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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Legislative Redistricting Work Group Agrees on Reform Principles

Harrisburg, March 16, 2016 – Stressing the urgency to act soon, a bipartisan, bicameral legislative work group today announced agreement on redistricting reform principles and said they hope to reach consensus on a specific bill soon. The group urged the inclusion of these principles into any redistricting reform bill.

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[divider top=”0″] “The rallying cry is our shared determination to jettison politics from the redistricting process,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), who has introduced legislation (Senate Bill 484) that would establish an 11-member independent citizens’ commission to draw state and congressional district boundaries. “As we advance in our effort to build a legislative consensus, I am pleased that our group is calling for an open, transparent and publicly accountable redistricting process.”

Rep. David Parker (R-Monroe) added, “My home county has been the poster child for the problems associated with our system of legislative redistricting. For 12 years, Monroe County was split among six Pennsylvania Senate districts, even though the population justified one or two. This was corrected in the latest round of redistricting, but to ensure that this does not occur again to any of the commonwealth’s counties, my bill (House Bill 1835) contains language to prevent counties from being carved up to the point where they lose representation. The measure also establishes a citizen commission and new updated standards to ensure a more open, transparent and fair process.”

In honing in on what specific bill the work group will support, its members announced that any reform measure should contain these seven core principle:

  • Assign redistricting authority to an independent citizens commission
  • Reform both congressional and legislative redistricting.
  • Prohibit districts from being drawn to favor or discriminate against a political party or candidate;
  • Use sound methodology when setting district boundaries;
  • Ensure transparency in the process with meaningful opportunities for active public participation
  • Make all districts as equal in population as possible with a minimum range of deviation; and
  • Respect political subdivisions and communities of interest.

Formed last June, the group said it hopes to soon hammer out an agreement on legislation that can pass both the House and Senate. To get a new redistricting process in place before the next redistricting round in 2020, lawmakers must pass legislation twice to change the state’s constitution – within two consecutive two-year legislative sessions. The proposal must also be approved by voters via referendum.

Responding to local government leaders who criticize the process for needlessly splitting municipalities between different districts, the group said it is urging municipal leaders around the state to pass resolutions in support of redistricting reform.

Group members said the last Legislative Reapportionment Commission largely ignored sound redistricting tenants such as compactness and community of interest. After the state Supreme Court ruled that the commission’s maps were “contrary to law,” lawmakers were forced to go back to the drawing board. This culminated in the reapportionment process finishing up two years late, causing confusion and the need to use of the old maps for the 2012 elections.

Many members of the work group also criticized the current system for producing Pennsylvania’s many oddly shaped, gerrymandered districts. They claim the current system is unfair, discourages competition and is used by political powerbrokers to protect allies and isolate opponents. With huge majorities of Democratic or Republican voters packed into districts, critics also claim that primary elections have become more important than general elections in those regions, producing lawmakers who are more likely to toe the party line and less willing to negotiate and find common ground on issues.

“The protracted budget impasse is a good example of what can happen when so many legislators are politically hesitant about supporting negotiated agreements because they are afraid of being ‘primaried,’” Boscola said. “During the 112th Congress, a meager seven members accounted for 98 percent of cross-party votes. The public needs to understand that gridlock is just a symptom. Our corrupt reapportionment system is the disease.”

Other lawmakers at the news conference included Senators Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin/Perry), John Eichelberger (R-Blair), Mario Scavello (R-Monroe), John Blake (D-Lackawanna), John Wozniak (D-Cambria) and Representatives Mary Jo Daley (D-Montgomery), Pam DeLissio (D-Phila./Montgomery), Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland), Brian Sims (D-Phila.) and Mike Carroll (D-Luzerne). Also on hand were advocates and organizations that favor redistricting reform.

Carol Kuniholm, executive director of the Fair Districts PA coalition said, “We applaud the legislators who are working to make our electoral mapping process transparent, impartial and fair. We encourage public support for this effort and ask all of our legislators to help restore a government of, by and for the people.”

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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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