“We might be here all night, folks.”
So warned Harrisburg Councilwoman Susan Brown-Wilson, who led a line-by-line analysis of the city’s proposed budget, part of a marathon of budget hearings that covered half-a-dozen meetings, several delayed votes and about 24 hours of total time.
It was December 2010. And though there were no all-nighters, some of the sessions did stretch well into the late evening.
Fast forward three years.
Last night, Brown-Wilson rushed into council chambers an hour late as hearings began on the 2014 spending plan, apologizing to the assembled room for her tardiness.
Shortly afterwards, Councilman Brad Koplinski, now the chairman of the council’s Budget and Finance Committee, banged the gavel and declared, “This meeting is adjourned.”
Brown-Wilson had been in her seat for only about 30 minutes before the one and only budget hearing concluded. No marathon, no line-by-line, no barrage of questions directed at the administration, no public displays of acrimony between branches of government.
Just one person testified for much of the hearing. Public Works Director Kevin Hagerich deflected numerous questions about the logistics of relocating his department from Harrisburg Authority property to a site on the 1600-block of N. Cameron Street after the sale of the incinerator closes in about three weeks (the department is expected to relocate to its new home by March 1).
In the process, council members returned to their favorite current topic–the privatization of the city’s sanitation services, with Councilwoman Sandra Reid indicating that the bidding process would be reopened in January, nixing the administration’s selection of Republic Services. That, she said, would delay possible outsourcing for another six months, maybe more.
But why a rather pro forma, 90-minute hearing last night versus the multiple sessions from three years ago that dragged on for weeks? One word: receiver.
In 2010 (and 2011), City Council and the administration were in an undeclared war against each other. Council members picked apart Mayor Linda Thompson’s budget because they didn’t trust the administration’s priorities or the accuracy of its data.
For her part, Thompson denounced the 2011 budget that the council passed at the last minute, just before the Dec. 31 deadline, as a threat to citizens’ health and safety. She outright vetoed the 2012 plan, saying it was illegal, politically motivated and a threat to public welfare.
In contrast, this year’s budget process was almost a non-event. Thompson didn’t even attend her own budget presentation last month, and most council members were missing for this single budget hearing.
The budget almost certainly will be reopened in January, after Mayor-elect Eric Papenfuse is sworn in to office. To his credit, he was among a handful of non-administration and non-media attendees last night, sitting in the audience, taking copious notes.
However, don’t expect many changes to the $78.2 million spending plan. In the words of Councilman Bruce Weber, this budget has been “scrubbed” by receiver William Lynch. It reflects the work of his financial team, as much as the administration, and it’s been given his approval.
As Thompson plays out her final month in office, nothing much has changed in City Hall. Council and the mayor still don’t really trust or like each other, as evidenced by recent controversies over the Comprehensive Plan, bad water meter readings and trash outsourcing.
However, they’ve both come to trust the work of the receiver’s team. This non-controversial budget reflects a belief that the spending priorities and numbers are good ones, that the expectations for revenues and expenses are solid, and that the budget conforms with the precepts of the Harrisburg Strong recovery plan.
It took the financial recovery team–Lynch, former receiver David Unkovic, many others–a long time to get their heads around Harrisburg’s twisted finances. However, after two years, the receiver’s office seems to have tamed the beast, unraveling decades of financial tangles then putting the whole thing back together again. The ease of the budget process demonstrates official confidence in this work.
In the course of his efforts, the receiver has linked the two feuding bodies. They still have little regular contact, but he stands between them, connecting them through common cause. Last night, Lynch wasn’t at the hearing, but his presence was imprinted on the page. He was the man in the middle, the person gluing together the entire budget process.