Home rule to be on ballot

As expected, City Council on Wednesday passed an ordinance giving Altoona voters the chance in May to empanel a commission to determine the advisability of making Altoona a home rule municipality.

Council’s vote on the government study commission referendum was unanimous, although Councilman Bruce Kelley was absent because of a work commitment.

Placing the referendum on the ballot is part of the “exit strategy” touted in the city’s recently adopted Act 47 distress recovery plan.

Act 47 provided temporary relief from state caps on earned income and property taxes that didn’t allow the city to raise enough money to make ends meet.

Home rule could make that relief permanent.

“No one wants to stay in Act 47,” said Mayor Bill Schirf after passage of the ordinance.

The move makes sense because the cap restrictions forced the city to cut “services we really really need,” said former City Councilman Jan Mills at the meeting.

But elimination of the caps could also “tempt” future councils to establish services city residents don’t need, Mills warned.

Thus, if the referendum succeeds, it would behoove the commission to work with experts to craft a model for Altoona that would match the city’s demographic needs to ensure against excess, Mills said.

Mills comment echoed a remark several years ago by then-Mayor Wayne Hippo, who credited the caps with imposing fiscal discipline, even as they created frustration.

Asked whether Mills’ concern about lifting the caps represents a real danger, Schirf said, “That’s why we have a council” and department directors – to craft budgets and keep expenses reasonable.

The cap relief actually creates flexibility, said City Manager Joe Weakland.

Adopting a home rule charter would allow an increase in earned income and real estate transfer taxes, generating revenue that could allow council to lower property millage, lightening a difficult burden for many older people, he said.

Tyrone, which has been under home rule successfully since the 1980s, has made that shift away from property tax, said solicitor Larry Clapper.

There’s a safety valve, anyway, according to Councilman Mark Geis: If the study commission recommends an outlandish home rule charter, Altoona voters can simply nix it at the required second referendum.

Asked about Mills concerns after the meeting, state Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, conceded that the lifting of the caps could create a danger – and not just from some free-spending, careless City Council of the future.

Even well-meaning officials often raise taxes unnecessarily, he said. Governments can’t tax their way out of financial difficulties.

The way to get out of financial trouble is to grow the economy and therefore the tax base, he said.

To activate the commission will require not only a majority of primary voters to approve the referendum, but the election of seven candidates to fill the commission seats.

City registered voters interested in running for the commission can obtain petition packets from the Blair County elections office.

Each will need at least 200 signatures from registered city voters to get on the ballot. Write-in candidates would need the same number of actual primary votes to qualify for the electoral competition.

City Council members cannot be commission members.

But other city employees and members of city authorities, commissions and boards can be, according to Clapper.

If empanelled, the commission would have nine months to decide whether to recommend home rule and an additional nine months – if requested – to write a charter.