Friday, December 17, 2010

Core Communities Blueprint For The 21st Century To Save Our Cities And Towns

If you are reading this, it's likely that you live in or own property or work in a city or town.  Or maybe you remember the hustle, bustle, and magic of your county seat or downtown when you were younger.

Like many, you are probably concerned with rising property taxes and an imminent municipal pension crisis, a massive after-shock to the mortgage earthquake of the 2000s.  

It's sad to say, but many of Pennsylvania's mid-to-small size cities and towns -- over 1,000 in the Commonwealth alone -- and many throughout the nation are in decline.  World class cities, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, God bless them, benefit from special state enabling legislation, flexibility, and political and financial support that their less famous siblings do not have.  The irony, is that Pennsylvania's 54 largely neglected cities represent metropolitan areas of over 5 million people.  That is the equivalent of nearly 16 Pittsburghs.  

This series of seven essays examines why our cities and towns are fiscally dying, politically neglected, and starved for development and job creation, while revealing some practical solutions to benefit millions of people.   

The series also details the inadequacy of current state remedies to resuscitate these once strong core communities.  One thing is for sure:  if we don't implement comprehensive real-world solutions soon, these cherished communities will continue to dither and decline, while our kids and grandkids will move out of state.  

The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way. 
As such, the final four essays in the series propose ten reform measures in the form of a Pennsylvania Core Communities Blueprint For The Twenty-First Century to enable our cities and struggling towns in the geographic “T” of Pennsylvania – the regions outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and mostly in the center, northwest, and northeast of the state -- to reach fiscal stability and succeed.  Note that this crisis transcends Pennsylvania, and these reforms are applicable to other states.

The archive of the seven essays to tee up the geographic "T" of Pennsylvania appears on the lower left-hand side of the blog's homepage.  There, readers can link to each of the seven.  Readers also can access all seven essays by scrolling down the homepage.  Be sure to click on the "Read more" link at the end of each essay to see the essays in their entirety.  

The series' premise is that the bulk of the chronic fiscal struggles of our small cities throughout the geographic “T” of Pennsylvania neither originate, nor are fomented at the local level.  They are not based on local financial mismanagement.  Consistent statements and reports from independent, objective experts of the Pennsylvania Department of Economic And Community Development, the Pennsylvania Economy League (Structuring Healthy Communities Case Study), and Public Financial Management bear this out.  Rather, the dismal fiscal conditions of our cities largely are due to uncontrollable market forces,  an over-dependence on regressive property taxes, an unwieldy crazy quilt form of government, and a lack of enabling legislation passed by the General Assembly and the executive branch.

Our state has neglected the cities in the “T” of Pennsylvania for too long while their structural deficits keep growing.   On the part of all of us, this is a sin of omission and nonfeasance, not commission or malfeasance, as a slumbering citizenry as well as a lack of state enabling legislation and cost-curbing pension and arbitration reforms, for example, have straitjacketed our cities and their leaders for some time.  Now, cities are drowning in red ink like never before.   

For five decades, we idly have stood by, watching virgin green-spaces become devoured by suburban flight and permissive zoning, while many of our core communities in the geographic "T" of Pennsylvania have become warehouses for our counties' poorest, our truants and dropouts, our failing schools, our gun violence, our blighted properties, our abandoned industrial brownfields, our homeless, and our tax-exempt properties. 

On December 15, 2010, the state admitted our capital city, Harrisburg, into its distressed status program under Act 47, officially called the “Municipalities Financial Recovery Act of 1987.”   Because of its peculiar financial situation, especially its large incinerator debt, Harrisburg as the poster child for this statewide dilemma is somewhat distracting and misleading.  At the same time, because it is the state capital, Harrisburg's entrance into the program poses an opportunity for sustained attention to these issues and, ultimately, comprehensive state legislative reform.

The ongoing saga of the City of Harrisburg has been well publicized regionally, nationally, and even internationally, but the issues are too often cast as those of local fiscal mismanagement or political squabbling, or centered on incinerator debt, or purchases for an ill-fated Wild West Museum. 

The incinerator debt certainly is pertinent to Harrisburg's financial situation.  So is the fact that some cities, in the 1980s and 1990s, did not adequately pay into their pension funds against future obligations at the same times that attractive plans were negotiated with public safety unions.   

These factors undeniably have affected the bottom-line of cities' finances.

In the grand scheme of ongoing fiscal declines of small cities throughout the entire state wrought by systemic inadequacies, structural deficits, and unfunded mandates, these issues are, however, over-dramatized.   

Better questions might be the following.  If Harrisburg, with skyrocketing pension costs, structural deficits, and 49% of the value of its properties being tax exempt, was not bridled with its incinerator debt, would Act 47 still be a distinct possibility if not eventually a foregone conclusion?   

Another question would be, regardless of what was not done in the past regarding its public safety pension investments, would precipitous property tax increases still have hit the City of York and its citizens throughout the last 20 years?  The answer is absolutely yes.  

And would Act 47 still be a distinct possibility for the City of York?  Again, the answer is yes.  

Trying to make sense of the fiscal mess of their respective cities, some otherwise reasonable citizens and media blame mayors and councils -- past and present.  Grasping for answers and moral clarity, as most of us do, some unfortunately develop fish bowl mentalities and question, quarrel, and criticize in parochial, political echo chambers.  It is easier to look inward at our communities and dramatize, judge, and personalize local politics or cite one issue instead of dispassionately observing the big picture – the state-created and statewide trends and the multitude of factors that pre-destine many cities to indefinite fiscal distress.  

Parochial Political Echo Chamber Psychosis or PPECP can be defined as the overwhelming drive to attach a person's name to a problem and to judge that person for what he or she supposedly did.  We have a strong psychological need to judge a particular person or small group of persons for a problem that affects or is perceived to affect us.  We do this even if the problem has several systemic, or unforeseen , or long brewing causes, the personalities are diffuse or their names are for the most part unknown (i.e., our large General Assembly,  with 253 members consisting of a Senate with 50 members and a House of Representatives with 203 members, one of the largest and most expensive in the nation), and the problem occurred because of someone else's or some other entity's inaction or apathy.    

Yet the present fiscal crisis transcends our little burgs, continues to sweep across the state, and threatens to overwhelm many of our cities and towns, bringing all of us down with them.

Ironically, moral outrage, questions, and demands would be better directed to state elected officials because, at the local level, despite their commitments and competencies, the Burgermeisters, council members, and local emperors have scant clothes.  

Simply put, the odds are overwhelmingly against our cities’ admirable public servants because of the cities’ systemic deficiencies, structural deficits, and, in effect, unfunded mandates.  

For many of our struggling core communities, a mayor, business administrator, and city or borough council with the combined leadership talents, financial wizardry and acumen, and fiscal discipline of Alexander Hamilton, Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Suze Orman, Clark Howard, and Dave Ramsey could not usher these municipalities into eras of financial self-sufficiency. 

Based on the overwhelming evidence, the issue should be interpreted and cast as the systemic fiscal declines of small cities and towns throughout the entire state.  These declines have been brewing for decades because of a largely lethargic, unimaginative state legislature that has not given our local municipalities the tools that they need to right their financial ships, stabilize property taxes, invest in infrastructure, and maintain public safety levels so that the free market can flourish and neighborhoods can rebound.

Combined, the ten proposals – Ten to Tee Up The “T” – in the columns that follow represent a balance of aggressive private development incentives (i.e., incentives that small cities cannot currently offer without state authorization or enabling legislation), coupled with prudent revenue tools and comprehensive, cost-cutting pension reform. 

Combined, the ten proposals will go a long way in helping core communities to stabilize their property taxes, rebuild aging infrastructures, clean polluted sites, transform waterways and rail corridors into assets, preserve historic architecture, revitalize local housing markets, spur widespread private reinvestment, and improve bond ratings.  Although some of the proposals are innovative and bold, all are aimed at conservative ends -- restoring our county seats and boroughs to their traditional roles as powerful economic engines meshed with charming, tight-knit neighborhoods.

Shared With Pennsylvania League Of Cities And Municipalities, Regional Alliance of Third Class Cities of Central Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Economy League, Commonwealth Foundation, And Many Others In 2010

As part of our crusade to restore our cities and towns to their historic prominence, throughout the last six months of 2010, these essays have been shared with approximately 500 mayors, civic leaders, the National League of Cities and Municipalities, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, the Executive Committee of the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities (“PLCM”), PLCM’s Core Communities Task Force, the Regional Alliance of Third Class Cities of Central Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Economy League, regional chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, Keystone Research Group, YorkCounts, Building PA/Good Schools Pa, urban experts, such as David Rusk, professors, business leaders, editors, reporters, colleagues, and associates.  The responses from many of these individuals and institutions have been positive and heartening.

In addition, an abridged version of the series' third essay, "Act 47 Emergency Room Admitting More, But Not Rele...," was published in the Sunday, December 19th edition of the Harrisburg-Patriot News, which has a Sunday circulation of over 140,000 readers and is in the top 100 in daily/Sunday circulation in the nation.  

Our goal is to help to spark a candid, rational, and robust public dialogue on how to save our cities and towns in and beyond the geographic “T” of Pennsylvania and that these specific proposals – many of them original or new to Pennsylvania -- will be incorporated into a meaningful state legislative package that is passed and signed into law to get our cities and towns back on their feet and running again.  

While our cities need revenue options and tools as well as meaningful local pension reform, they should not lie down and play the role of victim.  They still have life and lives to serve.  Despite the five diseases from which our aging, smaller cities suffer (see the series’ second essay, "Cities On Life Support Need Doctor Harrisburg To C..."), they will never have heart disease.  These scrappy cities have a lot of heart and a lot of fight in them.  They should not resign themselves to defeat and die on the vine while passively hoping for state enabling legislation to provide new revenue infusions.  The stakes are too high, and our people and local economies deserve more now.
To counter-act the competitive disadvantages of high property tax rates, concentrated poverty, and physical barriers to entry, aggressive incentives and decentralized flexibility and options to curb sprawl and jumpstart core communities’ economies are proposed.   Aggressive incentives, some of which will not cost the state any implementation dollars, are crucial to the viability of our community cores and should be part of any meaningful reform package.  Such incentives also are needed so consolidation of services and modest boundary changes are not perceived as threats to adjacent municipalities and their citizens, but are increasingly seen as being in the enlightened self-interest of metropolitan areas. 

Some well-intentioned, exasperated city backers tend to over emphasize Pennsylvania's crazy quilt form of government, throw their hands in the air, and say that the only answer to save our smaller cities is in regionalizing and consolidating municipalities.  During dark days, I was one of them.  In doing so, we overlook the shared services prospects, excellent real estate bargains, proximity to good workforces and transportation, rich architecture, and prime development tracts that our core communities presently offer. 

The reform agenda, then, must be a comprehensive balance of aggressive incentives and development programs coupled with a healthy diet of reasonable revenue tools and cost-cutting reforms.  The "Ten to Tee Up The 'T'" are intended to be a full, complementary group of ten, as the first five will not be nearly as effective without the last five, and vice versa. 

Citizens, residents, business owners, and developers are smart.  They see and know of the potential, but they are getting increasingly frustrated.  They want and demand comprehensive, bold reform, not tinkering at the edges, not piecemeal reform, not bandages over a serious, contagious infection, not kicking the can down the road, and not perpetual management, sugarcoating, and scapegoating of fiscal declines.

Ultimate Goal: Core Communities Legislative Caucus Advancing A Core Communities Blueprint For The 21st Century

Our ultimate goal is that a bi-partisan, first-ever Core Communities Legislative Caucus, instead of discussing piecemeal reform one measure at a time, endorses a first-ever legislative package or agenda – A Core Communities Blueprint For The 21st Century, Core Communities Contract To Tee Up The “T” In Pennsylvania, Sustainable Cities Strategy For the 21st Century, or Core Communities Contract With Pennsylvania.

For the record, the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities came up with and endorses the concept of a Core Communities Legislative Caucus. 

It is important that this caucus be earnestly bi-partisan because Pennsylvania is neither a red state, nor a blue state; it is purple.  Without bi-partisan support, it is hard to fathom a comprehensive legislative agenda being passed. Short of that, our core communities will continue to founder during the next four years and beyond.

It also is important that the legislative priorities be packaged together and not be advanced in piecemeal form.  There is not one single legislative initiative of silver bullet that will save our struggling cities and towns.  Rather, a comprehensive, clear agenda of five “Cs” -- high nutrient Carrots (aggressive tax abatement programs and other no-cost-to-the-state incentives to spur private development), Curbs, containments, and cuts (comprehensive retiree pension and arbitration reform that consolidates local plans, takes into account communities' fiscal condition, and curbs long-term pension and health care liabilities and costs),  Catalysts (grants, low interest loans, tax credits and other programs seeded by the state), Capabilities (revenue options and cost cutting reforms), and Commonsense (a shared acknowledgment that our core communities, representing five million in their Metropolitan Statistical Areas, are too big to fail) is needed.

You Are An Important Part Of This Movement To Save Our Cities And Towns

If nothing is done, a massive train wreck is assured.  As much research firepower, civic education, citizen support, and legislative and executive leadership as possible will be needed to help our struggling cities and towns stave off fiscal declines and to right their ships so their residents, workers, and supporters experience a better quality of life and one without the generational stigma of “distressed status.” 

You are an important part of this movement to save our cities and towns, and, if you agree with some or all of these proposals, contact your state legislators, all members of your county delegation, and allies and colleagues to help mount a grassroots reform revolution that will benefit current and future generations in the long neglected “T” of Pennsylvania. 

I am just one citizen.  So are you.  Together, we are two canaries in a coalmine, but hundreds of canaries can create a chorus that rings the ears of those who affect our futures. 

Now we can multiply our numbers.  Now we are equipped with the facts and a solid set of solutions.  Now is the time to send a shared message to demand what is right, what is good, and what is smart for all of Pennsylvania. 

An urban development, strategic planning, and public relations consultant, Matthew Jackson is the author of The Crisis: A Plea From York Town To Save Our Cities And Towns.

SPECIAL THANKS.  These seven essays would not be possible but for the facts and figures provided by C. Kim Bracey, Mayor of York, and Michael O’Rourke, York's Business Administrator, as well as our many conversations.  Further, the House Majority Policy Committee’s hearing on economic development in third class cities at Sovereign Bank Stadium in York in early 2010 proved to be an excellent launching pad for some of the series' observations and pleas elaborated.  Thanks to House Representative Mike Sturla of Lancaster and Representative Eugene Depasquale of York for organizing that hearing.  Barbara Jackson, Mark Jackson, John Brenner, Director of Development for the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities (PLCM), Reading Mayor Thomas McMahon, Rep. Depasquale, Louis J. Appell, Jr., Tom Donley and Bob Jensenius of the York County Chamber of Commerce, Mark Whitman, John Krout, Chair of the York County Industrial Development Authority, Attorney Keith Hassler, Bill Swartz, III, urban expert David Rusk, Dave Svec, Christopher Manifold, Doug Heim, and Bob Wingert receive my gratitude for their unwavering moral support, consistent  communication, and quality suggestions.  York Economic Development Director Kevin Schreiber, Public Works Director Jim Gross, Theresa Colvin of the Maryland State Arts Council, Fred Reddig and Harry Krot of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development,  Karen Arnold of the Pennsylvania Historic Museum Commission, and Rick Schuettler and Amy Sturges of the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities provided important details and verified or corrected me on key facts.  Finally, leaders of and colleagues with the Pennsylvania Center for Progressive Leadership Fellowship program provided remarkable support and insights.  No citizen is an island, least of whom me, and these essays were guided by many steady, strong hands, and I apologize in advance if I have omitted anyone. Thank you all!   Sincerely, Matthew Jackson

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