New mayors come into office as legislators tackle city woes
HARRISBURG - New mayors have been elected in four large cities under Act 47 status just as lawmakers are giving greater attention to urban fiscal issues.
Election Day brought victories to Democrat Bill Courtright in Scranton, Democrat Bill Peduto in Pittsburgh, Democrat Eric Papenfuse in Harrisburg and Republican Matt Pacifico in Altoona.
The mayors-elect came to office by various routes and campaigned on issues specific to their cities, but once in office they will face common problems with a shrinking tax base, greater demand for municipal services and the skyrocketing cost of unfunded pension obligations for municipal employees.
It could help matters that new elected spokesmen for cities will be on the scene while state lawmakers consider a wave of legislation to help municipalities address financial problems.
Packages of bills dealing with everything from strategies to pull municipalities out of the Act 47 program, protecting taxpayers from poor investment decisions that pile up municipal debt and addressing growing pension costs for municipal employes await legislative action.
This has been one of the most productive periods in recent memory for developing legislation with bipartisan support to deal with the chronic financial problems facing cities.
Out of this effort came the first comprehensive effort in a quarter-century to rewrite Act 47, which governs 21 municipalities across Pennsylvania that have been declared fiscally distressed.
Harrisburg and Altoona are newcomers to the Act 47 program, while Scranton has been in the program since 1992 and Pittsburgh since 2003.
"These mayors I hope are going to be a voice on these public policies that affect them," said Sen. John Blake, D-22, Archbald, who is a key sponsor of many of the municipal relief bills.
Lawmakers involved in this effort have an obligation to brief the incoming mayors, added Blake. He plans to seek a meeting on this with Courtright.
"I think we are going to see some renewed energy from the municipal folks," said Sen. John Eichelberger, R-30, Hollidaysburg, chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee.
He plans to hold a committee hearing soon on the Act 47 bills, which give those municipalities additional tax options on a temporary basis and set a five-year limit for being under Act 47 status.
The local government committee has already approved a package of bills to curb excessive municipal debt.
Two of those measures would restrict the use of financial transactions known as interest-rate swaps by local governments and school districts and limit the ability of a local government to guarantee debt of a municipal authority.
The committee approved some key changes to both bills, including dropping a complete ban on swaps in exchange for banning risky practices associated with swaps and exempting small borrowings under $250,000 from some of the debt guarantee bill provisions.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-9, Chester, took an active role in shaping those bills as they came out of committee. As a former mayor of Chester, he is familiar with municipal issues.
The next step for the municipal debt bills is Senate floor votes in the near future, Eichelberger said.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)