City Council to vote |on home rule decision

City Council today will vote on an ordinance that could lead to a permanent change in the form of Altoona’s government.

If council adopts the ordinance, a referendum will go on the primary election ballot authorizing a government study commission to consider whether to adopt home rule.

As recommended in the city’s Act 47 recovery plan, the referendum to investigate home rule could enable the city to leave Act 47 without resubmitting to state caps on earned income and property taxes that forced Altoona to seek Act 47 protection in the first place, so it could balance its budget.

If recommended by a commission and adopted in a subsequent referendum, home rule would also simplify and streamline city government, according to Mayor Bill Schirf, who has been pushing for the change.

The referendum ordinance will likely pass, according to City Councilman Dave Butterbaugh.

“As far as I know, all the councilmen are in favor,” said Councilman Mike Haire.

Altoona embarked on a similar change a quarter-century ago, eventually moving from a commission form of government to the current council-manager form under the state’s optional-Third Class City Code plan.

That made it better, Haire said.

“This is another step in the right direction,” he said.

Home rule transfers the “basic authority to act in municipal affairs” from state law to a local charter, according to Home Rule in Pennsylvania, a handbook published by the Department of Community and Economic Development.

“Local governments without home rule can only act where specifically authorized by state law,” the handbook states. “Home rule municipalities can act anywhere, except where they are specifically limited by state law.”

Still, home rule municipalities can’t ignore state-based strictures like eminent domain, political boundaries, public school regulations, election procedures and the Sunshine and Right to Know laws, according to talking points provided to City Council members by city staff recently, at the request of some council members.

For the initiative council is considering, not only must a majority of primary voters favor the creation of a commission, but those voters must also elect a full commission slate – seven members, as designated by the ordinance proposal.

To get on the ballot, commission candidates – who must be registered voters in Altoona – need to pick up a petition packet at the county election office, collect at least 200 signatures of other city registered voters starting Feb. 19, then turn them in by 4 p.m. March 12, according to Sarah Seymour, director of elections.

Write-in candidates need to get at least 200 votes in the primary, which is May 21.

The old pre-1987 commission form of government, in which every elected council member ran a department, lacked central authority, duplicated administrative functions and salaries, created an extra layer of bureaucracy, promoted a short-sighted approach, provided no checks and balances between legislative and administrative functions and generated a shortage of in-house expertise, according to the talking points.

Council members then tended to protect their turfs, with “a parochial, splintered defensive stance,” according to the talking points.

The change to council-manager government resolved the administrative problems and “through better management and marshaling of dwindling resources, gave the city an additional quarter century to function as responsively and efficiently as possible,” the talking points stated.

But eventually, those advantages were “overcome by [the city’s] inability to operate outside the strictures of the Third Class City Code,” the talking points stated.

“It was as if a dysfunctional household finally became functional and efficient, but burdened with the same rules in how to earn and spend what little revenue it had,” the talking points stated.

That led to taking refuge in the Act 47 distressed municipalities program, according to the talking points.

Home rule will allow the city to “take back its sovereignty,” the talking points stated.

Depending on the findings of a study commission and potential subsequent referendum vote, the city could increase the earned income tax while lowering the property tax, providing relief for the elderly and retired, who pay a disproportionate share of it, according to the talking points.

The lower property tax could spur commercial development, according to the talking points.

Home rule would also allow the city to increase the real estate transfer and local services tax, according to the talking points.

And it would allow the city to institute a defined contribution pension system – like a 401K plan – for employees hired after home rule adoption, according to the talking points.

“This is significant, because the high cost of defined benefit plans versus the much lower cost of defined contribution plans in which the city can contribute as little or as much as it wants” would allow the city to lower the pension surtax it now imposes, stated the talking points.

Home rule could also allow City Council to adopt ordinances more quickly in response to citizens’ demands – and more cheaply, because of relaxed advertising requirements, according to the talking points.

Home rule could also allow the city to relax or eliminate civil service requirements for hiring of some kinds of employees, reducing advertising and administrative costs, according to the talking points.

The state handbook is more reserved in its assessment of the benefits.

“Twenty-seven years of experience has showed home rule to be neither a panacea nor a bane,” the handbook states.