Springtime for Harrisburg
By Alan Kennedy-Shaffer
Founder, Harrisburg Hope
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” Marcellus famously observed in “Hamlet.” William Shakespeare’s political commentary is as timeless as it is haunting. In Shakespeare’s tale, Political leaders shake hands, smile for the cameras, kiss babies, and then act out of spite when few are watching. Women and men of high ideals are condemned for telling the truth. Harrisburg is no exception.
The resignation of receiver David Unkovic on March 31 was a major setback to the city’s recovery process. Unkovic was listening to the community. A rare, honest broker, Unkovic won over many residents who were cynical and wary of him. He won us over by being honest and earnestly seeking citizen input. He was willing to meet with residents, community groups and elected officials in order to bring people together — something Harrisburg desperately needs.
The first receiver in city history was also asking tough questions, and he was starting to get answers. Influenced by the unfinished forensic audit of the incinerator debt, Unkovic began naming names — elected officials, legislators, lobbyists. He expressed his frustration at the “corruption” behind what he called a “house of cards.” Then a judge ruled that a second receiver was needed. After Unkovic resigned, the prospect of bankruptcy became much greater.
It is now also going to be more difficult to fully investigate the causes of the debt crisis. In one of his last acts, Unkovic wrote to the United States Attorney and the Pennsylvania Attorney General to request that they investigate the questionable bond deals described in the forensic audit. It is high time for a full investigation to begin. City residents, officials, and business owners are waiting for accountability — criminal or civil — for Harrisburg’s “house of cards.”
Meanwhile, the incinerator debt continues to climb, with millions in interest accumulating annually. With the current debt topping $317,000,000, and only fifty thousand residents in the city, Harrisburg has the highest debt per person of any municipality in the country ($6,340 per person). Only the national debt per person — $49,879.47 — is higher. With limited assets, and a commuter tax and county sales tax off the table, Harrisburg has few options left. That is why bankruptcy is on the table.
The good news is that Harrisburg can recover, but only if residents, community groups, elected officials, and the city’s creditors rise to the occasion. The even better news is that there is a growing realization that Harrisburg does not rise and fall alone. As the capital city of the nation’s sixth largest state, and as the county seat, Harrisburg is the economic and political hub for a region with more than half a million people. So goes Harrisburg, so goes the region.
There is a regional spring taking root here — an awakening of not just city residents, but also those who live near the city, work in the city, and share in the collective offerings of the regional metropolis. An ironic sign of this awakening is a lawsuit filed in late February by the self-titled “Suburban Municipalities” of Lower Paxton Township and Authority, Steelton Borough and Authority, Susquehanna Township and Authority, Swatara Township and Authority, Paxtang Borough, and Pennbrook Borough. The municipalities argue Unkovic’s plan unlawfully forces them to support city operations through sewage fees, rather than funding only sewage services.
For the first time, the “Suburban Municipalities” teamed up to oppose the “direct, adverse and immediate impacts” of a recovery plan “wholly inadequate to alleviate the fiscal emergency of the City of Harrisburg.” Significantly, they recognized that the city’s problems are also theirs. Although city, township and borough officials often like to view their jurisdictions as entities unto themselves, it is becoming increasingly evident that Harrisburg’s incinerator debt crisis is so monumental that it has already begun to affect the townships and boroughs that ring the city. Even after the incinerator debt is erased, Harrisburg is likely to face structural deficits that will likely tempt city officials to again rob Peter to pay Paul so that essential services can continue.
Given the extent of Harrisburg’s financial “house of cards,” the sticker price of the incinerator debt, and the difficult task of finding new revenue sources for Harrisburg, there is no better time for the city and its municipal neighbors to act with civility toward each other. Regional challenges require regional solutions. Fortunately, the first step toward finding creative solutions is taking hold: The region’s municipalities are talking about the complexities of regionalization.
Harrisburg Hope remains committed to encouraging civility and empowering our community to ask the tough questions. We are not giving up, and neither should you. Getting Harrisburg out of debt is going to take concessions from creditors, sacrifices from residents, and a regional willingness to come together. There may be something rotten in Harrisburg, but there are also those willing to tell the truth. Right now, more than ever, Harrisburg needs all hands on deck.