Blog Archives

Meet NIZ’s stepbrother, CRIZ

You would be hard pressed to find a Lehigh Valley resident who wasn’t familiar with the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) in Allentown that has attracted hordes of new businesses, including a hockey arena that will house the minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers. But there may be a new ‘IZ coming to town.

Community Revitalization and Improvement Zones are now a new Pennsylvania incentive plan to provide a boost in the redevelopment of the state’s smaller cities, but there are only a few that are eligible. CRIZs are only available to third-class cities with populations of 30,000 or greater, and no more than two are awarded the designation in each fiscal year. These guidelines leave only 8 eligible cities: Erie, Reading, Lancaster, Bethlehem, Altoona, Wilkes-Barre, Chester and York. Unfortunately, our friends over in Easton fall just short of the population requirement.

A CRIZ can cover up to 130 acres of land, and isn’t quite as attractive as NIZ, but still provides business incentives. The NIZ allows companies to redirect all taxes earned in the zone to go to financing it, while CRIZ only redirects taxes in this way after a certain threshold amount. Private investment must also equal 20 percent of the tax redirection funds, or one private dollar for every public five.

The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development will determine which cities will receive CRIZ designation based on applications with a specific economic development plan for the acreage within the city. Bethlehem is eligible for such a district and will definitely apply for the designation, with several project options. One of the most popular choices since talk of the CRIZ emerged is Martin Tower, the high rise building in West Bethlehem that has been vacant for six years but the south side of Bethlehem could also provide project options in its abandoned or underutilized structures.

We wish Bethlehem luck in their application for a CRIZ! Remember in our last post we promised a workshop in The Lehigh Valley Summit for Smart Growth focused on Act 111 and Act 47? We will also be hosting a workshop during the conference that looks at the NIZ and what it’s done for Allentown with a panel of developers and city panels. Again, stay tuned for details on how you can register for the smart growth conference!

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.

What’s in the budget, Guv’na?

Yesterday, Governor Tom Corbett unveiled his budget proposal which will inevitably be tinkered and toyed with until the General Assembly passes their final version in the end of June, but it made clear the hopes and dreams of Governor Corbett in the coming fiscal year.

Last year, Corbett proposed major cuts to education and paid for it with his approval rating. He hasn’t made the same mistake this year. Corbett proposed a 1.7 percent increase to basic education funding and promised $1.6 billion to higher education. However, these funding increases are not yet a foregone conclusion. The spending increase is tied to several other reform projects that Corbett has his eye on. Education funding will be tied to the privatization of state liquor stores, a greatly debated issue in the past few years. Without this reform, budget officials say that major cuts are inevitable. Public schools would be forced to choose between increasing their taxes, cutting their programs or an unfortunate combination of the two.

Funding for transportation will also be increased in a similar deal. Over the next five years, $5.3 billion is to be invested in transit with $510 million immediately going to highway and bridge projects if the legislature votes to reform the state pension system. The proposed reform would do nothing to reduce the benefits that current employees have already paid, but the future of their plan would switch to a 401(k) program in which they allocate 6.25 percent of their salary to their retirement benefits. New state employees would enter the pension system with this program in place.

New employees to the state may be sparse though; Corbett’s budget includes the elimination of 900 positions, including 400 layoffs. Most of these staff reductions will come from the Department of General Services, the Health Department and Public Welfare. In Human Services news, Corbett has proposed $6.1 million to transition patients at state facilities to community placements.

Despite the spending increases, this budget proposal is also business friendly. It eliminates the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax, reduces the Corporate Net Income Tax and repeals the Corporate Loan Tax. Small businesses certainly weren’t left out of business benefits either. They are now eligible to a $5,000 tax deduction for start-up businesses and access to a new team within the Department of Community and Economic Development that will provide advice on how to best utilize state and local incentives to increase the success rate of new businesses. The Pennsylvania Business Development Authority will consolidate eight loan programs into one large pool of $1.1 billion loan funds.

The Republicans control both the state house and senate, but it is unlikely that Corbett will get everything that he asked for in this proposal. However, it will certainly shape the debate in the coming months before the 2012-2013 fiscal year expires.

Read the full version here!

Get Out and Vote April 24th

On Tuesday, April 24th, Pennsylvania residents will once again have the chance to have their opinions heard through the voting process.  For Republicans, it is a chance to express their support for Republican presidential candidates in the general primary.  Pennsylvania is still a very important state in the elections as Romney, Gingrich, and Paul battle for supporters and for the nomination.  Residents of the 134th District also have an important decision to make in a special election for the General Assembly.  Republican Ryan McKenzie and Democrat Patrick Slattery will compete for the seat left vacant by former state Representative Doug Reichley.  (For more information about voting in PA, visit: http://www.votespa.com/portal/server.pt/community/home/13514)

Though you may not be able to participate in the election on April 24 due to your party affiliation or your geographic location, it is still important to think ahead to the next time you have the chance to participate as an active citizen in the voting process.  You can’t have your opinions represented unless you vote, and you can’t vote unless you’re registered.  Remember, too, that the rules have changed so that voters will need a photo ID come this November.

Even if you can’t or don’t vote on April 24, educate yourself about the issues.  Learn about what the candidates stand for, read Governor Corbett’s proposed budget and how it could impact you, and–most importantly– contact your local legislators.  You can’t complain about the state of affairs unless you participate.

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

County Health Rankings Across Pennsylvania

When the annual County Health Rankings were released late last month, the Morning Call, Express Times and Patch reported on the very high morbidity numbers in Northampton County and Lehigh County. Meanwhile, these county rankings received coverage that looked at how other parts of the state were faring as well. Union County was ranked the highest [Check out WNEP news for more info] and Philadelphia was ranked the least in regards to health outcomes and health factors [Here’s the link]. Closer to home, both Montgomery and Bucks Counties ranked in the top 10 of Pennsylvania counties in terms of overall health [Here’s the link here for phillyburbs.com article].

Generally, the rankings showed that counties located in south and central Pennsylvania performed better than did counties in the northeast and northwest. Also, more of the urban counties are ranked in top half than the rural counties — this using the definitions of “urban” and “rural” developed by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania (The Center defines rural vs. urban Pennsylvania based on population density).

Amid these overall regional trends, in some cases the rankings show significant differences even among neighboring counties. Consider the area to the north of Harrisburg, where Union and Snyder Counties both are amongst the top five counties statewide in overall health, while adjacent Northumberland County is ranked in lower one-third. The factors that contribute to such great disparities among neighboring counties would lend itself to further analysis that could shed light on the local conditions that contribute to – or stand in the way of – good health. (As a side note: For an interesting resource on county-level conditions across economics, demographics, and other areas, check out Patchwork Nation – an interactive data site.)

While considering how Pennsylvania counties fare among themselves, it is important to look at where Pennsylvania stands nationally on support for public health. Public health infrastructure in Pennsylvania clearly lags that in others. For its population size, Pennsylvania has the lowest number of public health professionals. Also, according to a study released last month, public health spending in Pennsylvania is very low itself. Here’s the link.

Ultimately, failing to adequate support public health is a short-sighted policy and an unwise investment of public dollars. As noted in the local coverage of the county health rankings [Patch article], we either invest upfront in public health and prevention or we spend far more on what it takes to address illness and injury after they occur.

What is impressive and valuable about the County Health Rankings is not only the numbers themselves, but the huge potential to use these data to improve the health of our communities. Look here to see how people can take action. Patrick Remington, who is the University of Wisconsin Professor and has lead the County Health Rankings report, remarks that the County Health Rankings report is a teaser to catch interest. The point is get people to take some action towards the health of their community.

The current work on establishing a regional health department for the Lehigh Valley represents an important step toward building a strong system of prevention and health promotion for our region. For more information on this effort, visit RenewLV’s Regional Health Initiative page.

Contact Your Legislator in Support of Tolling I-80

Just received this notice in my mailbox. I urge all of you to please contact your US Legislators today.

**************

Call to Action

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pennsylvania Act 44 of 2007 is in grave trouble and that means the economic future and vitality of the Commonwealth is in jeopardy unless immediate action is taken to toll Interstate 80.

Without these resources, we can anticipate a permanent annual loss in funding — $350 million for Highways and $150 million for Transit – statewide.

This is a $500 million LOSS that will translate into fewer permanent jobs and significantly reduced opportunities for contractors and engineers who support public transit and highway construction and revitalization initiatives.

The Commonwealth cannot afford to sustain such job losses or reduced capital investment in vital mobility infrastructure.

Please contact these legislators today and tell them that the tolling of Interstate 80 is essential to keep Pennsylvania working and growing.

Senator Arlen Specter

Ph: 202-224-4254

Fax: 202-228-1229

Contact Form: http://specter.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Contact.ContactForm

Congressman Robert Brady

Ph: 202-225-4731

Fax: 202-225-0088

Contact Form: http://www.brady.house.gov/index.cfm?sectionid=112&sectiontree=112

Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz

Ph: 202-225-6111

Fax: 202-226-0611

Contact Form: http://schwartz.house.gov/issue_subscribe.shtml

Congressman Chaka Fattah Congressman Patrick Murphy

Ph: 202-225-4001                                           Ph: 202-225-4276

Fax: 202-225-5392                                          Fax: 202-225-9511

Pennsylvania Budget in Place, But How Did the Lehigh Valley Fare?

With the budget impasse finally over, many residents of Pennsylvania let out a collective sigh of relief over the weekend. We were tracking this 102-day journey since it began in the summer, and, just like other Commonwealth residents, were very relieved to hear that the General Assembly had come to an agreement.

With the budget in place, several news sources have been reporting on the severe cuts that some state departments received. Back in August, I mentioned that the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) was receiving the most serious threats of budget cuts, and, indeed, the department that powers economic growth programs saw over 50% of its funding chopped. In a recent Morning Call article, Mark Shade, spokesman for the DCED, stated that the slashed budget will limit the department’s ability to do its work, though it will continue its programs and progress. It’s unknown at this time how the Lehigh Valley and the region’s cities will be directly affected through the smaller DCED budget.

Unfortunately, public television subsidies were entirely cut from the Pennsylvania budget, resulting in the cancellation of a local PBS-39 classic show, Tempo! The weekly documentary series focused on, among other topics, revitalization of the region’s cities and community development efforts in the Lehigh Valley. Sadly, the channel could no longer sustain production costs without the government’s help, despite the popularity of the program.

Residents of Pennsylvania: How do you feel now that the budget has passed?

UPDATE for PA Passenger and Freight Rail Plan

Rail PlanLast week, I posted a brief report on PennDOT’s Intercity Passenger and Freight Rail Plan, in which I noted that RenewLV was following up with project planners about electronic copies of the distributed documents. I am pleased to present the handout from the event, which includes the Vision, Key Elements, Goals, as well as an estimated timeline for the Final State Rail Plan.

Given this timeline, it looks as though the public will be able to review and comment on the draft plan in late October/Early November. Subscribe to Crossroads to receive regular updates on this project, and sign up as a supporter on our Join Us page, making sure to click the ‘Transportation’ box.

PA Passenger and Freight Rail Plan

Yesterday, I had a chance to attend the Harrisburg Open House meeting for PennDOT’s Intercity Passenger and Freight Rail Plan. The event presented the vision and goals for the rail plan in Pennsylvania for the next 25 years. In this draft plan, PennDOT put forward an ambitious vision for rail, stating that “by 2035, the intercity passenger and freight rail system [will] provide seamless transportation for residents, visitors and businesses between the various cities of Pennsylvania with convenient connections to the national transportation network.” The presentation at the open house included maps for proposed rail corridors, in addition to the criteria list that is being used to determine the corridors. The open house was part of a series of public meetings that PennDOT and the project’s consultants are holding across the state, as a means of receiving input on the draft plan. That is, the presentations at these meetings were not THE finalized plan, but were meant as an opportunity to provide feedback and potential revisions. (Attendees were even given a chance to actually draw corridors onto a map).

On the big picture scale, the plan aims to identify possible service enhancements, priority investments, performance measures, and funding mechanisms. One of the striking features (at least for me) of the plan elements and proposed criteria was the connection that was made between rail and land use planning. The project consultants seemed especially sensitive to those issues often addressed on this blog: transportation-oriented development, increased multi-modal access, greater mobility for all people, environmental sustainability, and land use implications. Moreover, the goals outlined in the plan touched upon the crucial link of transportation investment to economic development, in regard to both passenger rail (cost-effective access to jobs and resources) and freight rail (cost-effective transport of goods). As mentioned above, the proposed corridor maps for freight and passenger rail were still in their draft versions, but, nonetheless, a Lehigh Valley corridor was included in these preliminary plans.

Because the plan is still being revised, it has not been posted online yet, but RenewLV staff is following up with the project planners and consultants to see if we can obtain electronic versions of the documents presented at the meetings. Make sure to subscribe to the Crossroads RSS feed to receive updates on this project.

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