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Home Rule Study Commission weighs testimony on city efficiency, considers next steps

Judge Jodie Richardson joins Lancaster’s home rule study commission for a portrait after its first meeting on Thursday, June 8, 2023. Back row, from left: Peter Barber, Brian Adams, Elizabeth Elias, Maxine Cook, Richardson, John McGrann. Seated, from left: Tony Dastra, Darlene Byrd, Amy Ruffo, Carl Feldman. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Lancaster’s Home Rule Study Commission is planning to set up a special meeting early next year to hear from the city’s three living former mayors.

As part of its research into city government, the commission sent written questions to Rick Gray, Art Morris and Janice Stork, the same approach it has taken with current city officials. Gray responded on behalf of all three, saying they would prefer not to respond in writing, but in person, commission Chairman Brian Adams told his colleagues at the commission’s monthly meeting Thursday evening.

The commission is planning to vote at a special meeting Jan. 24 on whether to proceed with drafting a home rule charter. It has just one regular meeting prior to that, on Jan. 4, at West Art, 800 Buchanan Ave.

The commission intends at that meeting to review the results of interviews it is conducting with the leaders of selected Pennsylvania cities. That probably won’t leave enough time to interview the three former mayors, too, members agreed.
Based on the consensus, Adams tasked City Clerk Bernie Harris, who is providing administrative support to the commission, with finding a workable date for an extra meeting with Gray, Morris and Stork at City Hall.

‘Can’t cut more’

The commissioners spent about a quarter of Thursday’s meeting discussing the written answers received from city department heads in response to the commissions’ questions about structure, operations and efficiency.

The responses echoed those from the city’s elected officials: By and large, the city’s organization makes sense and its operations are lean; but it is hamstrung by the state’s limitations on its means of raising revenue, which are inadequate to fund the services it is mandated to provide.

The lack of authority to raise revenue except through property tax hikes “is the single most detrimental aspect” of the city’s existing government framework, former Director of Administrative Services Patrick Hopkins wrote, “and one that, in my view, must be changed for the city to be fiscally sound over the long term.”

The department heads said they’ve trimmed inefficiencies in numerous ways over the years. Adams summarized their testimony as follows: “We can’t cut more and still do our job.”

Commission member Darlene Byrd said she’s not convinced, and that she sees evidence of administrative duplication and mission creep. She pointed to the addition of staff in the Department of Community Planning and Neighborhood Engagement and the recent creation of the Department of Neighborhood Engagement.

The commission is charged with looking at government structure overall, not just revenue, and it needs to do so, she said: “I think we owe it to the taxpayers.”

The Home Rule Study Commission meets at Ross Street United Methodist Church on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Next steps

In other business, commissioners discussed the status of their efforts to interview other cities’ leaders and the timeline for their work going forward.

The commission has reached out to seven mayors; to date, just two have responded, Adams said. He said he would follow up, and expressed confidence that virtual meetings with most of them could be arranged and completed before the commission’s Jan. 4 meeting.

Commission members discussed possibly waiting a bit longer before voting on whether to move forward. Technically they could do so — the statutory deadline is the end of February — but they were told in no uncertain terms that it would be a bad idea.

Drafting a charter is “the time-intensive part,” and the commission will probably have to meet at least twice a month, versus their once-a-month schedule to date, Solicitor Barry Handwerger said.

Moreover, the commission to budget time for educating the public about the charter if one is written, Mayor Danene Sorace said. It should allow at least two months, September and October, for that public “discourse and engagement” effort, Mayor Danene Sorace said, which means the charter should be drafted by Labor Day at the latest.

The home rule process gives commissions an extra two months if they decide on electing City Council members by districts. Member Tony Dastra asked if that could be an option.

In theory, yes, Handwerger answered, but it would push the referendum from a high-turnout general election (November 2024) to a low-turnout primary (May 2025), and would delay implementation of any budget-related reforms by a year, from 2025 to 2026. It would be much better to to finish in time for a November 2024 referendum, he said.

A district-based City Council election system would be a costly logistical lift, warned Vice Chair Amy Ruffo, who is a member of Fair Districts PA. The commission has yet to ask citizens if that is something they want, she said; among other things, it would entail detailed mapping and redistricting every 10 years.

About 15 members of the public attended Thursday’s meeting, the third of four held in neighborhood venues: In this case, at Ross Street United Methodist Church.

City resident Catherina Celosse urged the commission to move ahead with a charter. She was a child in New York City when it declared bankruptcy in 1975, and she remembers the years of service cuts and other disruptions that followed.

That’s the risk that Lancaster faces now, she said, and it’s something it should avoid at all costs.

“The great thing about Lancaster is we’re facing this head-on,” she said.