Bethlehem Township Commissioners on Monday night rejected the settlement offer from Allentown to drop a lawsuit that is holding up construction of a hockey arena at the corner of Seventh and Hamilton streets downtown.
Instead, commissioners unanimously adopted a resolution that says the township will not consider dropping the lawsuit unless three things happen:
- The state law that enabled the Neighborhood Improvement Zone to come into existence in Allentown be amended to conform to Pennsylvania’s Constitution.
- Earned income tax and other local revenue sources to be siphoned from surrounding municipalities to help fund the Neighborhood Improvement Zone projects be removed from the funding stream.
- The size of the Neighborhood Improvement Zone be reduced from 130 acres to something closer to 30 acres – enough to allow the arena to be built and some of the surrounding neighborhood to benefit from revitalization projects.
Bethlehem Township is one of 11 townships to file and join in a lawsuit to stop revenue collection through the NIZ, which will take earned income taxes normally sent back to the home municipality of employees who work in the designated zone, and funnel it into the arena and other qualifying development projects in the zone. Salisbury Township declined to join the lawsuit.
The actual financial impact on affected municipalities is unclear, but they allege that the law that created the zone is unconstitutional. It can benefit Allentown and no other municipality in Pennsylvania.
A few township residents who identified themselves as union carpenters tried to convince the commissioners to drop the lawsuit so that more of them can have full-time jobs.
“We need these good paying jobs and we need jobs with health care and retirement,” said Bruce Allen, who added that he has been without full-time work for three years.
“I pay taxes. I help you guys out. I need you to help me out.”
Francis Loughney, an organizer with the carpenters union local, said the arena project would provide 1,700 construction jobs to local tradesmen.
“This lawsuit is a job killer,” Loughney said.
But township resident Barry Roth countered that revenue lost to Allentown’s NIZ could mean less money and perhaps fewer jobs for township Public Works employees.
“To give money to Allentown is out of control,” Roth said. “If Allentown wants to build it, let Allentown and Lehigh County pay for it. I’m tired of hearing about Allentown’s woes.
“Keep the lawsuit going.”
Several of the commissioners said the intent of the lawsuit is not to kill arena construction. In fact more than one said they favor it, but object to the way the project is being funded and to the size of the designated zone, which not only covers the downtown area that surrounds the planned arena, but a 90-acre swath of Lehigh River waterfront that is not contiguous to the project.
“This gives Allentown the capability to take tax money for 30 years,” said Commissioner Michael Hudak. “When we ask how much money we’re talking about they say, ‘Just rubber-stamp it and we’ll tell you later.’”
Hudak characterized the addition of the waterfront land to the NIZ as getting “greedy,” and suggested that 30 acres was a more suitable footprint for the special taxing district than 130 acres.
“Nobody on this board wants to see the arena fail,” Hudak said