Corruption, pensions, collapsing industry and, of course, snow.
Allentown City Council voted unanimously Wednesday night to ask Mayor Ed Pawlowski to resign. The city is under investigation by the FBI over pay-to-play schemes, or trading favors and contracts for campaign contributions. While Pawlowski has not yet been charged (unlike three other city officials) the FBI has described the alleged ringleader as fitting his description.
The resolution said the investigation has “brought the city into disrepute.” City Council Vice President Daryl Hendricks said, “the mayor has become ineffective in leading our city, and we want to make that very clear to the public.”
Pawlowski was not at the vote as he was representing Allentown at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. He released a statement, printed in the Morning Call, saying, “a bedrock principle of our justice system is that everyone, which includes Mayors, councilmen, reporters and the public, are presumed innocent. I certainly hope this concept has not been suspended in the city of Allentown.”
Pawlowski doesn’t have to step down, despite the no-confidence vote. According to the city’s charter, he can remain in office until he is convicted of a second-degree misdemeanor or higher, or the council determines he has committed “malfeasance in office.” That’s defined as an “unlawful act committed willfully by an elected official in his or her capacity in that position.” The council has not yet made that claim.
Last year, Keystone Crossroads did a series called “Pennsylvania pensions: Is the promise broken?” It’s worth checking out because, unfortunately, the pension issue isn’t going away in Pennsylvania.
Just this week, the Auditor General released a report about Johnstown, where pension plans are only 45 percent funded. That qualifies the plan as “severely distressed.” The city needs to amend benefits for new hires and create a recovery plan — neither of which city officials have done yet.
When the Auditor General tweeted about this report, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto shot back, writing, “All of Pa.’s older, core communities require comprehensive pension reform. Rules are made at state, not local, level.”
But state level pension reform hit a roadblock this week as well. The Public Employee Retirement Commission (PERC) had it’s budget zeroed out by Governor Tom Wolf. In addition to contributing a quarter of a billion dollars a year into pension funds, PERC monitors and analyzes data from those funds. Wolf says the program is redundant, thanks to the Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement System (PMRS) which can take over most of the duties.
PMRS division chief Anthony Pinto said he was “a little baffled” by the changes.
Oh, the country’s industrial base
Birmingham, Alabama is a bit out of our coverage zone. But the city, once called the “Pittsburgh of the South,” has closed its last blast furnace. And no one knows the end of the steel industry better than Pittsburgh. We asked city officials, urban planners and academics what lessons other cities can take from Pittsburgh’s experiences.
That advice might apply closer to home as well. The aptly-named borough of Steelton may be losing the ArcelorMittal steel plant that has operated there since the 1800s. Both the borough manager and the United Steelworkers local president confirmed that the plant was for sale. ArcelorMittal is still the city’s largest employer, even as the steel industry has declined nationwide.
And, while we’re at it, coal isn’t doing so great either. The unseasonably warm winter led many Pennsylvania coal companies to slow production or idle workers completely. Rosebud Mining Co. has idled 429 employees from 20 mines across the state. Now that the cold has arrived, and seems to be here to stay, demand for coal may once again rise, putting some of those miners back to work.
The slowing — and stopping — of coal mining operations is what sent many of the cities and boroughs in Northeastern Pa. into Act 47, the state program for distressed municipalities.
Mahanoy, a borough in Schuylkill County, is the latest municipality to ask the state to intervene. Borough manager Daniel Lynch said, “there aren’t many borough where most people’s homes are worth less than the cars they drive.” That’s a problem for residents and the borough itself. Look for Mahanoy coverage from Keystone Crossroads in the coming weeks.
In Chester County, 40 percent of housing choice voucher recipients live in the city of Coatesville. But a housing choice voucher is supposed to offer just that: choice. HUD and cities sometimes implement “mobility programs” that help recipients move beyond the high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods that are top of mind. But when Philly and Delaware, Montgomery and Chester County tried to work together to start a mobility program, drama ensued.
If you’d rather not wait for cities, counties and the federal government to work together, there is a faster option. Pittsburgh is getting involved in the real estate crowdfunding world. The idea is simple and appealing: you and your neighbors throw some money down and see your community develop. Unfortunately, federal law makes it a bit more complicated.
Much like the pensions series, we’ll never truly be done covering housing here at Keystone Crossroads. But visit the homepage for Locked Out and see all the blogs, radio stories and videos we’ve done so far in one place.
And, finally, oh, snow
Remember when it was 65 degrees on Christmas day? That’s over, folks. Governor Wolf has declared a state of emergency in preparation for the weekend’s snow storm.
Meanwhile, up north, Erie just won second place for snowiest city in America, after Sioux Falls, S.D. The city has already had 33.6 inches of snow this year, and January isn’t even over yet.
So, while you’re stocking up on bread, milk and eggs (plus syrup for the French toast you must be making,) remember that your terrifying #Snowmaggedon2016 goes by another name in Erie: winter.