Fix this broken city

Writing about the City of Lock Haven being “anti-business” draws its ire and retaliation.

But I only recently learned council members quietly passed a more restrictive sign ordinance in April of 2018.It eliminated non-profit organization exceptions, but failed to address laminate sign materials that are appearing all over town.

The new law does not reference “murals,” nor does it specify how a sign is to be measured.

They leave all of that to your imagination as they create unnecessary agitation and expenses for both applicants and its volunteer Zoning Hearing Board.

I was perplexed when the city targeted a Lock Haven University-related sign for a violation of its ordinance. I served it with a document production demand under Pa. Act 3. In response and the city provided details in a letter.

Shockingly, no sign applications were submitted and no permits were issued for laminate signage.

I questioned the city code officer, who testified that the city (1) Doesn’t verify the accuracy of application permits or measurements; (2) Didn’t notice that large signs had gone up for over a year; (3) Doesn’t verify sign compliance, and (4) Doesn’t enforce the law unless there is a complaint.

I’ve always purported that only those who file permit applications follow the law and those who don’t, don’t. That is because it appears there is no enforcement. It’s irritating to hear politicians tout how great things are, or will be if you vote for them, when facts reveal that is just not the case.

This is a colossal breakdown of a department. And most city elected officials seem to know less about these laws than I know about flying a jumbo jet.

After consulting to troubled organizations for over 40 years, I’ve concluded that breakdowns are rarely caused by employees, but rather by upper management.

In this case, that’s City Council.

Never did I expect to write this opinion piece to encourage the city to increase payroll, which is over 70% of the budget, including a whopping 37% in benefits. If there was normal management, they would pull back administration raises and benefits in order to employ more staff and provide environmental amenities to enhance the City.

The reason for this total collapse is not the fault of Ms. Cyndi Walker, the code officer. She is trying to do the job of 2.5 people. At one time they had Mr. Romig and Mr. Grimm in the codes department and they handled the workload in-house. Now we have one outside inspector for commercial, anyone who is on the approved list for rental inspections and the City reviews residential property construction. But no one is inspecting or enforcing. The city outsourced this responsibility and screwed up the economy in the process.

Why should this concern you?

1. It ships applicants who want to invest in our town to a Montoursville contractor to handle inspections, at a far greater expense and inconvenience.

2. It adopted codes that do not work for old buildings in a small town and drove the cost of remodeling an apartment from $25,000 to $50,000. Now applicants must go out of town to retain an engineer and smelling blood, engineer fees skyrocketed five times.

3. Its stupidity results in less development, less housing, lost tax revenue and restricted commerce which ultimately shifts the tax burden to your home.

4. This state of affairs causes a direct and proximate destruction of historical buildings. Understaffed, the City allows building owners, such as those who owned the Fallon Hotel and Town Tavern, to ignore maintenance until the structure is beyond repair. Even when its own Mayor reported a dangerous building to this newspaper, the City did nothing. I sued them to act. They did nothing. I predicted a fire. They did nothing. It caught on fire. They did nothing. It caught on fire again. Then it became vacant. It’s a destructive pattern.

5. It then uses your money to demolish the old buildings as they’re simultaneously taken off the tax rolls! Now they plan to buy and demolish two more buildings on Bellefonte Avenue that will leave one lone structure standing at the monument. With enforcement, the owners couldn’t have allowed them to become dilapidated in the first place!

6. Its idiotic law says that you can’t rebuild if fire destroys 70% of the structure if its prior use was grandfathered in! Who cares? Build a new one to tax.

Absent the tireless efforts of the Clinton County Economic Partnership and all of its volunteers, no city thrust has been alive to foster economic growth. The city paid a Planner for 25 years who – as far as I’m concerned – didn’t plan anything that effectively produced eonomic development. She wrote some plans, but then it seemed that council enacted everything imaginable to thwart its own objectives. Now a new planner is arriving to plan more. According to the Municipal Planning Code, the city must write a new Comprehensive Plan every 10 years. They write it, reference it to secure grants and then, it seems, they stick it in a drawer never to see the light of day for another decade.

One plan talked of designating West Water Street near near Lock Haven University as a commercial area to replace a convenience store, 3 restaurants, a hair salon and a dentist to serve LHU students. But then it opposed every building application submitted. This was anti-business. In my opinion, the city doesn’t read its plan any more than you read the fine print in your homeowner’s insurance policy.

But not to worry. Some city fathers are now entertaining a solution to the gaping holes on Bellefonte Avenue. This is to build a new City Hall where the Town Tavern once stood, and to also build an annex for the police department next to the Hope Hose Fire Co. Did you know that? To this, and all of the local government spending, I say, “you’re out of your minds.”

The population is stagnant and half the taxable structures have been torn down.

What to do?

1. Write less restrictive ordinances to lessen the need for variances and to encourage development.

2. Slow Main Street highway traffic and adopt a PennDOT Pedestrian Program at Mill Street to encourage a small town shopping district.

3. Hire an enforcement and Inspection officer.

4. Inspect old buildings and demand compliance to make them safe while saving them from the wrecking ball.

5. Create an active economic development department to grow the economy and encourage the construction of non-government-funded housing units.

6. Demand Keystone Central School District collect all of the commercial tax you levy. The city only receives $145,000 in business taxes and it’s my best estimate that isn’t enough because one business alone could be paying $67,000. Make everyone pay-up to lower homeowner taxes. Or, if elected officials are really smart enough to spur growth, eliminate the damn tax to be more competitive. But, do one or the other.

For younger readers, it’s hard to imagine Lock Haven when it was vibrant and not classified as the second poorest town in the state due to poverty levels.

There were three-story buildings on both sides of Bellefonte Avenue. There was even a furniture store and clothing store next door to City Hall! First we had redevelopment, then malls, then the levee, then stupid city decisions, and now onerous codes that directly lessen new construction and restoration.

The wrecking ball left behind more vacant land. Calculators say local rental rates do not support today’s new construction and codes costs, so vacant lots remain. What did the City do in its infinite but delusional wisdom? It enacted a separate, higher tax for land thinking that would force people to build something! But, no one did. This stupid law creates a 4.87:1 ratio on the taxes between vacant land and structures.

Hell, why not make it zero taxes on the vacant land if you want someone to build on it like they did for Lowes, Wal Mart and the Fairfield Inn? This stinkin’ thinkin’ is “anti-business.”

Believe all of these opinions are meritless?

Look to the east and west where commercial development thrives, in part because there is no business privilege tax.

McElhattan (Wayne Township) homeowners pay no municipal taxes (due to landfill revenues).

Mill Hall pays virtually nothing at 2.95 mills yet Lock Haven pays a staggering 9.04 mills.

Sadly, it’s really no privilege – in my opinion – to be a homeowner or commercial enterprise in Lock Haven.

We may all love our town but financially speaking it’s become the land of last resort.

Despite what vote-getters want you to believe, it needs fixed.

(Stephen Poorman is a Lock Haven based business consultant.)