Lebanon City Council heard good news from its outside auditors, dealt with duplicate Walnut Streets, and discussed how to handle blighted properties at Monday night’s monthly meeting.

Council had earlier gotten a preview of the police department’s new body cameras at last Thursday’s planning session.

City finances pass outside audit

Council reviewed Wilmington, Delaware-based accounting firm Barbacane Thornton & Company‘s audit of the city’s financial statements for the year ending Dec. 31, 2020.

Barbacane reported that the city’s revenues dropped from $13.5 million in 2019 to $13.2 million. But, expenses also dipped from just under $13 million in 2019 to $12.5 million.

The city’s year-end fund balances increased from $11.8 million in 2019 to almost $13 million in 2020.

At Thursday night’s pre-council planning session, Barbacane representative Tim Sawyer noted that, while the city was in good financial shape at the end of 2020, his firm was issuing a “qualified” audit report because, through no fault of the city, the Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement System has not completed its evaluation of the city’s pension plan.

A qualified report is not a finding of irregularities or deficiencies, Sawyer said.

One of two Walnut Streets will be renamed

Almost everyone who drives through the city knows that its busiest eastbound street, U.S. Route 422 East, has been known for over a century as Walnut Street. But according to Mayor Sherry Capello, the city has a second Walnut Street on its northern edge.

The “other Walnut Street” runs east-west from Edison Street to North 10th Street, has no buildings, and is mostly unpaved and unopened. Nevertheless, it shows up on Google Maps and Open Street Maps.

The “other Walnut Street,” on the city’s northern edge. Red line shows unpaved and unopened portions (openstreetmap.org)

Lebanon County’s Department of Emergency Services has asked the city to rename the unopened and unused Walnut Street to avoid confusion.

Capello suggested Monday night that it be renamed Apricot Street, consistent with nearby streets named for fruit trees, and council unanimously passed an ordinance, on first reading, making the change. If it passes again next month, the name change will become official.

Blighted properties frustrate officials

After council completed all business on its official agenda, Capello and city attorney Donna Long Brightbill expressed their frustration at the city’s efforts to have landlords fix blighted properties.

Capello noted that property maintenance complaints — structural defects, trash, high grass and weeds — have increased by 180% since she became mayor, and that the city has responded by hiring more inspectors to deal with the surge.

According to the mayor, when the city files a notice of violation, it routinely gives the owner sufficient time to fix the problem, only filing a citation with a magisterial district judge if the landlord fails to do so.

Long Brightbill and Capello told council that district judges often dismiss some citations, impose low fines, or postpone hearings to give landlords more time, even though city inspectors have spent dozens of hours assembling and presenting evidence of the violations.

Long Brightbill said this encourages landlords to ask for costly and time-consuming court hearings, even though the evidence against them is clear, knowing that “they can play ‘Let’s Make a Deal’.” Capello added that it’s also discouraging to inspectors.

Since the maximum fine allowed by state law is $300, Capello said landlords often find it cheaper to pay repeated fines instead of fixing their properties.

Council discussed possible ways to add more weapons to the city’s enforcement arsenal, but took no formal action.

Council gets police body cam demo

At last Thursday’s pre-council meeting, Police Chief Todd Breiner demonstrated the department’s new body-worn cameras, and told council that his goal is to have “every working officer” wearing one by Dec. 1.

The body cams are made by Getac Video Solutions, the same company that makes the dash cams and in-car computers used in the city’s police cars. Breiner explained that using the same company for all three systems saves money and minimizes possible hardware and software conflicts.

The body cams were delivered in August, and officer training began in September.

The total cost was $62,000, funded by a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD). The city’s application was submitted in October 2020 and was approved in February 2021.

The city was one of 17 successful applicants out of 72 municipalities statewide.

The cameras will be activated automatically whenever a police car’s overhead lights are turned on, and can also be activated manually by the officer.

They have an expected life of five years and come with a three-year warranty.

Audio and video will be stored on the cameras’ internal drives, then automatically uploaded to cloud storage when officers return to the station and plug them into charging stations.

After the first year, the city will spend about $30,000 annually to store the audio and video in the cloud.

Breiner added that the city has received approval of its draft body cam use policy from PCCD’s legal department.

Police Chief Todd Breiner wearing new Getac body-worn camera. (LebTown)

Other business before City Council

  • With the city’s fiscal year 75% complete, Capello reported that revenues are at 98% of budget projections, and expenditures at 66%.
  • The mayor announced that she has reappointed Damian Foster to the Police and Fire Civil Service Commissions for a four-year term, effective Oct. 1. It will be Foster’s second full term.

Next council meetings

City Council’s next pre-council meeting will be on Thursday, Nov.18, at 4:45 p.m. The next regular monthly council meeting will be on Monday, Nov. 22, at 6:30 p.m.

Both meetings are open to the public and will be held in council chambers, Room 210, Municipal Building, 400 S. 8th St., Lebanon.

Next month, the city will conduct three additional public meetings, all in Room 210:

  • Wednesday, Nov. 3, at 6:30 p.m., budget hearing
  • Monday, Nov. 8, at 4:45 p.m., budget hearing
  • Wednesday, Nov. 10, at 4:45 p.m., special council meeting to introduce a budget ordinance for the upcoming fiscal year.
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Chris Coyle writes primarily on government, the courts, and business. He retired as an attorney at the end of 2018, after concentrating for nearly four decades on civil and criminal litigation and trials. A career highlight was successfully defending a retired Pennsylvania state trooper who was accused,...