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January 19, 2013

Wozniak proposes caucus of cities

HARRISBURG — State Sen. John Wozniak on Friday announced that he hopes to create a bipartisan “Third-Class City Caucus” to advocate on behalf of the more than 50 third-class cities in Pennsylvania.

Third-class cities in the state include Allentown, Harrisburg, Williamsport and Wilkes-Barre, as well as dozens of smaller cities, such as Johns­town, Meadville, New Castle, Sharon, Farrell and Sunbury.

“Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are always at the trough and I don’t blame (them), that’s what they are elected to do,” Wozniak said. “It’s time to reach out and make a confederacy. If we get enough people together, we become a voting bloc. And if we hang together, and that is why I am calling it a confederacy; we can have some clout.”

More than 50 lawmakers have expressed an interest in joining the caucus, Wozniak said.

Between the House of Representatives and state Senate, there are 253 members of the General Assembly.

Historically, galvanizing the political forces outside Pittsburgh and Philadelphia has been “like herding cats,” Wozniak said. But as more of the commonwealth’s small cities encounter crippling financial problems, the need to focus attention on their needs has become more obvious.

“You can’t fix (the problems facing small cities) without economic development,” Wozniak said. “And that’s going to take investment.”

In previous sessions, Wozniak has proposed numerous bills intended to begin to chip away at the causes of blight and financial distress, but the efforts have remained bottled up in Senate committees.

 “I think what’s happening in Harrisburg is finally making people realize that the fiscal decline of cities, which has been something easily ignored in the past, could end in a catastrophic tumbling of dominoes that will leave all Pennsylvania taxpayers on the hook,” he said.

State Rep. Kurt Masser, R-Elsyburg, a former Northumberland County commissioner, said he immediately responded to Wozniak to indicate that he would like to be part of the caucus.

Masser has been working to address blight problems in his home district, though those types of problems are common throughout many of the small cities in Pennsylvania.

State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Hermitage, also expressed interest.

“Most third-class cities are struggling with the same or similar problems,” Longietti said. One of the most nettlesome problems is that many older cities have large portions of their tax bases tied up in property owned by tax-exempt organizations – schools, universities, hospitals and government – and that puts more strain on other property owners in the city.

At the same time, even as the cities grapple with the challenge of managing with diminished tax bases, they must provide increasingly expensive public services, such as police protection.

“I’m interested in seeing what some of the ideas are to help these third-class cities,” Longietti said. “I think there is a recognition at the state level that we need to do something to help these cities or we’re going to have more of them end on the Act 47 Distressed Cities List.”

 There are 27 municipalities in Pennsylvania on the distressed list, a designation that provides them with tools to restructure their debt. No community has ever managed to get off the distressed list once it has landed on it.

Johnstown has been on the list for more than 20 years.

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