Altoona voters to help settle home rule issue

City voters on Tuesday will decide whether to appoint a commission to study home rule.

Everyone should vote yes, according to Mayor Bill Schirf, who stressed that a positive result

doesn’t mean a commitment.

It would mean only that the commission would study the issue for nine months, make a recommendation and – if that recommendation is positive – write a home rule charter within another nine months.

That charter would go onto a second referendum ballot, and only then would voters decide whether to make Altoona a home rule municipality.

“Encourage the citizens,” Schirf said at the most recent City Council meeting.

City Councilman Dave Butterbaugh and City Manager Joe Weakland agreed.

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.”

Because home rule eliminates caps on state taxes, it’s a good way out of the Act 47 distressed municipalities program, according to the city’s Act 47 recovery plan.

City officials from the beginning said they want to make Altoona’s stay in Act 47 brief.

Act 47 eliminated those caps, but they return when the city leaves, unless it’s under home rule by then – although home rule wouldn’t allow for continuation of the Act 47 earned income “commuter tax” on nonresidents.

Home rule would, however, give flexibility to shift the burden toward “user fee”-like taxes, such as the real estate transfer tax – and off property tax, which is burdensome to many older people, according to Weakland.

The commission would need to confine its investigation to a choice between home rule or not, but if it recommends home rule, it can look at changing the form of city government from council-manager, according to city officials and the handbook.

“Governmental form, along with increased local autonomy, are the two major issues to be considered,” the handbook states.

There’s almost total flexibility in choosing the governmental form, according to the handbook. The only stipulation is that the new governing body must be chosen by popular election.

Most study commissions have chosen one of the two “basic” forms – council-manager or strong mayor-council, according to the handbook.

Weakland cautioned against the strong mayor form. Elect a strong mayor who’s incompetent, and you’re stuck with him for four years, he said. Choose an incompetent manager, and you just fire him, he said.

Other forms include weak mayor-council (traditional in boroughs), commission and the traditional township form, according to the handbook.

Weakland also doesn’t favor the commission form, which was Altoona’s prior to about 1990, when a government study commission recommended what the city has now. The commission consisted of five full-time council members who reorganized ever year, deciding “who would run what departments,” he said.

“It was all political,” Weakland said. “Experience, training and education had nothing to do with it.”

A minority party councilman would end up with the highway department, because that generated lots of complaints, he said. A majority councilman would take finance, because that was the least controversial department, with the least interaction with the public, he said.

The mayor automatically controlled police.

There was a lot of hiring of friends and political supporters, not all of whom were qualified, Weakland said.

Government requires more sophistication and professional expertise now, in virtually all fields, including personnel, finance, firefighting and police, he said.

If the city would revert to the commission form, it would create an expensive upper layer of authority over the current professional layer, he said.

Altoona’s current City Council is part-time, with nominal pay.

Marita Kelley, program manager for the Department of Community and Economic Development, declined to recommend “up front” what form of government the study commission should favor, if it first chooses home rule.

“The study commission drives the whole action and development of the form of government,” Kelley said.

Eventually, DCED and the citizens will get to comment on the study commission’s recommendation, she said. And ultimately, the voters decide.

Not all forms of government are equally efficient, but they all have some merit, Kelley said.

“That’s why they have to be analyzed,” she said.

While the Act 47 recovery plan required the city to at least consider home rule, the coordinator won’t have veto power over the study commission’s work, according to Kelley, who stressed that her opinion on the matter doesn’t carry the weight of an attorney’s.

The coordinator, however, could state a position on the recommendations, she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.