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

     The Midtown Scholar bookshop is one of eight properties owned by Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse near two bars the city has labeled nuisance businesses.  (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    The Midtown Scholar bookshop is one of eight properties owned by Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse near two bars the city has labeled nuisance businesses. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Started from Monday, now we’re here. 

    Preserving the past

    There’s no denying that Pennsylvania has a lot of old buildings, some of which are falling into disrepair. At the Keystone Crossroads Urban Ideas Worth Stealing conference, a panel of experts discussed preserving those buildings for the future. 

    That doesn’t have to mean rebuilding an old steel mill to be…an old steel mill. Often, preservation means turning an old space into a new place, one that can appeal to the next generation of residents. Take SteelStacks in Bethlehem, which is now a community space, arts campus and concert venue. The designers managed to retain the look and feel of the steel industry without all that steel production getting in the way. 

    The key, according to the panelists, is to identify which spaces can be brought into the future and incorporated into the plan for the city. Otherwise, you get a lot of one-room museums people visit once and then forget about, according to Mindy Crawford, executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania. 

    But planning for the future

    Pennsylvania is the second-most flood prone state in the nation and many of those old buildings weren’t built with climate change in mind. Another panel at the event focused on how to build resilient cities, ready to withstand changes of the future. 

    Christine Knapp, a panelist from the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, said the forecast for the future is warmer and wetter. Philadelphia is focusing on preparing government buildings and city facilities for the extreme weather that could be headed our way. Lycoming County is working with homeowners, and Dauphin County is strengthening its stormwater management systems. Across the state, cities and counties are grappling with the effects of climate change — those that are already here, and those that are on their way.  

    For Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, the kickoff speaker at the conference, these are important conversations. But not as important as the one thing people hate to talk about: pension reform. Pennsylvania’s municipal pensions are underfunded by about $8 billion, and it’s only going to get worse. 

    When DePasquale said that Pittsburgh had 1.5 retirees for every active duty police officer and firefighter, the crowd audibly gasped. If they weren’t concerned already, that did it. Progress is slow in Harrisburg when it comes to pensions, but DePasquale said it was a priority for his office. 

    Back to back budget delays?

    Education funding was one of the major sticking points in last year’s nine-month budget impasse. And though a budget did eventually pass without the governor’s signature, how we fund public schools is still a contentious issue in Pennsylvania. 

    The Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia is suing the state, saying they have broken their constitutional promise to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to students. 

    And Republicans have introduced another education issue: layoff laws. Republican leaders proposed a new system of laying off teachers that would reduce the influence of seniority. Public schools in Pennsylvania operate on a ‘last in, first out’ policy, but Republicans would like to see other factors considered, like test scores.  It would also change the conditions under which schools can layoff teachers. Despite getting enough votes in the legislature, Wolf vetoed the bill this week. Republicans have promised to include the issue in any future school funding talks. 

    Pennsylvania has among the worst disparities between school districts when it comes to per-pupil funding. If we wanted to fix this issue once and for all, just how much would it cost to fully fund Pennsylvania’s public schools? Just $3.2 billion, according to a study done by the Public Interest Law Center. If you find that between the couch cushions, Gov. Wolf’s office number is 717-787-2500. 

    That Midstate bling

    Harrisburg mayors, yes, plural, are on their worst behavior. Or are they? 

    Former mayor Stephen Reed had hundreds of charges against him dropped by a judge this week. More than 300 counts of bribery, corruption and rackateering were dropped after Reed’s lawyer argued the statute of limitations had run out. There are still 140 charges pending.

    The Attorney General could still appeal the decision, since it was a technical reading of the law. The statute of limitations is already extended for public officials, but the question is when the clock starts ticking: when the crime is committed, or when the official leaves office. 

    Current mayor Eric Papenfeuse came under fire this week because he owns eight properties near two bars the city is trying to shut down. The city has declared them nuisance properties, saying they are havens for crime and prostitution. On a tip from a reader, PennLive dug into property records to identify where Papenfeuse family properties are in relation to the bars in question. 

    Their conclusion? Pretty darn close. But causation and correlation are two different things, according to Papenfeuse, who fired back at the paper the next day. The mayor said his property ownership was already well-known, and many other companies have complained about the bars. The police chief made the final decision to suggest the bars for closure, according to the mayor’s office. 

    Meanwhile, Lancaster is getting both richer and poorer, according to a new report from Pew. The middle class is eroding in the county, and recent events aren’t helping. Lancaster’s Southeast neighborhood has been the target of a lot of funding, state, federal and local, to improve housing and decrease poverty. But just as those programs were beginning to show signs of success, funding cuts slashed the progress. 

    As preservationists know, you can’t go forward until you understand what’s behind you. LancasterOnline did a deep dive into how Southeast came to be the struggling pocket of the city it is now. Racial segregation, housing discrimination and urban renewal projects gone awry left Southeast behind the rest of the city. 

    The Mayor’s Commission to Combat Poverty has been trying to reverse some of those trends, particularly in light of a Franklin & Marshall study earlier this year that found the city’s growth has been limited to certain areas. And the county is dealing with different issues, like sprawl. 

     

     

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