Last night, shortly after 10 p.m., sirens began to wail in my neighborhood, getting nearer to my house until they seemed to be almost on top of it.
In Harrisburg, this sound is not unusual, but these sirens seemed to combine into a single force, coming at me from all directions. And as the volume increased, so did my concern.
I looked out my back window and could see a plume of smoke rising, maybe a block or two away. I put on shoes, grabbed a jacket and hurried out the door.
The fire was actually three blocks away, with two houses already engulfed, a wall of flame at their backs, and, in front, a stiff wind drove embers and acrid smoke across Maclay Street. I took some video, posted it to Twitter, then took in the scene around me: the onlookers, the neighborhood kids who had gathered, the trucks and hoses up and down the street, the many blinking lights. I was impressed, as I always am, by the precision work and professionalism of Chief Enterline’s men, who bravely beat back the flames, saving the entire block from certain incineration.
As I stood there, several other thoughts ran through my head: the safety of the people who lived in these rowhouses, what caused the fire, what the block would look like afterwards, if the houses were owned by “investors” and if they were up to code.
I also thought of a story that had broken several hours earlier—that the state legislature is trying to eliminate “Capitol fire protection” funding from the 2017-18 state budget. This is the money—$5 million in recent years—provided to Harrisburg to protect the Capitol complex’s 40 buildings, a sort of payment in lieu of taxes since the state pays no property tax on its massive holdings in the city.
This payment has been something of a political football over the years. Under former Mayor Steve Reed, it ranged from nothing to a few hundred thousand dollars a year. Former city receiver William Lynch and his people tried to standardize the compensation, arriving at the $5 million figure as a fair price for a year’s fire protection and, let’s be honest, a host of other services the city provides.
Several years ago, when Harrisburg’s financial recovery agreement was hammered out, I was surprised that this payment was not an explicit part of the deal, duly inked and signed. I asked Lynch about it, and he said that he had received assurances from the state that it would continue. I thought it was misplaced hope, and, as it turns out, it didn’t take long for state legislators to renege on whatever gentleman’s agreement Lynch thought he had.
Without a signed deal, this problem was inevitable. For Republicans, the fire protection payment is an easy cut to make, since it doesn’t affect their constituents, and they can even boast back home that they stuck it to Harrisburg (even if, in a weird meta, “Harrisburg,” to their constituents, doesn’t really refer to the city but to the loathed politicians that they themselves elect and send here).
And maybe the payment became even more precarious after the city, denied a commuter tax by the legislature, upped both the earned income tax and the local services tax. However, these taxes shouldn’t be conflated. Workers, not the state itself, pay the LST and EIT. The fire protection payment is really a substitute for a property tax, helping to fund the city’s Fire Bureau (and other vital services) so that the state can safely and confidently go about its business each and every day, including within the priceless Capitol building. That’s no small matter, and it’s not cheap.
In any case, Harrisburg’s representatives are now in the terrible position of having to re-secure that money every year, using every mode of influence they have. And the city is in the terrible position of not knowing if it will receive those funds, which threatens both its fiscal sustainability and its ability to provide high-quality emergency services.
Meanwhile, it’s not like Harrisburg is living large. This money is going to the most basic of services, ensuring that, when that terrible day comes (and it will) that a fire breaks out in a state-owned building, the Harrisburg Fire Bureau will be there, on site, within minutes, with the resources to do its job. Without those state funds, Harrisburg will have to lay off firefighters, Mayor Eric Papenfuse said.
Last night, I watched the fire on Maclay Street with a number of my neighbors, some from Midtown and some from Uptown. One woman cried as she spoke on her phone, describing the horrifying scene to a friend. She later told me that she lived in a house at the end of the row that was on fire.
I thought it was unfortunate that powerful people—members of the state legislature—weren’t also there to witness this tragedy. Then maybe fire protection wouldn’t be some abstraction or a number on a budget spreadsheet that can just get crossed out. They could see for themselves how high the stakes are—what is really at risk—and witness the heroic, critical work of Harrisburg’s firefighters.