State of the City 2021 Address by Mayor Sal Panto Jr.

State of the City Address 2021

Honoring our First Responders --- It is Time to THRIVE, NOT JUST SURVIVE

Last year when I presented the State of the City Address Easton was on a path marked by positive improvements.  Suddenly, time stood still.  Our city, our nation, our world was placed on hold.  The health and wellbeing of our residents, families, and community took priority.  

As the numbers rose, our economy stalled. As your city leader, it was a delicate ba­lance to protect the health and safety of our community while desperately trying to minimize the economic impact on our businesses and city finances.

2020 was a year of fierce crosscurrents -- the global pandemic, a national reckoning on race, a sharp economic downturn especially for our small businesses, and our resident’s inability to feed their families and pay their monthly bills.  

Faced with unparalleled challenges, our community came together to develop solutions to keep our community safe and survive.  New phrases like flatten the curve, social distancing and contact tracing, and advice like wear a mask, wash your hands often and use hand sanitizer became an everyday part of our lives.  PPE became a household acronym.

Our way of living was turned upside down as we tried to slow the global pandemic that claimed more than 540,000 lives in the United States alone.  It made people afraid to go outside; dine at our restaurants; shop in our stores, attend our more than 100 special events, or even attend church services.

Our youth continue to struggle with the new concept of remote learning.  Our seniors in our senior facilities were unable to see family members.  

Festivals and events were cancelled; the State Theatre stage went dark; Lafayette Students left campus; the Crayola Experience, Sigal Museum and National Canal Museum and Nurture Nature all closed, and our hotels became empty. Restaurants were closed to indoor dining. We closed our pools.  Traditions like the Heritage Day; Lebanese Festival; Clam Jam; Garlic Fest, Bacon Fest and so many other ethnic and cultural festivals and celebrations had to be cancelled or go…. another new word ------ virtual.

The city forecasted a projected loss of $5.5 Million in annualized revenue, mostly from Earned Income Tax collections, casino revenue, building permits, parking revenue, delayed payments and other portions of our budget tied to the economy.  Economic development projects were delayed with the shutdown of the construction industry.  To ease the burden we delayed payments, removed late penalties and fees, and provided free parking in the downtown.  We also commenced Phase I of my Business Recovery Plan which provided for safe outdoor dining throughout the City. There is little doubt that Phase I saved Easton’s reputation as a place for fine restaurants and allowed many of them to survive.

Reputations are forged in times of crisis. I believe the way our city government responded during this pandemic has strengthened Easton’s reputation for thoughtful, responsive, and effective local government. Throughout this pandemic we have demonstrated our commitment to the residents of this community.

As mayor, I have not taken any decision related to our pandemic response lightly.  Government is always a difficult balancing act and that has never been more evident.

The biggest problem was that the pandemic affects were impossible to quantify. 

In addition to the furloughs several steps were taken to counter this loss of income.  We appropriated funds from the surplus we had accumulated over the prior years.  These measures were only possible because of the steps we had taken over the preceding years to strengthen our financial position, but we still projected a $2.6 million budget gap.

The City continued to function, and most services continued unabated.  It was a tough but necessary decision to furlough 81 employees for 10 weeks as a means of responding to lower revenue projections, but we kept their health benefits and did it when there was also a $600 per week federal unemployment assistance in place. 

With the duration of the pandemic extending beyond the Fall we realized that we needed to commence Phase II of our Business Recovery Plan to assist small business retailers throughout the City.  With that was born the Easton Winter Market, complete with an ice-skating rink.  Financed primarily by the CARES Act and private sector sponsors.  We had the support of Northampton County – thank you County Executive McClure; we know that the Winter Market saved many of our small businesses.

I believe we made the right decisions throughout the pandemic and I thank City Council for your support.  I thank the entire community for their understanding for a safe and healthy Easton.

During this pandemic we made tough choices. We canceled events, reduced services, closed buildings, furloughed employees.  City Administrator Campos, Finance Director Lysynecky and I met every day to review our finances.  The other Directors and Supervisors worked to assure city services were being delivered.  Police and Firefighters continued to serve.  And when our furloughed employees returned they have been instrumental in implementing innovative best practices that continue to benefit residents and save taxpayer dollars.

There was another call to action that rings just as brightly today.  Precipitated by the senseless death of George Floyd, outrage erupted in communities across our Country this summer.  For some the passion and anger came as a surprise.  For others it was an “it’s about time” moment. Our largest gathering for a rally – more than 2,000 people – rallied in Centre Square for reform in a peaceful manner.

As mayor I have always tried to lead with DEI in mind --- Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is a priority of our Administration.  I am committed to making City departments more equitable and inclusive.  Just in the last three years we hired 13 minorities and 24 women.  We just offered a female a position with our police department.

It should be clear that while this country speaks aspirationally about equality for all, color blindness and equal opportunity we have fallen well short of those ideals in practice. 

Various legislative efforts have been made since Susan B. Anthony led the campaign in 1863 and collected more than 400,000 signatures to abolish slavery; the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1994.  All of these were important --- but ineffective and produced incomplete results. 

But the final frontier in the fight for equality for all lies largely within the heart and mind of each of us.  While we are all are products of our environment we are also uniquely endowed with the capacity to examine how each of us is shaped by our own character and integrity.  We have the capacity to question our subconscious assumptions and our learned implicit biases.

I believe and support a strong and effective police force but improving police accountability and enhancing police-community relations will always be a high priority my Administration.  Even before the national movement this summer, we had accomplished more on police reform than any prior administration in recent memory.  Our record proves it.

More than ever, I believe our city is well situated to weather unforeseen challenges.  During this new year, our focus will shift to restoring the local economy and place it on its positive trajectory. With the assistance of the federal government’s increase in our Stimulus grant we will do our part re-staring our economy and getting people to work!

There is no question that the steps we implemented at the outset of this pandemic got us through 2020. 

I will highlight some of the work of our City Administrator and departments but I ask that your read them and ask Directors any questions you may have. 

POLICE

For thirteen years you have heard me say that “clean and safe” is my priority. That remains true today, and every day.  This chart says it all – In 2020 we experienced our fifteenth annual decrease in crime.  Last year it was 18.89% decrease.  UCR Part I crime decreased 13.56% and UCR Part II Crime decreased by 18.69%.

Unfortunately, after almost four years without a homicide we had 2 in 2020. There were no homicides in the West Ward and in that neighborhood UCR Part I were down 18 -- from 177 incidents to 159 and UCR part II were down from 280 to 175 incidents. 

City-wide our total calls for service were down 2,079 from 2019 which allowed more time for traditional patrols and getting officers out of their cars on foot and or bike patrol.

Throughout the year our accredited police department continued upgrades in our policies and procedures; worked through all the trials and tribulations of the pandemic; implemented full utilization of IAPro and Blue Team software (every officer uses Blue Team to document and review all of the force incidents and investigations.  The administrative staff uses IAPro to conduct internal and administrative investigations related to citizen complaints); the department received a $100,000 grant to purchase a new report management system; upgraded equipment including Protech Impact-RT plate carrier systems to more fully protect the vital areas officers wearing them; AR-15 rifles; new Tasers and more.

Officers continued further education and training.  Every officer received online instruction in: Advanced Defensive Driving; Ambush Awareness; Constitutional and Community Policing; Cultural Awareness I am II; Anti-Harassment in the Workplace; De-Escalation and Minimizing the Use of Force; Anti-bias Training for Law Enforcement; Responding to People with Mental Illness; Dealing with Stress; Gangs 1, 2 and 3.

I am also proud of the officers response, or more appropriately, lack of response, during the protests.  I witnessed individuals getting tin their face screaming at them and they stood there.

FINANCE

This administration and City Council took Easton from deficits to a surplus totaling over $5.6 million.  Make no mistake, it was this planning and preparation that allowed us to overcome the ills of the pandemic.

A clear indication of our successful economic development program is the continued increase in our assessed value even with the County decreasing the Common Level ratio from 33.56% to 27.17%.

Trend in Assessed Valuation chart

We re-structured the city debt to give us the ability to meet the financial challenges of the pandemic. It also provides the funds needed for the Fourth Street Parking Deck.

Without our fund balance, without the ability to go to the financial markets on favorable terms and re-structuring our debt we would have been looking at significant reductions in staffing and services or huge tax increases.

I want to thank the majority of Council who supported these recommendations and placed Easton on a solid financial foundation in spite of the pandemic. Without this re-financing the revenue gap our only option would have been to raise taxes 7 mils and keep our employees furloughed and raise them again this year.

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

The Administration continues to update our use of technology.  We are light years ahead of where we were in 2008.

Police cameras have been upgraded; technology and security in City Hall has been upgraded; technology for virtual City Council and ABC meetings is in place; preparations and installation of 5G technology; and additional security to our servers to protect us from cyber ransom, and preparations for the fiber loop in the downtown.  Our key personnel have the ability to “work from home” including taking their phone and having it ring in their house as if they were in City Hall.  Our fiber loop installation has started.

PUBLIC WORKS

The Public Works Department is responsible for managing the City’s physical assets and consists of the following Bureaus: Highways, Parks, Public Buildings, Parking Facilities, Engineering and Traffic Services, Recreation & Neighborhood Programs, Fleet Management, Wastewater Treatment, Storm Water and Sanitary Sewer Utilities, and Urban Forestry.

The Department also provides a diverse array of resident services including trash and recycling pickup, municipal recycling drop-off & e-waste events, youth recreation, neighborhood programming, special events support, street sweeping, and curbside leaf and brush removal.

The men and women of the Department rose to meet the challenges of 2020 and managed to accomplish many of the objectives of our annual workplan. Some of the highlights of these accomplishments are as follows:

• Centre Square and ring road conceptual design

• Procurement of new trash and recycling contracts, although at an increase on $600,000.

• Complete the design of Fourth Street Parking Garage

• Recruitment of Community Bikeworks to expand to Easton

• Equipment upgrades and automation of the City’s parking structures

• Implementation of Year 2 MS4 permit requirements and BMP feasibility and a MS4 partnership with     Williams Township

• Demolition and Environmental cleanup plans for the Easton Iron and Metal Site

• Northampton Street Decorative Lighting Phase III

• South Sitgreaves Street improvements’

• Wood Avenue conceptual design

• 13th Street streetscape improvements

• planted 150 Street Trees

• completed Cattell Street intersection improvements design for construction this year

• KSAT entrance arch installed

• Master Planning for City Pocket Parks

• Secure grant funding for Lehigh River Pedestrian Bridge feasibility analysis

• Bushkill Dam removal study

• Lehigh River access trail

• 1000’ Sanitary Sewer Rehabilitation

• 1000’ Storm sewer rehabilitation

FIRE DEPARTMENT

The Easton Fire Department is an “all hazards” department that provides fire suppression, rescue and first responder emergency medical services, hazardous materials response, water rescue, fire investigation, disaster preparedness, and public education to the City of Easton.  The Easton Fire Department consistently works to achieve and/or maintain the highest level of professionalism and efficiency on behalf of those it serves.

This year the department responded to 1837 emergencies, 486 emergency medical calls and 491 non-emergency activities. In addition, our department members participated in training classes amounting to over 8,000 personnel hours.

 In 2020 the Administration recommended, and City Council approved, the hiring of one additional fire fighter per platoon.  This resulted in a reduction of more than fifty percent from $1,136,658 in 2019 to $508,391.09 in 2020 for a total net savings of more than $300,000 in 2020.

The average response time for an arriving first unit for all emergency calls was two minutes 32 seconds.  

Two civilians were injured by fire this year.  Thankfully there were no fire fatalities.  The dollar value for saved property versus lost property illustrated that 5.3 million dollars’ worth of property was at risk due to fire and only $330,000.00 worth of losses were reported.  The total percent of saved property was 99.38%.

PLANNING AND CODES

The Department of Planning and Codes began 2020 with a 2.5% rise in permit activity during the first quarter of the year.  As we all know, that changed.

Additionally, the Census outreach efforts began rolling out, and the comprehensive Zoning amendment process was entering its final stage.  But as we know by the middle of March this came to a screeching stop with a wave of closures and other mitigation efforts to control the spread of the virus.  These efforts caused March to have the least amount of permit activity known, with an 85% drop from 2019. 

Overall, 2020 had 12% less activity or 260 less applications than 2019.

Furlough of employees affected the number of code enforcement cases.  They dropped by 35.1%.  There was also a significant drop in Quality-of-Life Violation Tickets, from 462 down to 155.

One bright spot last year, was that the Certified Blighted List reduced from 37 to 29, with four currently being renovated or replaced for removal such as 28 S. Locust Street. 

The continued trend of taking formerly blighted properties and rehabilitating them is helping to improve the quality of our neighborhoods and reduce crime.

Finally, the Health Bureau conducted 296 health inspections a reduction of nearly 25%, of which 23 were for new facilities or new vendors at existing facilities, and issued 216 Special Event Licenses, a decrease of 53%.  In addition to normal duties, the Health Department was active in providing COVID-19 guidance and monitoring facilities for compliance with the Governor’s emergency orders.

COMMUNITY AND ECONOMIC

The City of Easton received more than $7 million in grants in 2020 which includes a $3 million RACP grant for the Commodore project and a $500,000 RACP for the Hearst interior buildout as well as grants for the pandemic.  These grants included:

  • Northampton County COVID-19 Block Grant (Various City Uses)             $1,390,000
  • Northampton County CARES Act CDBG (Various Community / City)       $1,126,456
  • Northampton County PPE Program (City Department PPE)             $                   3,000
  • Northampton County Grow NorCo – (COVID Protective / Sanitization)     $     15,000
  • Pennsylvania Industrial Site Reuse Program (Easton Iron & Metal) $               981,000
  • Pennsylvania ISRP Grant Increase (Black Diamond)                                    $   250,000
  • Pennsylvania Economic Development Initiatives      (Centennial Park)        $   200,000
  • Pennsylvania MCLSA & LNCLSA   (Centennial Park)                                $     62,000
  • Pennsylvania Census Outreach Program (City Census)                                $     15,000

Total Grants Written and Received in 2020                                                    $4,042,456

We are still awaiting approval of the following which total more than $1.2 million:

  • Pennsylvania Blight Remediation Program (Easton Iron & Metal)               $    100,000
  • Pennsylvania Multimodal Transportation Fund (Bike Lanes)                       $    900,000
  • Community Compost and Food Waste Reduction (Lafayette & GEDP)       $    120,000
  • Northampton County Hotel Tax   (Delaware Canal Park)                 $      45,000

Other significant projects included:

  • Completed work on the RFP for preferred developer for 185 South Third Street.
  • Co-developed and administered City of Easton / GEDP Small Business Relief Fund.
    • Worked with GEDP to raise $200,000 to provide 0% loans to businesses in the City affected by the Coronavirus
    • Reviewed/processed and performed underwriting on more than 30 applications and assisted in preparation of loan documentation for 23 loans                
  • Co-developed and coordinated countywide townhall and business roundtable to assist local businesses in identifying resources available to mitigate the impact of Coronavirus.
  • Developed City website to track and update available small business financing resources to assist business during the pandemic.
  • Provided implementation support for the Mayor’s Business Recovery Program Phase 1 – Restaurant Outdoor Capacity and Phase II Easton Winter Market to aid small business retailers.
  • Developed and began implementation of City CARES ACT CDBG Response and Recovery Plan.
  • Worked with parking consultant to prepare new 4th Street parking deck and parking enterprise proforma to support forthcoming Bond financing.
  • Completed comprehensive report on real estate tax impact of LERTA and KOZ Properties post 2023 sunset of the KOZ program.
  • Co-Developed S&P Presentation related to 2020 bond issuance.
  • Completed work on Black Diamond Remediation.
  • Negotiated the purchase and acquisition of 1218 Ferry Street for the demolition and forthcoming expansion of Centennial Park.
  • Assisted in development and enactment of ordinance and worked with prospective buyers to sell City’s available properties in Restlawn – 2 of the 4 units were sold increasing affordable home ownership.
  • Assisted in the development and enactment of legislation to formalize an economic development liquor license and license transfer process in the City.
  • Developed and managed more than a dozen prospects including businesses and local developers considering investment in the City.   Currently working on three active development prospects that could lead to investment of more than $10,000,000 in the City in the next 12 to 24 months.

I have hope that our residents and business community members will feel safer, and that health and mental wellness will improve. I believe that we will be able to gather again, hopefully by summer.

2020 was a year of challenge, controversy, resiliency, and incredible acts of kindness throughout Easton. 2021 will be a time for recovery and rebuilding.  

Our Police Department has done an outstanding job keeping our residents and City safe and
always with bravery, compassion and professionalism.  Our Fire Department has worked tirelessly and courageously on the front lines providing delivery of Emergency Medical Service and fire safety services to our residents and businesses as the corona virus spread in our households and community.   And all of our public employees have been remarkable in serving our community.

Let me conclude by saying that I am honored to serve as the Mayor of Easton during these unprecedented times and am looking forward to our continued recovery and growth. While at times during the past year our challenges seemed insurmountable, we worked collaboratively to meet this pandemic together, to plan for the challenges we faced, and to creatively and passionately develop a pathway for a bright future.

In the coming year, we will continue to focus on the important issues that strengthen our
community and make Easton an inviting, affordable and desirable place to live, work and raise
a family.

That means strong fiscal management, safe neighborhoods, job opportunities, recreational activities and facilities, energy efficiency, sustainability, smart growth, innovation, continued investments in City infrastructure, fostering culture diversity, support and respect for one another.

Our goal of restoring Eason back to its pre-urban renewal days is meeting its goal. Our population is increasing; our assessed value is increasing; crime is decreasing; taxes and fees are level; and almost all of the urban renewal parcels are now finally developed again to their fullest.

My fellow Eastonians, as the coronavirus reminded us in 2020, tomorrow is always a mystery, Whatever the challenge, whatever the test, we will not hide, we will not shrink, we will not fail. And, even more, we will not grow weary in doing good.

My lobbying efforts have now shifted from getting direct aid to cities, towns, villages and tribal organizations to getting Easton’s fair share of the American Recovery Plan approved by Congress so that when this pandemic is over, we will not only survive --- we will thrive.

Finally, a thank you to my family --- especially my wife Pam who endured my year of more than normal stress; my children, 8 grandchildren, my heavenly mom who passed 14 years ago yesterday, my dad, sister, brothers, in-laws, nieces and nephews!   I appreciate their endless support made more difficult during this pandemic. 

Eastonians ---- the state of our city is healthy… just not wealthy.

Thank you and God Bless you all.