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Council mulls housing, economic revitalization, other matters

City Council is laying out a clear set of goals it believes can help various working committees save taxpayers money, taking the proverbial bull by the horns to steer city programs in a direction where they are more efficient.

Council members dissected where the city committees on finance, economic revitalization, housing needs, public safety, public works and historic preservation were and where each committee chair and member wanted to see upcoming discussions go.

“We can begin cost-saving that might mean radical reenvisioning of departments in the city,” said

Councilwoman Liz Miele, finance committee chairwoman, during an hour-long work session Wednesday.

She said the finance committee should continue to see where the city can “bring in money” and “review financial statements, including quarterly financial reports” from the administration.

She noted the committee’s role should continue to be to improve the financial impact on the city and its taxpayers.

“We’ve asked the mayor to start working on the budget earlier,” Councilwoman Bonnie Katz, a member of the committee, said.

It was a tense budget negotiation as the proposed budget first presented by Mayor Derek Slaughter in 2020 carried a tax hike of 2.5 mills and ended with a 0.5 mill tax increase approved by council and signed by Slaughter.

Pre-emptive financial work by committee also was encouraged by Margaret “Peggy” Woodring, city controller, who said she was glad the committee was getting started earlier on a budget focus and economic strategy.

“It was sort of cutthroat last time,” Woodring said.

“We don’t want to make a habit of it,” Council President Randall J. Allison said.

Slaughter did not appear in the council session on Zoom. He has publicly said he welcomed budget-related discussions throughout the year.

Allison noted how working committees’ issues sometimes “intersect.”

For example, stabilizing existing housing stock is one area that may overlap between economic revitalization and housing needs committees.

Councilman Dave Banks, chairman of the economic revitalization committee, said he would like to see a strategic plan of incentives and a marketing plan. He said stakeholders such as those representing nonprofits, business leaders and institutional representatives along with the general public can shape the committee goals.

Katz said she felt that it was important to know who the mayor would be choosing as lobbyists to “go after grants” and to keep up with a flurry of restaurants choosing to locate in neighboring Loyalsock Township.

Katz said that the Park Avenue Neighborhood Redevelopment was important to continue to help the city financially.

Allison said the next step on the Park Avenue project is to form a steering committee with the goal of stabilizing the existing housing stock, an issue that could also be discussed by the housing needs committee.

“We’ve got a lot older housing stock in rough shape more and more people want homes that are move-in ready,” Miele said.

Many senior citizens also prefer townhouses where they won’t have to do maintenance or cut lawns, she said.

The housing needs committee likely will be working with real estate agents, contractors and consultants to review the city’s existing housing and rental stock, Miele said.

Additionally, the city has a “large low-income population,” many of whom could be facing eviction with “eviction protection” expiring, Miele said.

Few new issues are before public safety or public works committees.

Public safety committee members have heard few updates from police, fire and codes officials. Police seek body cameras and radios. Firefighters need modernized apparatus including an engine and ladder truck. Funding options are under review. Public works committee members will focus on the levee and Grafius Run flood mitigation, Katz, who chairs both committees, said.

Historic preservation has not met steadily during the pandemic. Miele noted how it would be nice to market the city’s vast historic assets with walking and virtual tours.

Issues for the historic preservation committee such as incentivizing maintenance and restoration by reviewing design standards in the Central Business District to give the regulations “more teeth” are possible goals, Miele said.

It is good “to see where we are at, the general direction we are going,” Allison said.

No voting actions were taken at the meeting.

“The working structure helps us stay on point, be more efficient and more organized,” he said.

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