Altoona City Council members on Monday discussed how critical it is for the state to admit Altoona to the Distressed Municipalities Program - even as they discussed a possible big governmental change to ensure the city's stay in distress is brief.
If the state doesn't accept Altoona's petition for distressed status, which would lift caps on earned income and property tax, management will need to lay off about 40 workers - including 10 police, eight firefighters and 10 public works employees next year, City Manager Joe Weakland said, reiterating an earlier estimation.
It would save about $1.4 million, but next year's deficit will be about $1.9 million, Finance Director Omar Strohm predicted. Even with those 40 workers gone, the city would still need to come up with $500,000 more to balance the budget for 2013.
But it can only scrounge up $300,000 in savings elsewhere, Weakland and Strohm said.
Those savings would include $115,000 for Amtran, which uses the funds to leverage many times that amount in other funding to run operations in the city; $64,000 for police academy training; $18,000 for education and training of firefighters; $11,000 for maintenance of the pedestrian crossover and $410 for the city manager's cell phone.
They would also include $38,000 in organizational memberships, education, training and travel and publications.
"I would challenge anyone on council - or anyone - to find any other" expenditures to cut, Weakland said.
The 2013 projections would actually be worse, except that workforce attrition shrank the projected projected deficit for this year by $300,000 to $1.3 million.
It is far better than the dismal projections in a study by the Pennsylvania Economy League a few years ago, thanks to earlier workforce attrition and health care savings.
While the city needs the state to accept it into the distress program, it should seek to get out of distress as soon as possible, in contrast to other municipalities, like Johnstown, officials said.
Home Rule might be one way, according to Mayor Bill Schirf and others, including Councilman Mike Haire.
Home Rule could help, because among other advantages, it would allow the city to lift the caps on income and property tax, Haire said.
But unlike Act 47, it's a long-term help at best, because it would require a voter referendum, followed by a study commission and a second referendum, officials said.
"We need to wait for this [Act 47] decision," Schirf said. "But we need to be looking for a long-term solution."
The state's deadline for ruling on the city's Act 47 petition is May 3, but there are indications the state may not make the decision on time, officials said.
One noted that Fred Reddig, executive director for the Governor's Center for Local Government Services, who conducted Altoona's Act 47 hearing recently, was recently named temporary receiver for the City of Harrisburg, which is in distress.
"He has a lot on his plate," one councilman said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.