Altoona’s recovery under Act 47 strong

When I became mayor in 2010, Altoona was facing major critical problems.

It was time to act to save our city from serious financial and internal structural matters.

It was a daunting task hampered by a declining population and tax base.

After intensive research during my tenure, I determined our government needed a complete overhaul and the answer was Act 47, enacted by our state Legislature in 1987 to help municipalities in a distressed status.

City council supported this, and Altoona was accepted into the program by the PA Department of Community and Economic Development.

The one important thing to recognize is council was proactive with Act 47 and didn’t wait until the city collapsed into an economic abyss.

Our five-year, 2013-17, 300-plus page Act 47 document worked by addressing numerous issues, particularly four areas of major concern.

The first problem to be resolved was ongoing deficit spending. Budget surpluses were being exhausted.

The Pennsylvania Economy League predicted a cumulative deficit of more than $10 million by the end of 2016. This was a recipe for financial insecurity. Today, our budgets are stabilized and balanced since our recovery plan inception in 2013 with a projected surplus of $7.7 million  for 2016 and $9.5 million for 2017.

This is a stunning financial reversal.

Second, personnel costs made up 81 percent of our budget. Council was contemplating a possible major layoff of employees. This was avoided by following the recommendations in the Act 47 plan.

Third, management needed to produce an improved capital improvement program.

Inadequate planning was hampering Altoona’s ability to control and reduce capital debt spending. A five-year Capital Improvement Program was formulated to regulate more conservative savings.

Fourth, and perhaps the most serious problem, is our unfunded pension balance.

It will take years to resolve, but the plan addressed this matter by suggesting initiatives for our manager and council to debate to ensure employees will always retain this important benefit after retiring.

Finally, after serving on city council for eight years, we needed to change our form of government.

In my opinion, there was too much power for the city manager and not enough oversight by a part-time council.

A government study commission was approved by our electors in 2013. These seven elected volunteers achieved an amazing home rule charter government with a full-time mayor.

The charter was also approved by ballot in 2014.

My personal goal for Act 47 was to enter in 2013 and exit in 2017 by devising a master policy of strategies that evolved over time. This has worked far greater than I could have envisioned.

My advice to city council is just to follow your Act 47 plan, which will influence our city government positively for decades.

I addressed only a few problems at this time, but there were other problematic areas.

Act 47 has provided us with a remarkable five-year recovery for Pennsylvania’s 10th largest city.