Speakers urge city to seek home rule

Patrick Miller, president of the Greater Altoona Economic Development Corp., recently was composing remarks he planned to make at Tuesday’s public hearing of the city’s home rule Government Study Commission as an invited guest.

As he worked, a message appeared in his inbox that gave him exactly the illustration he needed to make his main point – and to reinforce what turned out to be the evening’s recurrent theme – that Altoona needs home rule for fiscal sustainability.

The email came from an out-of-town visitor who noticed the shabby condition of a downtown plaza while running errands, emptied two trash bags of clothing he planned to donate at a thrift store and filled both bags with trash during an impromptu cleanup.

The city benefits from that kind of selfless volunteerism but needs the surer alternative of publicly funded property maintenance to compete for the kind of development that can enable it to reverse a years-long reduction of services and to grow its tax base and thrive, according to Miller.

Home rule, touted as the city’s exit strategy from its place in the Act 47 financial distress program, would allow the city to continue to operate without state caps on earned income tax and property tax, as permitted by Act 47.

The condition of public spaces – including streetscapes – is an important component of the quality of life that helps determine where development occurs, Miller and others have said.

Financial stability that home rule could help provide may also be key to the city’s ability to make critical investments like construction of parking, according to Miller, who is executive director of the city parking authority.

When Penn State’s downtown campus is in session, up to 92 percent of downtown spaces are occupied, he said.

Without additional parking, that area can’t grow, he said.

Without the kind of financial stability home rule can create, the city also won’t be able to upgrade its maintenance program, which is on a slow but sure decline, according to Scott Campanaro, president of the city’s non-uniformed worker’s union local, represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Some years ago, the city’s snow plow crew could clear the streets in 12 hours, he said.

Last year, it took 24 hours.

This year, it will probably take 36, he said.

The lifespan for a street before repaving is needed is 15 to 25 years, he said.

The city is on a 40-year cycle.

“You’ll be driving on gravel for the last 15 years,” he said.

Resident expectations simply won’t allow what has happened in a dozen counties in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota – the abandonment of winter maintenance, he said.

“We have to decide where we’re going with this,” he said.

Home rule might also be a way to ensure Amtran bus service continues, Amtran General Manager Eric Wolf said.

Amtran provides 700,000 rides annually – compared to 25,000 local rides for Amtrak and 10,000 for the Blair County Airport, he said.

Clientele include the disabled, seniors, college students and the working poor, and the transportation is critical for those groups, he said.

Blair Senior Services can’t serve all seniors, Penn State Altoona needs the service to maintain its downtown campus, and retail workers — and the stores they’re employed by – depend on it, he said.

The service relies on local contributions.

The good news is that a local dollar leverages $30 in state and federal subsidies, he said. But the bad news is that taking away that one dollar subtracts $30 in subsidies, he said.

Moreover, the current $10,000 local match needs to rise to $450,000 eventually, based on the state’s Act 44 – although at the modest rate of 5 percent a year, Wolf said.

The commission should not only recommend home rule – it should try to craft an imaginative, bold version of it, said Campanaro, who spoke of generating revenue with existing and prospective staff capability.

He proposed crafting rules that would encourage a “blended” trash collection system – keeping private contractors, but creating city oversight that would ensure all trash-generating properties have a hauler, he said.

The city can only trim so much, and if it doesn’t find a way to arrest service shrinkage, it could “go into a death spiral,” Wolf predicted.

It’s time for the city to get beyond its struggle merely to survive and to find a way to thrive, according to Wayne Hippo, commission chairman.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.