As Wilkes-Barre seeks financially distressed status from the state, it may be comforting to remember the Diamond City is far from alone. As staff writer Jerry Lynott points out in the two-part series begun in today’s paper, Nanticoke, Plymouth Township, West Hazleton, Hazleton and Scranton have all been or are currently in the same program.
It may be comforting, but it’s a cold comfort.
How, exactly, can five Luzerne County municipalities get in such a fiscal hole that they need tough love from the state?
Gerald Cross — long a consistent non-partisan voice of reason as the Pennsylvania Economy League’s Central division executive director — offered a bit of reassurance when he noted many municipalities in many diverse areas of the state have been declared distressed.
“I don’t think it’s specific to our area,” Cross told Lynott.
Maybe not. But there are a few factors systemic to this particular region that contribute mightily to this recurring problem.
First and foremost is the deeply ingrained cronyism and nepotism that runs like a hardy rhizome throughout local governments and institutions. Glaring examples pop into view once in a while when elected or appointed officials brazenly hire, promote or otherwise grant boons to relatives at taxpayer expense, but much of the problem lurks beneath the surface, like the sprawling root system of Japanese knotweed, wreaking havoc on the efficiency of and trust in government.
Second, yet in close tandem to the “friends and family” disease, is the suffocating parochialism municipalities cling to. Can’t afford police coverage? Better to disband the department than to cross that invisible boundary and forge partnerships to create a regional force. Your big city neighbor is broke while you reap a financial boon by having more land to develop? Well, let them suffer.
Lest we forget, there was a time the county’s cities — Wilkes-Barre, Nanticoke, Hazleton and Pittston — were the epicenters of economic growth. The county likely would have forever remained a rural backwash if these places had not boomed, attracting money, jobs and people.
The impact of their financial struggles — and those of any other municipality — are not contained miraculously within their borders. Their gradual drift from prosperity to rust-belt struggle can and will happen in other places where the tax base is currently robust. No boon lasts forever.
But the evidence is clear: If we want sustainable growth, if we yearn to level off the hills and valleys of economic reality, we would have the best chance by ending the practices that too often put under-qualified or unqualified people in positions of power simply because of who they know, and by dropping the fiefdom mindset.
Many of those interviewed by Lynott were quick to say Wilkes-Barre’s fiscal woes, and those of other area municipalities, took years, even decades to get this bad. That’s true. But it’s not simply a case of bad management or bad luck. We reap what we sow, and the “I’ll get mine” attitude of favoritism and “your on your own” approach to regional cooperation have poisoned this area for too long.