All 53 of Pennsylvania's third-class cities share common bonds, and one state senator believes legislators who represent those cities should band together to help address their common challenges.
Sprawl, changing demographics, public safety concerns and archaic tax structure have drained the vitality of our once-vibrant downtowns, state Sen. John N. Wozniak, D-Johnstown, wrote in a letter to his colleagues. Since the causes are not unique, we can't stand by and ask local government officials to stem a tide that is overwhelming their capacity and authority to innovate.
Wozniak noted in the letter to colleagues from both parties in the Senate and House that while the state's historic downtowns are unique, the fiscal problems they face are not. With that in mind, Wozniak is proposing the creation of a bipartisan Third-Class City Caucus.
We can no longer afford to consider the plight of our cities as a concern that is separate from the overall welfare of our Commonwealth, he said.
Among the cities in the state that fall into the third-class category are four in Luzerne County – Hazleton, Nanticoke, Pittston and Wilkes-Barre. Only one of those, Nanticoke, is officially a distressed city as recognized by the state under Act 47, the state's Financially Distressed Municipalities Act.
Of the 53 third-class cities in the state, 11 fall under Act 47.
But state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Twp., who represents all four Luzerne County third-class cities, said Nanticoke is on the road to better fiscal health. However, he doesn't believe cities should have to be declared distressed to get the help they need.
Cities, he said, have been asked to do a lot more with a lot less year after year.
Yudichak has watched cities deteriorate as businesses move to the neighboring townships, taking tax dollars with them, he said. Crime has increased and blight has, too. Cities are burdened with rising expenses and fewer revenue dollars.
These cities are just not healthy enough to make the investments they need, said Yudichak, who lives in the distressed township of Plymouth and used to live in Nanticoke. And we cannot just let them continue to wither.
So the idea of the new caucus has emerged and already has received the support of Yudichak, Rep. Gerry Mullery, D-Newport Township, who represents Nanticoke; Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, who represents Pittston; Sen. John Blake, D-Archbald, who represents Carbondale; Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, who represents Wilkes-Barre, and more than 50 other legislators.
Carroll said that unlike boroughs and townships that aren't mandated to provide certain services such as police or fire protection, cities are. Getting a group of legislators together with shared interests and the goal of helping these cities can't hurt, he said.
Mullery said these bipartisan groups give members a chance to get together as a group and just brainstorm. That doesn't happen often. Something else that doesn't happen often, he added, is serious discussions on helping cities in Pennsylvania not named Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.
Pashinski looks forward to the caucus meeting so the legislators can formulate a plan to address the problems and systematically fix them. The prolonged austerity philosophy is now beginning to show the results of underfunding and the lack of leadership to honestly address the needs of the smaller cities, Pashinski said.
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton lauded the creation of such a caucus to fight for cities like his that need help.
Working closely with the Pennsylvania Municipal League, this third-class city caucus has long been advocated for, said Leighton. We need Harrisburg to pick up the mantle of legislative reform because cities like Wilkes-Barre are struggling to maintain services in difficult financial times within the rules of the existing system.
Pension and tax reform are two of the myriad issues the state needs to address, he said.
• The state's 53 third-class cities: Aliquippa, Allentown, Altoona, Arnold, Beaver Falls, Bethlehem, Bradford, Butler, Carbondale, Chester, Clairton, Coatesville, Connellsville, Corry, Dubois, Duquesne, Easton, Erie, Farrell, Franklin, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Hazleton, Hermitage, Jeannette, Johnstown.
Lancaster, Lebanon, Lock Haven, Lower Burrell, McKeesport, Meadville, Monessen, Monongahela, Nanticoke, New Castle, New Kensington, Oil City, Parker City, Pittston, Pottsville, Reading, Shamokin, Sharon, St. Marys, Sunbury, Titusville, Uniontown, Warren, Washington, Wilkes-Barre, Williamsport and York.
• City classifications are based on population, according to state law. A third-class city is one with a population of 250,000 or less that has not elected to become a city of the second class, which has a population between 80,000 and 249,999.