Meeting details Act 47 progress

At the city’s first Act 47 town hall meeting Monday to report on progress in fulfilling the initiatives of its distress recovery plan, officials reviewed all 153 mandates and recommendations.

Mixed in among many initiatives “in progress” or “in planning” a year after City Council adopted the plan were several critical moves that are propelling Altoona’s ongoing retreat from the brink of insolvency.

Foremost among those that were important for the year just ending – and for the coming years – was the 0.25 percent increase in earned income on residents and the establishment of a 0.15 percent commuter tax on nonresident workers – which together enabled the city to make ends meet without a major service cut.

Foremost among initiatives that will play out for the next three years was the negotiating of contracts that freeze wages and longevity payments, while setting benefit limitations for workers whose contracts expire at the end of this month.

The city recently fulfilled two-thirds of that mandate when it negotiated contracts that comply with plan restrictions for the police and non-uniformed workers.

It will attempt to fulfill the other third when it goes to arbitration on the firefighters’ contract at the end of January.

Presumably it will succeed, because a provision of Act 47 makes arbitration rulings subordinate to recovery plan mandates.

Foremost among initiatives that could keep the city in the black long-term – while helping it exit Act 47 – is a recommendation to investigate a change to home rule.

So far, that proposal has led to a referendum that has resulted in establishment of a government study commission that recently voted to recommend home rule – and will soon begin writing a home rule charter that will go before the voters in another referendum in late 2014 or early 2015.

Home rule could be a long-term “out” for the city because among other freedoms it would confer would be relief from state caps on earned income and property tax – which would otherwise return if the city left Act 47 – and because it would allow the city to set up departments for maximum efficiency.

The tenor of Monday’s meeting contrasted with the tenor of a meeting a little more than a year ago, in which city officials presented a 27-page list of what they considered problematic recovery recommendations.

The Act 47 coordinator team responded by revising 18 of those troublesome items, including the removal of a widely derided recommendation to study the feasibility of the Fire Department taking over ambulance service in the city.

That revised plan led to Mayor Bill Schirf’s declaring the plan to be “workable.” Not all the initiatives that remained are easy, including a requirement that the city reduce non-personnel, nonutility operational expenses by 4 percent, said Councilman Erik Cagle.

“It’s bit of a problem for us,” Strohm said.

“[We] might find ourselves revisiting that one,” Cagle said.

But the coordinator has been “reasonable,” he said.

“It’s a living, changeable document,” said Councilman Dave Butterbaugh.

Some initiatives are out of the city’s control because they’re based on economic conditions, said state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, who attended the meeting. Despite the many initiatives that remain incomplete, coordinator team leader John Espenshade has been “very pleased” with progress, according to Strohm.

Espenshade could not be contacted on Monday evening for comment.

“Some initiatives may not work out,” Schirf said. “But for the most part, we’re moving forward.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.