Leaders: Home rule may give advantage

At a meeting Monday of the city’s Government Study Commission, three department heads said a move to home rule wouldn’t make much difference for them operationally.

But all three complained about the monetary constraints under which the city is laboring, especially since it entered the state’s Act 47 financial distress program late last year.

A big potential advantage of home rule is that it would allow the city to get out of Act 47 – eliminating some of that programs’s state-imposed monetary constraints – while allowing the city to continue to operate with the earned income and property tax cap relief provided by the distress program.

“Money – that’s what it’s coming down to,” said Mayor Wayne Hippo, who didn’t refer specifically to the tax caps – and isn’t convinced home rule is the answer.

For the Police Department, the big challenge is manpower.

The Act 47 plan cut the budgeted roster to 66 – down from 74 a couple years ago, which even then wasn’t enough by FBI standards, Police Chief Janice Freehling told the commission.

The plan compared Altoona to three townships and three third-class cities in the state, and ended up recommending a force the size of the townships’, she said.

“Living in the city, you know it’s different,” she said.

The comparable cities – which included Harrisburg and Chester – each had 90 or more officers, she said.

Moreover, the plan’s imposition of a general freeze on wages, longevity pay and eligibility; its reduction of holidays, personal, vacation and sick days; its shifting of costs to employees for health insurance; its containment of post-retirement health insurance and more has led to a spate of retirements – so the force is currently down to 58 effective officers.

“Two hundred and 60 years of experience walked out the door,” Freehling said.

There are eight officers in training, but they won’t be full-fledged for three or four months, Freehling said.

Meanwhile, the Act 47 limitations on the city’s capital budget threatens to make it hard to keep pace with equipment needs, she said.

Fortunately, the department has helped itself with grants, including Justice Assistance Grants, Freehling said.

Fire Chief Tim Hileman expects a blitz of leave-takings several years from now, based on several firefighters having recently entered the Deferred Retirement Option Program in response to Act 47, he said.

He, too, has relied on grants to obtain equipment in recent years.

Act 47 threatens one of the main projects of the Information Technology Department, director Victor Curfman – the only department employee – told the commissioners.

That is the Wi-Fi system, set up several years ago for about $1.75 million.

The Act 47 coordinator’s team, which included a tech expert from the state of Indiana who never came to Altoona, suggested replacing the Wi-Fi with a cell-phone-based “card” system, as a cheaper alternative.

The current plan doesn’t provide for necessary maintenance money for the Wi-Fi system, which costs about $77,000 year for tower rental and maintenance – including monitoring, Curfman said.

The consultant didn’t seem to understand that system was mainly designed to serve the police department, Curfman said.

He focused on the Fire Department and codes, which don’t need it as much, officials have said.

An Act 47-required study of IT needs may decide the fate of the Wi-Fi system, he indicated.

All three department heads touted the city’s current council-manager form of government, which provides professional management.