A Harrisburg City Council member had stern words for Harrisburg’s mayor on Tuesday night.
Ben Allatt, council vice president and budget and finance committee chair, criticized the mayor’s recent, failed attempt to secure Harrisburg special tax provisions from the state legislature and his subsequent decision to declare a fiscal crisis in the city.
Allatt called the mayor’s public statements “irresponsible,” saying they caused unnecessary alarm and confusion among residents.
He also criticized the mayor’s falling out with House Speaker Mike Turzai, who blocked a special provision for Harrisburg from coming to vote on Friday.
“The exchanges between the mayor and the speaker were less than professional,” Allatt said. “We do not need greater tension between the city and the state.”
Allatt said he is committed to working with the legislature to help the city exit Act 47, a state program for financially distressed municipalities. Harrisburg’s Act 47 designation expires in September.
Papenfuse declined to respond to Allatt’s remarks. He reiterated that Harrisburg is facing dire financial problems if the state legislature does not grant it special taxing authority and spare it from entering an Act 47 extension.
He also elaborated on the hiring freeze and spending freeze that he declared on Monday. He said that 14 positions have been frozen and will remain unfilled, including seven represented by bargaining units:
- Data Tech
- Landscape Specialist
- Central Support Specialist
- Park Ranger
- Auto mechanic
The remaining seven positions are categorized as management roles:
- Background investigator
- Confidential secretary
- Deputy director for planning and zoning
- Deputy fire chief
Papenfuse said that the city expects at least a dozen employees to retire by the end of the year. They will not be replaced as long as the city remains in a hiring freeze, he said.
City officials met today and yesterday to evaluate spending on capital improvement projects, but Papenfuse declined to say which ones could be curtailed.
Papenfuse introduced the austerity measures to prepare Harrisburg for the eventual loss of $12 million in annual revenue from its earned income tax and local services tax. Act 47 allows the city to levy those taxes at extraordinary rates – a power that Harrisburg will lose if it exits the program.
Harrisburg can keep its current taxing authority if it obtains a one-time, three-year extension to stay in Act 47. But that extension will also require the city to adopt a new recovery plan, developed jointly with the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
That plan must be based on current state law, which means it will likely recommend the city draw down its fund balance and cut spending to prepare for a mandatory Act 47 exit in 2022.
Marita Kelley, the city’s Act 47 coordinator, declined to comment today on the details of the recovery plan. It will be released as a draft on July 9.
City officials, including Allatt, have said that Harrisburg cannot pass a balanced budget without augmented taxing authority. The only way for the city to have a sustainable future outside of Act 47, they say, is for the state legislature to pass a special provision exempting Harrisburg from the standard state tax code.
Harrisburg entered a yearlong, $60,000 lobbying contract this year in hopes of securing legislative change.
The city intends to renew its lobbying in September when the legislature returns from recess.