After more than five months of research and writing, the City of Altoona's Act 47 coordinator will deliver its financial recovery plan today.
The arrival in late afternoon of the 326-page plan in paper form at City Hall and in electronic form on the city website will trigger a series of meetings, hearings and decisions over the next 5 weeks designed to help the city avoid insolvency next year.
It was a little more than a year ago that Councilman Bruce Kelley suggested resorting to the Act 47 program, after council saw a preliminary 2012 budget that projected a $1.6 million operational deficit with just enough money in the fund balance to cover - making it certain that the city wouldn't be able to make ends meet in 2013.
Today, in a change of plans, representatives of the Stevens & Lee coordinator team will meet with City Council and the public at 6 p.m. in Council Chambers to go over the executive summary of the recovery plan, team leader John Espenshade said.
Team members won't take questions, although the public can comment, Espenshade said.
Like a meeting the coordinator held Oct. 9, today's meeting is not required by Act 47 - in contrast to a mandated hearing on the recovery plan Nov. 28.
City Manager Joe Weakland is neither nervous nor excited about finally seeing the plan, which will probably include provisions that will release the city from current state limits on earned income or property tax or both and provisions that would cut costs.
"Maybe curious," Weakland said. "I'm kind of just waiting to see."
Mayor Bill Schirf will make himself available 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays until Nov. 29 in the conference room on the top floor of City Hall to residents and employees who want to discuss the recovery plan.
He intends to explain and reassure and to accept constructive criticism to pass on to the coordinator for possible changes.
The coordinator can file a revised plan Dec. 7, if necessary.
Council will meet to adopt the plan Dec. 19.
"It's a very tight window of opportunity," Schirf said.
Should council reject the plan or the city manager refuses to put it in practice, either could follow the Act 47 protocol for an alternate plan.
The act allows as many as 56 days for adopting such an alternate plan, although the approach of the end of the year and the need to get new revenue in place for 2013 might seem to preclude even considering an alternate plan - much less taking as long as allowed to get it approved.
In developing the recovery plan it will present today, Stevens & Lee spoke to many local stakeholders, including developer Don Devorris.
As a result of that interaction, Devorris will be reviewing the recovery plan to provide constructive criticism that the coordinator could incorporate into the revised plan due Dec. 7, according to Devorris.
"They asked me, and I said I would be glad to do it," Devorris said. "[To] review their findings and see whether or not their conclusions are [likely to produce] the best result for the city under the circumstances."
Devorris chose a "cross section" of people for his review, but declined to say who they are.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to support [the plan]," he said.
The coordinator team also spoke to Joe Hurd, CEO of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce, mainly about whether the city's entry into the distressed municipalities program will make it harder to attract or retain businesses, due to "diminished reputation."
According to the consultant, it shouldn't hurt, Hurd said.
For Fire Department Assistant Chief Steve Michelone, the answer to the city's financial problems can be simple: dispatching the "4,000 pound gorilla" - reassessment.
It doesn't need to be done by Blair County, which hasn't updated since 1958, he pointed out.
The city can do it.
If either did it, the city would no longer be hamstrung by the 30-mill state cap on general-purpose property taxes, because millage would reset to a much lower level.
The cap was never meant to limit municipalities in the way it has limited Altoona, as a result of the absurdly out-of-date assessment figures, he said.
The city has done all it can to work around those restrictions, using then-Finance Director Henry Bucci's 1996 breakout of capital/debt-service and recreational millage - both uncapped - as a safety valve, he said.
That and other maneuvers have helped postpone the reckoning that is now upon us, Michelone said.
Big benefits can also come if the city found a way to get significant and reliable income from tax-exempt properties like that controlled by Altoona Regional Health System, he said.
Two officials connected with the Altoona Water Authority don't think the plan is likely to call for privatization of its water and sewer system - a council proposal that the authority defeated in 2004 by agreeing to pay an additional $2.1 million a year to the city for "services."
Some observers have suggested that privatization might make sense now, by providing a windfall that would help the city make ends meet, at least for a while.
"It doesn't fix the city's root problem," authority General Manager Mark Perry said.
It might not be easy to accomplish, consulting engineer Mark Glenn of Gwin, Dobson & Foreman said.
An end-of-2011 audit lists system assets at $231 million, but long-term liabilities are $94 million, Glenn said.
Privatization would require the bondholders to whom that money is owed to approve a sale - which would mean they would accept the new owner as equally likely to repay the debt - or a payback of that debt, before the sale, Glenn said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.