Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Burg Blog: New Year, New Mayor

Harrisburg Mayor Wanda Williams speaks at Monday’s swearing in.

On Monday morning, Wanda Williams was sworn into office as the 39th mayor of Harrisburg.

Since then, a number of city residents have asked me what we might expect of the new administration.

My response has been twofold.

First, I said that, on some level, we don’t know what to expect. Every new administration—local, state, national, whatever—is something of an unknown. It will be several months before we can begin to assess how the mayor goes about her job: how she implements her priorities, how she manages the city’s workforce, how she relates to City Council.

If I remember correctly, I said something similar eight years ago and even wrote a column assessing the Papenfuse administration six months in.

Having said that—Williams is not an unknown quantity, as Eric Papenfuse, a newcomer to elected office, was back in 2014. Williams has served on council since 2006, including two terms as president. To some extent, Harrisburg is what it is today because of decisions she’s made and legislation she’s backed. Therefore, I don’t expect a major departure in direction, though some change is certain.

And that brings me to the second part of my response.

At her swearing in, Williams told us exactly which policies she would emphasize. During a brief, seven-minute speech, she outlined four priorities:

  • Enrichment opportunities for youth
  • Affordable housing
  • Better roads and bridges
  • Improving the city’s dysfunctional, aged sewer system

In my opinion, these are right on point. Harrisburg, of course, has many needs, but a mayor, faced with financial and other constraints, needs to prioritize. These four areas, in particular, stand out as vital and within the reasonable domain of city government. Success in these will require sustained focus, funding and effort throughout her term.

In a way, Williams is fortunate as she assumes office, with the city in strong financial shape. In addition to having money in the bank, Harrisburg has $48 million waiting to be allocated from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), with perhaps even more money coming from other federal and state programs, including the recently passed federal infrastructure bill. Cities always face tough challenges, but I would argue that the wind currently is at Harrisburg’s back, strongly.

It remains to be seen exactly how Williams will go about allocating funds and implementing her priorities. In her speech, while discussing affordable housing, she mentioned helping residents achieve “the American dream.” I translated that to mean that she would try to encourage homeownership, an effort that I strongly support.

For ARPA-financed projects, the administration will need to move quickly, as the window to use those funds expires in just a few years. So, I expect we’ll know more soon about how that money may be allotted.

In her speech, Williams didn’t mention one other item that I expect will be a priority for the new administration—what to do with the city’s long-term debt.

Last year, the Papenfuse administration and Williams (backed by other city officials) had a prolonged dispute over how to retire the city’s remaining general obligation bonds. Papenfuse wanted to refinance them over 10 years, while Williams advocated paying them back more aggressively.

In the end, Williams’ position won out. Harrisburg made a large pre-payment in November, but didn’t refinance the rest, leaving the city with a debt load of about $19 million. The new administration and council, as one of their first acts, now will reopen the 2022 budget, which should offer insight into just how fast they can—and will—settle most or all of the remaining debt.

Near the end of her short inaugural speech, Williams said, “Now is the time to turn away from politics and focus on the real work that we must do together.”

Absolutely. For too long, Harrisburg has had mayors who’ve taken things too personally and made the job too much about themselves. Going forward, this city needs a healthy dose of “we” among its top leadership.

Lawrance Binda is co-publisher and editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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