Parking, licensing top council list

City sets agenda to deal with issues

City Council on Monday hashed out plans for dealing with more than a dozen long-term issues identified at a meeting in February — ranking them in importance, debating approaches, grouping issues together and assigning followup tasks to individual members and staff.

Council assigned high importance to figuring out how to deal with the parking of commercial vehicles on city streets in a way that doesn’t damage the livelihoods of residents who drive those vehicles, yet eases the annoyance of neighbors.

What’s probably needed are parking lots where the vehicles can be stored when not in use, suggested interim Manager Peter Marshall.

Maybe if the problem becomes known, owners of property that could be used for parking will come forward, suggested Councilman Bruce Kelley.

Council also assigned high importance to deciding whether to relax licensing requirements for plumbers and electricians to practice in the city and whether to allow homeowners to do plumbing and electrical work where they live.

Altoona’s rules are similar to those of several cities in Pennsylvania, based on a recent search, said Codes Director Rebecca Brown.

Relaxed licensing requirements could lead to more contractors and thus more competition and lower prices, Councilman Matt Cacciotti said recently.

Homeowners could be allowed to do their own work, because inspections will guarantee the work is safe, suggested Mayor Matt Pacifico.

The crux of the problem is that work is being done without permits, especially since the city hired a contractor to do plumbing and electrical inspections, Brown said.

About half as many permits are being pulled as there were when the city had an in-house inspector patrolling and keeping tabs, Brown said.

Tradesman licensing helps keep that from getting worse by ensuring that plumbers and electricians almost always obtain permits, because they risk license revocation if they don’t, Brown said.

But some homeowners have been doing their own work illegally, without permits — an unsafe practice that might decrease if they have a legal option, Pacifico indicated.

Council acquiesced to Marshall’s suggestion that he set up a vehicle replacement fund to help reduce the need for capital borrowing — and the need to budget for vehicles.

Such a practice requires annual depreciation payments from the general fund into the replacement fund, such that when a vehicle’s life span is over, there is enough in the fund to replace that vehicle, Marshall said.

What about inflation, Kelley asked.

That’s handled by lifespan plus one, if the city can get an extra year out of most of its vehicles, Marshall said.

Council also acquiesced to Marshall’s suggestion that he recruit an expert in historical preservation to help develop a strategy to preserve as many worthwhile buildings as possible.

The city has lost far too many of its old structures over the years, Kelley said, adding that it’s not his intention to add “too many handcuffs” for owners.

Among buildings at risk are the former Reformed Church near the police station and the former First United Methodist Church near the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

But there are also promising developments, including ongoing projects to save the former Puritan silk mill and the former Bon Secours hospital, Marshall said.

Incentives and promotion are among the best preservation tactics, said Community Development Director Lee Slusser.

The cost of bringing old buildings up to code is an obstacle, Pacifico said.

But there are exemptions on some code issues for older buildings, Marshall said.

Council heard a warning from Marshall about street trees, which became a focus last fall when trees planted by the city on Seventh and Eighth streets caused clearance problems for Amtran’s new, higher, compressed natural gas buses.

Street trees are an enhancement for municipalities and for homeowner property values, but municipalities need to accept the responsibility for annual maintenance and trimming every six years or so, Marshall said.

“It’s a big deal,” he said. “You’ve got to be prepared.”

State College has about 5,000 street trees, but it also has a crew of two and an arborist to take care of them, Marshall said.

The city’s street trees are the province of the Shade Tree Commission, an advisory body.

Council and staff will continue its interaction with PennDOT in hopes of continuing to add pedestrian accommodations in the Pleasant Valley corridor, where the lack of sidewalks and crosswalks is universally considered abysmal.

It’s not right that residents who live in the city must struggle to walk safely to work at places like Sam’s Club, Butterbaugh said, recalling a recent discussion of the problem at a Blair County Chamber of Com­merce committee meeting.

But sidewalks are being built as projects in the city and Logan Township take place, and PennDOT has set up a few crosswalks, while planning others, officials said.

One initiative that helps is PennDOT Connects, which requires department officials to be receptive to comments and suggestions from municipal officials during project planning, said Public Works Director Nate Kissell.

Council will also consider Butterbaugh’s suggestion for periodic joint sessions with the Logan Township supervisors and the Blair County commissioners on topics of mutual interest.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.