cost of maintaining the ice surface.  He stated that he will work on this item if it is a priority for the Administration.  He noted the need to plan its location.  He stated that parks are generally not plowed and this will also need to be done.  He also noted the need for the location to have adequate parking and be ADA compliant.  He reminded all of the increased risk of injury and liability.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz agreed with the need to add a winter use to parks.  She suggested that a less costly project would be sledding and suggested there be specific sled paths.  She stated that many parks and playgrounds are topographically hilly and this would reduce the time and investment needed.  She expressed the belief that this would keep children from sledding in the streets.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if the City would be adding swimming pools. 

 

Mr. Waltman stated that this is a good point.  He noted the need for the Administration to determine what will happen at Hillside.  He reminded all that the non-resident EIT cannot be collected after the City exits Act 47 unless there is action at the State level.  He noted the need to see the full cycle of park / playground projects and suggested a spreadsheet.  He noted the need for a commander’s view and expressed the belief that this would assist with designating ARPA funding, capital needs, and CDBG funds to fully address parks and playgrounds.  He stated that they are heavily used.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that the Rec Commission does not support increasing the number of pools due to their high maintenance needs and staffing levels.

 

Mr. Waltman noted the need to understand the funding needs of parks for the next ten years.  He noted the need to move projects forward and not wait for the completion of the Park and Open Space Plan.

 

Mr. Rivera left the meeting at this time.

 

II.      Equal Business Opportunity Advisory Board (EBOAB)

Mr. Denbowski presented a brief power point.  He stated that the goal of this work is to encourage use of local contractors.  He stated that he and Ms. Smith worked on this project in 2015 but that it did not move forward at that time.  He stated that the draft ordinance was shared with Council this morning.

 

Mr. Denbowski stated that this new Board would replace the Minority Business Procurement Board.  He stated that the EBOAB would make an annual report to Council and that this is a priority of the Mayor.  He stated that the draft ordinance is modeled after those used by other municipalities.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if the purpose of this Board is to diversify the pool of vendors.  Mr. Denbowski stated that it is.  He stated that the Board will also review the City’s procurement process and advise it on ways to improve the process.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned who would collect the necessary data of business categories.  Mr. Denbowski stated that the Board would compile this data and would work with the City’s professional procurement employees.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz expressed the belief that there is currently not much data.  She explained that to be certified as one of these types of businesses there is a State application process and fee.  She questioned if this Board would assist businesses through the process.  Mr. Denbowski stated that the Board can educate business owners and provide training.  He stated that data would be collected and the Board can assist businesses become certified.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz suggested adding a representative from the Small Business Development Center as a member of the Board.  She stated that the Center already helps train business owners to become certified.  She also suggested adding a representative from the Latino Business Chamber.  She noted the need for this Board to reflect inclusivity.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned the current status of the Minority Business Procurement Board.  Mr. Denbowski stated that the Minority Business Board never officially met.  Ms. Kelleher agreed.

 

Mr. Amoros stated that the certification process is done through the PA Department of General Services.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz stated that she agrees with the concept of this Board.  She noted the need to ensure that its work is carried out.  She questioned who would oversee the work.  Mr. Denbowski stated that the Board would need to work closely with the Finance Department.  He stated that membership of the Board is not final and that the version shared with Council is a rough draft.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned who currently collects and updates this data.  Mr. Denbowski stated that there is much data but the City must understand what to collect.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz noted the need to understand which businesses are already certified.  Mr. Denbowski expressed the belief that there is much data available through the information collected by the Citizen Service Center.

 

Mr. Amoros stated that this is an opportunity for a fresh start and to get Board input. 

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz expressed the belief that Council becomes frustrated because there is no mechanism in place for feedback.  She reminded all that Council approves many contracts and it can ensure that there is follow up and that this is part of the overall procurement process.

 

Mr. Waltman questioned when this ordinance would move forward.  Mr. Denbowski noted his hope to introduce the ordinance in September.

 

Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that it is time to repeal the Minority Business Procurement Board and replace it with a more updated Board.  He noted his hope that this Board will help those who need assistance.  He noted the hard work required to run a business.

 

III.    Redistricting Commission Appointments

Ms. Kelleher stated that this Commission is formed after every census.  She stated that Council has 60 days to make the appointments and the Commission must present their report to Council within 120 days.  She explained that this Commission studies the updated census data to determine if changes are needed to Council District boundaries.  She stated that Mr. Golembiewski will assist as a professional.  She stated that Mr. Lachat has opined that members of this Commission cannot currently be serving on another board or commission.

 

Ms. Ventura questioned how Councilors choose their representative.  Ms. Kelleher stated that it is at Council’s discretion.  She stated that social media can be used to recruit as well.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz questioned the timeline to make these appointments.  Ms. Kelleher stated that the appointments would need to be made by October 11.

 

Ms. Reed noted the need for these appointments to be non-political.  She noted the need for the members to understand statistics and to have a temperament that can work with others.  She noted the need for Council Districts to have equitable representation.

 

Mr. Waltman stated that members of the public who are interested in serving should contact Ms. Kelleher for Council’s consideration.  He suggested that Councilors submit their appointment recommendations before the next meeting.  He noted the need for an open and fair process.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz agreed with placing an ad for interested residents.  She thanked Ms. Reed for her comments and noted the need for the City to get in the habit of advertising what is needed. 

 

Mr. Waltman agreed with Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz. 

 

Council agreed to run an advertisement.

 

Mr. Waltman noted his hope that there would be new participants.

 

Mr. Marmarou questioned who would provide the necessary data.  Mr. Waltman stated that the 2020 census information has been released to the public.  Ms. Kelleher stated that Mr. Golembiewski has specific data that he will share with the Commission members.  Ms. Reed stated that Mr. Golembiewski is an expert and has been assisting the City with redistricting since 1990. 

 

Mr. Marmarou noted his concern with many people living in a home not meant for that.  He questioned how that would be addressed.  Mr. Waltman stated that the census is complete and that this would be an issue for Zoning and / or Property Maintenance to investigate.

 

IV.    Agenda Review

Council reviewed this evening’s agenda including the following:

 

  • Public Comment

 

Ms. Kelleher stated that one person is registered to speak at the meeting on a non-agenda item.

 

  • Award of Contract for the 2021 liquid fuels tax paving projects to New Enterprise Stone & Lime Co in the amount of $2,398,935.70

 

Mr. Waltman questioned if all the listed streets would be repaved in 2021.  Mr. Rugis stated that this is an aggressive schedule but can be accomplished, weather permitting.  He stated that the Administration hopes to double the number of streets to be repaved in 2022.  He stated that once the contract is executed, the work can begin.

 

Ms. Reed stated that she has spoken with Mr. Amoros about problems created by large trucks driving through this residential neighborhood on their way to Amazon.  She noted the need to meet with the Muhlenberg Commissioners and with Muhlenberg and Reading neighbors.  She stated that a recent sinkhole on Berkley St was exacerbated by large truck traffic.  She stated that this low density residential neighborhood was not built for this type of heavy traffic.  She stated that there is already signage but that it is not being followed.  She stated that there is also an increase in vehicular traffic at Amazon’s shift changes.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz thanked Ms. Reed for this update.  She noted the need for businesses to have civic responsibility.  She questioned if there is a way for the City to recoup this funding if these behaviors continue and the streets deteriorate after they are repaved.

 

Mr. Waltman noted the need for an in-depth discussion about this situation at a future meeting.

 

Mr. Lachat stated that he will research the question posed by Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz. 

 

Ms. Reed stated that Riverdale is zoned as R-1 and that the current signage states that this size truck is not allowed.  She noted the need for Public Works, Police, Reading, Muhlenberg and Amazon to address this together.  She stated that there are many challenges but the residents deserve this repaving project.  She stated that many of these properties use septic systems but there are many runoff issues that deteriorate the streets.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned how residents are informed of these projects in their neighborhoods.  Mr. Rugis stated that Mr. Crespo puts the information on social media and in the Reading Eagle. 

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if New Enterprise Stone & Lime could be used for the sidewalk program.  Mr. Rugis stated that this is a large paving company and would not qualify for that program at this time.

 

Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that residents like seeing park and road improvements.

 

  • Ordinance directing the Berks County Board of Elections to place a referendum question before City voters on the 2022 Primary Election Ballot which would amend the Charter by eliminating Section 907 as it is in violation of State Statute 53 Pa. C.S. 2962 (b) which does not allow a Charter to place taxation limitations on the governing body, apart from State Act 511

 

Ms. Kelleher stated that two amendments have been forwarded to Election Services for the 2021 general election and this one would be placed on the 2022 primary ballot. 

 

Mr. Waltman questioned the current cap.  Ms. Kelleher stated that the Charter restricts tax increases to 105% of the current rate.  She stated that a legal precedent has been set that Act 511 must be followed. 

 

Mr. Lachat stated that the exception is contained in the Home Rule Charter Plan Law.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that this question will be put to the voters.  She questioned what happens if they vote to maintain this section even though it is against State law.  Mr. Lachat stated that the situation is then status quo.  He stated that the Charter will be in violation of the law.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned how this would play out and what would change.  Mr. Waltman explained that Council typically doesn’t increase taxes by more than 5% in any case.  He stated that the Charter would remain in violation of State law.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz noted the need to keep the question very simple to help residents understand.

 

  • Ordinance authorizing the transfer of $32,000 in grant funding from the PA EMS Provider Foundation / Highmark line into the Grants and Gifts line of the agency fund budget for the replacement / purchase of stair chairs for the department’s ambulances

 

Chief Stoudt stated that this will allow the replacement of the Department’s aging chairs.

 

Ms. Judge left the meeting at this time.

 

V.      Other Matters

Mr. Waltman opened the floor to other matters requiring public discussion.

 

  • Continuation of Hybrid Council meetings

Mr. Waltman noted the need for Council to discuss future meeting formats.  He suggested that the Penn Room be used for public viewing but that Council go back to virtual.  He noted the increased spread of the COVID Delta variant. He stated that he is uncomfortable without a mask around others but does not want to remain masked for several hours during meetings.  He noted that Council is committed to remaining transparent and stated that City Hall may close to the public again in the future.  He stated that he wants to hear from all Councilors for their position.

 

Ms. Reed stated that she would rather meet together but noted the COVID case increase.  She stated that 111 new cases were reported in Berks County today and the situation continues to worsen.  She stated that meeting in person is a disservice to all and stated that COVID cases among City workers is increasing.  She noted her concern with the public entering City Hall.  She agreed that Council should be entirely virtual until after COVID is under control.  She stated that many Reading residents are not vaccinated and she is very concerned about young children who cannot be vaccinated.  She again expressed the belief that meetings should resume in a fully virtual format.

 

Mr. Amoros stated that the Emergency Services Director is closely monitoring the situation and trends.  He stated that the Director has been right about what needs to occur every time so far.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz questioned if masks are required within City Hall.  Mr. Amoros stated that they are.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz expressed the belief that it is not good optics for those present in the Penn Room not to be masked.  She stated that she does not do well when masked for long periods of time and has decided to stay home.  She expressed the belief that the situation is currently at a critical point.

 

Mr. Marmarou supported continuing meeting hybridly while allowing some to attend in person.  He expressed the belief that Council Chambers is large enough to accommodate everyone.  He stated that he is okay wearing his mask during meetings.

 

Ms. Ventura stated that she would prefer the hybrid meetings but is okay going back to fully virtual.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz noted the need for everyone’s safety to come first.  She agreed to resume fully virtual meetings and noted the need to keep the public safe.

 

Mr. Waltman stated that he also prefers fully virtual meetings.  He stated that he continues to experience serious medical issues directly related to COVID eight months later.  He expressed the belief that Council operates transparently and noted the need to reduce everyone’s risk of infection.  He stated that Council meetings will be fully virtual moving forward and stated that the public can view the meetings from the Penn Room if access is needed.

 

IV.    Executive Session

Mr. Lachat noted the need for an executive session regarding two litigation issues.

 

Council entered executive session at 6:30 pm.

 

The six members of Council, Ms. Kelleher, Ms. Smith, Mr. Lachat, Mr. Amoros, Mr. Rugis and Chief Tornielli remained in the meeting.  Mr. Adair joined the meeting for the first discussion and left the meeting at 6:37 pm.

 

The executive session ended and the meeting adjourned at 6:44 pm.

 

Respectfully Submitted by

Linda A. Kelleher, CMC, City Clerk