In case you missed it: The week’s best reads from Pennsylvania cities

     Groundhog Club co-handler John Griffiths holds Punxsutawney Phil during the annual celebration of Groundhog Day on Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. The handlers say the furry rodent has failed to see his shadow, meaning he's

    Groundhog Club co-handler John Griffiths holds Punxsutawney Phil during the annual celebration of Groundhog Day on Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. The handlers say the furry rodent has failed to see his shadow, meaning he's "predicted" an early spring. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

    Tensions between cities, states and the federal government, plus, groundhogs!

    Lead in Pennsylvania

    Everyone has been following the news out of Flint, Michigan. But much of the follow-up coverage seems to be focusing on Pennsylvania, where lead poisoning has long been a problem. Unlike Flint, where the water contained toxins, most of the lead comes from the paint in Pennsylvania.  

    According to a press release from Governor Wolf, Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the nation for most houses built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned. Like asbestos, most lead paint is harmless until disturbed — it’s inhaling the dust, flakes and chips that’s dangerous, particularly for children. 

    Vox analyzed data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and found 18 cities where children tested positive for lead exposure at higher rates than in Flint. For comparison, 3.21 percent of children in Flint tested positive for lead. In Allentown, that number was 23 percent. And Philadelphia Magazine added to the discussion.

    Cities across Pennsylvania responded to this news. The Allentown Morning Call explained what you need to know about lead in your home, and pointed out the discrepancies in Vox’s data. Lancaster was quick to reassure residents that water is not the culprit — less than two percent of pipes in the city are made of lead. And the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat called this an “old problem that continues to plague communities,” including Johnstown, which ranked fourth statewide. 

    Stay tuned for coverage of this issue — and other public health issues facing cities in Pennsylvania — from Keystone Crossroads going foward.

    Cities vs. states

    According to the 2015 Menino Survey of Mayors, many cities have little affection for the states that govern them. The annual survey polled 89 mayors from around the country, a majority of whom felt their autonomy was limited by the state government.

    In a mathematical impossibility that indicates the level of pessimism, a majority of those mayors also felt they received less than average funding from the state. 

    The survey was anonymous, so it’s not clear where Pennsylvania mayors fell on the spectrum. But it’s easy to see some state-city tensions across the commonwealth. 

    Take the municipal pension system. PERC, the Pennsylvania Employment Retirement Commission, is the state agency that oversees all the local pension systems. The agency analyzes data and determines how much state aid to distribute to municipalities. 

    Or, rather, it used to do all that. Governor Wolf shut down the agency, effective Feb. 12. It’s not yet clear what the fallout will be or how pensions will be affected. But in a state with a crumbling pension system, this move is likely not being well received on the local level. 

    As we reported this week, some state laws also prevent cities from adapting quickly to changing demographics. Many cities need to hire bilingual police officers to help with the growing Latino population, but can’t modify state civil service exam rules as needed. In Reading (60 percent Latino, police force is 13 percent bilingual,) it took a federal lawsuit to change the rules. Other cities might benefit, like Allentown (42 percent Latino, 5 percent bilingual) or Hazleton (40 percent Latino, 2.5 percent bilingual.)

    Cities + the feds

    As a whole, the Menino Survey found that mayors feel much less antagonized by the federal government, and much less antagonistic as a result. They still wanted more funding, but the mayors felt Washington was more hands-off when it comes to city affairs. 

    Take HUD, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are part of a pilot program that gives them far more freedom to spend HUD dollars as needed, rather than according to federal guidelines. 

    “The idea of the program was: the federal government doesn’t have the answer to every city,” said David Weber, Chief Operations Officer of Pittsburgh’s housing authority. “Let’s let the localities figure out what works best to serve this population in their local market based on their local conditions.” 

    In Pittsburgh, that freedom has allowed Mayor Bill Peduto to dream big. He has proposed a program that would turn 30 years worth of rental assistance into homeownership instead. It’s just an idea at this point, but if the idea comes to fruition, it could change how cities view Section 8 vouchers entirely. 

    Groundhog – shadow

    Most of the snow has been cleared from roads and intersections around the state, but those massive piles may never truly leave us. Some (truly opportunistic) urban thinkers say those snow piles could serve as inspiration for a whole new way of thinking about city planning. 

    If you’re not as passionate about snow piles as those (incomprehensibly optimistic) urban planners, don’t worry: Tuesday was Groundhog Day, and there are good signs that spring is just around the corner.

    As we’ve reported, Phil draws quite the crowd to the small, western Pa. borough (burrow?) of Punxsutawney. This year, just a week after a record-breaking snow storm, the groundhog didn’t see his shadow, predicting an early spring.

    It is, of course, hard to believe that a groundhog can predict the weather. If you’re not so easily convinced, here’s a little more rodent-based evidence to sway you.

    In Pennsylvania, Lancaster County checked in with Octararo Orphie, who agreed that spring is on its way. General Beauregard Lee voted to end winter in Georgia. And Staten Island Chuck, formally known as Charles G. Hogg, concurred with his rival groundhogs around the country.

    Finally, a tip of the hat to Winnipeg Willow, the Canadian counterpart to this strange tradition. After six years of predicting the weather, Willow went to her forever burrow in the sky just a few days before Groundhog Day. Her understudy, Manitoba Merv, will take over responsibilities going forward.

    That’s not something we have to worry about in Pennsylvania. According to legend,* Punxsutawney Phil is the same groundhog that’s been predicting the weather for 130 years, and he’ll never die. 

    *Keystone Crossroads was unable to fact check this claim at this time. Phil did not immediately return calls for comment. 

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