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The practicalities of city government: A Q&A with Patrick Hopkins

Patrick Hopkins. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Last week, Patrick Hopkins retired as director of administrative services for the City of Lancaster.

Hopkins, 56, served in the administrations of mayors Janice Stork, Rick Gray and Danene Sorace. His time at City Hall totals more than two decades, which made him the department head with the longest local tenure by far in the Sorace administration.

A city native and a graduate of J.P. McCaskey High School and Franklin & Marshall College, Hopkins has lived here virtually his whole life.

“Patrick is a Lancastrian through and through,” Mayor Danene Sorace said at City Council’s June 13 meeting. He has served as an invaluable advisor to her, to other Lancaster leaders and to municipal administrators statewide and is “very much a part of the story of success of the city of Lancaster,” she said, praising his role in navigating the city through the Great Recession and the coronavirus pandemic.

Hopkins, 56, said he is looking forward to having more free time and more flexibility. He and his wife, Amy, plan to spend more time in Maine, where they have a second home.

He has created a company, Hopkins Municipal Consulting LLC, through which to offer his expertise to local governments, including Lancaster city. During his career, he has become familiar with a wide range of topics — labor union negotiations and contracts, municipal finance, presenting utility “rate cases” to state regulators.

The city has not yet announced his successor, though a search is well underway. Once a new director of administration is identified, Hopkins will be available to assist with onboarding and orientation and as an ongoing resource.

In the interim, other city staff are supervising the department’s core functions: financial management, procurement, human resources and information technology.

Hopkins recently spoke with One United Lancaster about his career in city government. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

One United Lancaster: Could you talk about how you ended up in this career?

Hopkins: Well, the day after I graduated from McCaskey, I was on a flight to Savannah, Georgia, then a bus to Parris Island. I was in the Marine Reserves for six and a half years. I started my freshman year at Franklin & Marshall College about three days after I got back from boot camp. …

I had what I’d call “an active pursuit of my social education,” so I failed out. I moved to Pittsburgh, lived there for about a year and a half. Then I moved back to Lancaster. I worked at Donnelley Printing and started taking night classes at F&M to sort of get back into the academic swing of things.

I was doing well in those classes so I went back full time. I went from failing out to being a dean’s list student the rest of the time. I finished my degree requirements in December 1991.

I kicked around in a couple of jobs after that. … I worked on Mayor Stork’s re-election campaign in 1993 and got connected to David Nice, who was her campaign chair.

Hopkins ended up organizing Stork’s door-to-door campaign. It registered a little over 1,000 new voters, he said, which helped Stork eke out a victory by 255 votes over challenger Brad Fischer, a Republican County Commissioner. The following summer, Hopkins was hired as assistant to the mayor.

Subsequently, Stork fired the city’s finance director based on allegations he had mismanaged and misreported city accounts. The business administrator took over the role, but moved out of the city after a year. Under state law, the position has an in-city residence requirement, although City Council can waive it. Council did so for one year, but declined to renew the waiver the following year. At that point, Hopkins became acting business administrator.

Hopkins: City Council did not approve my appointment. So I just continued on as the acting business administrator until the end of Stork’s term.

I was 28 years old, but I was doing the job. We ended up with a surplus by the end of 1997. We introduced the 1998 budget, the one that Mayor (Charlie) Smithgall would take over, with a small tax cut.

Smithgall, a Republican, served as mayor from 1998 to 2006. During that time, Hopkins worked for state Rep. Mike Sturla’s office, the House Democratic Education Committee and as executive director of Planned Parenthood’s advocacy operation. He then worked on Rick Gray’s mayoral campaign. Gray won, and appointed Hopkins as his business administrator.

Hopkins: I literally walked back into my office and opened up the filing cabinets and there were file folders in there with my handwriting on them.

One United Lancaster: What has stayed the same in Lancaster since the mid-1990s? What has gotten better? What has gotten worse?

Hopkins: In terms of the electoral outcomes, there were Republicans who got elected to office during Mayor Stork’s term. When she got re-elected, it was a 4-3 Republican majority City Council. That has clearly changed. … That changes the dynamics on City Council, to the extent that there’s not that Democrat-versus-Republican type of thing.

The reality is that the vast majority of issues that are dealt with at local government don’t really have anything to do with ideological differences between the parties. Not that there aren’t political arguments about those things, but local government is less ideological. There may be the perception that everybody just agrees with each other, because there’s all they’re all Democrats, (but) that’s very clearly not the case.

One United Lancaster: The mayor talks about there being a structural (city) budget deficit. You’ve been at the front lines on that. How has it looked over the past, almost 20 years?

Hopkins: This will not be a popular opinion, but I have heard for basically 30 years that the city property tax rate is going to kill development and kill people’s interest in living in the city. While our property tax rate is too high, because of the state forcing us to rely on property taxes for so much of our revenue, we’re also seeing an incredible volume of property sales in the city right now.

We’re continuing to see new residential development. I think there’s something like 1,200 or 1,500 residential units in the pipeline, either being built right now or in the planning stages. And we’re seeing a whole lot of business development.

I’m not arguing that property taxes don’t matter or that they’re not too high. But we’ve seen great growth. So there must be something else other than a business or resident just looking at property taxes and saying, “I don’t want to pay that bill.” …

In 1992, the New Era (Lancaster’s former afternoon newspaper, now part of LNP) did a whole series of articles looking at the city, looking at business exiting the city for suburban strip malls and office parks, and a whole variety of other issues.

I started with the city a year and a half or so after that was published. If you look at all of those issues, some of them are still concerns: high poverty levels among residents, things like that. But “business is fleeing the city, residents are fleeing the city,” that stuff has really turned around.

I think a whole lot of things changed. There were some major things that happened during the Stork administration: The first major renovation of the Fulton Opera House. … The first time there was a comprehensive plan was during the Stork administration.

During the Smithgall administration, that’s when Clipper Stadium was built. The convention center and the Marriott Hotel started during Smithgall’s administration, ultimately getting done during the beginning of the Gray administration.

Nationally, there’s a drive away from suburban sprawl. Honestly, in the 1990s, I never would have thought that I would see high school kids from suburban school districts coming downtown rather than Park City or something like that.

So I think some of it is things that happened in the city and efforts that were made by various administrations, and some of it is a return back to realizing that cities are vibrant, great places to be if they’re cared for.

In order to care for them, you need fiscal stability. There has been fiscal stablity, there has been government stability in general, and I would say that’s across the board in every administration. … I think we have had administrations and City Councils that, while they certainly don’t agree on every single point, for the most part everybody is in the same boat trying to row in the same direction.

One United Lancaster: If a home rule charter is drafted and approved, how do you think that will change things?

Hopkins: It will depend very heavily on what that new charter looks like. It’s pretty clear that the original impetus was to try to provide the city with different types of revenue sources to reduce the forced over-reliance on property taxes. But in the home rule study commission’s work, there may be other things that they see that also merit change.

One United Lancaster: If you could change something about how a Third-Class city like Lancaster is run, what would it be?

Hopkins: To me, honestly, the biggest issue is the lack of authority that we have to make decisions about how we raise our revenues. If there were flexibility in, for instance, being able to raise the earned income tax, or the real estate transfer tax, in lieu of future increases in property taxes, I think that given enough open, transparent public education, most residents would be in favor of it. …

I think the other thing is, ultimately, some regionalization of services. I think eventually regionalization of fire services is going to happen, given the challenges that volunteer fire companies are having with finding volunteers.

One United Lancaster: This is obviously something you will be eventually be offering one-on-one, but: Any advice to your successor?

Hopkins: As a resident, I have a vested interest in making sure that the city continues to be successful as an attractive place to work and live and do business. That’s my baseline.

I think it’s really just to focus on the fiscal stability of the city, which has all kinds of positive ripple effects. The other focus is on making the city government run as smoothly, transparently and efficiently as it possibly can.