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Home Rule Study Commission encourages public engagement as city charter is drafted (video)

The Lancaster Home Rule Study Commission, right, meets at City Hall in January 2024. (Source: OUL file)

As it works to craft what could become Lancaster’s new governmental charter, the city’s Home Rule Study Commission wants the public to know what it’s doing and why; and for citizens to weigh in, if they so choose.

On Friday, commission Chair Brian Adams and Vice Chair Amy Ruffo gave a presentation on “Home Rule Basics.” at the Hourglass Foundation’s monthly current events forum. It’s the first step in a public outreach effort that the commission plans to ramp up this spring and summer, and kick into even higher gear in the fall, when the charter is complete and voters are deciding in the November primary whether to enact it.

Joining Adams and Ruffo was Lynne Shedlock, communications director of the Pennsylvania Economy League, a research and consulting nonprofit that is providing the commission with guidance and administrative support.

Brian Adams

Authorized by a citizen referendum in last year’s primary election, the nine-member commission began by studying Lancaster’s government and comparing it to that of other municipalities. That culminated in a 7-1 vote in January to move forward with a home rule charter.

The task involves defining Lancaster’s structure of government, including its legislature and executive and the powers delegated to each. The charter can also mandate the establishment of certain city departments and elected or appointed offices.

Amy Ruffo

The commission has tentatively decided to stick with the existing framework, consisting of a mayor and a seven-member City Council. The majority has tentatively decided to stick with at-large elections, too, though several members continue to favor elections by district or a hybrid system.

Still in play are a host of issues, including the potential creation of a city government ethics board; changes to the rules governing the city’s many authorities, boards and commissions; and whether City Council members should receive health and retirement benefits. Ruffo said she’s interested in exploring options for authorizing citizen initiatives and referendums.

Get involved

The Lancaster Home Rule Study Commission’s home page is here: It includes extensive information on home rule, a calendar of upcoming meetings and a link to a YouTube playlist of past meetings.

To submit a comment to the commission, click here. To sign up for email updates, click here.

Lynne Shedlock

Among other things, enacting a home rule charter frees municipalities from state-imposed caps on certain tax rates, particularly the earned income tax. However, that does not mean taxes necessarily will rise under a charter, Shedlock said.

Charters do not set tax rates, she emphasized — that remains the purview of a municipalities’ elected officials. Charters can, however, set limits on tax increases and change how budgets are reviewed and adopted.

Lifting the EIT cap allows flexibility and a more balanced tax system, she said. Property taxes stay mostly flat from year to year unless millage is increased; incomes, conversely, tend to grow by a few percent each year, bringing in more revenue without changing the EIT rate.

Shedlock cited Pittston and Hermitage, two home rule municipalities profiled in PEL’s report “It’s Not 1965 Anymore.” Both earn more from their EIT than property taxes, and both have been able to forego property tax hikes as a result.
Home rule does not authorize cities to create new taxes and fees, Shedlock noted — so, for example, a home rule municipality could not work around nonprofits’ tax-exempt status by enacting a “police fee.”

Mayor Danene Sorace

Mayor Danene Sorace attended the forum. Asked by Hourglass Executive Director Diana Martin to share her thoughts, Sorace acknowledged there’s risk in empaneling a home rule commission to redesign government from the ground up, but said, “I’m optimistic about where this will land.”

Home rule not only could allow for a shift to the EIT, she said, but for other reforms, such as allowing budgets to be introduced earlier and to incorporate capital planning.

Adams noted that Pennsylvania’s framework for third-class city governance dates mostly from 1957, when Eisenhower was president and Perry Mason debuted on TV. For him, the core selling point for home rule is restoring to Lancaster’s citizenry a measure of discretion over local governance that now is subject to state dictates.

With home rule, “we get to decide,” he said.