Wolf directs state planning board to consider policies to help older cities

    Governor Tom Wolf has tasked the State Planning Board to work on three issues: funding transportation

    Governor Tom Wolf has tasked the State Planning Board to work on three issues: funding transportation

    Tasking them with working on three issues: funding transportation, addressing fragmentation in local government, and supporting Pennsylvania’s older cities and towns.

    At the Keystone Crossroads conference in May, Governor Tom Wolf called out a long list of state policies he believes put Pennsylvania’s older cities at a disadvantage, along with some potential fixes.One of the fixes Wolf mentioned was empowering the State Planning Board to take a more active role in shaping better state-level urban policies, though it wasn’t clear what the Governor had in mind specifically at the time. 

Then last weekend, the administration followed up with some more specific directives to the Planning Board, tasking them with working on three issues: funding transportation, addressing fragmentation in local government, and supporting Pennsylvania’s older cities and towns.

    Wolf specifically asked for “consensus recommendations” for possible state policy changes or legislation addressing the following questions:

    How can state and local infrastructure funding be better coordinated to provide incentives for regional planning, coordination between local units, right-sizing of services, and increased efficiency?
    How does the fragmentation of government at the state, county, and local level affect decision-making on issues such as school funding? Pennsylvania has over 5,000 governmental units, each of which has authority for specific functions. How does this decentralization of planning affect outcomes and are there policy suggestions which could remedy problems or inefficiencies which are identified?
    How can the state do more to support Pennsylvania’s struggling older cities and towns? Identify policies, including tax policies, which contribute to the divide between urban and suburban areas, and to the twin challenges of concentrated poverty and sprawl.

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    The State Planning Board is an unsung advisory board within the Governor’s Office that provides policy research and strategic planning, monitors statewide trends, and identifies issues and opportunities of interest. It rarely makes headlines, but its level of activity has varied based on who sits in the Governor’s mansion. Speaking with Keystone Crossroads after his speech at the conference in May, Wolf commented that the board was a lot more active under Governor Ed Rendell, and became less active under Tom Corbett.

    Established by the Administrative Code of 1929, the board is made up of 25 members, including citizens, state department heads, and legislators. Fifteen members are appointed by the Governor, on a staggered basis, and there are four representatives from the legislature, two from each party. According to their web page, the Board helped create the Pennsylvania Turnpike, planned the State Capitol grounds, established planning agencies in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, and helped write the Municipalities Planning Code in 1968, which lays out local planning and land use powers.

    Wolf hasn’t made any appointments to the planning board yet, but he’ll get to make at least three this year, and will have other opportunities to shape the group’s direction as other members’ terms expire in 2017 and 2018. Only six of the 15 Gubernatorial appointees, all of whom were appointed by Governor Corbett, hail from cities, and Philadelphia currently has no representatives on the Board. So it will be interesting to see what perspectives the current board will bring to Pennsylvania’s urban challenges.

    “The Governor’s speech on planning at the Keystone Crossroads conference is what led to the development of the three issues the planning board has been tasked with working on,” said Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan.

    However, this isn’t the first time Wolf has weighed in on state urban policies. As president of the organization Better York in the 90’s, he was engaged at the city level on many of the topics he raised with the planning board.

    And in the early 2000’s, he authored the “Reduce Suburban Sprawl” section of the left-leaning Keystone Research Center’s report “Steal This Agenda: A Blueprint for a Better Pennsylvania.”  That plan contained several proposals for curtailing the spread of suburban land use patterns, including a call for regionalizing land use planning authority, regionalizing the tax base for local services, encouraging more mixed-use zoning, and leveraging state infrastructure funding to direct more private investment toward central cities. An overlooked section of his 2014 campaign platform also touched on these themes:

    “One way to deconcentrate poverty in our communities is to focus our existing development resources on mixed-income, mixed-use communities that are located near or utilize existing investments such as transit, walkable communities, small businesses and struggling town centers. In this vein, Tom Wolf will use a creative mix of public and private dollars to spur mixed-income, mixed-use development projects in which 10 percent of the homes are for low-income residents.”

    It is likely Wolf has some personal opinions about the recommendations he would like to see come out of the State Planning Board, but the directive to the planning board will test the waters for what can garner broad-based support.

    The next opportunity for the board to discuss these topics publicly will be at their meeting on October 14.

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