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Financial fallout from virus is real

Altoona Mayor Matt Pacifico has been criticized by city council members for what they regard as premature concerns about municipal finances related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During an Aug. 11 news conference sponsored by the Pennsylvania Municipal League, the mayor suggested that Altoona might have to reenter the state’s Act 47 fiscally distressed municipality program if direct federal aid is not forthcoming to deal with money challenges emanating from the pandemic.

Altoona is not alone. Municipalities large and small across the state either are harboring fears behind the scenes or discussing them openly.

For places like Altoona and Johnstown, where Act 47 help already is no stranger, current financial uncertainties are especially daunting.

Pacifico deserves credit for openly expressing his concern, even though a fiscal crisis is not yet at hand.

Officials who have shied away from active discussion about the uncertain fiscal prospects need to rethink that reluctance. Equally important, residents of municipalities large and small need to demand that their elected officials become proactive on that front.

Beyond that, area representatives in the state and federal governments need to pay attention.

In Altoona’s case, even if Pacifico was to some degree premature in bringing up the topic of Act 47, he was not wrong or irresponsible in doing so. It is better for concerns to be expressed early rather than late.

It was troubling to hear certain city council members’ condemnation of the mayor for concern at this time even though, as Councilman Bruce Kelley reminded the council, a mid-year financial report revealed that city revenues have been affected little by COVID-19 to this point.

Also troubling was that the mayor “stepped back” somewhat from his voiced concerns after council members’ criticism was directed his way.

“It was never (my) intention to scare anybody,” Pacifico said, in reflecting on his Act 47 statement. “Whenever we (the Municipal League) were lobbying Congress to help out the cities, the point was to emphasize the (worst-case) potential.”

Pacifico didn’t need to soften his tone regarding an issue so serious.

Altoona residents should welcome the kind of leadership Pacifico demonstrated by his unwillingness to hide from dire possibilities that await communities whose officials refuse to plan ahead because a crisis has not yet planted itself at their doorstep.

Municipalities’ current and future financial challenges emanating from the pandemic will vary in degree and scope. For example, not every municipality is beginning collective bargaining with union employees, a task Altoona is facing.

At the same time, many municipalities have not enjoyed the financial successes the Mountain City has achieved both during its Act 47 status and since its exit from the state program.

Nevertheless, as City Manager Ken Decker has noted, Altoona faces a projected $1 million deficit for 2021, half due to anticipated revenue loss due to the pandemic.

That information is evidence that Pacifico was not being “reckless,” the word Kelley used to describe the mayor’s concern. The city is not under a “black cloud,” as Kelley said, but “weather turbulence” might be lurking just over the horizon — a situation about which the federal and state governments need to be reminded.

Municipal leaders here and beyond should get aboard Pacifico’s example of frank, albeit unpleasant, bout with reality.

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