The COVID-19 pandemic has put extra pressure on services upon which we depend in everyday life. In the City of Lancaster, that includes services provided by first responders, who must be available around the clock. But the health crisis has also put a new spotlight on the ongoing budget challenges faced by the city. To that end, a joint op-ed in the May 3 Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline Perspective section — by Scott Little, chief of the Lancaster City Bureau of Fire, and Jarrad Berkihiser, chief of the Lancaster City Bureau of Police — called on elected officials to put aside politics and better support public safety.
An unfortunate running theme during this crisis is that we’re seeing the extent to which parts of government infrastructure are truly in need of reform.
It’s a shame that the leaders of Lancaster’s fire and police departments had to make a direct plea to Harrisburg lawmakers to give their city more revenue tools. Lancaster city Mayor Danene Sorace has been pressing this same case since she took office.
In January, Sorace wrote an op-ed for LNP | LancasterOnline that detailed the basic framework of the city’s annual revenues and expenditures. The only source of revenue Lancaster controls is the property tax. The other revenue sources — earned income tax, the local services tax and the real estate transfer tax — are all fixed by state law. “We need solutions that create a new, equitable and sustainable fiscal structure that will allow cities like Lancaster to keep thriving,” Sorace wrote.
We agreed. We noted in a January editorial that the same revenue challenge is faced by most of Pennsylvania’s more than 50 third-class cities. That designation requires them to provide full-time fire and police services.
In Lancaster, the lack of revenue-generating flexibility has led to a structural deficit in the city budget in which annual expenses are increasing by 3% while revenues are only increasing by 1%. (And this was before COVID-19.)
We urged the county's delegation to Harrisburg — led by Republican House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler of Peach Bottom and Republican state Sens. Scott Martin of Martic Township and Ryan Aument of Mount Joy — to support Sorace’s push for substantive changes.
Specifically, we believe third-class cities should have more flexibility with the earned income and local services taxes. And, of course, cities would benefit from property tax reform. (Homeowners, especially seniors, and public school districts would benefit from property tax reform, too. We mention this frequently.)
It seems Harrisburg hasn’t listened to Sorace.
So it was Little’s and Berkihiser’s turn at bat.
They conveyed in their op-ed the urgent need for meaningful help from Harrisburg through the lens of a pandemic that has put unprecedented stress on Lancaster city’s budget.
A pandemic in which lives are literally at stake.
“Our dedicated team of police officers and firefighters continues to be on the front lines providing the excellent level of service to which our community has grown accustomed, helping those in a time of crisis,” Little and Berkihiser wrote.
Going beyond the call of normal duty, first responders are delivering meals and checking up on the most vulnerable members of society — all while answering 911 calls.
And all while a city budget crisis is unfolding around them. Last month, facing a $3 million deficit in its 2020 budget, the city indefinitely furloughed about 12% of its workforce — 69 people.
“We have evolved into an all-hazards response force, and today’s world health crisis supports the fact that these essential services provided by local government are needed now more than ever,” Little and Berkihiser note.
We agree, and we are grateful for their efforts.
As Little and Berkihiser note, public safety servants have “answered the call” during this health crisis. They simply want elected officials to do the same.
We hope that plea is finally heard and acted upon in Harrisburg.
are not ‘grandstanding’
Responding to a legislative proposal that would force state agencies to respond to public records requests during the pandemic, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration accused some lawmakers of “grandstanding,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Brad Bumsted reported last week.
The bill, which was introduced by Republican Rep. Seth Grove of York County, “would force state agencies to follow Office of Open Records protocols even when their offices are closed,” Bumsted explained. Most agencies, though still functioning remotely, stopped responding to open-records requests in mid-March, Bumsted added.
The Wolf administration has been criticized by many — including this editorial board — for not providing complete records regarding the decision-making process on business closures related to the state shutdown. (In a Friday night news dump, the governor’s office finally released a list of businesses that were granted waivers to operate during the pandemic. Questions still surround the process, though.)
Responding to the transparency legislation, which has passed the House and is now in the Senate, Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said, “It’s disappointing that some members of the General Assembly seem to be only focused on grandstanding instead of collaborating to combat the pandemic in a meaningful way.”
It general, we agree there’s too much grandstanding, sniping and failure to work together in Harrisburg during this precarious moment. Additionally, the Legislature considering this proposal hasn’t itself been a bright and shining beacon of transparency. In March, we lamented that officials cited “legislative privilege” in providing only heavily redacted records when journalists sought information on how taxpayer money was being spent by the Legislature.
But ultimately, we disagree with the governor’s opposition to this bill. We’ll always be fully on the side of transparency. From all elected officials and agencies. At all times.