Council Delays Chief of Staff Confirmation; Warns of Secret Deals
April 30 -- The struggle over Harrisburg's future has stalemated yet again, as the City Council tonight refused to confirm the city's new second-in-command.
The council tabled a vote on the nomination of Ricardo Mendez-Saldivia as chief of staff/business administrator, stating that the vote would wait at least until May 11, when the state must update the Commonwealth Court on the status of the city's financial recovery plan. One by one, council members railed at how the plan is being implemented. Their complaints included the month-long delay in appointing a new receiver, the disposal of municipal assets with little input from city officials and what they perceived as the persecution of their attorney Mark Schwartz. "The process is moving – our stuff is getting sold right out from under us – without our knowledge or input," said Councilman Brad Koplinski. Several council members stressed that they liked and hoped to approve Mendez-Saldivia at their next meeting. However, they felt they had to halt the process at this time. "Council is not being made privy to what is being done," said Councilwoman Eugenia Smith. "They've silenced the Harrisburg Authority and the Parking Authority in this process, as well." The state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) could petition the Commonwealth Court to order the council to approve Mendez-Saldivia. However, Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter herself has expressed dissatisfaction with the process, particularly with the delay in nominating a new receiver to replace David Unkovic, who resigned abruptly on March 30. Last week, she issued an order saying that the state had until May 11 to tell her when a new receiver would be appointed. In addition, she wants an update on the actions of the receiver's office, which is now being run by DCED official Fred Reddig. Councilwoman Susan Brown-Wilson urged Harrisburg residents to "march on Capitol Hill" to demand transparency and fairness for the city. She said that the Washington-based law firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge, which is doing much of the day-to-day work on the recovery plan, is operating in secrecy and with no accountability to residents. "They're selling off your assets here. Deals have been cut," she said. "They don't want any of you to know. They're keeping us in the dark." Brown-Wilson said that a lawsuit against Schwartz -- which seeks damages for what the state, Dauphin County and the Thompson administration claim are frivolous appeals -- are part of the strategy to silence the council. Schwartz has been unsuccessfully appealing a failed municipal bankruptcy filing since December, soon after a U.S. bankruptcy court first rejected it. He also said he wants Unkovic to testify before Commonwealth Court over exactly why he resigned as receiver. After the council tabled Mendez-Saldivia's nomination, several Thompson administration officials stormed out of council chambers. City spokesman Robert Philbin later issued a brief statement that said, "Mr. Mendez-Saldivia remains committed to the implementation of the City of Harrisburg financial recovery process under the court-ordered receiver’s plan."
Kim Takes Nomination for House; McNally, Teplitz to Face off in Senate Race
April 24 -- Harrisburg Councilwoman Patty Kim beat back three contenders Tuesday to narrowly win the Democratic nomination for the 103rd House District, the city’s sole representative in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
Dauphin County’s Republican Party did not put up a candidate for nomination in the primary election. Running unopposed in November, Kim appears assured to take the Assembly seat -- assuming absentee and write-in ballots don't change the nomination result. Kim would replace Democrat Ron Buxton, retiring after 20 years. She would be the district’s fifth occupant – and first woman – since its creation in 1969. Former Mayor Stephen Reed had the seat for three terms before he became mayor in 1982. The daughter of Korean immigrant parents, Kim had been a journalist for the local CBS affiliate until 2004, when she left to enter local politics. She won her council seat in 2005. Kim campaigned for the open state House seat against former City Council President Gloria Martin-Roberts, former Harrisburg School Board President Roy Christ and former Harrisburg School Board Member Karl Singleton. As returns came in during the evening, it appeared it was Kim’s fight to lose against the second- and third-highest voter getters, Christ and Singleton. Martin-Roberts trailed the pack the entire night. Nonetheless, Kim won by only 45 votes, and Christ is expected to call for a recount. With all 38 precincts reporting, Kim had 1,581 votes, Christ 1,536, Singleton 1,341 and Martin-Roberts 1,031, according to Dauphin County’s unofficial election results. For Harrisburg’s 15th state Senate District, from which Republican Sen. Jeff Piccola is retiring after 17 years, the GOP’s workhorse, John McNally of Lower Paxton Township, handily won the Republican nomination. McNally, an attorney, served as chairman of the Dauphin County Republican Party from 2006 to 2011. With all 135 precincts reporting, he had 9,986 votes versus 5,525 for Josh First, the only city resident who sought the seat, and 5,472 for William Seeds, a Lower Paxton Township supervisor. For Democrats seeking the Senate seat, Lower Paxton’s Alvin Taylor, a clergy consultant and party activist, fought hard for the nomination against Rob Teplitz of Susquehanna Township, chief counsel and policy director for the state Auditor General. Taylor led returns throughout the night, but, with all 135 precincts reporting, Teplitz narrowly won in the end, 7,212 votes to 6,982 votes. And in the 4th Congressional District, which includes most of Harrisburg, state Rep. Scott Perry of York County defeated six other rivals for the GOP nomination. He will face Harry Perkinson, who won the Democratic nomination against attorney Ken Lee, in the fall.
New City Administrator Stresses Cooperation, Recovery
April 19 -- Harrisburg today met the man nominated to be the city government's second-in-command, as Ricardo Mendez-Saldivia introduced himself to the public.
Mendez-Saldivia repeatedly emphasized the need for cooperation, communication and collaboration in an afternoon press conference, repeating that message in a later appearance before City Council. "If we work as a team, there's a good chance that we can overcome our challenges," he said. Mendez-Saldivia has spent most of his career in south Florida, where he worked as acting public works director for Miami and as chief community planning and development officer for the Seminole tribe of Florida. Council spent more than an hour questioning Mendez-Saldivia about his background and his goals, as well as his commitment to sticking with Harrisburg as the city tries to work through its deep financial and political troubles. "I bought a one-way ticket," he said. "I am here with my heart and my mind to work with the mayor and all of you to move the city forward. I'm not going anywhere." Mendez-Saldivia, who will earn $110,000 a year, arrived in town on Tuesday night and already has started work. The council will vote to confirm Mendez-Saldivia during its April 30 meeting. However, council members seemed satisfied with his qualifications, his presence and his temperament. "I'm certainly impressed with you," said Council President Wanda Williams. "Your resume speaks volumes," added Councilwoman Susan Brown-Wilson. "Sitting here listening to you, I've heard words like cooperation and conciliation. Those are words we haven't heard in this city over the last seven to 10 years." The council expressed some confusion over Mendez-Saldivia's exact role. The city's court-approved financial recovery plan mandates appointment of a chief operating officer, who would have broad authority to oversee city government and ensure that the plan is implemented. Mayor Linda Thompson, however, has stressed that Mendez-Saldivia actually will act as the city's chief of staff/business administrator, a seemingly more subordinate post that, under the city's charter, falls beneath that of the mayor. Mendez-Saldivia sided with Thompson's definition, but added that he hoped to work cooperatively with all levels of the often-fractious city government. "I want to be a part of the solution," he said. "That's my dream."
HACC, GreenWorks Team for Student Housing in Midtown
April 17 -- Student housing is coming to Midtown Harrisburg, as HACC and GreenWorks Development today announced that they will build as many as 43 townhome-style buildings.
Construction is expected to start right away on the first phase, a nearly $1 million project for seven townhomes that will be ready to house 26 students by Aug. 1. The buildings, on N. 4th Street between Harris and Hamilton streets, each will have three or four bedrooms. "We are pleased to announce this partnership that will provide housing adjacent to our Midtown site," said HACC President John J. "Ski" Sygielski. "Our students already are part of the community, and having access to residential housing will allow them to become neighbors, as well." Currently, there is no student housing at HACC. Sygielski said that the residences might attract students from the main Wildwood campus, as well. Each townhome provides private bedrooms, two bathrooms, a washer and dryer, a full kitchen, furnishings and on-site parking. Each student will pay $600 per month in rent, which includes utilities and cable television. The area was once part of the Capitol Heights project, a sprawling redevelopment of numerous city blocks in Midtown. Two years ago, GreenWorks acquired dozens of parcels that had not yet been developed. GreenWorks will own, operate and manage the student housing in accordance with an exclusive marketing agreement with HACC. Thirty-six additional townhomes are approved for the project to meet future demand for student housing, said GreenWorks Chairman Doug Neidich. When the project is complete, as many as 400 students could eventually live in the buildings. If student demand is weak, the houses could be turned into private residences, Neidich said. Interested students can find information about the newly named Midtown Campus Village and apply for student housing at www.midtowncampusvillage.com. “This project is another investment as part of our long-term commitment to fundamentally improve Midtown Harrisburg,” said Neidich. “Adding resident students to Midtown Harrisburg will create new vitality to the area’s already blossoming retail and entertainment corridor. It will enhance the emerging college and community environment that has been building since the opening of HACC’s Midtown site.”
Make a Bid: Proposals Are In for Harrisburg Assets
April 13 -- That was quick.
The proposals have arrived for Harrisburg's incinerator and parking assets, just a couple of weeks after former city receiver David Unkovic asked a group of finalists to submit their formal bids. Over the past few days, the receiver's office has released the names of the bidders, though the details of their bids remain confidential. Originally, five parties expressed interest in bidding for the city's incinerator. Unkovic winnowed that list to four, and now three companies have actually submitted proposals. They are:
• Cambridge Project Development, Miami
• Interstate Waste Services, Ramsey, N.J.
• Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority (LCSWMA)
Originally, 14 companies hoped to bid on a long-term lease of Harrisburg's valuable parking assets. Unkovic narrowed that list to 12, and now eight companies have actually submitted proposals. They are:
• Boenning and Scattergood, West Conshohocken, Pa.
• Harrisburg First LLC (Guggenheim Partners)
• Harrisburg Forward LLC
• Harrisburg Parking Partners LLC
• Morgan Stanley/Central Parking, New York
• National Development Council, New York
• Northwest Financial Group, Jersey City, N.J.
• Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund/Imperial Parking LLC, Toronto
Orginally, five companies wanted to manage Harrisburg's water/sewer system. Unkovic selected four companies to make bids, and all four have submitted proposals. They are:
• Aqua America, Bryn Mawr, Pa.
• CH2M Hill, Englewood, Colo.
• Pennsylvania American Water, Hershey
• United Water Environmental Services, Harrington Park, N.J., with Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. LP
The receiver's office, currently being administered by Fred Reddig, an official with the state Department of Community and Economic Development, now will consider the proposals and may open formal negotiations with one or more of the companies. Unkovic had hoped to conclude a deal for the assets by mid-June. The turmoil in the receiver's office, including the possible appointment of a new receiver, could push that timeframe back. Under a state-appointed receiver, Harrisburg is seeking to sell the incinerator and lease its parking assets to retire some $317 million in debt accumulated over many years due to multiple upgrades, some botched, to the incinerator.
DCED Assumes Control of Harrisburg Recovery
April 11 -- The state's Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) has stepped in to manage Harrisburg's financial recovery plan until a new receiver is confirmed.
Fred Reddig, executive director of DCED's Governor's Center for Local Government Services, said today that he is acting as "administrator," guiding the recovery plan already approved by the Commonwealth Court. "Yesterday, Gov. Corbett [made] DCED responsible for administering the Office of the Receiver," Reddig said. "It is the governor's plan to move the process forward." His role will end after Corbett appoints and the Commonwealth Court approves a new receiver for Harrisburg. Former receiver David Unkovic abruptly resigned his post almost two weeks ago, saying he found himself "in an untenable position in the political and ethical crosswinds." Reddig made the announcement during the first meeting of the Municipal Financial Recovery Advisory Committee, which is tasked with advising the receiver's office on the implementation of the recovery plan for Harrisburg. Otherwise, Reddig said that the plan's implementation continues, with "teams of professionals" awaiting responses from bidders interested in buying the city's troubled incinerator, leasing its valuable parking assets and managing its water and sewer system. There also have been considerable discussions between recovery plan representatives and the city's three employee unions on possible contract concessions. Much of the day-to-day work mandated under the plan is being done by the law firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge, based in Washington, D.C. Mayor Linda Thompson, who is a member of the advisory committee, praised Reddig for his accessibility and leadership. "There's never been a day when you haven't picked up the phone [when I called]," she said. "We're pretty stable over here and satisfied with how the process has gone." After the meeting, Thompson had no kind words for city Controller Dan Miller, who, she said, was holding up one element of the recovery plan by refusing to sign off on a contract to auction off the city's collection of museum artifacts. "He is in violation of the Act 47 plan," she said. "I will ask the new receiver to address his actions." Miller has said that the contract with Guernsey's auction house must be approved by City Council, a position refuted by Thompson. The delay may push back the timeframe of the planned auction, originally slated for July. Thompson has filed suit against Miller, seeking to force him to sign the contract. The advisory committee is slated to meet publicly each second and fourth Wednesday through December. The next meeting is scheduled for April 25 at 8:30 a.m. in City Council chambers.
Issues Explained, Concerns Aired at Improvement District Meeting
April 9 -- A plan to boost safety in Midtown Harrisburg had its first public airing tonight, as residents had the chance to give their views of the proposed Midtown Improvement District (MID).
More than 100 residents packed Midtown Scholar Bookstore for the two-hour meeting, offering opinions of the plan's scope, cost, effectiveness and accountability. The evening began with the two principal organizers -- Eric Papenfuse, owner of Midtown Scholar Bookstore, and Bill Fontana, executive director of the Pennsylvania Downtown Center -- explaining what the MID was, how it would operate and how much it would cost. "Our government cannot support the security we need," said Papenfuse. "The reality of the situation in Harrisburg today is that the government cannot do what they should be doing." Last month, Papenfuse and Fontana, working with numerous community groups in Midtown, unveiled their plan, which would levy a fee, averaging about $60 per year, on the owners of the proposed district's 4,162 properties. Commercial property owners would pay slightly more. The money raised, about $420,000, would primarily fund the hiring of off-duty Harrisburg police, who would patrol the area bordered by Forster, Maclay, Front and N. 7th streets. To take effect, the plan would be voted on by each property owner, failing only if 40 percent of the owners of all properties rejected it. If the MID passed that stage, the City Council would have to approve it. Papenfuse said he hoped the MID would be up and running by Oct. 1. To reach that point, supporters may have some work to do, as numerous residents voiced a variety of objections to the current proposal. "I'm totally against the association you're forcing on us," said Midtown resident Bill Fritz. "It's a shift of responsibility for what we're paying in taxes already." Several residents agreed, while others expressed concerns that the scope of the MID was either too narrow or too broad. "I'd like you to reassess what your goals are here," said one resident. "I'd like your focus to be wider than security." Fontana explained that, once in effect, the MID could apply for a variety of grants that could help expand its portfolio, such as for economic development and infrastructure improvements, especially through the state's Elm Street and Main Street programs. "This is your money," he said. "You can do with it what you want to do." Papenfuse and Fontana worked to allay other concerns, stating that accountability would be assured through a yearly audit required by the state and that they would consider building in fee reductions for low-income residents. One resident said he was concerned funds would be eaten up by administrative costs. Papenfuse said that an administrator, earning $40,000 to $50,000 per year, would be the only person on the payroll not a police officer. And that salary, he hoped, would be offset by funds collected from the area's numerous nonprofit groups, which would be encouraged to contribute. An advisory council now will draft a formal proposal for the MID. If all goes smoothly, property owners would cast ballots for the proposal this summer, with a City Council vote in late summer or early fall. It would be the state's first residential improvement district. Its initial focus on police security would make it even more unique. "I think people feel this a matter of life or death -- literally," said Papenfuse.
Public Works Department Loses Director
April 9 -- Harrisburg Public Works Director Ernie Hoch resigned his position today, dealing another blow to a key city department.
Hoch, who served for almost two years, was widely regarded as a capable manager and respected for his knowledge and commitment to the job. The administration refused comment, citing the confidentiality of personnel issues. To read the full text of a letter Hoch sent to Today's the Day Harrisburg explaining his departure, visit http://bit.ly/Inomg9.
Mayor: Cash in, Help the City by Turning over Illegal Guns
April 5 -- Do you know someone who has an illegal gun? Turn them in and get $100.
Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson today encouraged city residents to rifle through the rooms of relatives to find illegal firearms, offering to pay $50 for a tip that leads to seizure of an illegal gun, $100 for the arrest of someone with an illegal gun and $200 if the tip leads to multiple arrests. "Moms and aunts, you know your kids and relatives," she said, urging family members to look under mattresses and beneath floor boards for hidden weapons. "I'm asking you to do the right thing. Help your city out." The gun seizure program is being funded by $10,000 donated by "an anonymous business owner," Thompson said, refusing to name the benefactor. It's part of the "Mayor's Illegal Gun Stoppers" program launched by the city last year. Tipsters should call 717-255-3131. All tips will remain anonymous, Thompson said. In other crime news, Thompson said she has met with Dauphin County Commissioner Jeff Haste and District Attorney Ed Marsico, who have verbally pledged $250,000 to help the city battle crime. The money will be used for security cameras in key spots throughout the city and possibly for hiring additional police officers, Thompson said. She said she expects to announce the details of the funding and how it will be used by the end of May. In addition, Thompson and Police Chief Pierre Ritter said today that they met this morning with the family of Lewis G. Moore Jr., who died early Sunday on Market Street near John Harris High School after his car slammed into several parked cars and a tree. Ritter described the meeting as "productive" and "respectful," in contrast to a raucous crime prevention meeting last night, in which family and friends of Moore packed the Allison Hill Community Center demanding answers to how he died. They believe Moore was being chased by state and city police in a case of mistaken identity, but Ritter has not confirmed that a chase took place, saying the case remains under investigation. Ritter said he promised the family a complete and fair investigation into what occurred.
New Police Substation for Midtown
April 4 -- A new police substation has opened in Midtown Harrisburg, city and police officials announced today.
HACC has donated space for the facility, which is located at the college's Midtown 1 building at N. 4th and Boyd streets. The college also has donated a computer. "Our responsibility is as a community partner, so we can look at the city and ensure that it will continue to thrive," said HACC President John "Ski" Sygielski. Capt. Annette Oates, who heads the city's patrol division, said that several officers will work out of the substation at any one time. Mayor Linda Thompson stressed that officers will be out on patrol most of the time, returning to the office mostly to do paperwork and perform other office duties. Residents, though, may have opportunities to file complaints and conduct other business in the facility. The substation is open Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. The substation arrives just as a new Midtown Improvement District (MID), focused on safety, is being planned for the area. A Midtown substation was part of the plan for the district, which hopes to hire off-duty police to beef up security. A public meeting for the MID is scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m. at Midtown Scholar Bookstore. "I think the proposed improvement district works well with the new substation," said Midtown Scholar owner Eric Papenfuse, who is leading the MID effort. Thompson stated that the substation is separate from the plan for a MID, which has little city government involvement. She said it's part of her plan to re-open substations in neighborhoods. Currently, there is one substation in Uptown Harrisburg and two on Allison Hill. A third substation for Allison Hill is in the works, she said. "I believe that safety is our number one priority, and this is part of that," she said
More Downtown Living: Developer Eyes Additional Historic Buildings
April 3 -- Two more historic office buildings downtown are slated for development into multi-family residential units with commercial space on their first floors for either retail shops or restaurants.
The buildings, both about a century old, are under contract for purchase by Dan Deitchman, president of Brickbox Development Ltd. He has become one of the premier developers in the city for restoring historic buildings into residential living. The latest two properties are the Barto Building, 231 State St., at the southwest corner of 3rd and State, and the four-story William Seel office building at 319 Market St., directly across from the entrance to Strawberry Square. And there may be more historic properties in his sight. Deitchman said he is considering the old Moose Lodge at N. 3rd and Boas streets, which had been the Ron H. Brown Charter School. Deitchman wants to convert the eight-story Barto into 50 condominiums. For years, developers had eyed the 45,440-square-foot building for a hotel. It was constructed in 1911 as a Masonic Temple and has been vacant for several years. The asking price is $1.5 million, according to the listing by NAI/CIR. For the 10,200-square-foot William Seel building on Market Street, Deitchman wants to convert the space into as many as 35 multi-family apartments. The narrow brownstone and brick building was constructed in 1912-13 and is on the market for $755,000, according NAI/CIR’s listing. The building houses the headquarters of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, which owns both it and the Barto Building. Jim Deegan, union spokesman, said that, if the deals go through, the AFL-CIO plans to relocate near the state Capitol building. “We’re staying in the city,” Deegan said. Deitchman has filed variances and special exceptions for the two projects with the city's land use boards. The Harrisburg Planning Commission will first consider his applications at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the City Government Center’s Public Safety Auditorium. The developer is bullish on the city’s commercial and residential prospects, having last year converted the old Governor’s Hotel at 4th and Market, renamed Residences on Market, into student housing for Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. Currently, he’s converting the 98-year-old, nine-story office building at 301 Market St. (formerly the Kunkel Building and renamed Market View Place) into 40 to 50 market-rate apartments. Harrisburg University has signed a 10-year lease on that building. Deitchman said he has been in discussions with various groups about similar types of housing arrangements for his latest projects. “We are talking to some prospects, but we have nothing firm,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work to do.” In Midtown, Deitchman, along with GreenWorks Development, is converting the 1908 Beaux Arts Furlow Building, on N. 3rd Street across from the Broad Street Market, into 20 to 24 one-bedroom apartments with commercial space on the first floor. The developers are matching $2.5 million in public money for the project. In 2009, Deitchman finished restoring Riverview Manor, a 76-unit apartment building at N. Front and Harris streets designed by renowned architect Clayton J. Lappley and built in 1927.
Authority Appeals Ruling for Incinerator Receiver
April 2 -- The Harrisburg Authority has appealed a court decision appointing a receiver for the city's troubled incinerator.
The authority filed an appeal last week with the Commonwealth Court objecting to the decision of Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Todd A. Hoover. Hoover granted a request by several of Harrisburg's creditors for the appointment of a receiver, who would oversee the day-to-day operations of the facility. The plaintiffs -- TD Bank, the National Association Manufacturers and Traders Trust Co. and Assured Guaranty -- also asked the court to order the city to immediately make good on debts owed to them, with these payments taking a priority over all other city obligations, including paying its workforce. Hoover did not rule on this request. The city's former receiver, David Unkovic, resigned last week following Hoover's decision. In his resignation letter, Unkovic said he found himself "in an untenable position in the political and ethical crosswinds and am no longer in a position to effectuate a solution.” Last week, before resigning, Unkovic blasted state and county officials, who he believed were interfering with his attempts to find a fair solution to Harrisburg's financial crisis and who, he claimed, were putting creditors' interests above those of city residents. Before leaving, he also sent letters to federal and state authorities asking for criminal investigations into how repeated upgrades to the incinerator were financed. Gov. Tom Corbett has yet to announce a replacement for Unkovic.