The unprecedented year that was 2020 was a central theme throughout Lebanon Mayor Sherry Capello’s State of the City Address, the 11th of her administration, presented over Zoom on Wednesday, April 7, to Community of Lebanon Association members and their guests.

“As I sit here in front of my computer screen today, our lives are much different than they were just a year ago,” the city’s chief executive said. “The year 2020 was an anomaly and really should not be used for comparison purposes.”

The event featured a “virtual luncheon” that allowed attendees to dine at their screens from box lunches provided by three city restaurants.

Over the course of an hour, the mayor spoke frankly about a number of topics that are central to the city’s health in 2021 and beyond, and backed up her remarks with a series of graphs and charts.

City finances are in good shape

“My administration has addressed the huge deficits that the city had been experiencing before I took office in 2010,” she said. This was accomplished by eliminating “the ongoing general fund deficit,” and by gaining spending flexibility by “establishing a capital reserve fund.”

The mayor also said the city “got caught up with past-due audits, addressed their findings, and [has] had clean audits ever since.”

“Because of these changes,” she said, “we restored a few positions, replaced 14 public works vehicles, replaced 12 fire apparatus, including a ladder truck and a fire engine, and we turned over 15 police vehicles, the majority patrol.”

And, the mayor pointed out, the city has “stopped utilizing liquid fuel tax funds to supplement the cost of salaries and public works, and put that money into streets and storm water maintenance.”

Crime down, overdoses up, police staying current

The mayor reported that “in Lebanon, serious crime has decreased by 54% from 20 years ago.” Serious crime consists of two categories: crimes against persons, which include homicide, rape, robbery, and assault, and crimes against property, such as burglary, theft, and arson.

According to Capello, “looking at the two categories together, total serious crime in the city was down 20% from 2019.”

There were two homicides in 2020, both of which were solved, the mayor said. 54% of 2020 assaults in the city were domestic violence related. “Although this represents a slight decrease in the number of domestic violence assaults,” the mayor said, “it was an overall percentage increase. We believe the pandemic may have influenced the slight percentage increase.”

“Part two” crimes in the city decreased by 23% in the city, compared to 2019. They include forgery, embezzlement, vandalism, criminal mischief, sex offenses, DUI, drug offenses, and disorderly conduct.

The news wasn’t all good. “There were 39 drug-related overdose deaths in 2020 versus 28 in 2019,” Mayor Capello said. “64% of those deaths involved fentanyl.”

Read More: Progress made against opioids in Lebanon County, but no victory laps yet

She added that 2020 overdose deaths were the highest ever in Lebanon County. “We believe that the pandemic contributed to a higher number of overdoses.”

COVID changed the way Police Chief Todd Breiner and his officers interacted with the public and each other. “When possible, residents were asked to step outside,” the mayor said. “Many restrictions and mandates were put in place for everyone’s safety, but those safety protocols did not make policing easy.”

“The department felt the impact of the pandemic as well. Finances were re-directed to purchasing personal protective equipment and [the police department] put on hold some major purchases.

“Revenue was interrupted as we limited our proactive enforcement to violation driven enforcement, to limit contact with people unknowingly carrying COVID,” the mayor said. The revenue drop also resulted from the city’s suspension of parking meter and street sweeping violation enforcement “due to the number of residents staying at home.”

The mayor said that the city has 41 police officers, which is “far less than what is standard” for a city of slightly over 25,000. While that’s not satisfactory, the mayor noted that “it basically comes down to what a municipality can afford.”

There were no complaints filed against city police officers in 2020. Three had been filed in 2019, and one in 2018.

The city expects to receive a grant this year to purchase body cameras for officers.

Training and continuing education for the police force didn’t stop in 2020, however. The mayor reported that the June 4 Municipal Building protest of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to a November Zoom panel discussion with 61 citizens to talk about police operations in the city.

The city also provides its own police training, in addition to that required by state and federal authorities. “Our additional training includes use of force, use of the Taser, de-escalation, and scenario training, based on changes in the law,” the mayor said.

The mayor said she expects that 2020 census results will show that the city’s population is about 50% Hispanic.

Referring to the changing ethnic makeup of Lebanon, the mayor said that “some of our officers had received sensitivity training,” and that, “last year we mandated it for all of our employees, annually.” The mayor and Chief Breiner also attended a local anti-racism workshop given by community organizations after the Floyd protests.

“Also,” according to Capello, “many of our officers had training in mental health first aid. However, we made that mandatory and, as of the first week in February of this year, all patrol officers and supervisors, with the exception of one officer due to a COVID illness, have received this training through a partnership with WellSpan and Philhaven.”

The police department is also “exploring a co-responder program wherein a crisis intervention employee would respond on calls with a police officer. Capello added, however, that affordability and liability issues need to be worked out.

Mayor blunt about condition of local streets

The mayor was blunt about the condition of city streets and what can be done. “Although Pennsylvania has the second highest gas tax at 59 cents a gallon, not enough funding is passed down to the local level to adequately maintain the local streets.”

Due to projected revenue losses from COVID,” she continued, “the city did not place out on bid any resurfacing projects in 2020. However, the city has invested more than $3,800,000 in resurfacing projects over the past decade.”

The mayor noted that city spending on street resurfacing has varied over the last decade, usually because of one time large commitments, such as the 9th and 10th Street bridges over the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks.

The resurfacing of Routes 422 and 72, both state highways, is planned to get underway this year and extend through 2024.

The long-awaited completion of the Walnut Street repaving project, which was slowed by underground utility updates, is expected start in June, and should be completed by August. That project is primarily funded by the Commonwealth.

Other highlights of the mayor’s address

  • The mayor reported that total 2020 public safety calls were down 10%, which may be a silver lining to the COVID pandemic. Fire calls dropped from 117 to 98, storm-related calls went from 44 to 4, and “automatic aide given” from 83 to 41.
  • Despite the overall decrease in fire calls, there were more kitchen fires. Capello attributes this to more people staying home and cooking, due to COVID.
  • 2020 building inspections decreased due to COVID. “We went from performing 556 inspections in 2019 to only 125 in 2020.”
  • The city has hired a paid assistant fire chief, a position that was eliminated in 2009.
  • The number of food safety inspections decreased “because quite a number of eating places closed, either temporarily or permanently, and there were fewer special events and complaints.”
  • The mayor said the momentum in property inspections that was generated in 2019 was halted in 2020 when the COVID outbreak hit. In response, city inspectors switched their focus to property exteriors and away from interior inspections.
  • The city’s unemployment rate rose from a little over 5% to about 17.5% between January and July of 2020. It had dropped to 10% by the end of the year.
  • The city continues to look after what is thought to be the last remaining American Elm tree in Lebanon, located on the grass island in the 500 block of Chestnut Street. Despite the Dutch Elm disease, the tree, which Mayor Capello believes was standing when George Washington visited the town, remains healthy.
  • The city continues to work with the Lebanon County Redevelopment Authority to administer a first time home buyers’ program for low income residents.

Read More: Preserving what might be Lebanon’s last remaining American elm tree, with roots in history dating to Washington

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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,...