Mayor Vaughn D. Spencer said he doesn’t want to be remembered as the man who was mayor when the Pagoda tumbled down Mount Penn into City Park.
But among the myriad financial problems the city faces is the fact that a section of the retaining wall supporting the foundation of the city landmark has collapsed, and more of the wall is in danger of crumbling.
If the wall goes, the Pagoda could be next.
“It’s a serious problem because that is the foundation wall and a large piece of it is gone,” Spencer said. “Once you get that kind of erosion going it’s hard to stop.”
The city won a $4 million federal grant on Thursday to hire 30 new firefighters over the next two years, replenishing a force that was shrunk by budget cuts the past several years.
Although Fire Chief David W. Hollinger and other city officials were elated at the news, they said they’re still working out the details of how the grant will be used, when the new recruits could be hired, and what happens when the grant runs out in two years.
English: Downtown Reading, Pennsylvania; with Berks County courthouse on left; July 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
While multiple independent efforts push toward scheduling a crime summit for Reading – including a pre-summit planning session set for Monday in the offices of state Sen. Judy Schwank – business executives are casting votes on the city’s tarnished image with their feet.
New executives hired by Berks companies are choosing to live in Chester or Montgomery counties, preferring greater proximity to Philadelphia, according to Ellen T. Horan, president and CEO of the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce & Industry. Horan, citing conversations with officials at Berks companies, said the perception of the city as crime-infested is repelling executive talent.
“The summit is a great idea,” Horan said. “I would like to see a little more urgency.”
As the city struggles to meet its soaring pension costs, especially for police, it discovered a new problem that’s costing what some say is an illegal $900,000 a year.
Map of Berks County, Pennsylvania, United States with township and municipal boundaries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Police officers retiring through the much-maligned DROP program continue to get their health insurance premiums paid by the city.
The contract requires that any retiree who gets a job with another department must use that agency’s health insurance plan and notify the city to drop them. Many retired city police have gone to other municipalities or the county.
But many don’t, city officials say, because they’re more valuable to another department if it doesn’t have to pay that benefit.
Reading’s outside consultants told City Council on Monday that total city revenues likely would drop by $2 million from 2013 to 2017, largely because of shrinking property tax money and a recovery plan calling for cuts in the earned-income tax rate.
The property tax, at $18 million, and the earned-income tax, at $13 million, are the two largest city income sources, said Gordon Mann, senior consultant with Public Financial Management Inc., Philadelphia, which is leading the state-hired Act 47 financial recovery team.
He said the problem with the property tax is that assessments essentially are flat, but about a half-percent of city properties go tax exempt each year.
More than 30 percent of city properties now are tax exempt.
Isamac Torres-Figueroa, hired three weeks ago to run Reading City Hall’s Citizen Service Center, abruptly resigned Monday, city officials said.
The officials would not comment on reports by sources over the weekend that Torres-Figueroa was given a resign-or-be-fired mandate Friday afternoon. Reading City Hall sources on Monday confirmed the mandate.
Managing Director Carole B. Snyder said only that Torres-Figueroa submitted her resignation Monday, and that the city is weighing its options for how to fill the vacancy. She would not comment further.
Contacted Monday night, Torres-Figueroa said she was afforded a great opportunity in the city position and learned a lot.
Attacking crime in Reading will take more than law enforcement and government officials sitting down for a meeting, community leaders said Tuesday in response to a call by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. for a crime summit in August.
State Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone, a Reading Democrat, said more police officers would help, but money is not likely to be readily available from the state or federal governments because of their budget situations.
So the key to success will be getting parents to take responsibility for their children and schools to provide more athletic and educational activities for youths, he said.
Representatives from faith-based organizations, fraternal and social groups and businesses must be at the table, Caltagirone said.
Editor’s note: Three cheers for Reading City Council!
Reading City Council wants neighborhoods cleaned up, and they know it’s going to take some toughness to do it.
At a workshop meeting Monday night, council heard an update on the city’s quality-of-life ticketing program by Lenin Agudo, community development director. The program has city workers issuing tickets to residents for problems like high weeds and trash piling up in yards.
Agudo presented council with a list of recommendations – created through feedback from council, city administrators and the public – aimed at improving the program.
One of the main issues, Agudo said, is making sure residents know what is acceptable and what isn’t.
Despite needing 174 officers this year and budgeting for 168, the Reading Police Department has fewer than 140 officers able to do their full jobs, Police Chief William M. Heim told City Council on Monday.
And the Reading Fire Department is down seven firefighters from its already pared force – a gap being filled by mandatory overtime because the firefighters are too tired to volunteer for it – acting Fire Chief Jeffrey Squibb said.
Mass retirements have plagued both departments, and council asked the chiefs what their needs were for the city’s safety. The question was partly a reaction to council’s earlier, grudging approval of two new hires for the mayor’s office.
At Mayor Vaughn D. Spencer’s request, City Council on Monday awarded data processing giant ADP a $214,100 contract to take over the city’s payroll operations.
The move will get rid of an error-prone, in-house system for which the IRS has fined the city more than $100,000.
“We’re not payroll experts; we’re getting out of the business,” said Christopher Zale, acting director of administrative services.
The IRS fines – $50,400 each for tax years 2007 and 2008 because the city’s W-2 forms weren’t compatible with IRS computers, and weren’t re-filed properly until months after the deadline – were levied in 2010.
Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Berks County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The relationship between Mayor Vaughn D. Spencer and City Council got off to a rocky start, he and council members admitted Tuesday at a Berks CountyLeague of Women Voters breakfast.
But now they’re ready to move on to implementing Spencer’s agenda of making the city safer and cleaner, encouraging economic development and getting the finances in order, they said.
“The impression that the president of council and the mayor hate each other is not true,” Council President Francis G. Acosta said. “All of us on council would like to see the mayor succeed and attain his goals.”
About 20 league members attended the event in Calvary United Church of Christ, 640 Centre Ave.