Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mike Fleck Proposes to Raise Taxes and Expand Government for the NID, and Dennis Lieb Saves the Day

Mike Fleck, West Ward rep on City Council, left, describes "Option 3" (raising taxes) in addition to dipping into general fund to create a new Community Development Fund to support programs like the Easton Ambassadors and struggling local nonprofits. Dennis Lieb, right (the guy Fleck beat in the election), proposes an option that funds the Ambassadors without raising taxes at all.

Posted by: Noël Jones

Next time I endorse a candidate, please listen to me. In our first ever election for West Ward rep on City Council a few years ago, Mike Fleck was elected over Dennis Lieb, who I endorsed for the breadth of his knowledge with regard to urban planning, parking design, mass transit, urban ecology and new urbanism in general. He is, in my opinion, one of the most wasted human resources in our community. He is one of those rare citizens that is not only truly passionate about this city, but also has the knowledge base to back that passion up with  creative (and well-researched) solutions when Easton needs them most. And he manages to come up with these solutions without wasting taxpayer money. The smartest thing that Mayor Panto has done since taking office, in my opinion, was to get over Lieb's "watchdog" reputation and appoint him to the Planning Commission. The smartest thing, in my opinion that Esther Guzman has done since taking her position as Manager of the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership (and she's done a lot of smart things) was lobbying to hire Lieb. So his brain is not nearly as wasted as it was a couple of years ago, but Tuesday night, at the special meeting called at City Hall to discuss the proposed Neighborhood Improvement District--after full hour of officials and residents bandying about different ideas and concerns about the proposal, Dennis Lieb made it obvious to everyone that this city would be way better off, if we had elected him to council. 

The upshot of it was, that Mike Fleck and Ken Brown (but Fleck was clearly leading the charge) decided to propose a tax hike on business
owners downtown (a BID [Business Improvement District], instead of a NID [Neighborhood Improvement District]), but to create an entirely new fund, called the Community Development Fund, which would seek to get some funding from regional banks in our area, a new PILOT [Payment In Lieu Of Taxes] program, and increased parking fees, but would also siphon casino tax money, amusement tax money and CDBG funding out of the general fund to create the new fund, which would be administered by the GEDP, rather than the city.

Vice-Mayor Elinor Warner objected to a) taking money out of the general fund when the city is struggling to cover road repair and gas and water line work while balancing its budget as it is, and b) setting up another layer of administration to the process. Mayor Panto echoed these concerns, and both Warner and Panto were in favor of approaching banks and instituting a PILOT program, but saw no reason to take money out of the general fund. At that point Fleck said, "I'm also in favor of Option 3, but no one wants to talk about Option 3--Option 3 is raising taxes, but nobody wants to talk about that."

Anthony Marracinni, owner of Connexions Gallery downtown, voiced concerns over the strain that both a tax hike and raising parking fees would have on his business. Downtown resident Bill Marley pointed out that no one on council lives in downtown, and expressed his concerns about the potential for a tax hike on residents to drive good residents out of downtown altogether. Councilman Roger Ruggles responded that his church is downtown, and that they would gladly donate to the NID. Downtown property owner, Letty Eisenhauer, spoke up to suggest that perhaps Easton could cut costs by instituting a welfare-to-work program the way New York City did, and save money that way. Councilman Jeff Warren made icky faces at that idea.  Fleck kept insisting that "the city needs to pay their share" (and since the City has no money of its own, but rather our money, that means that he thinks residents should pay for it--it meaning the new fund he's proposing, which would not just be to pay for the Ambassadors, but funding several nonprofits in town, who are struggling after federal and state funding cuts).

Roger Ruggles brought up the fact that a parking study had already revealed that raising parking revenue could produce $300k, and that $300k was the cost of the Ambassadors. Fleck didn't like that, because he didn't just want to cover the Ambassadors, but the other nonprofits as well, to the tune of $700K. A long discussion ensued between the council and the public about the various ways that parking could be handled. I kept looking at Dennis Lieb's back, wondering if he was going to say anything. Lieb's been telling me for at least a year now about a thing called a Neighborhood Parking District, and how the parking problem can be solved while  raising revenue that goes directly back into the neighborhoods where the meters are--in other words--the revenue goes to the blocks it affects, and the residents can decide to spend it however they want to improve their area--whether that be contributing to a program like the Ambassadors, or anything else they have in mind.

After everyone else was done talking, Lieb finally spoke up, and said, "This meeting is already long, so I'm going to try to keep this short. I've never heard the issue of parking come up at a council meeting, so I've never bothered to speak up on the issue, but I'm pretty sure that I know more about parking than just about anybody in this room, and I just want to say that there is an answer to all this that has been successful all over the country." At that point, he lifted a hard-backed tome heavy enough to kill a small animal, and said, "This is The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup. It's 605 pages and anyone who would like to borrow it is welcome to. It basically it explains that a successful parking plan is one that always maintains 15% of its parking spots open. This ensures that customers of businesses in any particular area will always be able to find a spot. Parking is a product, that earns revenue, and it should be treated like a business. If you give the product away for free, it doesn't work. People just park in the spots all day when it's free, and residents and customers can't find parking." Lieb went on to explain the concept of the Neighborhood Parking District, "The meters should be charging at all times. People initially scream at that idea until they realize that it keeps spots open for their customers,  and that the meters are making them money, and that all of that revenue is going directly back into their neighborhood parking district, to fix up their blocks in any way they want to--whether it be facade grants, sidewalk steaming and repair, planting trees, signage, etc.--whatever they decide as a neighborhood district to do. If the residents have parking passes so they don't have to pay the meters, and they're in a neighborhood parking district, they're less likely to get upset if there isn't a spot open right in front of their house--because they know at least that that meter is making them money for their block. And if they wanted to use it to pay for something like the Ambassadors, they could."

Everyone on council, except for Mike Fleck, looked impressed and nodded their heads. Mayor Panto's expression seemed to say, I could get a lot done with this guy on board...

Outside on the street after the meeting, I asked Lieb if he had really read the whole 605 pages, and he said, "Actually, I read it twice. You can borrow it if you want to."

Being a very slow reader myself, 605 pages on something as dry as parking sounds like a death sentence. I don't want to read 605 pages. I want people like Dennis Lieb to read 605 pages and implement what he's learned when he's been hired by the city to actually be able to do that.

And one last thing for those who have their doubts about the value of public meetings in forming legislation, policy and good planning. The few residents who attended that meeting and spoke up, offered the best suggestions in the house, and that is a big part of what public meetings are for--not just objecting when people feel the city is going astray, but contributing creative problem-solving ideas and vision to a process that would otherwise just have tax hikes on the table. 

The public is a human resource. Let's use it. And please, for the love of parking, can someone please start a bidding war over Dennis Lieb's brain?


Dennis R. Lieb said...

I-Yi-Yi! I am not running for any office of any kind, now or in the future.

Seriously though, I encourage any and all questions on the merits of a parking benefit district and hope people attend the mayor's remaining working groups to flech out this concept to a point where we can be comfortable implementing it. (I'll bring the book).


noel jones said...

i know, but you can't stop us from dreaming!

tachitup said...

Dennis - Thanks for doing what you do. You do benefit us where you are; but, please know that the Easton Republicans and the (non-Fleck) Democrats would support your run for council.

Ken Brown said...

Although I enjoy your blog in general, sometimes it seems to become one sided.My philosophy has always been to work together for the benefit of the community. First of all, I believe that I am the only council person that walked the proposed NID area, asking business and property owners their thoughts about the impact this proposal would have on them,being that they are the ones affected.I learned that many residents disagreed and feel like they are being forced to participate in the NID.Others were for it. The ones in disagreement felt that not enough information had been shared with them. After the Mayor's first informational meeting,I felt compelled to get the ball rolling.I spoke to councilman Fleck, being that he is the liaison to Administration and I am the Finance Committee liaison. Councilman Fleck and I met on five occassions to brainstorm alternate revenue sources to avoid raising taxes at a time in which this city and its residents are hurting. During the first meeting,I proposed that we reach out to our local banks and stated that we had many branches within a two block radius.We also need to look at the Community Reinvestment Act.I have contacted some branches in our area and spoken to keypeople within the banking industry.As a community, we have to stay positive. As we stated before,the model we are proposing is so that it can be Reviewed and Reworked.The intention is to have something to work with and improve with the idea of community residents as a whole. Councilman Fleck and I collaborated,one did not take charge over the other.In my case, I listen closely and take time to think about different outcomes before making decisions.This is why I visited the Downtown businesses.I generally maintain a calm demeanor.Most of my work is behind the scene. Nonetheless,I am very much working toward a solution while keeping all of the residents in mind,not just a few. I am sorry to see that you forgot to mention that I brought up the oversight regarding the courthouse parking meters,but this is what tends to happen with media at times.Either things are not always reported accurately, fully or the way they were intended to come across.I understand this because journalists,just like people in city government,are human beings,too.As I have always felt and said " One City, One Community".

noel jones said...

Councilman Brown, thanks for posting--when I said that Mike Fleck seemed to be leading the effort to propose the new fund, I simply meant that he was doing most of the talking and very insistently at that. I appreciate your walking the neighborhood and talking directly to residents, as I know that many are upset about the proposed NID, but at the same time don't want to lose the Ambassadors.

As for a solution, I feel that Dennis Lieb's proposal made the most sense, because it gives residents and business owners the ability to preserve these kinds of programs, while always having 15% parking available for residents and customers, with all meter revenue going directly into the blocks that the meters are on.

My main objections that I have to the plan that you and Mr. Fleck proposed, are the same as the Vice-Mayor's and the Mayor's--I don't think that we should be raising taxes on residents in a recession to take money out of the general fund to fund nonprofits. As I understood it, this meeting was supposed to be specifically about the NID already proposed, which was specifically to preserve the Ambassadors. To see local nonprofits lumped into the proposal was a surprise.

Also like the Vice-Mayor and Mayor, I was glad to hear the part of your proposal about approaching banks in our areas about the CRA, to try to get them to invest more in the community. I'm sorry that I didn't remember that you brought up the meter issue at the courthouse, and how they're not paying their full share up there--I remember hearing a few people talking about that, and couldn't remember who brought it up first. It's a good point, and falls in line with Dennis Lieb's point about metered parking as a revenue source.

So I think the only part where we are in disagreement is the idea of taxing residents to cover nonprofits, by taking it money out of the general fund.

But is what is needed is $300K for the Ambassadors and $400K for the nonprofits, maybe the parking solution would take care of the $300k (as per the parking study), and the city could pursue the banks and PILOT program (and raised courthouse meters) for the $400k for the nonprofits?

I also agree with Vice-Mayor Warner that there is no need to create another level of administration of the funds by involving the GEDP. The more streamlined, the better.

Thanks for your service, we just disagree on parts of this one. And thanks again for posting--it's always great when residents have the opportunity to interact with their elected officials in modern forums.

Buckaroo said...

Flocking Fleck strikes again. This is what happens when most of the qualified voters decide to not bother to vote! And how many "I's" can Mr. Brown fit into one post? The dismal economic situation affects both the city any it's taxpayers and these guys want to increase our burden?
It's easy to spend other people's money, but before you spend mine,kindly give me a chance to vote on it.

Ken Brown said...

Thank you for allowing us as elected officials to get in touch with the residents through your blog.Very much appreciated!

Tim Pickel said...

Good job Dennis. Forward thinking and educating oneself always trumps the same old tired rhetoric. I am glad to see you, someone working on behalf of the West Ward. We are in dire need of representation and creative solutions to the problems we face. Keep up the good work.

tunsie said...

I love U noel........tunsie

Anonymous said...

Very one-sided.

Darkest Hour said...

Anon 12:47 - and which is that kindly tell?

Dennis R. Lieb said...


Thanks as always and I hope to reach out to you and other WW long-timers soon to reinvigorate our code compliance fight.


I thought what you said at the first council meeting at Crayola was right on the mark: that the initiative to get the funding right for Main Street is best done one-on-one and face-to-face whenever possible. I support the BID but believe we have a public process facilitation problem in Easton - not just with this issue but many others as well.

Above and beyond what happens with Main Street's BID, we still need to get a grasp of how to fully engage citizens, the proper timing and venue for that engagement and the methods required to get the best use of their skills and experience.

I offer this not as a harsh criticism of the city or it's department heads but as an objective critique of what I see happening. We can do better.

For those who wish further information on PBDs, here are a few short articles that will help fill in the blanks...

Two, three minute videos on the SFPark program:

Short, general parking management article:

Short case study on Old City Pasadena's PBD:


Anonymous said...

I pass out every Sunday reading the NY Times Real Estate section where I learn that I am paying more in real estate taxes for my under 100 K home in Easton than a 300 K home in Brooklyn.

As far as the non profits go where is their proof of sustainability? They show none! They should be figuring out ways to increase their own earned income or they should be putting themselves out of business due to the success of their mission. Instead, they are a plague of locusts flocking to every table basically so they can pay the salaries and health benefits of their directors and CFOs to the end of time. Property owners are already carrying a burden for these non profits since non profits dont pay property taxes. Give me a break! If people want to give to charities that is their choice - it should never be laid on property owners as a tax. BAD IDEA.

Dennis R. Lieb said...

PS to anonymous posters:

When you make comments that something is one-sided you have to have some level of credibility - like actually attending the meeting so you can make a logical comparison between what was discussed and how it was reported. Also, there are times when there IS a clearly better way and being balanced for the sake of politeness serves no legitimate purpose. In this particular case, none of the other news sources chose to discuss in any meaningful way what my proposal was, dispite the focus of the meeting being about funding the BID and NOT about creating another level of government to handle citywide projects. Noel's account of the events balances what the local media outlets arbitrarily decide not to print.

Her post is certainly not 100% perfect in it's account of events but then what ever is? The bigger point is that I could count the regular citizens in that room on two hands and the rest were there in some official capacity or have some vested interest in retaining a job in the program.

That's all fine too, but when five or six regular citizens are all we can muster and I personally know most of them by name then it's unlikely anyone from anonymous land can really judge whether something is one-sided or not.


noel jones said...

i totally disagree. i am PERFECT.

Jeff Gilbert said...

Thank you Dennis for your wonderful work. Exciting Stuff


Jon Geeting said...

Hi Dennis, I'd like to talk to you about this idea via email for a Patch column. Please contact me at your earliest convenience.

- Jon