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Pennsylvania's Next Governor Brings Urban Policy Expertise

Gov.-elect Tom Wolf said he wants to lead a statewide discussion about how the future of older cities such as Scranton, inner-ring suburbs and the surrounding townships are interrelated.

tom wolf
Gov.-elect Tom Wolf speaks at an election night party in York, Pa.
(TNS) Dec. 15--HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania's next governor knows all about distressed cities.

Gov.-elect Tom Wolf spent 12 years as president of Better York, a nonprofit bent on revitalizing the city of York. In that role, he worked closely with a nationally prominent urban expert who promotes regional solutions for urban woes.

As he prepares to take office Jan. 20, Mr. Wolf said he wants to lead a statewide discussion about how the future of older cities such as Scranton, inner-ring suburbs and the surrounding townships are interrelated.

"What I bring to this is a real appreciation for what cities do," he said in an interview with The Times-Tribune.

Mr. Wolf said his experiences in York showed him that both business leaders and citizens in outlying towns care about what happens to the city and that a metro region won't prosper with a weak city at its heart.

"These are insights I am bringing to Harrisburg," he said.

He said the responsibility for addressing urban issues extends across several state agencies, including the Department of Community and Economic Development, Department of Education and Department of Environmental Protection. DEP's role in redeveloping "brownfields" in abandoned industrial areas is important for cities, said Mr. Wolf.

During the campaign, Mr. Wolf issued a detailed list of proposals on urban policy. These proposals include earmarking state aid to assist revitalization projects that encourage mass transit, affordable housing and investment in downtowns that can attract young people and a diversity of businesses.

Mr. Wolf wants to promote "smart growth" and more planning, give preference in state aid to projects that find new uses for existing buildings and help older communities update their building codes.

It doesn't make sense for Pennsylvania to abandon what previous generations of taxpayers invested in existing infrastructure in older cities, he said.

At the same time, Mr. Wolf said there are merits to having local control over such quality of life issues as enacting noise control ordinances.

For now, Mr. Wolf said he prefers to discuss the broad themes of urban revitalization rather than delve into specifics on such knotty issues as compensating cities for the loss of tax revenue because of clusters of tax-exempt properties.

Even with an attentive governor, no one suggests the problems facing Pennsylvania's cities will go away anytime soon.

Cities are hit with the triple whammy of a shrinking tax base, greater demand for services, social problems arising out of poverty and the rising cost of unfunded pension obligations.

About 40 percent of Pennsylvanians live in a municipality undergoing some form of financial distress, according to the Pennsylvania Economy League.

Three municipalities, including West Hazleton, left the Act 47 fiscal recovery program this year, but 20 others remain, including Scranton, Nanticoke, Plymouth Twp. and Shamokin in Northeast Pennsylvania.

Yet, Mr. Wolf takes office at a time of legislative achievements regarding urban issues.

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers succeeded in rewriting the Act 47 law. This sets a timetable for Act 47 municipalities to leave the program and gives them some new local tax shift options. Other laws give municipal officials new tools to eliminate neighborhood blight.

One major issue awaiting action is relief from municipal pension debt, an issue highlighted by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale's recent warning that Scranton's pension funds will go broke in a few if funding levels remain the same.

Scranton Mayor Bill Courtright considers pension costs the biggest issue facing the city and hopes Mr. Wolf can help.

"He's a hands-on guy," said Mr. Courtright.

Sen. John Blake, D-22, Archbald, hopes Mr. Wolf can assist in creating a new development area in Scranton under the recently established City Revitalization and Improvement Zone program.

Mr. Wolf can look to two elected officials from York County who are leading the call for action on municipal pensions.

Any solution to municipal pensions costs will have to involve leaders of both political parties, the municipal unions and the financial services industry working together, said Mr. DePasquale, who audits municipal pension plans.

"We are going to continue highlighting the problem that is out there," he said.

Reps. Seth Grove, R-96, York County, and Keith Greiner, R-43, Lampeter, referred to Scranton's depleted pension funds in a recent op-ed piece on municipal pensions.

"Is this really the direction we want to go?" they asked.

Mr. Grove has sponsored legislation to curb municipal pension benefits for future paid police and firefighters. He said its adoption will ensure that municipalities are financially stable and that commuter taxes go away.

Mr. Wolf doesn't need an introduction to urban issues, said York Mayor Kim Bracey, a vice chairwoman of his transition team.

"I know Gov.-elect Wolf gets it and understands it," she said.

Mr. Wolf gained recognition during the campaign as a successful businessman heading a family-owned firm based in York. His résumé also includes stints as chairman of the board of York College and chairman of the York County Chamber of Commerce.

In the 1990s, Mr. Wolf helped found Better York. In 1996, Better York hired David Rusk, an urban policy expert who emphasizes regionalism, to prepare a study of the York region.

Mr. Rusk suggested the city of York's problems would spread to the suburbs, especially the older ones, if nothing was done.

He recommended that York County locate affordable housing across a wider area to disperse poverty concentrated in downtown York, enact a regional local tax and set growth boundaries to put a brake on sprawl.

Mr. Rusk proposed "1 Mill for Our Future," a one-mill hike in the county property tax that would be split among municipalities based on their level of tax-exempt property and for affordable housing programs. Nearly 20 years later, the Rusk Report recommendations are still being debated in York County, said Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-95, York.

Ms. Bracey said an updated version of the 1-mill concept could potentially include some property tax reform.

"We've been dancing around it since '96," she said.

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