Commission considers adopting home rule

At a Government Study Commission meeting Tuesday, the discussion was like the plotting of inmates bent on escaping – not from prison, but the shackles of the Third Class City Code.

The Code has been a regular bugaboo as the commission identifies problems that a change to home rule might solve, but on Tuesday, members learned more specifics than they’ve heard since beginning work in June. “Going home rule” would allow the city to reorganize departments for efficiency, according to Councilman Mike Haire, who spoke to the commission along with interim City Manager Omar Strohm, former City Manager Joe Weakland, Blair County Republican Chairman and city controller A.C. Stickel and county Democratic Chairman Frank Rosenhoover.

It might make sense to see how other municipalities have combined their fire and police departments, their fire and code departments or their fire and highway departments, according to Haire.

That would allow for reduction in employment, according to Haire. That is a critical issue for Altoona, which has trouble making ends meet and whose personnel expenses are 83 percent of the budget.

The trick would be to sell such an idea to the unions, he said.

Going home rule would also allow the city to get out of the Act 47 distressed municipalities program without going back under the Third Class City Code’s onerous tax caps, although it would need to give up the Act 47 earned income tax on nonresidents – the commuter tax, it was understood.

That benefit was discussed previously.

But on Tuesday, Strohm revealed that the city’s Act 47 coordinator recently said the commuter tax could continue under home rule, even if the city exited Act 47.

Going home rule would enable council to shift the defined benefit pension plans required by the Code to defined contribution 401(k)s, said Stickel and Strohm.

That would cut costs for the city and possibly the benefits for workers, he said.

“It’s a risk transfer to employees,” Duncan said.

Going home rule would eliminate the Code provision that firefighters get 21 sick days, according to Strohm.

That requirement is obsolete, a holdover from the days when firefighters without breathing apparatus would routinely get sick and need recovery time after entering burning buildings, said City Councilman Dave Butterbaugh.

Going home rule would also allow the city to rewrite its advertising rules, which under the Code requires spending about $25,000 a year, officials said.

None of those, however, constitute a “fundamental game changer,” according to commission member Richard Flarend.

Such a game changer would only be tax base growth, he said.

Is there something that home rule can give that can promote growth in a big way? he asked.

Reassessment – which wouldn’t require home rule to accomplish – would grow the city’s revenue from commercial properties that are undervalued under the current antique assessment methods, Strohm said.

Should the city sue the county to force reassessment? Flarend asked rhetorically.

The benefits of that would be years in coming, some officials said.

And its ultimate effect might be higher taxes that could increase out-migration, one official said.

Perhaps a better tool – also not dependent on home rule – would be regionalization, the sharing of services among municipalities, Strohm and Weakland said.

But it’s proven difficult to persuade other municipalities to cooperate, officials said.

Maybe giving mayors a bigger role, enabling them to unlock their leadership potential, would help, according to Weakland and Stickel.

The last five mayors have all complained about the limitations of the office, Weakland said.

But a strong manager remains essential, he said.

It’s better to avoid “politicization,” Strohm said.

But Weakland confessed himself pessimistic about growth, in a city that is a settling place for the poor of the region, attracted by the cheap real estate.

Median household income is just over $30,000, someone said.

If the city is poor, does it make sense to talk about generating more revenue from taxes, commission member Heather Eckels asked rhetorically.

Better to let services dwindle until it becomes obvious even to those poor that it’s not enough, she said.

Then respond to their complaints and build them up with the mandate of their discontent, she said.