State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Senate Dems say state assistance crucial to turning around struggling cities

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Dec 18, 2012 5:04 PM
Thumbnail image for Harrisburg Capitol building with fountain

Democrats in the state Senate have unfurled a long list of legislative proposals that could help the state’s many cash-strapped cities.

The challenges facing the municipalities in or verging on financial collapse are well-known to lawmakers, who held hearings earlier this year on the shortcomings in the state’s Act 47 program, written more than 25 years ago to help communities on the brink.

“We know the problems,” said Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna). “It’s not like it’s some mystery to us. We know what these problems are.”

Dwindling industry and commerce. A shrinking tax base. Urban blight. Unsafe neighborhoods.

The caucus’s suggestions for revitalizing local economies and neighborhoods rely heavily on tax incentives and targeted grants.

“Some of it might take state tax money which… at this point in time, obviously is going to be very, very difficult to access,” said Sen. John Wozniak (D-Cambria).

But Blake reeled off a list of distressed and nearly-distressed cities – like Scranton, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Allentown – as he argued the case for using state tax dollars to help them.

“These cities are at the heart of regional economies – the center of government, the center of culture, the center of health care, the center of academia,” he said. “And as they go, so do the regional economies. And they need state assistance.”

Other proposals include allowing cities to collect higher fines for certain crimes, nixing certain state mandates to let cities hold onto a bit more of their revenues, and requiring more coordination between local governments and school districts in distressed cities.

Also in the mix are proposed reforms to the municipal fiscal rehab program itself.

“Act 47 shouldn’t be a fancy funeral for a community. That’s what it is today. It needs to be re-written,” said Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny). “It’s local government hospice, is what it amounts to.”

Only boroughs that have entered the Act 47 program have left it, while every third-class city that’s been declared financially distressed has remained so.

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