Fire, Police Chief Defend Moves on EMS, 9-11 Re-Location
March 29 -- Harrisburg's top public safety officers tonight defended two controversial moves -- the re-location of an emergency medical services facility to outside the city and the planned handover of the city's emergency call center to Dauphin County.
Before the City Council's public safety committee, Fire Bureau Chief Robert Talloni said that, last November, he requested that EMS operator Community Life Team move out of its long-time home in Fire Station 1, located at 1820 N. 6th St. Life Team, a nonprofit service operated with PinnacleHealth, subsequently re-located about two miles away -- to the 3600 block of N. 6th St., just over the city line in Susquehanna Township. Talloni said he made the request for numerous reasons, including to facilitate faster response times and because Life Team needed more spacious accommodations. He then admitted that a primary reason was because he wanted to use the vacated area for larger office space for himself and his four captains. "This new EMS facility greatly improved working conditions for both fire and EMS," he stated. Despite Talloni's assurances, a number of residents have charged that re-locating the Life Team facility outside the city could not possibly improve response times within most of the city, especially to more central neighborhoods like Midtown and downtown. Moreover, they were upset that the decision seemed to be made largely so bureau officials could have a larger working area. "Do we make decisions about office space while compromising service to our own citizens?" asked Eric Jenkins, a city firefighter and president of Local 428 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Talloni responded that Life Team's location is only temporary -- that the organization expects to announce, within a month, plans to purchase a new facility within the city. The public safety committee next tackled the transfer of Harrisburg's 9-11 emergency call center to Dauphin County, now scheduled to occur on June 26. Committee members wanted to know how residents' calls would continue to be answered quickly and accurately, as the county is adding just six call center dispatchers to replace the city's 12 dispatchers and four supervisors. "How can you assure residents?" asked Councilwoman Wanda Williams. "Assure us, because we're concerned." City and county representatives appeared confident in the transition, saying that the city's call volume would be spread throughout the county's 9-11 dispatchers, not just confined to the six additional employees. They also believed that police officers easily would make the transition from the city's to the county's computerized dispatch system. "I don't think any of our services will be any less," said city Police Chief Pierre Ritter. "You'll still get the same response as before." Committee members also wondered about the city's long-time, non-emergency police number -- 255-3131. Ritter said that the number would change, but offered few additional details, other than that the new number probably would be automated, with a phone tree prompting callers to press various numbers to reach departments and individuals. Cash-strapped Harrisburg last year decided to transfer its emergency calling operations to Dauphin County in order to save money. By doing so, it expects to save more than $1 million a year, including $750,000 in salaries.
Long Past Due: 2009 Audit Ready to Begin
March 22 -- Harrisburg’s 2009 audit finally should get off the ground after the City Council tonight approved a budget transfer to pay for the work.
The council allocated $84,000 in unspent state grants to hire an outside governmental accountant to conduct both the 2009 and 2010 audits. The work is estimated at $42,000 for each yearly audit. "It is jeopardizing our ability to apply for and get grants in the future," Councilwoman Susan Brown-Wilson said of the unfinished audits. The lack of an audit for 2009 reportedly has prompted an inquiry from the Securities and Exchange Commission and has led to complaints from the Harrisburg Authority, which has seen its bond ratings damaged. The administration has blamed the problem on staffing shortages in its finance department. In addition, more than a year ago, Mayor Linda Thompson requested help with the 2009 audit from city Controller Dan Miller, but they were unable to agree on terms. The audit has remained in limbo since.
Neighbors Crusade against Convent Conversion
March 14 -- Skynet Property Management has been stymied again in a months-long effort to convert a Catholic convent in downtown Harrisburg into living space.
At tonight’s Zoning Hearing Board meeting, an adjacent property owner filed a claim against the project, arguing that its density and accompanying parking issues would have adverse effects on her and the neighborhood’s quality of life. The claimant, Kathy Speaker MacNett, said the quiet neighborhood bordered by Forster, State, 2nd and 3rd streets is already struggling with parking issues and that Skynet’s project would add to the problem. “What we see is an exacerbation of things,” MacNett said. Twice before, the board has sent Skynet back to the drawing board, saying that its initial proposal – a 39-unit rooming house – was too dense for the building at 603-605 N. 2nd St. The company is seeking a special zoning exception to allow for the project in the neighborhood. MacNett and other neighbors, including the downtown group, Capitol Area Neighbors, argued it would place too many people in a building that for decades was used lightly by a handful of nuns in a communal setting. Skynet returned Monday with a scaled down version – 30 units including three one-bedroom apartments and 27 efficiency apartments, all with kitchens and baths that would potentially rent monthly, the least expensive at $650 per month. It was a complete departure from their original plan to have units with shared kitchens and baths, at rents of $90 to $150 per week. Yet, area residents remained concerned about the density – the 30 units could accommodate as many as two and three people – and parking, telling the board that parking is already at a premium in the neighborhood. Josh Juffe, president of Skynet, which already owns and operates 80 low-income rental units in the city, expressed frustration at being unsuccessful in trying to meet neighbors' concerns, saying he had compromised as much as he could. Skynet sought a continuance on its special exception request because its attorney was unable to make the hearing and was unaware of the claim MacNett had filed. The board will schedule its next hearing for sometime in April.
Harrisburg Gets Offer for Incinerator
March 10 -- Harrisburg has received a $45 million cash bid from a nearby jurisdiction to purchase its troubled incinerator, an offer that the city appears to be taking seriously.
Mayor Linda Thompson announced today that the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority has made a written offer for the facility, and she expects to meet with the authority's representatives soon to discuss the matter. “The city certainly welcomes interested parties willing to invest in the future of the Capital City region,” she said in a statement. "I welcome all interested parties who are willing to invest in the future of Harrisburg.” She also said that she "suspects" that the city will receive competing offers for the incinerator from other entities. The incinerator is the principal source of Harrisburg's financial woes. The city owes some $282 million on the facility after backing bonds issued by the Harrisburg Authority for a series of improvements, some botched, over a dozen years. The debt has pushed Harrisburg to the brink of financial insolvency and forced it into the state's Act 47 program for financially distressed municipalities. Estimates vary widely on the incinerator's value, but range as high as about $159 million, assuming a guaranteed flow of solid waste.
Martin-Roberts to Retire from City Council; 10 Candidates Announce
March 8 -- Harrisburg Council President Gloria Martin-Roberts will not run for re-election this year, meaning that Mayor Linda Thompson will lose her main ally on the City Council.
Martin-Roberts did not file a nominating petition by today's end-of-day deadline and later confirmed that she is retiring from the council after two terms. Incumbents Brad Koplinski and Susan Brown-Wilson both are seeking re-election. Other residents who filed petitions for the three council seats include, for the Democratic nomination, Camille Erice of S. 18th Street, Iya Isoke of S. 24th Street, Sandra Reid of Liberty Street, Ellis "Rick" Roy of Curtin Street and Patricia Stringer of Kensington Street. Allen Bair of Crescent Street, Michael Bretz of S. 18th Street and Ruth Cruz of Fulton Street filed for the Republican nomination. Martin-Roberts' retirement could significantly alter the tenor of the council. To date, she has been Thompson's closest political ally, usually supporting the mayor against a solid, four-vote council majority that often stands in opposition. In announcing her retirement, Martin-Roberts said she believed it simply was time to go. "I'm of the mindset that two terms is sufficient for anyone," she said. This year, Harrisburg also selects a new city treasurer, as long-time Treasurer Paul Wambach is not seeking re-election. Two Democrats have filed petitions for that office: John Campbell of Boas Street and Steven Ketterer of Duke Street. The race for school board is crowded, with 13 Democrats vying for five seats for full, four-year terms. Brendan Murray of North Street is the sole candidate for one seat with a two-year term. On the county level, incumbent commissioners Jeff Haste and Mike Pries are unchallenged for the Republican nomination for two spots on the ballot. For the Democratic nomination, voters will select two candidates from among incumbent George Hartwick and challengers Wendy Jackson-Dowe, Eric Papenfuse and Alvin Q. Taylor.
Knight-Burney Appointed New Schools Chief
March 7 -- In a razor-thin vote, the Harrisburg school board appointed acting Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney to a full, three-year term at $160,000 per year.
The appointment was put on the school board's agenda at the last minute, to the surprise of several board directors who voted against Knight-Burney. It passed 5-4, prompting board Director Tiffiney Penn to resign in protest. The selection of Knight-Burney ends a year-long quest for a new schools chief, which began after Mayor Linda Thompson fired long-time Superintendent Gerald Kohn in March 2010. A nationwide search yielded two finalists, one of whom was due to be appointed last month. However, at the last minute, the board could not agree on a candidate, re-opening the position. The four dissenters were upset as much with the process as the selection. Until tonight, it appeared that a search for a superintendent would begin again. Moreover, several directors complained that Knight-Burney, a hold-over from the Kohn years, would not be the fresh start that they believe the Harrisburg district needs. "She has been here in the administration since 2005," said Director Arlene Burno. "In this district, nothing has changed -- absolutely nothing. Actually, it's worse, and it has been worse since she's been here." The selection of Knight-Burney prompted loud cheers from her supporters in the audience, who have been vocal for months on her behalf.
Saving Harrisburg: Residents Brainstorm Ideas at Act 47 Meeting
March 7 -- Harrisburg residents tonight suggested everything from streamlining the municipal workforce to declaring bankruptcy, as they offered an array of ideas on how the city might escape its financial mess.
About 100 people packed the Heinz-Menaker Senior Center for the second of two public hearings before the state-appointed Act 47 team. The hearing was designed to elicit specific suggestions from the community on how the city might address its overwhelming debt load, raise revenues and reduce expenditures. The meeting opened with a presentation by Julia Novak of The Novak Consulting Group, which is taking the lead in drafting a comprehensive financial rescue plan for the city. She reiterated facts from the first public hearing, held a week ago, that Harrisburg has a $4 to $5 million structural deficit built into its annual operating budget, in addition to a $282 million deficit resulting from bonds it backed for the city incinerator. Attendees peppered her with questions and comments, wanting her to address such issues as possible tax increases, service cuts and municipal bankruptcy. Several residents expressed skepticism that the team will suggest bankruptcy, even if the evidence shows it to be the best option for Harrisburg. "I really need you guys to step into the shoes of the average citizen here," said Uptown resident Nevin Mindlin. After a half-hour of deflecting questions, Novak quickly moved to the main agenda item for the evening -- getting specific ideas from the community. Residents broke up into small groups to brainstorm suggestions, which Act 47 team members wrote down and claimed they would take into account moving forward. In these groups, people voiced a large number of proposals, including the possible lease or sale of municipal assets, such as parking garages and the incinerator itself. Neil Grover, founder of the Debt Watch Harrisburg taxpayers' group, strongly suggested that the city should take back the incinerator from the Harrisburg Authority. Doing so, he said, would free the authority from the financial and legal burdens of the incinerator, allowing it to operate the financially solvent water and sewer utilities without fear that they also might be sold or ceded as part of settling the incinerator issue. It also would put the city in a much stronger negotiating position with creditors, he said, especially if the city considers or actually enters bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the city already is responsible for all of the incinerator's debt load. "Taking back the incinerator would be the first step to putting us into a negotiating position," he said. The Act 47 team plans no more public hearings until after it completes its financial recovery plan for the city, which is expected to be issued in late May or early June.