Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Dissimilar City: None of these things are like the others.

Illustration by Rich Hauck

How similar is Harrisburg to other cities in Pennsylvania?

For instance, how similar is Harrisburg to places like Oil City, Shamokin and Cory?

I ask because this issue arose repeatedly during the state legislature’s joint hearing in late September on whether to allow Harrisburg to retain the special taxing privileges it enjoys under Act 47, the state’s program for financially distressed municipalities.

For some state Assembly members, the subtext was this: What makes Harrisburg so darn special? Why should it have rights not extended to the commonwealth’s other small cities?

I felt that this line of questioning was crafted to be critical, posed by legislators reluctant to allow the city to retain its current, elevated local services tax (LST) after it departs Act 47. Nonetheless, it’s a good question.

So, then, is Harrisburg different from the other 55 or so cities in Pennsylvania? Yes, it is. Very.

Harrisburg is the state capital. Its small population doubles every day, meaning that it needs to provide—and pay for—services well beyond those needed by its own residents. Moreover, about half of its property can’t be taxed due to state and nonprofit-owned land. It has a large service economy and a high poverty rate.

Those are just a few of the many ways that Harrisburg is different.

But Harrisburg hardly stands alone in its uniqueness. Take a trip across this vast state. Travel from artsy Lancaster to struggling Carbondale to woodsy Bradford. Go from touristy Bethlehem to rapidly changing Hazleton to tiny Arnold.

You may enjoy your journey; you may not. But you certainly won’t come away thinking, “Wow, these cities in Pennsylvania are so alike.”

Truly, there’s just one thing that ties together these extremely different places. They share the most superficial of links—a definitional one—what the state terms a “city.”

Now, it wasn’t always like this. For a long time, the state’s small cities did share a set of commonalities.

In the early 19th century, they were largely county seats and market towns, centers of population and commerce surrounded by vast acres of farmland. Many later became industrial boomtowns—oil for Bradford and Oil City; coal for Shamokin and Carbondale; steel and railroads for Harrisburg and many others.

Many similarly shared a fate on the back end of the boom—depopulation, disinvestment, financial distress. People and wealth once concentrated in these places migrated out to the surrounding townships, spurred on by state and federal housing, road and transit policies that favored new, dispersed suburbs over old, dense cities.

Most cities became shells of their former selves and many ended up, like Harrisburg, in Act 47.

Fast-forward to today, and cities like Harrisburg, Farrell, McKeesport, Monessen, Lock Haven and Easton have virtually nothing in common with one another. Over the past 50 or so years, Pennsylvania’s smaller cities have become delinked. Some are doing relatively well, others aren’t. Some have become service-oriented, while others remain largely industrial. Each is trying to find its own way forward based on its distinct location, history and situation. It’s therefore illogical to force them to abide by the same set of fiscal rules.

In “Communities in Crisis,” a report released last year, the Pennsylvania Economy League, a nonprofit policy organization, described an alarming “fiscal decay” among the commonwealth’s cities and urged the legislature to take action.

“The fiscal situation on average in cities has deteriorated, and many are likely experiencing distress regardless of whether they are in the state’s Act 47 program,” the report stated.

The report advocated a wholesale re-examination of the rules governing local government in Pennsylvania, possibly including greater taxing flexibility.

As stated above, Harrisburg is an especially unique case. Here, a small, largely poor population pays to provide services to a huge number of mostly better-off, suburban commuters—who often work in buildings that also cannot be taxed.

Under state code, Harrisburg can charge these workers an LST of just $1 per week each. However, because it’s been in Act 47, Harrisburg has been able to tax them a bit more—$3 per week. This small financial boost has worked. Service levels are returning, and the city is experiencing an economic revival as it’s set to emerge from a historic financial crisis.

While that solution worked for Harrisburg, I don’t presume to know what works best for Beaver Falls, Hermitage, New Castle, Sunbury or Wilkes-Barre, small cities vastly different from one another. But I do know this. The leaders of those cities understand the needs of their communities better than distantly domiciled state legislators, much less the Stetson- and Oxford-clad gentlemen of another time who promulgated the current code, who never could have imagined the dire future of the state’s small cities.

Harrisburg, Altoona, Butler, Connellsville, York, Washington, Williamsport—they are all unique places, despite the shared designation of “city.” The commonwealth should allow them maximum flexibility in setting their own rules and guiding their own futures.

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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