Blight Poses Challenges For Distressed Cities

Locator map of the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre Metro...

Locator map of the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre Metropolitan Statistical Area in the northeastern part of the of . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scranton is a city of 76,000 people with a housing stock largely built before 1940 for a population almost twice that number.

It has the blight to prove it.

As the financially strapped city struggles to combat blight and the host of ills it fosters, Scranton finds itself in a position common among many Rust Belt communities: many old buildings, too few people willing or able to keep them up and limited resources to press aggressively for a comprehensive solution.

The region’s other two major cities, Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton, are dealing with similar issues, though their circumstances don’t precisely mirror Scranton’s.

Read more: http://citizensvoice.com/news/blight-poses-challenges-for-distressed-cities-1.1744585

Moody’s Upgrades Pittsburgh’s Bond Credit Rating

A map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with its nei...

A map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with its neighborhoods labeled. For use primarily in the list of Pittsburgh neighborhoods. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Moody’s Investors Service upgraded Pittsburgh’s bond rating outlook from stable to positive Thursday, which Mayor Bill Peduto called a sign of improved financial health.

“The positive outlook reflects the steps the city has taken to reduce its long-term liabilities,” Moody’s wrote.

Along with the outlook upgrade, Moody’s affirmed its A1 rating on approximately $530 million in outstanding general obligation debt.

Standard & Poor’s ratings agency this week announced it is maintaining the city’s A+ bond rating, city officials said.

Read more: http://triblive.com/news/allegheny/6582680-74/peduto-plan-rating#ixzz39oyVSUz9
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York Mayor Kim Bracey: 5 Game Changers That Could Save York (Column)

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting York County

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting York County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the 2015 budget season approaches, it is my duty to talk straight about our city’s fiscal challenges and pension legacy costs that have been growing since before the turn of this century. While laying out the dire conditions, leadership requires us to hold out meaningful hope by advocating for bold measures. Long term fiscal game-changers can stabilize our property taxes while enabling us to continue providing quality public services and infrastructure that our people deserve and demand.

At times, I feel like a night watchman of earlier centuries who witnesses a spreading fire and vigorously shouts and rings the bell to alert citizens of the imminent crisis. During the last two city administrations, we’ve been warning of the growing fiscal crisis for 13 years, and we’ve done as much as we can internally to make our budget process transparent, to seek sound recommendations from outside experts, to cut costs, and to be fiscally responsible. The list is extensive.

• In 2003, under Mayor Brenner, our city initiated its first open budget hearings, an annual tradition that continues to this year.

• In 2006, our city was one of the very first in the state to enter the Department of Economic and Community Development’s Early Intervention Program, which provided an analysis of York’s finances by outside experts. Their analysis concluded that York’s financial controls and management were strong but that systemic constraints beyond its control were leading to out-of-control costs. Recommendations included implementing a parking tax, which was done.

Read more: http://www.ydr.com/letters/ci_26165619/kim-bracey-5-game-changers-that-could-save

Local Services Tax Could Triple Under Act 47 Plan

HARRISBURG — People who work in Scranton and other distressed municipalities could see a $52 annual tax triple under a new Senate amendment.

Lawmakers want to steer Act 47 municipalities to levy a higher local services tax as an alternative to a commuter tax.

The distressed cities legislation cleared a first Senate hurdle Wednesday with a comprehensive amendment added by the Local Government Committee.

The committee’s action is the latest step in an effort to overhaul the Act 47 program for fiscally distressed municipalities. Scranton, Nanticoke, West Hazleton and Plymouth Twp. have Act 47 status. Shamokin is seeking to enter the program.

Read more: http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/tax-could-triple-under-act-47-plan-1.1705643

Broke Shamokin, Pa., Seeks State Crutch That Few Cast Off

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Northumberlan...

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Northumberland County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Reuters) – Shamokin, Pennsylvania, tucked away in the coal country about 120 miles northwest of Philadelphia, has $800,000 of unpaid bills and can’t get a loan from a bank. It’s so broke, the gas service to city hall was temporarily cut off last month.

So the council for the city of 7,000 residents has agreed to seek entry to a state financial oversight program dating from 1987 that facilitates access to credit and permits the levying of certain taxes. Now, though, some lawmakers say the program is more like a trap than a benefit: municipalities get into it, and few get out.

Just seven of the 27 local governments to enter state oversight under the program, known as Act 47, have ever been released from it. As a result, legislators want to cap how long cities can stay under state oversight and, in the hardest cases, impose a municipal death penalty that amounts to disincorporation and a state takeover. The law was passed in a bid to help Pennsylvania cities battered by the decline of the American steel industry in the 1970s and ’80s.

Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/news/Broke_Shamokin_Pa_seeks_state_crutch_that_few_cast_off.html#CTx13mYx3Q210qd0.99

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Scranton Wants To Declare Bankruptcy

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Lackawanna County

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Lackawanna County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

SCRANTON, PA — When Detroit filed for bankruptcy, hundreds of residents took to the streets to protest what they saw as a drastic approach to fixing the city’s budget problems.

But in this hilly town of 76,000 in northeastern Pennsylvania, residents have a different view of Chapter 9: They want the city to declare bankruptcy. And soon.

“The silent majority would like to see bankruptcy,” said Bob “Ozzie” Quinn, president of the Scranton and Lackawanna County Taxpayers Association. “Basically, it’s down to a point where people cannot afford to pay the taxes and are moving out of town.”

Faced with a $20 million deficit, Scranton had to do some tricky maneuvering to balance its budget and avoid defaulting on loans. Most of this maneuvering has involved increasing taxes and fees paid by the people who still live in the town, which has seen its population drop by half since the 1930s.

Read more: http://www.timesherald.com/general-news/20140111/scranton-wants-to-declare-bankruptcy

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New Pittsburgh Government Set To Launch As Peduto Has Laid Out Some Lofty Goals

A map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with its nei...

A map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with its neighborhoods labeled. For use primarily in the list of Pittsburgh neighborhoods. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Saturday, incoming Mayor Bill Peduto began his move into the mayoral wing on the fifth floor of the City-County Building in advance of today’s inauguration, when he will officially take the reins of city government.

The Rev. Terry O’Connor, son of the late Mayor Bob O’Connor and brother to Councilman Corey O’Connor, blessed the space with a sprinkling of holy water. The floors were mopped.

For a man who has pledged to “clean up city hall” and who gave his victory speech while clutching a broom, it was an apropos entrance.

Mr. Peduto has expounded on that theme for more than a year, calling the administration of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl corrupt and saying that the city needs to move away from the old-style politics if it wants to progress. And if he holds to his campaign pledges, he will represent a monumental shift in both style and substance in the mayor’s office.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2014/01/06/New-Pittsburgh-government-set-to-launch-as-Peduto-has-laid-out-some-lofty-goals/stories/2014010601030000000#ixzz2pdpIux3L

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10 Years Later, Is Pittsburgh Really Climbing Out Of The Red?

A map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with its nei...

A map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with its neighborhoods labeled. For use primarily in the list of Pittsburgh neighborhoods. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ten years and four months ago, then-Mayor Tom Murphy stood before a cadre of media to deliver grim news.

By the time he stepped up to speak, eyes moistened with tears, Pittsburgh city government had been sputtering along like an airplane held together by duct tape, according to a former finance director. But now the plane was about to take a nose dive — with the possibility of bankruptcy hovering.

“I hate doing this,” Mr. Murphy told the reporters.

He announced plans to lay off 731 city workers — including police officers — and leave hundreds more positions unfilled. All but six city pools would be drained and closed early — along with 19 recreation centers that were, in many places, critical gathering spots for sports and community events. Later that year, the city’s credit rating would be downgraded, making it the only major American city whose debt was rated “junk.” A fifth of the city’s budget went to pay off old debt.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2013/12/29/10-years-later-is-Pittsburgh-really-climbing-out-of-the-red/stories/201312290057#ixzz2or2K9BKS

As Scranton Mayor, Doherty Leaving, His Mark Affixed

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Lackawanna County

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Lackawanna County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For an evaluation of Mayor Chris Doherty’s 12 years in the top city job, listen to his chief critic.

“Overall, the mayor did a very good job. He had a vision for the city and, by and large, I think he fulfilled that vision,” city council President Janet Evans said.

This is the same Janet Evans who spent the better part of her 10 years as a councilwoman ripping Mr. Doherty for one shortcoming or another at weekly council meetings.

Not that Mrs. Evans is done criticizing. She still thinks Mr. Doherty borrowed too much money, should have negotiated contracts with the city’s police and firefighter unions instead of fighting a losing and costlier arbitration battle and needed, in his later years, more experienced cabinet members.

Read more: http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/as-mayor-doherty-leaving-his-mark-affixed-1.1608177

U.S. Steel’s Lower Taxes Causing Budget Headaches

U.S. Steel

U.S. Steel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A succession of successful tax appeals by U.S. Steel earlier this year, resulting in the assessed value of some of its major properties in Allegheny County plummeting by millions of dollars, has put big dents in municipal and school budgets.

The drop in real estate tax revenue has prompted three school districts — Woodland Hills, Clairton and West Mifflin — to file court challenges to the appeals granted to U.S. Steel by the Allegheny County Board of Property Assessment, Appeals and Review, and is pushing Braddock to consider an earned income tax increase.

Ira Weiss, solicitor for the Clairton City School District, called U.S. Steel’s new assessments, which resulted in the value of its coke plant in Clairton dropping from nearly $10.6 million in 2012 to just above $2 million this year, “laughable.”

“We believe the approach of [U.S. Steel] in these appeals with these communities where they’ve been longtime partners is deplorable, really,” Mr. Weiss said. “It was devastating. … [Clairton's] a small school district in a small town and no local government can sustain this kind of hit from an ongoing concern.”

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/local/east/2013/11/30/U-S-Steel-s-lower-taxes-causing-budget-headaches/stories/201311300091#ixzz2m9CxWD00

Scranton Landlords, Homeowners And Renters Brace For Tax Hikes

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Lackawanna County

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Lackawanna County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

University of Scranton students Bridget McVeigh and Ashley Opalka are apartment hunting with two criteria in mind: proximity to campus and lower prices than the university’s dorms.

The pair were alarmed city landlords are poised to hike rents in response to a proposed 2014 Scranton budget that would raise property taxes 56.7 percent, garbage fees 68.5 percent and rental registration fees from $50 to $150 per structure and $15 to $50 per unit.

Landlord Carol Smurl said she tries “to be compassionate to the tenants because they’re on a fixed income,” but she and her husband cannot afford to absorb that kind of increase.

Normally, Mrs. Smurl waits until tenants move out to raise the rent or tries to delay passing increased costs on for two to three years at her nine properties.

Read more: http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/scranton-landlords-homeowners-and-renters-brace-for-tax-hikes-1.1590772

Scranton Mayor Proposes 56 Percent Property Tax Increase; 69 Percent Garbage Fee Hike

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Lackawanna County

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Lackawanna County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With wary banks watching Scranton‘s finances closely, Mayor Chris Doherty today proposed a $130.5 million budget for 2014 that would dramatically raise real estate taxes, the garbage collection fee and parking-meter rates and penalties.

Read the budget HERE

A real estate tax increase of 56.7 percent would be one of the largest, if not the largest, tax hikes ever in the city. A trash collection fee increase of 68.5 percent – from the current $178 a year to $300 a year – would be the largest garbage fee hike ever.

The large spikes are all necessary to close a $20 million operating deficit for 2014 and restore the city’s creditworthiness with lenders, Mr. Doherty said.

Read more: http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/scranton-mayor-proposes-56-percent-property-tax-increase-69-percent-garbage-fee-hike-1.1586481

Act 47 Cities Elect New Mayors Amid Changes

Map of Pennsylvania, showing major cities and ...

Map of Pennsylvania, showing major cities and roads (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

HARRISBURG – New mayors have been elected in four large cities under Act 47 status just as lawmakers are giving greater attention to urban fiscal issues.

Election Day brought victories to Democrat Bill Courtright in Scranton, Democrat Bill Peduto in Pittsburgh, Democrat Eric Papenfuse in Harrisburg and Republican Matt Pacifico in Altoona.

The mayors-elect came to office by various routes and campaigned on issues specific to their cities, but once in office they will face common problems with a shrinking tax base, greater demand for municipal services and the skyrocketing cost of unfunded pension obligations for municipal employees.

It could help matters that new elected spokesmen for cities will be on the scene while state lawmakers consider a wave of legislation to help municipalities address financial problems.

Read more: http://citizensvoice.com/news/act-47-cities-elect-new-mayors-amid-changes-1.1582982

Courtright Wins, Mulligan Concedes Scranton Mayor’s Race

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Lackawanna County

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Lackawanna County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Republican Scranton mayor nominee Jim Mulligan has conceded defeat as Democratic city Tax Collector Bill Courtright won the right to run the city the next four years with a strong victory in the hotly fought contest.

“We’ve got to fix this city,” Mr. Courtright said from a stage in his downtown headquarters. “You know I’m humbled that the people of this city have once again voted for me and had the faith and trust in me and I’m thankful for that.”

With 41 of 48 city precincts reporting,  Mr. Courtright, a Democrat, had 7,646 votes, or 57.4 percent to Republican nominee Jim Mulligan’s 5,866 votes, or 43.1 percent. The rest are write-in votes.

Read more: http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/courtright-wins-mulligan-concedes-scranton-mayor-s-race-1.1580674

Reading May Not Cut Commuter Tax Or Earned-Income Tax

Map of Berks County, Pennsylvania, United Stat...

Map of Berks County, Pennsylvania, United States with township and municipal boundaries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading City Council members who weeks ago tentatively agreed to a slight drop in earned-income and commuter taxes have now changed their minds; they want both taxes to stay flat.

The difference would mean an extra $1.2 million in annual revenue – mostly from commuters – and council is focusing on the 2015 and 2016 budgets that have gaps of more than $10 million each.

Council President Francis G. Acosta, who is against the move, said he was surprised when a poll of council members Monday showed five in favor of keeping the tax flat.

But he and other council members said they don’t want the extra 2014 revenue to be used to hire more people at City Hall, but rather be put in the contingency fund, or be reserved for 2015 and 2016.

Read more: http://readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=517020

PEL: Scranton Faces $20 Million Deficit Next Year; Needs To Raise Taxes

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Lackawanna County

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Lackawanna County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scranton city government’s budget outlook for next year continues to worsen as the city now faces a possible deficit of nearly $20 million for 2014, according to the city’s financial-recovery coordinator.

That state-appointed Act 47 coordinator, Pennsylvania Economy League, also urges the city to craft a “realistic and responsible” budget for next year that closes the structural deficit and lists as options unspecified hikes in both the real-estate (property) and earned-income (wage) taxes, and an increase in the city’s annual garbage fee.

“I think the letter speaks for itself,” Mr. Cross said in a phone interview. “It shows where the city is in terms of recovery-plan progress and shows the challenges that we always spoke of for 2014 being a challenging year.”

Read the letter here

City Business Administrator Gina McAndrew said the 2014 budget is in the works. She would not rule out any increases in taxes or fees but declined to say what may be under consideration.

Read more: http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/pel-scranton-faces-20-million-deficit-next-year-needs-to-raise-taxes-1.1566385

Reading City Council, Administration Haggle Over Several Issues At Budget Meetings

A 1947 topographic map of the Reading, Pennsyl...

A 1947 topographic map of the Reading, Pennsylvania area. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How essential are the nine full-timers and three part-timers that Mayor Vaughn D. Spencer wants added to the proposed 2014 budget, including a media manager, a post that was so controversial last year?

Does the city want to keep $500,000 on reserve yet another year for the Central Pennsylvania African-American Museum’s proposed expansion, or use that money to spruce up parks?

Is the city’s outside consultants’ report – on Spencer’s plan to shift the property tax to a land-value tax – an endorsement of that plan?

Should the city drop earned income and commuter taxes by 0.1 percent as planned, or keep them flat because of coming budget woes?

Read more: http://readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=515907

Moving Harrisburg Forward Might Be Impossible Without Settling Present

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Dauphin County

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Dauphin County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The forum was supposed to focus on the future of Harrisburg. And to a large extent, it did. But the reality of city’s present casts a long shadow over any discussion in the capital these days.

At some point in the next three months, it is likely the Harrisburg recovery plan, whether you support it or not, is going to go into effect, essentially eliminating the city’s massive debts and putting its government back on the path to some form of solvency.

How much it is able to carry that past the next four years remains unknown. But the future of the city, whether it stagnates or begins a new renaissance, will largely be in its own hands, unencumbered from debt obligations.

At its core, argues developer Ralph Vartan, is a simple equation. Of the 58,000 people who work in the city, only about 10,000 live in the city. That is further unbalanced by the fact that over the last several decades the regional population has almost doubled, while Harrisburg’s has stagnated.

Read more: http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2013/09/moving_harrisburg_forward_may.html#incart_m-rpt-2

Ravenstahl Releases Proposed $479 Million Budget For Pittsburgh For 2014

English: Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) meets with P...

English: Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) meets with Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl posted a proposed 2014 operating budget and five-year plan to the city website this morning in advance of a budget presentation his staff will give to an oversight board.

Councilman Bill Peduto, the Democratic nominee for mayor and the favorite to take the city’s top job in January, submitted his own budget to the administration a few weeks ago. He suggested the creation of several new positions that were included in Mr. Ravenstahl’s budget proposal, but categorized “as needed.” The positions are a part of an overhaul of the mayor’s office and other city departments.

“We need a strong structure to see reform happen,” Mr. Peduto said.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/local/neighborhoods-city/ravenstahl-releases-proposed-479-budget-for-pittsburgh-for-2013-704679/#ixzz2fqbtEUBf

Spencer Announces Plan For Reading Development Corporation

A 1947 topographic map of the Reading, Pennsyl...

A 1947 topographic map of the Reading, Pennsylvania area. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mayor Vaughn D. Spencer announced his plan Wednesday to form a community development corporation dedicated solely to the city.

He said that in the past Reading has not taken a unified approach to attracting development.

Spencer added that efforts to develop Reading historically have been carried out by state or county development authorities, where the city isn’t always the top priority.

He said recent efforts generated by the city, like the Main Street designation and the purchase of properties in the 400 block of Penn Street, will soon become the purview of the Reading Community Development Corp.

Read more: http://readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=512694