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CITY COUNCIL

Committee of the Whole Summary 10/11/21

 

 

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October 11, 2021

5:00 P.M.

Hybrid Meeting

 

COUNCIL MEMBERS PRESENT:

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

OTHERS PRESENT:

L. Kelleher, C. Cepeda (in person), S. Smith, C. Crespo, S. Rugis, J. Long, J. London, F. Lachat, A. Amoros, M. Rodriguez, D. Peris, K. Dearstyne, W. Stoudt, Bogia Engineering, E. Moran, J. Kelly, R. Tornielli (all electronically)

The meeting was called to order at 5:02 pm by Mr. Waltman. 

Ms. Acevedo arrived at this time.

I.       ARPA Update

Mr. Amoros screen shared a Power Point Presentation.  He stated that internal meetings continue.  He reminded all that the Mayor’s budget address committed $41 million of ARPA funding.  He stated that the final guidelines will be released by the US Treasury by the end of October and that the City’s rubric has been finalized.

Mr. Denbowski arrived at this time.

Mr. Amoros stated that there have been twelve responses to the City’s RFP for ARPA fund compliance.  He stated that the City has received a new funding request from RACC.  He stated that the City continues to work with the County to increase funding toward homelessness and stated that approximately 41% of the homeless population are outside the City.

Mr. Amoros announced that forums for public input on the use of the ARPA funds have been scheduled on November 4 at Centro Hispano and on November 10 at Albright College.  Both forums will be held in person from 6 – 8 pm.  Additional forums may be scheduled if needed.  He stated that both forums will be advertised to increase participation.

Mr. Waltman stated that he was surprised to learn that $41 million has already been planned.  He noted the need for review of the programming with Council to ensure all are on board.  He stated that he thought the City was still deliberating on projects.

Mr. Amoros stated that planning continues but this is the City’s draft plan.  He stated that supply issues continue and the City needs to get ahead of the curve.  He stated that this plan is heavy on infrastructure and contractors may have supply delays.

Mr. Waltman noted his hope that ARPA projects would have legacy impacts.

Mr. Amoros stated that the City is not rushing through the process.  He noted the need to move forward correctly and not quickly.

Mr. Moran stated that the draft plan includes projects that are allowable and are consistent with the guidelines.

Ms. Reed stated that the presentation noted the planned items as committed yet there was no Council action taken.  She expressed the belief that they should be referred to as recommendations.

Mr. Moran agreed.

Mr. Amoros stated that the word commit is used in the guidelines.  He stated that this is a legal term but that Council approval is still needed.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz stated that $5.5 million has been committed for the homeless.  She questioned if the funding the City received to assist current tenants from being evicted has been spent.

Mr. Abodalo arrived at this time.

Mr. Amoros stated that this funding has not been spent but that it is a completely separate program.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned how the plan commitments were determined. 

Mr. Amoros stated that he, Mr. Kelly, and the Mayor have set these commitments but that they can be adjusted.  He stated that this has been an open and transparent process.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz expressed the belief that additional external requests would be received.  She questioned how they would be handled.  Mr. Amoros stated that applications are submitted to him.  He stated that they are reviewed with the Mayor.  He stated that to date not many external requests have been received by the City or by the County.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz suggested the consideration of an application process for a fair review of projects.

Mr. Moran questioned if Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz knew of specific applicants.  Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz stated that Goggleworks and the Reading Symphony have spoken with her.  She noted the need for ARPA funding to be distributed fairly.

Mr. Moran stated that funding has been set aside for non-profit organizations.

Mr. Amoros stated that this has been an open and fair process.  He stated that applicants complete a rubric which the City uses to determine if the project conforms to the guidelines.  He stated that applicants must already be a recognized legal entity and have organizational capability to complete projects.  He stated that the City has received several requests for start-up organizations but that this program does not fund start-ups.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if there are project caps and how the application process works.  Mr. Amoros stated that requests are submitted as a rubric.  The projects and the rubric are reviewed and determined if they qualify.

Mr. Moran stated that a category has been established to distribute smaller amounts to organizations.  He stated that this part of the plan is still being worked on.

Mr. Kelly agreed that the rubric is used to evaluate requests.  He stated that the draft plan sets aside $3 million for community organizations.  He stated that the Plan Administrator will review the applicants and will also ensure that the City is filing accurate and timely reports to the US Treasury.

Mr. Waltman noted the need for Council to review projects after the final guidelines are received.  He suggested that this occur after the budget review is complete.  He stated that the Administration is further along in the process than he anticipated.  He suggested that projects that are not part of the 2022 budget be approved separately.

Mr. Amoros stated that he will continue to provide monthly updates to Council.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz requested that the rubric be resent to Council for their review.  She stated that there has been no mention of existing businesses and asked for clarification of the application process. 

Mr. Amoros stated that he will resend the rubric and instructions on how organizations can apply.

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz reiterated that Mr. Waltman’s bad connection is due to limited bandwidth.  She questioned if different applicants may be referred to different processes or programs.  She expressed the belief that ARPA funding should not supplant regular funding but, rather, should expand current services.  She noted the need for applicants to understand the Treasury guidelines. 

Mr. Amoros agreed and stated that he can assist applicants with the process.  He stated that ARPA funding is not intended to supplant budget shortages due to COVID but should expand current programming.

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz questioned if the City’s use of the funding will enhance City programs.  Mr. Amoros stated that it will.

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that the Pagoda expenses are a City capital expense and not an external request.

 

Ms. Sihelnik requested that Mr. Amoros send the list of employees who serve on the internal task force within the week.  Mr. Amoros agreed to do so.

Ms. Sihelnik also requested the scope of the consultant.  She stated that she was glad to hear that the City and County are willing to partner and noted the need to use the funding strategically.  She stated that the City already released the rubric and stated that when she is approached about funding she refers organizations to the Managing Director and explains the rubric.  She noted the need for continued discussions and to abide by the guideline deadlines.  She agreed that some discussions need to occur during budget review to understand how ARPA funding will be used to build and support the City for its future.

Ms. Reed stated that some Councilors sit on organizational Boards of Directors.  She requested voting guidance for clarification.  Mr. Lachat expressed the belief that the situations must be considered on a case by case basis as not all organizations and Boards of Directors are the same.  He stated that Councilors should discuss their situations with him individually. 

Ms. Reed noted that the public cannot feel that some organizations had an advantage given to them.  She stated that she would appreciate a blanket explanation.  Mr. Lachat stated that he will prepare a general statement.

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that some appointments are made as Councilors and some are made as individuals.  She used her seat on the Recreation Commission as a member of Council as an example.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz requested that Ms. Sihelnik specify the location of the rubric on the website.  Ms. Sihelnik stated that she is unsure as she provides the pdf document directly. 

Mr. Amoros stated that he will ask Mr. Crespo to repost the information to ensure it is on the website.

Mr. Moran thanked all for their participation and clarity.  He stated that the process will continue transparently.  He stated that the forum at the Hispanic Center is to ensure that the process is inclusive.  He stated that additional information will be provided in Spanish as the process moves forward.

II.      Council Solicitor

Ms. Kelleher stated that information is attached to the agenda.

Mr. Waltman noted the need to ensure that Council understands the duties and protocols.  He noted the need for a policy and process.  He suggested that Council review this information.  He suggested that any topic that is complicated or may need research should have a consensus of Council before the Council Solicitor is contacted.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned how consensus would be achieved. 

Mr. Waltman stated that four members of Council make the request.  He noted the need for the entire body to be informed before the request is made.  He noted the need for clear requests.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if this could be done informally. 

Mr. Waltman suggested an email to Council.  He stated that discussions can also occur at Committee of the Whole meetings.  He suggested that controversial issues be approved by resolution but that not all topics need resolutions.  He expressed the belief that chatting with the solicitor for a few moments about District issues is okay.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz requested a written policy to inform incoming Councilors about the use of the Council Solicitor. (Note: this will be added to the Council Handbook which is updated regularly.)

Mr. Waltman noted that legal costs can increase quickly.

Ms. Sihelnik questioned the costs if the City Solicitor assigns tasks to the Council Solicitor.  She questioned if Council consensus is needed for these projects since Council funding will be spent.

Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that these projects should be approved by Council.  He noted his hope that the Council Solicitor will strengthen the Law Office and that they will utilize one another as needed.

Mr. Lachat stated that he would inform Council when the assistance of the Council Solicitor is needed and he would not do this on his own.  He expressed the belief that it would not be ethical for him to advise Council on certain topics when Council has its own counsel. 

Mr. Waltman stated that this is all new and that the policy will be refined.  He noted the need to discuss the roles and responsibilities at next week’s meeting.  He questioned if there is a final tally of which candidate will be chosen.  He noted the need to make the appointment by resolution. 

Ms. Kelleher stated that there is consensus.  She noted the need to speak with the chosen candidate to negotiate the salary before adopting the appointment resolution.

III.    Redistricting Commission

Ms. Kelleher stated that no applications have been received.  She noted the need for Council outreach and reminded all that one member of the Commission is seated from each Council District and one at large by the Council President.

Mr. Waltman questioned the appointment timeline.  Ms. Kelleher stated that appointments should have occurred this evening.  She noted her hope that the Commission would be seated at the next meeting.

Mr. Waltman noted the need for Councilors to have their recommendations to Ms. Kelleher by the end of this week.  He stated that this is a serious issue and must be moved forward.

Mr. Amoros read Chapter 5 Section 214 letter B and questioned why the Commission would be penalized for submitting their report early.  He questioned if this section should be amended.

Mr. Waltman questioned if the Administration gets a representative on this Commission.  Ms. Kelleher stated that they do not.  She stated that changing Council Districts has no effect on the Administration. 

Ms. Ventura stated that she may need assistance finding an applicant. 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz requested a summary of the skillsets needed by the applicant.

Mr. Waltman noted the need for those who serve to be familiar with the City, voting processes and the importance of the redistricting process.

Ms. Reed noted the need for Council Districts to have relatively the same number of residents.  She stated that Reading has had a population increase which will cause the need for a close look at District boundaries.  She noted the need to be serious about the process and the need to keep it non-partisan.

Ms. Sihelnik questioned the length of the appointment.  Ms. Kelleher stated that there is only one purpose to this Commission and their work is done in 120 days.

Ms. Sihelnik questioned if applicants can be members of another board, authority or commission.  Ms. Kelleher stated that they can be a member of an authority but not of a board or commission.

Mr. Waltman reminded all to provide recommendations to Ms. Kelleher by the end of this week.

IV.    De-conversion Incentives

Mr. Waltman stated that the Administration is working on this issue.  He noted the need to continue scheduling discussions.  He stated that reducing the number of rental units will help stabilize neighborhoods.

Ms. Reed stated that she and Mr. Denbowski met with Mr. Shuman.  She stated that Mr. Shuman has proposed a policy and guidelines to deconvert properties to single family or reduce the number of units within a property.  She stated that guidelines and incentives will assist developers and suggested grant or tax abatement programs. 

Ms. Reed suggested that de-densifying housing stock would assist the Reading School District and reduce the high demand for City services.  She suggested a pilot program in an historic district or along a main street.  She expressed the belief that this would result in a stronger housing stock.  She expressed the belief that this would also help reduce parking stress and overcrowded conditions. 

Ms. Reed stated that this issue has been discussed many times but there has been no action.  She stated that Reading’s population increase may change the City’s size classification.  She stated that Stantec’s report will encourage additional rental units downtown.  She stated that this issue has many moving parts and noted her hope that a policy would move forward.

Mr. Waltman stated that the Administration drives the City’s housing strategy.  He suggested that Ms. Reed work with them directly.

Ms. Reed stated that she is willing to do so.  She stated that Council can continue to advocate moving in this direction.

Mr. Amoros commended Ms. Reed.  He agreed that deconversion will improve the City’s quality of life and also sends a positive message.  He stated that conversion of single family properties to multi-units is already prohibited in 7 of the City’s 9 zoning districts.  He stated that Council action can make this prohibition in all 9 zoning districts. 

Mr. Amoros stated that Mr. Abodalo and Mr. Peris are currently working on additional amendments to the Zoning Ordinance.  He stated that Mr. Denbowski located conversations about this issue dating back to 1999.  He stated that he will share this information with Council.

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz thanked Ms. Reed for continuing the conversation.  She stated that single family homeowners have stabilized East Reading and improved its quality of life.  She expressed the belief that Reading has more residents than the City can care for.  She cautioned that single family homes can still be overcrowded.  She stated that she is also willing to work on this project. 

Mr. Marmarou stated that this suggestion has been made several times.  He suggested that the Administration distribute information about the expectations of residents and property owners to realtors to distribute to their clients.

Ms. Sihelnik also thanked Ms. Reed.  She expressed the belief that this is a critical issue and is also timely.  She agreed that Stantec recommends additional rental units downtown.  She noted the need to set the City up for success to manage this program.  She noted the need for Council to review the information discovered by Mr. Denbowski.  She stated that deconversion does intersect with the parking issue and may help with climate change issues.  She noted the need to find partners and agreed that the City should work actively with realtors and those who encourage investment in Reading. 

Ms. Sihelnik agreed that Reading has a transient population and home ownership would improve the quality of life of neighborhoods.  She expressed the belief that rental unit occupants can be disruptive.  She noted the need for the City to be sure they are ready to implement another program.

Ms. Reed stated that she has spoken with several realtors.  She stated that they seem interested in deconversion. She expressed the belief that deconversion would increase property values and stated that some realtors are already deconverting properties privately.  She noted the need to showcase successful examples and update legislation as needed.

Ms. Sihelnik stated that ARPA funding has been earmarked for façade improvements which is also related to deconversion.  She stated that there are several successful façade improvement programs and noted the need to work together.

Ms. Reed questioned next steps.

Mr. Waltman noted the need to work with the Administration and to integrate this into the Housing Strategy.

Ms. Reed noted the need to move forward especially since this has been discussed since 1999 with no action.

Mr. Waltman suggested that the Administration make a presentation to Council when they are ready to move forward.  He suggested that Ms. Reed meet with Mr. Amoros to start discussions.

V.      Agenda Review

Council reviewed this evening’s agenda including the following:

  • Public Comment

Ms. Kelleher stated that one person has registered to speak in person.

  • Commendations

Mr. Waltman questioned who would read this evening’s commendations.  Ms. Kelleher stated that Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz would read the commendations.

Mr. Waltman questioned if the recipients would be joining the meeting.  Ms. Kelleher stated that they have all received the meeting link.

Mr. Waltman stated that there is no consent agenda this evening.

  • Ordinance vacating and removing from the topographical survey of the City a portion of the City right of way for SR 3422 known as Penn St and authorizing the execution of a deed transferring the vacated portion to Reading Area Community College (RACC)

Mr. Waltman stated that this is a small sliver of land and is already considered RACC property.

Ms. London and Mr. Dearstyne left the meeting at this time.

  • Ordinance increasing the base salary of the WWTP Lab Supervisor by $5,000 per annum retroactive to January 1, 2021 due to an increase in responsibilities

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned the total salary.  Ms. Kelleher stated that this information is not included in the agenda memo or the resolution. 

Mr. Kelly stated that the current salary is approximately $54,000.  Mr. Rugis agreed.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if the additional responsibilities began in January.  Mr. Rugis stated that the responsibilities increased in September 2020.

  • Ordinance amending Code of Ordinances Chapter 62 New Officers and Employees Pension Fund, Section 102 to prohibit the participation of new members where the employee is hired or rehired on or after January 1, 2022

Mr. Waltman stated that the Administration has requested this ordinance be tabled this evening.  Mr. Amoros stated that it will be ready to move forward in two weeks.

  • Ordinance amending Code of Ordinances Chapter 62 New Officers and Employees Pension Fund by adding a Defined Contribution Plan for employees hired beginning January 1, 2022

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz stated that this is related to the ordinance that the Administration has requested to table.  She questioned if this should also be tabled.  Mr. Amoros stated that this is not necessary.

  • Resolution to approve or disapprove the Certificate of Insufficiency issued to the We the People Circulators Committee for the Toxic Trespass petitions, as per Charter section 1105 Initiative and referendum procedure after filing Part B. The Charter requires the collection of 2,000 signatures and 1,737 signatures were submitted – 263 less than the required amount

Mr. Waltman stated that the Charter requires 2,000 signatures and stated that the Charter does not allow Council to make exceptions and approve a shortfall.

Mr. Lachat stated that the Charter language does not include hardship.  He stated that the appeal process is available but Council cannot approve the shortfall.  He stated that the petitions and Ms. Kelleher’s certifications are posted on the website for Council review.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned why Council needed to take action if the Charter does not allow it.

Mr. Waltman noted the need for Council to approve Ms. Kelleher’s findings.

Mr. Lachat stated that it is a required step in the petition process.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz clarified that Council is being asked to approve or disapprove Ms. Kelleher’s work.  

Mr. Lachat agreed.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz stated that this action was not taken in the past.  Mr. Lachat stated that this is the result of past appeals and is now part of the process.  He stated that if Council approves the Certificate of Insufficiency the petitioners can appeal to the Court of Common Pleas.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if the petitioners could continue collecting signatures and have the issue on the spring ballot.  Mr. Lachat stated that there are specific timelines which must be followed to get the 2,000 signatures.  He stated that Council has approved a referendum question to help clarify the petition process in the Charter and the inclusion of language from the 3rd class City Code.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz stated that Council action was recently taken regarding petitions.  Mr. Lachat again stated that Council approved a referendum question be placed on the ballot.  He noted his hope that the amendment is approved.  He stated that there are also State law implications for petitions and that there are County Board of Elections timelines which must be followed.

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz questioned the motion needed to approve the Certificate of Insufficiency.  Mr. Lachat noted the need for a specific motion to approve the Certificate if Council concurs with Ms. Kelleher’s findings.

Mr. Waltman stated that the Charter does not give Council an option to approve insufficient petitions due to COVID.  He expressed the belief that the Charter language is clear.  He stated that Council is not an enemy but that the Court has more leeway to make decisions.  He stated that the judge possesses additional powers and that this will be a heartstrings argument.

Mr. Cepeda interrupted.  Mr. Waltman explained that public comment is not allowed during Committee meetings.

Mr. Marmarou stated that the petitions to block one trash hauler also did not garner 2,000 signatures.  Mr. Lachat agreed and stated that these petitions were not submitted.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if action would be taken this evening.  Mr. Waltman stated that it would be. 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz announced her intention to move to approve the Certificate of Insufficiency.

Mr. Waltman noted the need for the body to take action since this request has been brought forward.

Ms. Sihelnik questioned if two motions were necessary.  Mr. Lachat stated that if four members of Council approve the first motion a second motion is not necessary.

Ms. Sihelnik questioned if Council would vote as approve/disapprove or yes/no.  Mr. Lachat stated that Council may only vote yes/no and the vote would depend on agreement with the motion.

Ms. Sihelnik voiced her support of Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz’s intention. 

  • Resolution ratifying the collective bargaining agreement between the City and AFSCME Local 2763 for 2021 – 2022 regarding salary changes and other provisions, effective January 1, 2021

Mr. Kelly explained that AFSCME would be receiving a 4% increase retroactive to January 1, 2021 and for 2022.  He stated that this increase is consistent with other increases that have been awarded.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned who negotiated on the City’s behalf.  Mr. Kelly stated that he, Mr. Amoros, and Ms. Acevedo negotiated on behalf of the City.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned how the 4% increase was determined.  Mr. Kelly stated that AFSCME made this request.  He stated that the request was considered based on the contributions made by this bargaining unit and the increases awarded to other collective bargaining units.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if performance evaluations are performed.  Mr. Kelly stated that evaluations will begin in January 2022.

Ms. Rodriguez requested clarity that these employees have not received a raise to date in 2021. 

Mr. Kelly stated that this is correct.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz stated that a 2.5% increase was included in the 2021 budget.  Mr. Kelly explained that the amount budgeted had not yet been spent and was an assumption on the City’s part since negotiations were incomplete.  He stated that the 4% increase is retroactive to January 1, 2021.

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz explained that allocating funding does not automatically spend the funds.  She stated that budgeting is earmarking funding.  She stated that when the budget is approved it does not approve all the spending within the budget.

Mr. Amoros agreed with Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz stated that 2.5% was allocated for all employees but not all employees received 2.5%.  She stated that 4% was not allocated but will now be spent. 

Mr. Kelly agreed.

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned how the City can pay this overage. 

Mr. Kelly explained that there have been other budget savings to offset the overage.  He stated that the City ended 2020 with a $2.4 million surplus and the City has had surpluses for the last eight years.

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz questioned if a 4% increase is included in the 2022 budget.  Mr. Kelly stated that it is.  He stated that there will be no adjustments to bargaining unit salaries in 2022 because they all have current contracts.

  • Resolution appointing Nehemiah Diaz Lopez to the Youth Commission

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz stated that this is a phenomenal young man. 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz agreed and stated that she was speechless with his outlook and that he is ahead of the curve.

Mr. Cepeda questioned if he could now speak.  Mr. Waltman again stated that public comment is not taken during Committee meetings.

Ms. Kelleher stated that Mr. Cepeda is not registered to speak at the regular meeting.

Mr. Cepeda began shouting.

Mr. Waltman requested that Mr. Cepeda stop shouting.

Mr. Cepeda shouted that he is due five minutes to speak and that he sat through this entire meeting.

Mr. Waltman noted the need for Mr. Cepeda to stop shouting or he would be removed.  He requested staff who are attending the meeting inside City Hall to please go to the Penn Room.

Mr. Marmarou announced that police officers are present in the Penn Room.

Mr. Waltman requested that the meeting be adjourned and asked that Ms. Kelleher call him.

 

The meeting adjourned at 6:48 pm.

Respectfully Submitted by

Linda A. Kelleher, CMC, City Clerk