Category Archives: State Policy

We are full of garbage

We’ve all seen the copious quantities of garbage cans that line our streets and trash closets on collection day and it seems almost impossible that anyone could run out of garbage but it’s happened to Sweden. The country has actually run out of trash.

Cities in Sweden burn garbage for the energy to power their buildings and plants; nearly half of the structures in Oslo are powered by the burning of garbage. Sweden’s use of garbage for fuel, coupled with their extensive and popular recycling programs leaves only 4 percent of their solid waste going to landfills. What percent of household trash from the United States ends up in a landfill, you ask? An estimated 50 percent. In fact, one garbage burning plant owner in Oslo has expressed interest in purchasing American garbage. They’re already paying neighboring countries for their trash.

Available data for landfill use in the United States is a little bit old, but nevertheless startling. In 2003, Americans landfilled 2.46lbs of garbage…per person….per day. We have 3,091 active landfills across the states and while we are in no danger of running out of fill, we should consider that we may run out of land.

In the Lehigh Valley, there has been some discussion about the necessary expansion of the IESI Bethlehem landfill that operates off of Applebutter Road in Lower Saucon Township. The expansion would require a rezoning of the nearby area to accommodate waste, but the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission voted against this redesignation.  So, where is the trash to go? The United States recycles 34.7 percent of its Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), burns 11.7 percent of it and discards 53.7 percent. With our population and rate of consumption, this leaves us with a lot of stuff packing our landfills while our municipalities are opposed to expanding landfills.

Should we start burning our trash for energy like Sweden? Try to recycle more? Or should we sell our trash?

What do you think is the SUSTAINABLE solution for the Lehigh Valley?

The City of Whitehall?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Currently a township, Whitehall is considering the requirements and consequences for their designation as a city, and from the rapid growth in its population it looks like Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton may have a new member in the city-club of the region.

Whitehall is a first class township and is eligible to change their designation to third-class city after a voter referendum and a council change to their home charter rules. Their population, at the time of the 2010 census, was 26,738 just below Easton’s population of  26,800. Although their population nearly mirrors a neighboring city, there are other considerations in changing a municipality’s designation. There are many benefits in Pennsylvania to becoming a city. For example, only cities are eligible for certain tax incentive programs from the state like the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) and the Community Revitalization Improvement Zone (CRIZ). Cities have more departments and authorities, like their own independent housing authority, which Whitehall Mayor Ed Hozza has said would be an important element to the now-township. The increase in size and scope of municipal government that comes with a change from township to city obviously isn’t free. The idea to change Whitehall into a city is still in its early stages and the cost to taxpayers is a major consideration right now.

The proposed change in Whitehall’s designation will hopefully spark an interesting conversation in Pennsylvania about the nearly unparalleled fragmentation and silo-like nature of the state’s local governance. The process of turning into a city may cause other municipalities to consider joining in a merger with Whitehall. The city of Bethlehem is the product of several borough mergers. Bethlehem was first formed in the Borough of South Bethlehem, a separate Borough of West Bethlehem. Decades later, the Borough of West Bethlehem joined with the Borough of Bethlehem (in Lehigh County). Finally, in the 20th century, the City of Bethlehem merged with the Borough of South Bethlehem to create the City of Bethlehem that we have today. Whitehall Township has several neighboring boroughs that may benefit from a merging with Whitehall Township to become the City of Whitehall. One such borough that could benefit is Coplay. With a population of under 5,000, a shared physical border and a combined school district, their merge makes sense and wouldn’t result in a decrease of services to Coplay residents. Another benefit to the merge is eligibility for a CRIZ. The CRIZ mandates a population over 30,000 which Whitehall Township doesn’t have on its own but would with the addition of Coplay residents.

If you’re a regular reader of the Renew Lehigh Valley blog here (which you should be!), you may have already heard of the hollowing out of the urban cores in our region as the population left cities in favor of new, sprawling second class townships. This was highlighted by a 2003 Brookings Report called Back to Prosperity. Some of the contributing research for this report detailed the excessive, small-box government that plagues Pennsylvania. There are 2,562 municipalities in the Keystone State each with their own municipal governing body. They range in size from 1.5 million in Philadelphia to the Borough of Centralia with 8 residents at the time of the 2010 Census.

In this state, they are broken down into cities, townships, boroughs and one town (Bloomsburg). Within those classifications there are first class cities (Philadelphia is the only one), second class cities (Scranton is the only one) and third class cities. There are first and second class townships and unclassified boroughs.

The Lehigh Valley alone has 62 municipalities (Northampton and Lehigh Counties). This fragmentation and duplication of efforts and services promotes sprawl and inhibits regionalism. Municipalities in Pennsylvania are permitted to create their own comprehensive plans and are not bound to formally adopt the regional comprehensive plan that is written by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. Changes in state policy that would encourage smaller municipalities to merge with their neighbors would increase the efficiency of service provision, minimize redundancies and create a more amenable environment for regional efforts.

The Darkest Shades of Sprawl

We’ve known for awhile that sprawl is poor land use policy; it’s inefficient and unsustainable, but there is new evidence to suggest that it is correlated to social mobility. Citizens living in sprawling cities are less likely to improve their socio-economic standing.

The rigidity of social status is greatly affected by accessibility to employment and other resources. Cities with higher degrees of sprawl are less accessible, and while they may provide job opportunities for the majority of their citizens, the transportation to those places of employment is hindered by their wasteful land use. Last week, The Equality of Opportunity Project (research done by professors from Harvard and UC Berkeley) released a study showing a map of the United States, colored according to a scale of upward social mobility. Below are the best and worst cities in the country:

Rank Odds of Reaching Top Fifth
Starting from Bottom Fifth
 Rank Odds of Reaching Top Fifth
Starting from Bottom Fifth
1 Salt Lake City, UT 11.5% 41 Milwaukee, WI 5.6%
2 San Jose, CA 11.2% 42 Cincinnati, OH 5.5%
3 San Francisco, CA 11.2% 43 Jacksonville, FL 5.3%
4 Seattle, WA 10.4% 44 Raleigh, NC 5.2%
5 San Diego, CA 10.4% 45 Cleveland, OH 5.2%
6 Pittsburgh, PA 10.3% 46 Columbus, OH 5.1%
7 Sacramento, CA 10.3% 47 Detroit, MI 5.1%
8 Manchester, NH 9.9% 48 Indianapolis, IN 4.8%
9 Boston, MA 9.8% 49 Charlotte, NC 4.3%
10 New York, NY 9.7% 50 Atlanta, GA 4.0%

While this is an interesting study and list, the researchers did not find any convincing data for causation although they pointed to causation in factors including religiosity, family structure, size of the middle class and measurements of racial discrimination, but this week in an article for the New York Times, Paul Krugman looks at their data on the physical segregation and distances between socio-economic groups.

In the cities where expensive housing was a great physical distance from lower income housing, social mobility suffered. Atlanta was a good example. Atlanta is very spread out, which makes public transit very difficult. Jobs aren’t as accessible to individuals without personal vehicles. There has been a hollowing out of urban core communities, and the consequences are very serious.

Atlanta may seem very far away to Lehigh Valley residents, but it wasn’t long ago that The Brookings Institute found many of the same faults in our region. In 2003, Brookings authored a report entitled “Back to Prosperity: A competitive Agenda for Renewing Pennsylvania.” The report featured a profile of the Lehigh Valley where they saw the population sprawling away from cities, towns and older suburbs. This hollowing out contributed to several trends that are highlighted in the report, including the growth of rural townships, decentralization of employment, lagging job growth and slow income growth. Through the 1990s, the Lehigh Valley lost more farm land than any other large metropolitan area and home values in urban areas rapidly declined. Due to the decline in value, tax rates for these municipalities increased. By 2000, racial and economic segregation had taken hold in the Lehigh Valley. During the 1990s, more than 26,000 white residents left Allentown, Easton and Bethlehem while over 27,000 racial minorities moved in. Employment decentralization has continued and further isolated the city population from jobs.

Sprawl is poor land use policy for a multitude of reasons: decrease in  home values, increase in tax rates, racial segregation, prohibitive lack of access to resources and employment and ultimately a rigidity in social class that is incongruous with the country’s promise of equal opportunity.

What Detroit means to Pennsylvania

After years of financial distress, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy late last week. It becomes the first major city in United States history to do so.

Detroit has debt totaling $18 million. The unemployment rate in the city recently peaked at 28 percent and while it is has been declining, it remains at over 16 percent. The rate of crime is high and the industrial plants that used to populate the city are folding or leaving the city. Detroit is also facing grossly underfunded pension obligations and they will argue that the court should relieve them of these pension obligations. Naturally, their retirees and unions are beginning to launch a fierce battle against this.

While Pennsylvanian cities and municipalities are not yet facing the degree of financial strife that plagues Detroit, its distressed areas are met with similar considerations. Should Detroit be relieved of their pension obligations, it will set a precedent relevant in Pennsylvania where municipalities are mandated to fulfill the pension promises they have made to police and firemen under PA Act 111. They can receive financially distressed status under PA Act 47, which allows them to restructure their debt and consolidate or merge with neighboring municipalities to ease their individual burden. There are many municipalities who are now realizing the enormity of their pension obligations, and have very few choices except bankruptcy. Twenty municipalities in the state, including its capital, already have Act 47 designation that has helped them stabilize their financial status, but hasn’t provided stable, long term solutions to their economic problems.

While Act 47 allows municipal consolidation, there needs to be better understanding of the benefits of merging. A financially failed municipality with heavy debt and pension obligations is not a promising merge partner for a healthy, neighboring municipality.  However, the possibility of shared services and decreased cost in service provision to the stronger municipality should be used as a selling point in these consolidation discussions. Both municipalities can benefit from consolidation and eventually provide higher quality, lower cost services to their constituents while one emerges from Act 47, distressed status.

If these negotiations and state laws are your interest, keep your eyes open for more information on Renew Lehigh Valley’s smart growth conference coming this fall. One of the available workshops will focus exclusively on Act 47, Act 111 and municipal bankruptcy in Pennsylvania with an expert panel featuring Fred Reddig from Pennsylvania’s Local Government Commission and Tom Baldridge of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce.

Farming and Community Health

How does the protection of farmland correlate to the health of a community? Kane County, Illinois is working to find out.

Over the past ten years, their farmland protection program has preserved over 5500 acres of farmland in the county and they are currently considering a new amendment to broaden investments in local food production. New investments would include small farms and organic farmers producing fruits, vegetables and meats, intended to increase availability of fresh produce in schools, farmers markets, corner stores, and other sites in the community.

Enter the Health Impact Project. HIP is a project funded by the Pew Charitable Trust and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to fund Health Impact Assessments (HIA) that will be used to inform policies at any level of government. Kane County won funding from this project and is expected to produce their HIA next month with measurements from their community. The HIA will assess the ways in which their new amendment could affect the health of local residents through, for example, changes in availability and price of fresh fruits and vegetables, food safety, and economic changes resulting from increased food production in the region.

HIAs are conducted by a panel of stakeholders in the community to ensure that they are engaged in considering health and health disparities with any given policy. The assessment is completed in six steps:
A Health Impact Assessment has six steps:

  1. Screening: Determines the need and value of a HIA;
  2. Scoping: Determines which health impacts to evaluate, the methods for analysis, and the work plan for completing the assessment;
  3. Assessment: Provides: a) profile of existing health conditions, and b) evaluation of health impacts;
  4. Recommendations: Provides strategies to manage identified adverse health impacts;
  5. Reporting: Includes development of the HIA report and communication of findings and recommendations; and
  6. Monitoring: Tracks impacts of the HIA on decision making processes and the decision, as well as impacts of the decision on health determinants.

Kane County hopes to use this assessment to inform the debate surrounding their new amendment, hoping that they will find it could lead to improved health.

The Health Care Council of the Lehigh Valley is doing similar work much closer to home. They created a forum process where they engaged stakeholder organizations from the Valley to discuss their input on community health, and held two series of meetings. In the second set of meetings, they were able to bring back results and analysis from the first round. Participants in the forums were asked what they thought the biggest health concerns in the region were, what would help their community become healthier and what leads to health problems in their area. They were asked follow up questions to these in the second round of meetings.

In these public meetings held last fall, they found that the health care system and services are fragmented, that there is a lack of communication and connection between the community and care providers as well as poverty, lack of jobs and language differences being barriers of access to medical resources. There were also positive findings, the community responded that the local health care providers care about the community and were willing to listen to their needs as well as looking for short and long term solutions to improve community health. Their Community Health Profile breaks down their findings and the particular issues in each city, and can be found here.

Consolidation in Action: Princeton, NJ

For a long time, there was Princeton, NJ the borough and Princeton, NJ the township – not anymore. In 2011, residents voted to consolidate the neighboring municipalities and their merger took effect on January 1, 2013.

To coordinate the process, the new municipality created a task force. The Transition Task Force is comprised of twelve members: Five voting members each from the Borough and Township, and one alternate each. The Task Force also includes both the Borough and Township administrators. The Task Force is being assisted by the State Department of Community Affairs and other outside experts. This consolidation represents the joining of a relatively developed and economically stable borough, and a much more rural township. Despite their cultural differences, the merge was seen as having huge potential in cost-saving for both municipalities.

The two municipalities are in the process of overcoming budgeting differences, as they had previously allocated funds through different channels and were not able to merely combine their revenues and cut out the redundant departments. In order to make sure that the service and fiscal planning would aptly serve the new municipality, subcommittees were formed from the Transition Task Force and included Facilities, Finance, Infrastructure, Personnel and Public Safety. The state of New Jersey was also helpful in the transitional phases, offering 20 percent of cost reimbursement and funding an upgrade in the police information system. Special consideration went into ensuring that consolidation would not yield a decline in the services provided by either municipality. These services consist of trash collection, financial reporting, police staffing and relocating public facilities, among others.

In Pennsylvania, it’s been difficult to undertake such huge projects, but Renew Lehigh Valley has been advocating for consolidation since its inception and there has been some success. Right here in the Lehigh Valley, we have seen consolidation of police departments with the Colonial Regional Police Department that provides law enforcement services to Bath Borough, Hanover Township, and Lower Nazareth Township all in Northampton County.

Courage to Connect in New Jersey is holding a public meeting on June 5 to examine the case of Princeton, below is their information on the event:

This has been a remarkable year in NJ with the implementation of the Princeton Consolidation.
You are invited to:
Be Inspired by the success of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough becoming ONE town.
Learn from elected officials from around the state about their experience with school, police, fire and municipal consolidation.
Connect with innovative leaders in NJ, making a difference!
When: Wednesday June 5, 2013 from 8:00 AM to 12:30PM
Where: Princeton University
Robertson Hall, Dodds Auditorium
Prospect Ave at Washington Rd
Princeton, NJ

Seminar Schedule
8:00 – 8:45 a.m. Registration and Continental Breakfast
8:45 a.m. Welcome and Introduction
Gina Genovese, Executive Director, Courage to Connect NJ
8:50 – 10:00 a.m. Princeton: A Road Map to Follow
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert
Princeton Councilwoman Heather Howard
Princeton Administrator Robert W. Bruschi
CGR President and CEO Joseph Stefko
10:00 – 10:15 a.m. A Path to Success
Former Princeton Township Mayor Chad Goerner
10:30 – 11:30 a.m. Elected Officials Discuss their Experiences with Consolidation
Senator Bob Gordon – NJ District 38
Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli – NJ District 16
Freeholder Rob Walton – Hunterdon County
Mayor Paul Fernicola – Loch Arbour
11:30am – 12:30pm Benefits of Police and Fire Consolidation
President and CEO of Public Safety Solutions, Les Adams
Princeton Police Captain Nicholas Sutter
Princeton Police Lieutenant Christopher Morgan

NIZ News Is Good News

As Envision Lehigh Valley is asking the question “What will the Lehigh Valley be like in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years,” the state budget was passed late Saturday night with language that seemingly wipes away the need for 18 Lehigh Valley municipalities to continue lawsuits against the city of Allentown.  Pennsylvania legislators made municipalities whole again, returning to them their earned income tax revenue that a 2009 Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) Act allowed the city of Allentown to keep in order to fund a new hockey arena.

For the second time in as many years, Governor Corbett signed a state budget on time and with no new taxes. This budget has some significant legislation attached, including amendments to the tax code for businesses that donate to private schools, amendments to the state’s welfare and school codes, and funding for the four state universities. Perhaps the most significant amendment for Lehigh Valley residents, however, is the change to the state’s fiscal code which prevents the city of Allentown from using earned income taxes from the suburbs to help fund the building of the hockey arena proposed for the area at Seventh and Hamilton Streets in the city.

Author of the original NIZ Act in 2009, State Senator Pat Browne saw this as an opportunity for the whole region to get behind a project that would surely stimulate not only the economy in Allentown but in the outlying municipalities as well. This opinion was not shared by many of the local governmental bodies in the Lehigh Valley, leading to lawsuits from 18 municipalities and one school district protesting the use of their earned income tax revenue to fund the hockey arena and the surrounding shops, hotel, and office space.

In an effort to keep the project moving forward and spur the economic development of Allentown, which presumably would lead to a better Lehigh Valley in general, Browne sponsored the amendment to the fiscal code so that the nearly $2 million that was to come from earned income tax collections from those who work in the 130-acre NIZ area but live outside the city would now stay in the municipalities. When asked about the NIZ funding, State Representative Joe Emrick said, “We have effectively fixed that problem with this budget…” and that is “one of the reasons it has my full support.” It seems likely now that the lawsuits will be dropped, if indeed all of the money already collected is returned to the appropriate municipalities and no further money is withheld.

Is this the spark that the communities needed to get back to the regional thinking that is necessary for a progressive Lehigh Valley to continue to be economically competitive statewide and even across the nation? With extremely limited resources at the local government level and municipalities forced to cut services to their residents or raise taxes to continue them, now is the time to consider these regional ideas as good for the Valley as a whole. Let’s work together and remove some of the costly barriers in order to make the Lehigh Valley more efficient and competitive.

Neighboring New Jersey Preserving Land Through Compact Growth

Our neighbors in New Jersey have implemented a new way to hem in urban sprawl using new municipal ordinances.  Noncontiguous clustering is an innovative tool “that preserves farmland and open space with private funds by an alternative to conventional subdivisions; instead of building homes on large lots, a developer may use the developmental potential of a parcel or parcels where preservation is desired on a different, nonadjacent property.”

A recent report by the organization New Jersey Future, provides insight into the study of the nine municipalities currently utilizing the planning tool.  The study, “Preserving Land Through Compact Growth: Case Studies of Noncontiguous Clustering in New Jersey,” provides a detailed description of the situation in each of the nine townships with visuals to highlight the plans in place.  Read the full report here.

The nine townships featured in the report that have adopted noncontiguous clustering ordinances are Delaware, Hillsborough, Hopewell (Mercer County), Middle, Monroe, North Hanover, Ocean, Plainsboro, and Robbinsville.  One of the authors did note, however, that only four projects have been completed over the 16 years that such ordinances have been available.

Still, it is encouraging to see that townships in neighboring areas have adopted ordinances to combat the spread of sprawl.  Municipalities within the Lehigh Valley could learn a lot from these townships by studying what worked for them in the process and what obstacles hindered progress.  Farmland and open space can be preserved.  Smart planning and development can be achieved.  It takes smart policies with the power of enforcement, as well as cooperation among local government and developers, in order to prevent more sprawl.

Smart Growth– A Conservative Perspective

The phrase “smart growth” has a liberal connotation, but that label is unfairly given.  Smart growth policies benefit everyone.  It is not a partisan issue; at least it shouldn’t be a partisan issue.  Conservatives often attack smart growth policies, but I think this is a result of a misunderstanding of the impact smart growth policies can have on a community.

David Goldstein wrote a blog post highlighting the reasons why conservatives should support smart growth policies, namely “economic freedom, limited government, and responsibility.”  (Read the blog post here.)  He brings up many good points that should appeal to both sides of the political divide.  He sums up his argument perfectly when he writes:

“Smart Growth looks at these issues in a holistic way.  It does not advocate eliminating land use planning, nor letting anyone borrow money regardless of their ability to repay.  But in many ways it does reduce the heavy hand of government and other big bureaucracies to tell you what to do.” (emphasis original)

Smart growth policies will benefit our entire community, but we must join together in the effort to establish these policies in our communities first.  Liberals, conservatives, and independents alike should stand together to implement these changes to improve our communities.  No matter the demographics or political affiliations, smart growth will benefit us all.

Governor Corbett to Propose Fiscal Budget Feb. 7th

Stay tuned for Governor Corbett’s presentation of his proposed budget for fiscal year 2012-2013 on Tuesday, February 7th before a joint session of the PA House and Senate.  This is only the first step in the annual fiscal process, as legislators will be in budget meetings discussing the proposal in the days and weeks following Corbett’s proposal.

You may be asking, “Well, who cares?  It’s only the first step in the process.”  Guess what?  It does matter and you should care!  If you are concerned about cuts in funding for a particular program or agency, you need to speak up.  Take for example the students from four state-related universities who rallied at the Capitol building to advocate for state education funding.  They are concerned about financial aid and affordable tuition for college, and they made sure their voices were heard.

What are your biggest concerns as the state budget is debated and determined?  Share with us your thoughts.  But more importantly, share your thoughts with your local representatives and senators.  Let them hear your concerns so that they can be your voice in the debate.  Change won’t be accomplished unless you participate.

Watch the address at: http://www.governor.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/governor_pa_gov/20650

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