The mandated Act 47 hearing Wednesday at the Devorris Downtown Center was the big chance for ordinary residents to weigh in on Altoona's recovery plan before the plan consultant begins likely revisions.
Only a handful took advantage, however, and of those, only two or three were altogether unaffiliated with city government.
Why so few ordinary people among a contingent of speakers that mainly consisted of city employees?
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Terry Merritts voices his concerns during the public commentary section of the Act 47 recovery plan hearing at the Devorris Downtown Center auditorium Wednesday evening.
"How come so few regular people come to [regular] council meetings?" City Manager Joe Weakland said afterward.
One of the few speakers unaffiliated with city government was Dave Woleslagle, a former emergency medical services worker, who was one of many who came to the aid of AMED, urging the consultant to drop its recommendation to explore the feasibility of the fire department taking over ambulance services in the city.
"I just know that AMED has done a grand job over all the years," said Woleslagle, who worked for Hollidaysburg American Legion Ambulance Service.
Another unaffiliated speaker was Don Ruggery Jr., owner of McIntyre's Candies, who lamented the city's need to resort to Act 47, praised the city's intention to get out as quickly as possible and lauded the plan's promotion of sharing municipal services.
The sooner the city gets out, the sooner he would be able to stop paying the extra earned income taxes the plan would allow, Ruggery said.
"I don't want to be paying extra taxes," Ruggery said. "That's not the way for us [the city] to keep growing."
The extra earned income taxes will allow the city to make ends meet next year and probably during the four years of the plan, which projects a cumulative deficit of $10 million by 2016, if things continue as they are.
But cost containment in worker salaries, health care and pensions and ultimately economic development initiatives like a downtown growth strategy, blight prevention and employer-assisted housing that point toward the long-term solutions the city has insisted on from the start, officials said.
Those long-term initiatives, however, should include more targeted on quality-of-life issues, such as upgrading and maintaining parks, sidewalks and streetscapes, Planning Director Lee Slusser told the consultant leaders.
Quality of life is also at risk from a plan recommendation to eliminate a pair of parks workers, partly because that would eliminate almost 10 percent of the city's snow plow crew, Public Works Director Dave Diedrich said.
The department is already short-staffed, having lost six workers in the last two years, he said.
The plan should call for "liquidation of assets" like the water and sewer systems and Council Chambers, suggested Austin's Market proprietor Wilson Saguban, who plans to run for City Council.
That's a better alternative than raising taxes, which will drive people away, he said.
The plan should include a look at the fire department, according to Terry Merritts, a former school teacher and the father of a city police officer. The department could consist of a core of paid full-time firefighters supplemented by part-timers and volunteers - a setup that would minimize or eliminate overtime, he said.
Such a plan wouldn't work for the police, because few if any would volunteer, he predicted.
The consultant team had a hard task, given attitudes like that of a county official who recently asked retired city employee Paul Bottenfield, "Let's face it, who wants to live in the city," Bottenfield told the consultants.
He has invested $40,000 in his house, but it has been broken into three times in 10 years, he said.
"I see a neighborhood in decline," he said.
Those who comment on issues in forums like Wednesday's tend to be passionate about their own concerns, without considering the whole context, said John Espenshade, the consultant team leader.
Sometimes, they also tend not to see the details of recommendations - like those that call merely for exploring or investigating the possibility of change, he said.
Employees and others may fear those recommendations, but rational discussions about it often lead to valuable insights and important changes, he said.
Among the suggestions in 27 pages of cricital comments submitted by city staff is to keep the opt-out incentive payments for workers who don't join the city's healthcare plan -- for example, because their spouse's plan is better.
But at 40 percent of the city's premium, it's more costly than with most organizations, she said.
She doesn't share city officials' fear that eliminating the payment would be counter-productive.
The city would benefit if as few as one in four workers opted in, because the three who didn't would eliminate 120 percent of a premium payment -- more than making up for the fourth worker who comes back in.
And with the city requiring a co-share of premium from workers nowadays, workers wouldn't likely come back into the plan just to avoid the feeling of losing out.
The team plans to consider all the verbal and written comments from the hearing and other written comments that have come in since the plan's filing Nov. 13, Espenshade said.
Based on Act 47 guidelines, the team has until Dec. 7 to produce a final plan. Council will consider the plan for adoption Dec. 19. The city is scheduled to go to Blair County Court Dec. 21 for approval on the increase in earned income taxes and the property tax millage slate.
Council can reject the plan, but coming up with its own alternative and then getting state Department of Community and Economic Development approval before the end of the year would be challenging, even if the city's plan consists of the consultant's with changes the city wants.
The main issue is getting the EIT hikes approved before year-end, because otherwise, the city would forfeit the right to collect them until June, which would put the 2013 budget in jeopardy, officials have said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.