2023 Bethlehem City Council President’s Report
The Council President’s Report begins most years with statistics. For instance, I can tell you that in 2023, Council held 24 regular meetings and 17 committee and budget sessions resulting in the adoption of 259 Resolutions and passage of 51 Ordinances. But the real impact stretches well beyond these numbers.
With the pandemic behind us in 2023, it was time to move on and get back to business. Bethlehem is making the most of what is considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebound and thrive thanks to $34.4 million in appropriations through the American Rescue Plan Act. This federal money was announced in 2022 for pandemic recovery, and the City has seen fit to use it in several ways: recover revenue loss, invest in infrastructure, and establish an affordable housing fund and a homeless initiative.
Projects funded by these federal dollars surged ahead in 2023. Some, such as street paving, are complete. Others are less immediate and require thorough planning. To this end, Council enthusiastically supported a new initiative to combat homelessness and the affordable housing crisis by conducting four Community Development Committee meetings in 2023 to review the City Housing Needs Assessment and Strategic Plan submitted by the City’s Department of Community and Economic Development. Plans are underway to create at least one homeless shelter and provide affordable housing units. Council continues to encourage these efforts by authorizing millions of dollars in funding and eagerly awaits advanced planning meetings in 2024 as this dream draws closer to reality.
In 2023, Council was similarly enthusiastic to support the application for a $500,000 HUD Choice Neighborhoods planning grant that could lead the way toward replacing the 196-unit Pembroke Village that was constructed in 1941. The Pembroke Choice Neighborhood Plan will set out a community-led effort for the transformation of the distressed public housing into viable, mixed-income neighborhoods and up to 400-600 new housing units throughout the area. This is one of many strategies that Council has supported for addressing housing affordability challenges. Council was additionally supportive of a grant application of up to $10 million to further fund multiple housing strategies.
Council also has supported and applauded aggressive efforts to obtain grant money by authorizing the hiring of a grant writer. In addition to successful awards and applications still being considered, highlights of these efforts have yielded $250,000 toward a plan for revitalization of Friendship Park, $500,000 toward purchasing land to close the gap in the Greenway, and most recently $10 million toward transformative infrastructure improvements along West Broad Street.
Council also eagerly supported the Administration’s efforts in recent years to pay down debt, realizing that fiscal restraint now will pay dividends in the years to come. Bethlehem has gone from a debt of nearly $171 million in 2015 to about $99 million to start 2024. The City has paid down more than $71 million in nine years. The debt amount is projected to fall to $55 million by this time in 2028.
In November, Council held three budget hearings. Presentations brought to life the people behind the good work being done rather than just numbers and statistics. Council heard one success story in particular from Public Works, a series of wise moves that began in 2007 that has saved City taxpayers an estimated $13 million. The City began by purchasing streetlight poles from PPL instead of paying rental fees. Other money-saving changes included switching to LED lighting for more cost-efficiency. The total savings will only grow thanks to this foresight and wisdom.
That brings us to the close of 2023 and a look ahead to the new year. Tonight, Council will say goodbye to two members: Dr. Paige Van Wirt, who served six years, and Dr. Wandalyn Enix, who served two years in filling an unexpired term. Both served with hard work, passion, and distinction. We thank you both for all efforts and wish you well in your endeavors. Meanwhile, in a few minutes, Council will welcome two members: Bryan Callahan and Colleen Laird. We look forward to your contributions.
Michael G. Colón
President of Bethlehem City Council
January 2, 2024