The Patriot-News: Pennsylvania's Distressed Cities Law Is a Mixed Bag, New Pew Study Confirms

The Patriot-News: Pennsylvania's Distressed Cities Law Is a Mixed Bag, New Pew Study Confirms

For policy wonks, reciting the particulars of Harrisburg's economic woes comes as easily as a baseball fan's ability to rattle off the esoterica of batting averages and innings pitched.

And to extend the metaphor, it was the Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance combination of too much debt, mismanagement and political infighting that thrust the Capital City into the ranks of financially distressed municipalities covered by the Pennsylvania law known as Act 47.

A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts takes an in-depth look at the 26-year-old state law, concluding, among other things, that Pennsylvania state government has failed to address the underlying causes of cities' financial woes, even as it concedes that city leaders are just as much the architects of their own fates.

What emerges in the new report is a patchwork of responses in the 19 states that have laws allowing them to intervene in municipal finances. And in most cases, state officials are reactive rather than proactive, stepping in only after cities have crossed the point of no return.

For instance, as three California cities plunged headlong into bankruptcy in the summer of 2012, the Golden State's government offered no help. Instead, state officials stuck to a tradition of letting local officials clean up their own messes.

But when the city of Central Falls, R.I. filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011, state officials quickly appointed a financial manager and took other actions that resulted in the city emerging from bankruptcy in just 13 months.

The think-tank's bottom line conclusion about the Pennsylvania law is discouraging to say the least:

“However well-intentioned the act may be, Pennsylvania demonstrates how a combination of forces beyond a state's control, as well as outdated state policies and local governments' mistakes can block progress in helping cities rise from a cycle of despair,” the report concludes.


“We've had successes with it, and we've also had failures with it,” Fred Reddig, who oversees the Act 47 program, told Pew researchers in what reads as an utterly deadpan response to the mammoth challenges facing Pennsylvania's cities.

Brian K. Jensen, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League of Southwestern PA., tells Pew's researchers that the financial problems facing the state's cities “run far deeper than Act 47 can, or was intended, to resolve.”

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