Joint Legislative Hearing in Pittsburgh Focuses on Eradicating Blight

Wilkinsburg, August 4, 2016 – At the request of state Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, a joint state Senate-House Democratic Policy Committee hearing was held today on efforts and resources to fight blight within our communities, including the successes and challenges of land banks.

“Blight is a scourge that impedes both business and residential interest in a community,” Costa said. “We must do what we can to give our municipalities the resources, tools and flexibility they need to quickly eradicate blight and begin revitalization efforts.”

Costa said blight poses health and safety risks, reduces neighborhood property values, drains municipal revenue on enforcement and maintenance efforts, and discourages community investment and growth.

 

Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), who chairs the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, said “transforming dilapidated properties from community liabilities to revitalization linchpins must be our shared goal.”

Boscola added that Pennsylvania has approximately 300,000 vacant properties – many of them eye-sores. She said legislators should steer clear of “one-size-fits-all solutions” and give local government leaders the “flexibility to tailor revitalization efforts that fit their unique needs.”

State Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny), who co-chaired the hearing, said the state has passed several laws in recent years aimed at assisting local governments in blight removal and revitalization initiatives. He added that there are also numerous proposals under consideration in the legislature that would generate more funding for demolition and revitalization work and toughen penalties against absentee owners.

Costa said a 2012 law that established land banks provides an innovative way to acquire and ready properties for reinvestment. He pointed to the local Tri-COG Land Bank as a “promising program that numerous Allegheny county communities should look into.” Tri-COG recently received a pledge of $1.5 million in seed funding from the Heinz endowment.

A land bank acquires blighted properties, clears delinquent taxes and liens, and prepares the property for investment and revitalization – all aimed at returning the property to the tax rolls and productive use. A county or municipality must have a population of at least 10,000 to form a land bank. Local governments have the option of joining and must pay 5 percent of yearly delinquent tax collections to help fund the program.

Urban Redevelopment Authority Director Kyra Straussman lamented that a fourth of the city’s footprint is abandoned and vacant property that the government does not control.

“While our tax base is eroding, we are simultaneously directly paying millions in tax dollars annually to keep problem vacant and abandoned property just as it is,” she said.

Matt Madia, who serves as chief strategy and development officer for Bridgestone Capital investment program, discussed his firm’s revitalization work, including its $9.6 million effort to revitalize the Homewood neighborhood in Pittsburgh. He said some of their business loans have resulted in new businesses occupying commercial space that would otherwise be vacant. He said providing this core business sector with its products and services helps make a neighborhood “welcoming and livable.”

Mark Mohn, vice-chair state Association of Realtors Legislative Committee, said rising property local taxes has worsened the blight problem by making home ownership less affordable. He said lawmakers should consider shifting the tax burden away from homeowners to more broad-based local and state resources.

“It’s time to stop picking the pockets of homebuyers,” Mohn added, suggesting that lawmakers should consider allowing bond referendums and Social Impact Bonds where municipalities can pay back outside investors for transforming blighted properties into productive ones.

Others who testified were: Cynthia Whitman Daley, policy director of the PA Housing Alliance; Tracey Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation; A. William Schenck, TriState Capital Bank Board Member, Pennsylvania Economy League of Greater Pittsburgh; An Lewis, Director, Steel Rivers COG; Daniel Lavelle, board member, Pittsburg Land Bank; and Liz Kozub, Community Development coordinator, Turtle Creek COG.

Joining Costa, Gainey and Boscola were Senators John Blake (D-Lackawanna), Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland), Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny), and Representatives Chris Sainato (D-Lawrence) and Paul Costa (D-Allegheny).

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Senate Hearing Focuses on Budget Impasse’s Impact on Schools

Harrisburg – October 28, 2015 – At the request of state Sen. Vince Hughes (D-Phila.), the Senate Democratic Policy Committee today held a hearing on the devastating impact that the state’s 120-day budget impasse is having on schools across the state.

“While many of the budget dispute points remain unresolved, what is clear is that the consequences of this impasse are far-reaching,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), who chairs the committee. “This hearing gives lawmakers a sense of how schools are handling the funding shortfall, and what problems they’ll face if this stalemate continues to drag on.”

Hughes added, “A growing number of schools have been cornered into borrowing money and taking out credit lines just to keep their doors open. Hopefully, this hearing’s focus on this worsening statewide financial crisis will encourage greater urgency, cooperation and compromise in the ongoing budget negotiations.”

During the hearing, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale testified that at least 27 school districts have taken out loans totaling more than $431 million. He projected that interest payments will total $30 million if the stalemate reaches mid-November.

Those who testified decried how the impasse has harmed students, depleted reserves and how taxpayers will be needlessly saddled with paying the interest on the growing number of loans and credit lines that schools are obtaining to keep their doors open.

Erie Public Schools Superintendent Jay Badams lamented that his district will need to borrow $30 million just to get through January.

“That’s $114,000 in wasted interest money that could have been used for so many badly needed educational expenses,” Badams said.

Dr. Joseph Roy, who serves as superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District in Northampton County, added that “choices at the state level continue to hammer school districts.” He said the diversion of funds to charter and cyber schools and a “punitive” approach to public education has blown up school expenditures.

Dr. Rula Skezas, who serves as superintendent of the McKeesport Area School District in Allegheny County, noted that even if the district receives its proposed funding it would still fall short of what it received during the 2011 school year. She said McKeesport has taken out a $5 million line of credit to make it to December. She said the district has already eliminated 110 staff positions to try and make ends meet.

Hughes, who serves as Democratic chair of the Appropriations Committee, said public, charter and private schools are already reeling from years of being underfunded. He noted that the Philadelphia School District has already borrowed $275 million during the impasse. Fran Burns, who serves as chief operating officer for the School District of Philadelphia, testified that the district has struggled to contend with a “structural deficit.”

Lamenting the impact on local working families who fund schools through property taxes, Boscola pointed toward an educational survey conducted earlier this year showing that nearly 75 percent of districts were planning to impose property tax hikes, 30 percent were planning on making additional program cuts, and 41 percent were making more staff cuts. She said the state has withheld approximately $3 billion in school funds since the budget impasse began in July.

Joining Boscola and Hughes at the Capitol committee hearing were Senators John Blake (D-Lackawanna), Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny), Andrew Dinniman (D-Montgomery), Christine Tartaglione (D-Phila.) and Sean Wiley (D-Erie),

Those testifying included:

  • The Honorable Eugene DePasquale
    Pennsylvania Auditor General
  • Fran Burns
    Chief Operating Officer, School District of Philadelphia
  • Joseph Gorham
    Superintendent of Schools, Carbondale Area School District
  • Dr. Joseph Roy
    Superintendent of Schools, Bethlehem Area School District
  • Dr. Jay D. Badams
    Superintendent, Erie Public Schools
  • Dr. Rula S. Skezas
    Superintendent, McKeesport Area School District
  • Marjorie Neff
    Chair, School Reform Commission
  • Anthony Pirrello
    CEO, Montessori Regional Charter School of Erie, and Vice President of Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools
  • Matt Przywara
    Member, PASBO
    Chief Financial and Operations Officer, School District of Lancaster
  • Bill LaCoff
    President, Pennsylvania School Boards Association
  • Susan Gobreski
    Education Voters of Pennsylvania
  • Dr. Pearl English
    School Nurse, School District of Philadelphia

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