Harrisburg’s mayor credits a local lobbying firm with helping the city chart a path out of Act 47 last fall, and now wants to retain the firm under a new agreement with a broader scope of work.
Harrisburg’s current $60,000, one-year contract with lobbying firm Maverick Strategies is set to expire at the end of January. In 2018, the firm helped the city secure bi-partisan support for legislation that will let Harrisburg exit Act 47, Pennsylvania’s financial oversight program, while retaining its current taxing authority for five years.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse is asking council to authorize a one-year extension of Maverick’s contract. Council already approved $60,000 for the agreement in the 2019 municipal budget.
Papenfuse explained to council last night that the legislation passed by state lawmakers in October is only the first hurdle in a long financial recovery process. In order to clear challenges that lie ahead, he said, Harrisburg should have a lobbyist on retainer.
For instance, Papenfuse said, the legislation that Gov. Tom Wolf signed for Harrisburg in October doesn’t include any provisions governing the state’s annual $5 million allocation to the city for fire and emergency services.
That figure is a perennial bargaining chip during the state’s budget negotiations, and city officials say Harrisburg can’t balance its books without it.
“Every year, it seem that $5 million is used as a political football,” Papenfuse said. “If we have Maverick on retainer, we can address any last-minute attempts to zero out the $5 million. If we don’t have them on retainer, we won’t be able to react quickly.”
He also wants Maverick to guide Harrisburg through the next steps of its financial recovery as outlined in the October legislation: adopting a five-year financial plan and working with a newly created Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, a five-member board that will oversee the city’s finances.
Papenfuse sees one other area where Maverick can exert pressure on state authorities: guiding Harrisburg through negotiations with PennDOT, which must approve the city’s infrastructure plans under its Vision Zero project – a long-term initiative to eliminate pedestrian fatalities across the city.
Among the projects that need state approval are the proposed “road diet” on upper State Street, which would eliminate traffic lanes and establish sheltered bike lanes, and the implementation of pedestrian improvements on Forster Street.
Both accident-prone roads are owned by the commonwealth and heavily trafficked by commuters.
Harrisburg officials have also pushed back against PennDOT’s proposal to widen I-83 to 12 lanes, saying it would increase congestion and eliminate taxable real estate.
“I think that we are moving towards a series of potential confrontations with PennDOT,” Papenfuse said. “These are political issues that would benefit a lobbyist assisting us, and they’re critical to the city’s future development.”
Papenfuse said Maverick can also help Harrisburg secure competitive state infrastructure grants, which could be instrumental to capital improvement projects under its new, five-year financial plan.
After the mayor and Maverick’s owners addressed city council last night, President Wanda Williams expressed disappointment that Maverick had not delivered quarterly reports to council over the last year.
“if you’re going to be a liaison for the city, you need to keep this council updated on what you’re doing and how you’re accomplishing it,” Williams said. “You’re asking for a contract, but I have no idea what your accomplishments were [or] how you did it.”
Maverick founder Ray Zaborney told Williams he happily would appear before council quarterly to provide progress reports. He also defended his firm’s record of advancing Harrisburg’s interests.
Zaborney and Papenfuse pointed out that Harrisburg was in a bleak position last summer after House Speaker Mike Turzai blocked a provision for Harrisburg from coming up for a vote in the state budget.
Building bi-partisan support for legislation that temporarily protected Harrisburg’s controversial tax rates was no small feat, Zaborney said.
“We’ve moved the city on a path out of Act 47,” he said. “I feel confident to say, without us, your taxing authority would have not been extended. It was hard to get it extended with us.”
Papenfuse said this morning that Maverick agreed to alter its contract with the city to require quarterly reporting and monthly, itemized invoices for services rendered.
Council’s next legislative session is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 29 at 6 p.m. in city hall.