Cities throughout Pennsylvania, regardless of size, are facing similar issues such as blight, aging infrastructure and unsustainable pension systems. To learn more about the future of municipalities, the state Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee held a hearing Wednesday to better assess needs.
The first person to address the committee was Pittsburgh’s 8th District City Councilman and Democratic mayoral candidate Bill Peduto. He said there are four main issues facing the city: pensions, economic development, education, and infrastructure and transportation.
“We cannot continue to grow our tax base, attract new residents and create jobs unless we have healthy transportation networks and safe and viable infrastructure,” Peduto said. “While some progress has been made, for example in reducing the number of structurally deficient bridges in the region, we still have over 300 deficient bridges in Allegheny County alone.”
Peduto said public transportation is also important, but that the Port Authority of Allegheny County is stretched to its limit and can’t improve and grow without a dedicated funding stream from the state.
State Sen. Jim Ferlo said the Pittsburgh-area delegation has ensured the region gets its fair share, but at some point cities and counties “need to step up the plate.” He said revenues need to be raised and some tough votes by county and city councils may be needed to that end. But, that wasn’t much comfort to leaders from smaller municipalities.
“In a community like Duquesne of 5,500 people, we need a lot of outside help,” said Duquesne Mayor Phillip Krivacek. “We can’t just arbitrarily raise taxes 10 mils to tear two houses down. We can’t do that with our tax dollar. Our tax dollar goes to street improvements, cleaning snow, cutting brush and cutting trees.”
Krivacek said without the Legislature’s help, and help from outside communities, there's not much that can get done. He added that blight and vacant houses are a big problem in Duquesne. That is also an issue for McKeesport.
“Without question, the foundation of moving our city forward and to see McKeesport flourish again, along with the whole Mon Valley, is what I believe is two principles,” said McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko. “One, we need to clean up the blight which goes hand in hand with criminal activity and drug activity that goes on in the city, and two, people need to feel safe.”
But, he said the money simply isn’t there for things like demolition of blighted properties.
“Our tax base is so minimal that raising taxes on one of the highest percentage of senior citizen populations in the county and state is not an option," Cherepko said. “Our tax base is to the point if we raise taxes one mil, we generate $70,000 to $75,000, and that’s not going to solve our problems.”
Other issues raised were the need for better education and training in communities, not just focusing on academics, but on trades as well. Shared services such as parks and purchasing were also mentioned as a possible way to help ease burdens on smaller municipalities.
Other speakers to address the committee included representatives from housing, urban development, cultural and business groups.