And the politics in the City of Harrisburg end the year politically.

Harrisburg City Council passed a budget for the next year earlier than they have in years. On this date in previous years, City Councilors and a dedicated few observers are smack in the middle of a multi-night Budget Review schedule, department by department , line by line, hoping that all can be settled before Christmas Day so no one has to return before New Year’s Eve, although that’s happened before.

In the past, there were anywhere from 5 to 8 long evenings in City Council Chambers, each night always a different department with a different department director there to discuss the department’s line item requests. Line by line, department by department. The intention was to publicly analyze the mayoral-proposed budget, pouring hours and hours over it while having the Finance Director and the pertinent department persons there to offer explanations, clarifications, and reasonings. At the end of each night, the public could comment. Then back again for another night.

In previous years, parts of the budget were made available each night. The public could at least have something in hand to review along with City Council. In real time. Often times, Councilors questions derived organically as the conversation went back and forth to discuss job descriptions, request clarifications, needs, and costs.  While City Councilors did come prepared with preconceived  questions before each meeting with particular department directors, the directors weren’t given the questions beforehand, which did cause delays because they weren’t always ready with the information. However, that approach had its benefits from a public standpoint—to see how prepared the Administration was for certain justifications. To see how City Council studied and scrutinized the Budget. That’s how in December 2010, City Council found a $4 million mistake in the Thompson Administration Budget for 2011.

This year, things were done differently in the 2013 Budget process. It’s the Budget and Finance Committee that conducts the public reviews of the Budget, and with Brad Koplinski as Chair, he decided to take a different approach. This time, there was only one public review meeting. This time, the Administration got the questions prior to the review.

In attendance at that single public review on December 5th was every department director as well as Mayor Linda Thompson. Typically, the Mayor only participated in the budget review process on the night of the Office of the Mayor. Otherwise, the Finance Director and his deputy handled the probe on behalf of the Administration during the department directors’ q & a with City Council.

That’s not how it was this year. This year’s new strategy had the Mayor and the Finance team publicly take City Council’s questions on any and every department budget request all in one night. The Mayor and Finance Director Bob Kroboth were the primary ones to defend the budget line items and issues rather than department heads as in years past. When needed, a director was brought forth to answer a specific question such as about the age of Public Works equipment, Police parking enforcement, or tasks of Building & Housing. On the whole, though, it was the Mayor who parleyed with Council. Since she knew most of the questions already, Thompson was prepped with in depth commentary on the perfection of her proposed budget. The Mayor closed the proceedings with a direct solicitation to City Council not to cut anything. Thompson asked them to “Respect this budget.” She declared, “This budget was well thought of. It was built on the needs of the people.” Then she went onto say , “In 2013, we will have our city at the cliff of recovery.

That’s an entire crew of new or renewed elected officials.

The Mayor also praised Chairman Koplinski’s changed approach saying she appreciated City Council having delivered their questions to the Administration beforehand.  Thompson confessed she liked knowing her Administration wasn’t going to get any ”I gotcha questions.”

After the meeting, City Council discussed having another meeting. Chair Koplinski said he didn’t see a need, but President Wanda Williams said, “Well, we may need to have them if any cuts are going to be made.”

Some citizens sighed in relief at the thought the holiday season would not be spent in City Council Chambers. Others worried about the lack of public witness to the process. Still others shrugged shoulders and said, “Does it matter? The Receiver’s in charge of the City’s budget anyway.”

So, no more public meetings were called before the December 18th Legislative Session to vote on the Budget, but changes were proposed by City Councilors and revealed to Mayor Thompson. The amendments weren’t available to the public in advance of the session nor were copies on hand at the session. The eight amendments were presented by Budget & Finance Chair Brad Koplinski, presumedly a conglomerate of all Councilors comments and desired changes. Koplinski read each amendment aloud in the public, first time for the public’s hearing. While City Councilors were given the chance to talk on each amendment after it was presented, there was no chance for the public to comment.

Public comment had already taken place before the amendments were in public view, and although President Wanda Williams didn’t suspend the rules of City Council to ask public participants if they had any feedback on the just-disclosed amendments to the 2013 Budget, she did suspend the rules to ask various representatives of the Administration to come forth and expound on the need for Thompson’s requests.

Now to back up for a moment, Harrisburg City Councilors had a pretty heated debate during the 30 minute caucus that preceded their actual Legislative Session. During that procedure, tension filled the air amongst the colleagues. It didn’t take long for Williams and Councilor Kelly Summerford to demonstrate they vehemently supported the Thompson Administration’s 2013 Budget as is.

This came as a surprise to many long-time watchers of City Hall who have heard Williams blast the Thompson Administration and more so, Mayor Linda Thompson. Stunningly, Williams’ change of heart was backed by grandiose generalizations of the needs and wants of the City and its citizens. Summerford championed the same causes pointing to his colleagues as “like the Republicans….cut, cut, cut, cut” despite the fact very few cuts were being suggested. As Councilor Sandra Reid proclaimed, “We’re not cutting positions, we’re just not adding.” By which she was technically correct. The Thompson Administration added positions to the 2013 Budget that were not in place before, such as a Communications Director, Community Policing Coordinator, and an assistant to the Chief Operating Officer, Ricardo Mendez Saldivia.

In the end, Saldivia didn’t get his assistant (although there was something sketchy about that discussion because it almost seemed as if he testified to City Council that someone is already doing that job for him, but now the position needs funded.) The Communications Director to the Mayor position was funded as well as the Community Policing Coordinator position. Both added positions were agreed upon in a 6-1 vote with Brad Koplinski being the only nay.

As if Wanda Williams coming out in full support of the Mayor and her budget isn’t enough, the 6-1 vote configuration was also thought-provoking. If you remember, there was a “Fabulous Four” block, a predictable majority of Susan Brown Wilson, Wanda Williams, Brad Koplinski, and Eugenia Smith. As long as those four stood strong together, they held the majority on City Council and accomplished such things as rejecting the Act 47 plans and filing for Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy in November 2011. Together, they held press conferences deriding the Mayor. In return the Mayor would have reactive press conferences deriding City Council, and back and forth they would all go.

When Sandra Reid was elected to office it seemed  she became one more dependent part of the majority joining in the general chorus of condemnation of  Mayor Thompson.

Yet that has all appeared to change. The 2013 Budget amendment votes indicated new points of departure, new alliances. Kelly Summerford and Wanda Williams clearly held the same position, consistently, with Eugenia Smith joining them in votes, but not as vocally defensive. The other City Councilors fluctuated with combinations of 6-1; 4-3; and 7-0.

Unanimous. That’s how the 2013 Budget as amended was passed. The ratified amendments to the Thompson Administration’s proposal are as follows:

      • Not fund the Chief Operating Officer’s executive assistant position–about $48,000
      • Not fund a City Service position–about $31,000
      • Reduce vehicle maintenance by $35,000
      • Reduce fuels by $100,000
      • Include $70,000 for street light repairs

The 2013 Budget was passed not balanced, and with carry over debt from 2010 and 2011 along with a bit from this year, that takes the City of Harrisburg into the new year with more than a $15 million structural deficit.

As if that’s not enough of a hole, for the first time Harrisburg City Council with its new voting bloc included the Harrisburg Authority’s incinerator debt in the City’s budget. It’s a guarantee obligation that has always been rejected by the majority of City Council, not included in the City’s budget as City debt, and has resulted in lawsuits from Dauphin County and the bond insurer Assured Guaranty. Before Councilors voted on Brad Koplinski’s amendment to not include 2013′s $72.1 million, Finance Director Kroboth asserted, “I understand philosophically no one wants to have that debt,” but he told them, the City was legally obligated to add it in. “It is what it is,” he said.

Most of City Council seemed to agree; thus, for the first time, the City has acknowledged this tremendous Incinerator debt by putting it into the budget.

The budget and the City’s recovery is assumed contingent on the sale/lease of the Incinerator and the City’s parking system as well as union concessions. If those things fall into place, then just maybe, maybe, creditors will concede, too, and municipal bankruptcy will be avoided.

Ultimately, those who shrug and say, “Does it matter? The Receiver’s in charge of the City’s money anyway,” are right. Receiver William Lynch and his team are in the process of implementing a plan, and any budget will eventually be adjusted to match that plan, especially if the Recovery Plan is taken back to Commonwealth Court and approved to sell/lease assets.

What does matter, though, are the charged politics that took stage during this 2013 Budget proceeding. The Thompson Administration’s Budget was the symbol of upcoming political grapple and jockey for power. While the City of Harrisburg may be in fiscal receivership, the politics of this place are all its own. All the altered alliances noticed should be taken into context of 2013—a major election year for Harrisburg. Not only is the Mayor’s seat up, but so are four City Council seats—Wanda Williams, Eugenia Smith, Kelly Summerford, and newly appointed Bruce Weber’s seat (who will not run to keep his seat assured by the fact he is unable to do so as a State employee).

That’s an entire crew of new or renewed elected officials. The Mayor says 2013 will bring the City to the cliff of recovery. Perhaps it will bring the City to the cliff of politics, too.

Tara Leo Auchey

Tara Leo Auchey

Tara Leo Auchey

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