Taxes, local control, full-time mayor: Altoona citizens to vote on home rule

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     Altoona citizens will be able to vote for or against a new home rule charter in the November election. (Anna Foley/WPSU)

    Altoona citizens will be able to vote for or against a new home rule charter in the November election. (Anna Foley/WPSU)

    Altoona asks voters to decide whether the city will become a home rule municipality.

    In the upcoming election, the citizens of Altoona won’t just get to vote for a governor or senator, they’ll also decide whether they want to change their current form of local government from Third Class City code to home rule. A home rule designation essentially transfers authority over local matters from a code dictated by state law, to a local charter that’s drafted, adopted, and amended by citizens. Keystone Crossroads’ Kate Lao Shaffner spoke with Wayne Hippo about what a home rule designation means and how it might help a financially distressed city. Hippo chairs the government study commission elected and tasked with examining home rule as an option for the city and drafting a charter. Hippo says, “Home rule gives you the option to return some power to the local people, as opposed to waiting for Harrisburg to change and adapt to the times.”

    Altoona’s an Act 47 city. It’s officially declared financially distressed. Is the home rule designation intended to help with the financial recovery process?

    Absolutely. It was one of the recommendations that we explore this possibility. This is a big step in trying to get out of the Act 47. A lot of us weren’t happy, maybe a little bit embarrassed that we were in the financial distress situation, even though it was certainly necessary at the time. This is a chance to help us get out of it.How, exactly?

    Some of the recommendations were to look at the opportunity to get away from a real estate tax, which is fundamentally unfair, particularly to the elderly homeowners in the city; to have a more aggressive approach toward job attraction, which we do not have now. So those are the two big reasons for doing it.One obvious point is home rule gives more flexibility in taxes. You can do things like raise earned income tax. The actual charter isn’t all that specific–it just allows for the city to pass an ordinance to change or levy new taxes. Does the commission have anything specific in mind that citizens should know about?

    Two things on that front. One — it’s very important for us to realize we’re not the elected officials in terms of writing the laws. We wrote this to give flexibility to the folks who ultimately get elected. So we weren’t trying to be sort of super overseers as much as enablers. And if the public feels they want to elect people to go in a certain direction, they’re going to have that ability. And so it’s maximum flexibility. In terms of the tax issue, this is a fantastic opportunity as far as I’m concerned to allow local tax reform.Right now, too many cities across the Commonwealth are burdened by the fact that they have to rely on real estate taxes. What this does is allows council to manage that much more efficiently and look at earned income tax and de-emphasize real estate tax. So it takes the burden off real estate owners and gives more of an opportunity for earned income tax to share the burden. We’ve carefully looked at other municipalities. I’ll give you an example. Tyrone, just to our north, has raised the earned income tax one time in 14 years. But they’ve managed to lower the real estate taxes. It seems like a no-brainer in terms of wanting to take control of taxes and put it at the local level as opposed to the state level.

    How exactly is a home rule designation going to change the life of someone who lives in Altoona?

    It’s really important to realize Altoona is the 10th largest city in Pennsylvania. We, by far, are the largest city currently using the manager-council form of government. It’s a small-town form of government being used by a big city. We don’t have a full-time mayor right now, for instance, and you have to go pretty far down the list to find another third-class city that doesn’t have a full-time mayor. So it will give us a seat at that table that we haven’t had in Harrisburg for a full-time business advocate. That’s to me hugely important in terms of a change in how we govern ourselves.

    So one of the main points in this charter would be to expand the role of the mayor?

    Absolutely. And it’s being done in a careful manner. We looked at a number of other municipalities and one of the fears was, “Hey, this manager form of government is working good in terms of day to day, in terms of getting the roads plowed, making certain we have police and fireman–that’s working well We don’t want to mess with that.” So in our hybrid form that we’re proposing in Altoona, the mayor isn’t going to be able to come in and fire the manager and appoint political cronies. That’s all out of there. The mayor in our system will be a full-time advocate for leadership, economic development, and business growth in the city, which should mean tax growth and job growth.

    Why should voters care?

    I think they should care if they care about a chance to take control of local government, if they care about the opportunity to take control of taxes. I think that’s the biggest thing, that this gives a lot more flexibility than we have now. And to get Altoona a seat at the table and have a fighting chance at doing a better job at delivering jobs to this community. All of these are really strong reasons to vote “yes.”What’s the most important thing you want citizens to know before they vote?

    I think it’s been a long, drawn out process that’s resulting in an opportunity to change the way we do things in Altoona. Not just in a radical manner–plenty of other communities do this. In fact, a lot of the communities did it 20 years ago. So we’re trying to … this gives us a chance to get back on the same level playing field that a lot of communities across the Commonwealth are doing.The one other thing I want to comment on is the home rule charter actually gives citizens a greater voice. So if there are controversial issues, and we’ve been dealing one in the city recently, there’s a referendum opportunity with home rule that allows people to put referendums on the ballot to take a more active role to oppose things or promote things at the city government level that they frankly don’t have under the Third Class City code. So it’s another chance for citizens to sort of take control on controversial issues.

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