Altoona should take advantage of the freedom offered by home rule, if a referendum in the primary election succeeds and a government study commission recommends a shift to that form of municipal government, according to a pair of experts who spoke to City Council on Wednesday.
"I'd use it to expand your powers," said Rick Schuettler, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League. "You're restricted enough as it is."
Some municipalities have enacted their own brand of caps and limits under home rule, and those municipalities "haven't done anything to move those communities forward," Schuettler told council members, who called in the experts to help educate themselves and the public as the primary approaches.
The prospects of referendum success look good on one count - there are 11 candidates for the commission on the ballot, guaranteeing that if the voters approve the concept, there will be seven meeting the requirements to serve.
"One of the biggest mistakes [made by a few home rule communities] is not drafting in the broad sense," said Peter Marshall, a consultant with Municipal Resources Inc.
Create a form of home rule government that is overly restrictive, and municipalities put themselves in the position of Allentown and Lebanon, which had to resort to referendums to take advantage of the local services tax option several years ago, Schuettler said.
Home rule tends to promote citizen participation, Schuettler said.
Is there a risk the freedom home rule confers could turn out badly, if there's a bad batch of elected officials?
That's where democracy comes in, conferring responsibility on voters to elect good people, according to the experts.
"If you don't believe in democracy, stay with [the status quo]," Marshall said.
Marshall said he's been involved in local government for 40 years - including many years as a manager in home-rule State College Borough, and it was all good, he said.
"There's no evidence of more mischief," Schuettler said.
Altoona placed the referendum on the ballot in accordance with a recommendation in its Act 47 distress recovery plan that calls home rule "an [Act 47] exit strategy."
City Council has emphasized its desire to get out of distressed status as quickly as possible.
Home rule can help because it would allow the city to maintain Act 47-style relief from some state restrictions - especially caps on earned income and property tax - that would otherwise return if the city leaves Act 47 oversight under the current form of government.
Home rule is not a "panacea," however, the experts said.
It doesn't allow municipalities to get out from under many state laws, including one allowing for binding arbitration for public safety employees, the Sunshine Law, the unit debt act and statutes that determine the subjects of taxation, Schuettler said.
But home rule municipalities have the freedom to adjust taxes up or down, enact term limits, tweak the limits of authority for the manager and council, make a stricter ethics code, change the publishing requirement for ordinances, eliminate the office of controller, adopt an affordable housing requirement for residential development projects and change the project cost that triggers a requirement for bids, Marshall and Schuettler said.
Municipalities without home rule can only do what the state allows, while those with home rule can do everything except what the state prohibits, the experts said.
"It pulls some of that power back into the local community," Schuettler said of home rule. "It increases your autonomy."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.