The Brookings Insitution et alia come to some conclusions about the difficulties sufferred by Pennsylvania's municipalities......Wilkes-Barre included
Posted on Sun, Mar. 25, 2007
Municipal officials’ ‘hands tied’
Pa. economic future reports: State laws, structure of government work to stop towns’ cooperation, success
RORY SWEENEY email@example.com
WILKES-BARRE – Lights in downtown Wilkes-Barre, Nanticoke’s money troubles and the reason residents often think their municipal officials are inept – they all have something in common, according to three reports released by separate organizations about Pennsylvania’s economic future.
Confused? Not buying it? Keep reading. It’ll all come together, which, coincidentally, is just what the reports suggest local governments do.
Unveiled today by The Brookings Institution, the Pennsylvania Economy League and Penn State University, the studies all point to state laws that effectively prohibit local governments from working together to lower costs on services through economies of scale.
“It’s not a mismanagement issue. … It’s really more a matter of municipal leaders having their hands tied essentially by the structures that they’re bound to operate within,” said LeeAnne Clayberger of the PEL during a meeting Friday with the Times Leader’s editorial board.
The PEL’s report studied the fiscal health of 2,551 of the state’s 2,565 municipalities from 1970 through 2003.
It identified five stages municipalities follow toward distress, generally flowing from prosperity through new development, including low demand for services and low taxes. At the other extreme, municipalities face increasing taxes, declining revenues and services, and a shrinking tax base as residents move to more prosperous municipalities, she said.
“What our data shows is that this path toward fiscal decline is virtually inevitable given the set of tools that municipal leaders have at their disposal to raise revenue, to manage their municipalities” and control costs, Clayberger said.
The study found a “fundamental mismatch” between today’s mobile Pennsylvanian, who often works, shops, lives and recreates in different municipalities; and the state’s system to provide services and levy taxes, which is based almost entirely on where taxpayers reside.
“The resources aren’t really shared across the region or the broader community as much as they are isolated to the municipal boxes within which we live,” Clayberger said.
Act 47 ‘not effective’
Another interconnected trend the study identified is that better transportation routes don’t guarantee prosperity. While highway construction decades ago made some municipalities wealthy, the decline in new development since then has sent them into the distress spiral, Gerald Cross of the PEL said.
“The assumption is: build new roads, and you’ll have a healthy town. Not necessarily; in 40 years, you’re going to have a town in distress,” he said.
Pennsylvania’s Act 47, which is supposed to help distressed communities such as Nanticoke recover, “is not effective,” the study states. The study notes that of the 22 municipalities that have entered Act 47, only five have emerged, and all are still considered distressed. Nanticoke has been in Act 47 since May 25, 2005.
The study recommends modernizing the tools municipal officials can use, such as pooling health-care costs and creating state legislation that would encourage regionalization of services. It also suggests reviewing what taxes municipalities may levy, and laws governing municipal contracts to allow officials to “right-size” the amount of services with the tax base.
Likewise, the Brookings Institution’s study suggests “the state should have a much more light hand in regulating how local governments arrange their affairs,” said Mark Muro, a senior policy analyst with the Institution’s Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.
The study, sponsored by the Campaign to Renew Pennsylvania, an initiative of the land conservation and economic advocate group 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, was a three-year follow-up to a study the institution put out in 2003, which suggested ways to revitalize Pennsylvania’s communities.
“We laid out a stark array of troubling trends three years ago. I’d say those remain,” Muro said, but added there are some notable improvements.
While the “hollowing out of the state’s metropolitan and rural regions … clearly continued apace” since 2003, he pointed out, “for whatever reason there are people having confidence enough to renovate properties (so) to some extent, there are new signs of life in your older cities and boroughs.”
Such return to urban centers might reverse the trend of suburb flight that inverted local population dispersions in just 26 years.
For example, between 1978 and 2004, Crestwood High School in Wright Township went from a 2A classification in athletics to a 3A, while Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre went from a 3A classification to a 2A classification. Those classifications are based on school enrollment.
The report criticized the state for letting its economic strategy drift in recent decades, Muro said, and recommended continuing to court high-performing industrial companies while creating complementary “clusters” of development to provide a wide array of jobs that reflect the local economy.
Transportation must also be linked to better land use and development planning, and water and sewer construction must be paired to prevent “haphazard development,” Muro said.
Gov. Ed Rendell is taking steps forward with Growing Greener II and reinstating the State Planning Board, Muro said. He called the state’s Keystone Principles for Growth “a nationally significant effort to … make sure that the state’s activities support existing communities rather than … fueling sprawl,” but added that they still need to be “fully pervaded through every agency.”
The report highlights the revitalization of Wilkes-Barre’s downtown through collaboration with state, local and private agencies to develop the theater on Northampton Street, fill empty downtown buildings and bring streetlights back to Public Square. The report says the downtown turnaround “testifies to the power of focused reinvestment, supported by the Keystone Principles.”
Rebecca Sohmer, a senior research analyst with The Brookings Institution, outlined the Penn State University study, which essentially found that rural communities are “hollowing out” just as much as cities are in exchange for the same sort of suburban sprawl found around cities.
“What is clear in all of these reports is that property taxes doesn’t work” because they don’t grow proportionally with costs, said Luzerne County Commissioner Todd Vonderheid, who was there as a representative of Campaign to Renew Pennsylvania. “We are begged and encouraged by Pennsylvania’s current system to make land use mistakes … because it’s the only way we can raise revenue.”
If implemented in this area within a decade, the recommendations could increase incomes, economic diversity and public amenities beyond basic services, Muro said.
“You may not see $100 million in stormwater damage to public infrastructure,” Vonderheid said, striking a painful chord with local municipalities that are still reeling from the devastating November flooding. “You may not see rivers on streets running into people’s homes.”
FOR MORE INFO
The reports are available at http://www.issuespa.net/shc/shc.htm
Campaign to Renew Pennsylvania plans to hold eight roundtables throughout the state with civic leaders, legislators and the groups that created the studies to look at what solutions are possible. The groups are also working with state legislators to craft legislative solutions.
Rory Sweeney, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 970-7418.