HARRISBURG, Dec. 18, 2012 — Smaller urban areas across Pennsylvania are facing a myriad of economic and financial challenges.

The Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a roundtable discussion today at the Central Allison Hill Community Center in Harrisburg to talk about the issues facing Pennsylvania’s smaller urban centers and their adjacent communities. The panel focused on finding comprehensive solutions to revitalize urban cores and strengthen their surrounding communities.

“The economy may be slowly recovering, but many cities and urban communities across the state, including Harrisburg, are still facing a variety of critical challenges,” said state Sen.-elect Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin/York), who requested the discussion. “This forum allowed us to come together and begin to collaborate on how urban areas can move forward toward a better and more prosperous future.”

“We’re hearing from urban communities across the state that are facing crises, from budget woes and increased crime to struggles with school districts and declining populations. These are serious problems that must not be ignored,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton/Lehigh/Monroe), the chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. “I’m grateful that Senator-elect Teplitz has requested this public discussion, which will pave the way for real solutions to boost our urban areas.”

Since 1987, 27 municipalities have been declared “financially distressed” under the state’s Act 47, which provides loan and grant funds to financially distressed local governments as well as technical assistance to formulate financial recovery plans. Of those, only six municipalities have had that designation lifted.

Harrisburg City Councilman Brad Koplinski recommended that the committee talk to mayors and presidents of city councils of financially distressed municipalities to see what is and is not working under Act 47.

“Too many times, it’s one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter solutions. One size does not fit all,” Koplinski said. “It’s vital that communities and third-class municipalities have more ability to decide for themselves the issues and revenues that are needed to serve own needs. State government should allow municipalities to take care of themselves.”

Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson recommended state legislation that would enact a 10 percent drink tax in Harrisburg, which she said would bring $5 million to the city, and a 1 percent countywide tax increase, which would bring in $6 million in revenue. These funds could be used for public safety, she said.

The mayor also addressed tax-exempt properties, of which nearly half of the properties in the city are comprised.

“Tax-exempt properties are killing this city, accounting for $1 billion in lost revenue,” she said.

Rick Vilello, the mayor of Lock Haven and president of PA Municipal League, said that smaller urban areas must look at comprehensive real estate reform, including tax-exempt properties and a better property reassessment plan.

Referring to a new Senate Democratic initiative “Growth, Progress & Sustainability” or “GPS,” he said, “We need all of what’s in your plan plus we need to do the hard things. We can’t continue to kick the can down the road. The road is disappearing under the can.”

Alex Hartzler of WCI Partners, Inc. recommended reinstating a tax abatement incentive in Harrisburg.

“We can learn from what works,” Hartzler said. “Tax abatement increases local revenue because it attracts new business.”

Mayor Thompson also called for state incentives for job training, especially for ex-offenders, and suggested requiring prisoners to get job training for a specific skill set, and giving corporations tax incentives for training and hiring ex-offenders.

“We give businesses incentives to build.  “Why can’t we give businesses incentives to create jobs?” Thompson said.

State Rep.-elect Patty Kim agreed.

“Ex-offenders need a second chance. We have to break the cycle of poverty,” said Kim (D-Dauphin). “How can we expect homeowners to pay property taxes when they can’t get a job?

“Education and workforce development key to helping our communities,” Kim said. “We need to address our tax base; those who can afford to lead are leaving and those who are staying need to have quality education and jobs.”

Harrisburg School Board President Jennifer Smallwood said the school district has been cutting staff, and that other school districts are facing similar circumstances.

“We’re looking to move forward. We want to work with the state and have been working collaborating with PDE (Pennsylvania Department of Education) to move forward,” Smallwood said. “We fought the ‘financially distressed’ designation because we feel we’re not distressed. We have a balanced budget. But we lack the resources to move forward.”

Smallwood said she looks forward to better representation from the city’s newly elected state legislators, Teplitz and Kim, and to working with the city’s new chief recovery officer.

“We want you to be our eyes in the state Capitol,” Smallwood said. “We’re looking for assistance but we just want to make sure we’re not left out hanging.”

Democratic Leader Jay Costa, state Sens. John Blake (D-Lackawanna), Jim Brewster (D- ), Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny), Judy Schwank (D-Berks) and Sens.-elect  Matt Smith (D-Allegheny) and Sean Wiley (D-Erie) also participated in the discussion.