Council looks to citizens, businesses for Act 47 aid

More than a year after adopting an Act 47 recovery plan, City Council on Monday began complying with plan orders to seek savings and revenue through intermunicipal cooperation and by

tapping citizen and business expertise.

Officials may work through the Intermunicipal Relations Committee – a council of governments with representatives from Altoona, Logan Township, Hollidaysburg and Tyrone – to head the cooperation initiative.

The Act 47 plan calls for the city to work with other organizations to identify opportunities to merge technological infrastructure, software and administration, utility purchasing, health care policies, tax collection, fleet maintenance, purchasing, financial management and planning.

The city already does more intermunicipal cooperation than the Act 47 team may realize, including the IRC itself – founded to help the municipalities comply with recycling mandates – the Central Blair Recreation and Park Commission, mutual aid agreements for police and firefighting services, “agility” work-trades with PennDOT and traffic signal maintenance for Logan Township, with compensation, officials said.

To do more, however, the city will need to fight the old prejudice among neighboring municipalities against cooperation with the city by ensuring that any proposal is mutually beneficial, participants said.

It may help to point out that many of those historically reluctant municipalities may eventually face the kind of financial problems Altoona has been dealing with for years, especially when they run out of developable land to generate new tax revenue, said City Councilman Bruce Kelley.

“Where we are, you are going to be,” Kelley said.

The city needs to start with small cooperation projects, then build on the successful ones, Kelley said.

“We owe it to ourselves to reach out,” said Interim City Manager Omar Strohm.

And officials in the other municipalities owe it to their constituents to listen, Kelley said.

While the IRC may be the natural “vehicle” for new initiatives, the city should consult with a Blair County Chamber of Commerce subcommittee formed recently to encourage cooperation among municipalities, Kelley said.

The city should also seek advice from the six-municipal Centre Region Council of Governments, which provides planning, codes, solid waste, recycling, fire protection, emergency management and library services, officials said.

One potential avenue for cooperation could be providing city coverage for volunteer fire companies that have trouble mustering crews during the day, when volunteers are at their regular jobs, according to officials.

City officials have spoken previously of providing contract code services – although the city itself has farmed out some of those to a private organization – and police services are a frequent topic of intermunicipal cooperation talks.

Officials also suggested trying to work out deals by which Penn State Altoona, the Altoona Area School District and even UPMC Altoona would provide needed training that the city can’t afford in lieu of the property taxes they’re exempt from paying.

Some cooperation might not make sense.

The city already “piggybacks” on the state for purchases like road salt and vehicles, so it wouldn’t make sense to do that on a smaller scale with a local municipality, according to Public Works Director Dave Diedrich.

“We didn’t mention the ‘C’ word,” Kelley said towards the end of the meeting.

Talk of actual consolidation with other municipalities is the “kiss of death” to the discussion of the subject, he explained.

The Act 47 plan calls for the city to tap citizen expertise by creating a “diverse” committee that would be charged with generating ideas and by recruiting executives to undertake – as volunteers – helpful projects.

Neighborhood meetings might help generate the interest in the citizen committees, Councilman Mike Haire suggested.

The Greater Altoona Economic Development Corp. might help the city find willing executives, Kelley said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.