City of Lebanon Mayor Sherry Capello practiced a little social distancing on Wednesday when she gave her annual State of the City address via video from an empty Municipal Building room.
What was to be a luncheon presentation at the Hebron Banquet Hall was cancelled earlier in the week due to public gathering restrictions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
The third-term mayor noted that 2020 is her 10th year in office, and used the occasion to start with her assessment of where the city stood when she was sworn in as its 31st chief executive on Jan. 4, 2010.
She succeeded Interim Mayor Trish Ward. Ward became mayor when then Mayor Robert Anspach resigned in October 2008, in the midst of his second term, to take a position with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
Chief among the challenges Capello said the city faced when she took office were an $850,000 general fund deficit, no rainy day fund, overdue audits, use of liquid fuels tax money to fund salaries instead of street maintenance, elimination of 26 full and part-time employees, and “the loss of approximately $1,000,000 a year in cost sharing and subsidization when the [City of Lebanon water and sewer] Authority split from the city.”
The city, she noted, was not paying bills on time and had qualified for Act 47 designation as a financially distressed community.
Since then, the mayor said, “we have restored fiscal stability in our city government,” although some belt tightening and a tax increase was necessary. A chart projected behind her showed that the city has had surpluses in eight of her 10 years in office.
The mayor also touted a $1,400,000 capital reserve fund at the end of 2019, clean audits, new fire, police, and city vehicles, the re-hiring of some employees, and the halt of diverting liquid fuels tax money to pay salaries. And the city has been paying its bills on time.
Capello cited dropping crime rates during her tenure. “Police departments measure their crime rates based on the number of ‘Part 1’ crimes,” she said. Part 1 crimes are divided into crimes against persons – homicide, rape, robbery, and assault, and crimes against property – burglary, theft, and arson.
Capello said that “in 2019, crimes against persons decreased by 12% to only 183 incidents.” On the other hand, she acknowledged that “although crimes against property did increase by 12% to 529 counts, it still represented the second lowest property crime count since we started tracking counts more than 20 years ago.”
The multi-year trend appears to be downward, according to the mayor. “2018 represented the lowest overall count in Part 1 crimes since we formally started reporting crime numbers more than 20 years [ago]” and “2019 was the second lowest count” in the last 20 years.
Capello also said that the Lebanon Police Department’s 2019 clearance rate, a measure of the ability to solve crimes, “exceeded the national average in all Part 1 crime statistics.”
“Looking back to when we first started to track, serious crime has decreased by 42%,” the mayor reported. Perception is not necessarily reality, according to Capello. “Serious crime remains low. Statistics support that Lebanon City is safer than 10, even 20 years ago.”
There was plenty of unhappiness last summer over the condition of city streets, especially a major utility upgrade project on Walnut Street. Utility work on Walnut Street, Cumberland Street, and 9th and 10th Streets (Routes 422 East, 422 West, 72 North, and 72 South) is expected to extend through this coming summer, possibly beyond.
Those four projects are funded by utility companies, and the state will pay for roadway resurfacing.
But, Capello said the city lacks adequate funding for other street maintenance.
The mayor said that “the city has invested more than $3,800,000 in resurfacing projects over the last decade.” However, of the roughly $773,000 in liquid fuel tax money the city will receive from the state, she estimated that about 70% will be spent to power streetlights and traffic signals and for winter snow and ice removal, leaving just 30%, about $232,000 for street resurfacing in 2020.
Other city operations
The mayor’s 44 minute address was thorough and detailed. Some highlights of other government operations she reported on included:
- Opioid epidemic: 36 Narcan doses were administered in 2019, compared to 12 in 2018. The Mayor said that 28 individuals in the county overdosed in 2019, compared to 27 in in 2018. In 2019, 22 involved heroin and/or fentanyl compared to 23 in 2018.
- Stoever’s Dam improvements: Although the mayor didn’t say by who, the city is required to increase the height of the dam breast. Before it is drained, three areas of the lake will be dredged in 2020. Capello did not give a completion date for the project.
- Recycling: In 2018, China, the main buyer of America’s recyclables, stopped accepting many items due to contamination concerns. As a result, the city has decreased the types of materials it accepts at its recycling center, and has noticed a drop in recycling.
- Zoning permits up, building permits down, but more big projects: Fewer building permits were issued in 2019, but for “larger projects” than in 2018. The estimated total value of city construction projects in 2019 was “almost $21,000,000, compared to $7,000,000 in 2018.”
- Final draft of updated zoning ordinance completed: The Planning Commission made a recommendation for approval of a new zoning ordinance in January of this year, and City Council will hold a public hearing before voting on whether or not to approve it.
- Firefighters: 21 career and about 40 volunteer firefighters responded to almost 1300 calls in 2019, slightly fewer than in 2018. Responses to false alarms and hazardous conditions were the top two call out categories.
- Housing code and property maintenance: Emphasis was put on structurally deficient properties, trash, and weeds in 2019. 3,300 new cases were opened. There has been 172% increase in property maintenance complaints since 2010. “When buildings become dilapidated,” the mayor said, “an entire neighborhood is brought down.”
- City pension obligations: Combined city pension funds are more than 90% funded.
Watch the full address below.
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