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Reading council unwilling to move ahead with plan for downtown improvement district | Berks Regional News

READING, Pa. – Reading City Council members said they are not prepared to approve a proposed plan for the reauthorization of the Downtown Improvement District.

Instead, council will be asking the city solicitor to make a determination if changes to the plan will require restarting the entire reauthorization process.

The current agreement with DID ends Dec. 31 and a new reauthorization would renew the organization for another five years.

But after city council votes to approve an agreement, 45% of property owners who pay a DID assessment also have to approve the reauthorization.

Progressive Urban Management Associates, Denver, Colorado, was hired to develop a strategic plan for DID’s reauthorization process.

Part of the plan proposes gradual rate increases starting in 2022, for a total rate increase of 18% at the end of the five-year period.

A plan to add a frontage assessment for properties on Penn Street from 2nd to 8th Streets, was also recommended by PUMA.

Last month, the president of PUMA told council DID is under-funded because the current rate of 4.754 mills has not changed in the past 20 years.

A public hearing of the plan has been scheduled for Oct. 20. But if the city solicitor finds that council’s changes will require a new plan, one would have to be re-drafted and then sent to all of the property owners within the DID district before another public hearing could be scheduled.

Because the public hearing also requires a 45-day objection period, a new plan would cause the city to miss the Dec. 31 deadline.

The city will also ask its solicitor if an ordinance can be passed to extend the reauthorization date.

Council president Jeffrey Waltman said he could not agree to the proposed multi-year assessment increases.

“Our constituents need to see clean and safe results before we commit to a broader based role (for the DID),” Waltman said. “PUMA supplied great guidance, but we are not ready to commit to assessments. The city is at a cross road and this (plan) is premature at this time.”

The plan also recommends a different management model to allow the DID to expand its scope of services.

Waltman said he wants a revised agreement to focus on a clean and safe downtown.

“The DID should get back to the basics of functionality,” he said.

Councilwoman Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz, who is also the owner of Mi Casa Su Casa, a business in the DID district, said property owners in the DID are currently very unhappy.

“I would like to see DID speak to the 408 property owners that pay the assessment fee,” Cepeda-Freytiz said. “I want to see that happen before we make a decision.”

Councilwoman Lucine Sihelnik expressed disappointment at council’s reaction to the PUMA plan.

“We are wasting an opportunity,” Sihelnik said. “These are national-level experts who work with DIDs from all across the United States of America. I think that there is room to work within the parameters with what was presented, which would allow us to stay on schedule by just making small changes.”

Sihelnik said the PUMA recommendation is an important plan for the future of Reading.

“This falls right in line with our downtown plus strategic plan and I would like people to consider that before we rewrite a plan,” she said.

Councilwoman Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz agreed with Waltman saying the recommended long-term plan for DID is not something city council is ready to embrace.

“We have to have an emphasis on how to address a safety plan,” Goodman-Hinnershitz said. “We have to deal with what’s most critical first.”

Mayor Eddie Moran said he did not disagree with the consensus of the council.

“I do talk with business owners and many have shared their concerns,” Moran said. “We must do due diligence for the businesses that have a vested interest.”

Waltman said council will resume the discussions after council gets a legal opinion from the city solicitor.

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