HARRISBURG - While the state is struggling to address its own burgeoning pension bubble, business leaders and local elected officials from across the Commonwealth have joined forces to address the corresponding local pension crisis.
This crisis coupled with unsupportable, binding arbitration awards are crippling Pennsylvania's municipalities, according to the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities (PLCM).
The Coalition for Sustainable Communities (CSC) - a growing alliance of chambers of commerce, local government associations and other business, community and municipal leaders - was organized to help the Commonwealth's urban, suburban and rural communities address growing economic challenges. The PLCM is one of its founding members.
The coalition is now mounting a three-step campaign that involves: cost-saving improvements to Act 47 (financial recovery for municipalities), reform of Act 111 (binding arbitration), and municipal pension reform.
The PLCM is no stranger to addressing the diverse needs and challenges that local governments face. In 2010, it launched its Core Communities in Crisis Task Force to develop a call to action for effective change in three crisis areas - isolation of core communities within their regions; mandated costs, policies and procedures; and inability of municipalities to fund and provide for the health, safety and welfare of citizens.
The work of the task force and the strategies discussed led to the formation of the CSC.
"As members of PLCM, we are all aware of the challenges we face every day, and the league continues to fight for all of us in Harrisburg," said PLCM President Richard P. Vilello Jr., mayor of Lock Haven. "We started the Core Communities in Crisis Task Force a few years ago, and while building our action plan, we picked up a few friends. All around Pennsylvania, chambers of commerce are joining their core communities in the Coalition for Sustainable Communities to help us fight not just for our survival, but for our revival."
The PLCM is dedicating a portion of its annual district meetings to discussing the CSC's efforts and how individual municipalities can get involved.
The Central District, which includes Lock Haven, State College, Williamsport and eight other municipalities, met April 4 at the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, Pa. Municipal representatives discussed common ground and strategized about how best to approach the Legislature regarding reforms. Of these communities, Johnstown is currently in Act 47; Altoona, an Early Intervention Program participant, recently petitioned the state for Act 47 status; and Sunbury has participated in the Early Intervention Program.
"Providing public safety services is a core function of government, yet without these reforms our ability to properly protect our residents is severely jeopardized," said Bruce Kelley, Altoona Council member. "It's high time the Legislature takes stock of the gravity of the situation and works with us to balance and preserve employer and employee interests by updating outdated collective bargaining laws and reforming the municipal pension system."
The CSC has already begun its education and advocacy efforts. Last month, a contingent of CSC members spent a day in Harrisburg educating legislators and Corbett Administration officials about the growing urgency of these reforms. Participants that day included CEO's, presidents and executives from six chambers of commerce, as well as 20 elected and appointed municipal leaders from across the state.
The CSC's immediate focus is support of Senate Bill 1321 (Earll) and House Bill 1988 (Ross) that seek to clarify Act 47. The legislation is in response to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision in City of Scranton vs. Firefighters Local Union No. 60 that took arbitration awards out of the confines of Act 47, severely limiting its usefulness.
The CSC also is intent on reforms to binding arbitration and pensions. Outdated laws promote fiscal distress, according to the coalition.
The CSC states it intends to work with the State Legislature and Corbett Administration to develop sensible public policy solutions that level the playing field for municipalities struggling to maintain their financial health.
The CSC has 22 member organizations already and more are expected to join. The current members include the PLCM (with 73 member municipalities); Pennsylvania State Association of Township Commissioners (70 first class townships); Pennsylvania Business Council;Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce; and Pennsylvania Economy League Inc., Central Division.