It was a bit of a snow news week.
The big dig out
The top story of the week, undoubtedly, was the (nearly) record-breaking snowstorm that tackled the eastern and central parts of the state. After (nearly) record-breaking warmth in December, the first major snowstorm of the season finally showed up in late January.
Besides trapping people in their homes, cancelling school and causing a bottleneck on the Turnpike, the storm ended up costing cities a lot of money.
Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse estimated that private plow contractors alone cost more than $200,000. The city of York spent almost all of its annual snow removal budget on this one storm.
Officials in other cities weren’t sure what to do with the sheer quantity of snow. If you’re near the Pottstown train station, look for the snow mountain — but no rush. Public Works director Doug Yerger told the Reading Eagle “it will be there until May probably.”
Truth is, cities aren’t the best venue for snowfall or snow plowing. As Lancaster mayor Richard Gray told Keystone Crossroads, “it’s one of the prices we pay for living in a densely-populated, walkable community…unfortunately, 30 inches of snow doesn’t bring out the best.”
Thirty inches of snow doesn’t bring out the best in anyone, particularly — it turns out — Philadelphians. Here’s the difference between Philly and D.C., in two parking spot “dibs” signs.
Big day in court
A settlement was reached this week between the state and the ACLU on the issue of incarcerating the mentally ill. The ACLU claimed that there were mentally ill inmates being held in Pennsylvania prisons without treatment for more than a year. Federal law says they can’t be held without hospitalization for more than a week.
Pennsylvania is coming under fire for other mental health issues as well. In December, the state faced another lawsuit alleging that three people with autism or mental health issues were kept in jail because there wasn’t room in community-care facilities.
But, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, the problem may not be solved by just increasing capacity. Across the state, doctors often struggle to find beds for psychiatric patients, even if they are available. There is no real-time database of hospital availability, meaning healthcare providers often have to call around until they can find an opening.
Nationally, more than 1,500 juvenile inmates facing life-sentences could see those decisions lessened, thanks to a decision by the Supreme Court. Nearly a third of those young people are located in Pennsylvania, thanks to the state’s interpretation of the law. Newsworks Tonight spoke with a Temple law professor about the change.
Big water concerns
Residents and community activists have been complaining about the water in Flint, Mi. for months now. The issue is finally getting serious attention and national media coverage. If you’re not familiar with the story, Michigan Radio made a great radio documentary on the whole situation — a month before other news outlets showed up.
A perfect storm of factors united to create this calamity in Flint. But other cities might not be far behind. Philadelphia may have used similar, if not more suspect, testing methods to evade detection of lead. And post-industrial cities and suburbs are particularly in danger of succumbing to decaying infrastructure.
Many Pennsylvania cities are already making tough choices when it comes to their water supply. As we’ve reported, leasing or selling the water authority to a private company can earn the city a big windfall — or a much bigger headache.
In Coatesville, the cost of water went way up for the mostly low-income residents. And the city quickly spent most of the $48 million they earned from the sale.
Scranton, along with the next-door borough of Dunmore, is considering a $195 million payday in exchange for their sewer system. The system needs $140 million in repairs, which they wouldn’t have to pay once it’s leased out. But Dunmore isn’t happy about funding Scranton’s recovery, and one sewer authority board member has resigned in protest of the city council’s control over the entity.
So, what does it take to get clean, safe, affordable water? This CityLab article argues the best guarantee is to, well, not be black in America.
The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania issued their five legislative priorities for the year on Monday. Number one, of course, is budget impasse related: they want counties to be treated like state offices and funded during any future budget delays. They also plan to focus on funding for mental health services (not a moment too soon, it seems), among other human services.
The group has pledged to get more state support for county-level Child and Youth Services. New post-Sandusky laws have increased the caseload, and yet CCAP’s Vice-President Doug Hill says, “that line was virtually flat funded this year.”
In Centre County, they’d be happy to see any funding, flat or otherwise. The county is preparing to dip into its reserves to keep Child and Youth Services up and running during budget negotiations. They are $3 million short.
And big challenges
Managing corruption isn’t an easy task, particularly in Pennsylvania. But some cities do have one resource that they aren’t tapping into: anti-pay-to-play legislation. This would stop political donors from bidding on city contracts, creating a firewall between fundraising and special treatment.
Allentown has recently joined the short list of cities that prevent pay-to-play with these laws. While in Washington, D.C. for a mayoral conference, Mayor Ed Pawlowski said the new laws are slowing down the city’s economic growth. Pawlowski himself is under investigation by the FBI in a pay-to-play scheme.
Have you been watching the stock market act a little crazy recently? Market fluctuation doesn’t just hurt your personal investments. It can hurt municipal pension funds as well. Many pension plans saw a three to four point drop in 2015. Fingers crossed for a more successful 2016.
P.S. Some big changes
Keystone Crossroads has a new homepage! We’ve got all the same great content (and that same great green color) but it’s much easier to enjoy. Besides our daily content and feature stories, you can find our in-depth series on the homepage. If you’re looking for a refresher on pensions, housing or waterfronts, it’s now right at your fingertips.