City hopes to buck failure with home rule

Altoona’s Government Study Commission learned Monday it shouldn’t take success for granted.

Most home rule study commissions in Pennsylvania don’t recommend change – or if they do, voters reject their recommendations, commission guest speaker Michael Foreman of the Governor’s Center for Local Government Services told the commission.

The poor success rate led the commission to double down on its commitment to transparency and broad community involvement, so it has a better chance to buck the trend, if it decides home rule is best for Altoona.

So far, only about 74 municipalities out of 2,562 in Pennsylvania have adopted home rule, Foreman said.

Fear of change, lack of trust and lack of civics savvy are the most common causes of voter rejection, he said.

“People are afraid to give power to their elected officials,” he said. “They would rather that power came from Harrisburg.”

That means other commissions have had problems of communication, Commission Chairman Wayne Hippo said. “We’ll definitely fail unless we work hard to make certain we have an open process.”

The commission agreed to hold multiple public hearings – instead of the one legally required.

The first one will be 6 p.m. Aug. 20 at a site to be determined.

The commission plans to invite representatives from groups that might have an interest in seeing changes in city government, so they can share their thoughts.

The commission will also invite the general public in hopes of learning their ideas.

In the two regular meetings the commission will hold in the interim, members hope to hear suggestions for change from City Council members and city department heads.

Voters approved the creation of the study commission in the recent primary and elected the seven members. The city’s Act 47 distressed municipalities plan recommended the study as an Act 47 “exit strategy.”

Home rule could help the city get out of distressed status because it would eliminate state caps on earned income and property taxes. Otherwise, those caps, temporarily suspended would go back into force if and when left the Act 47 program.

The city sought Act 47 protection mainly because those caps prevented it from raising enough money to make ends meet.

There are limitations on home rule, however.

Home rule doesn’t allow municipalities to levy their regular earned income tax on nonresident city workers.

It also may also not allow Altoona to continue its longtime 0.2 percent earned income surtax for pensions on nonresidents – or even on residents, Foreman said.

“That needs to be explored,” he stated.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.