We are now watching Harrisburg crash and burn. The busted Pennsylvania capital of 49,000 is crushed by $463 million in city debt and an additional $282 million in debt for the public school system. The state senator representing the area, Jeff Piccola, used his power last June to pass state legislation (Act 47 amendments) that shackled Harrisburg with accepting a receiver appointed by the governor and barred the city from filing bankruptcy until June 30, 2012.
Adhering to the Act 47 requirement that the mayor work with the city council to approve a fiscal recovery plan, Mayor Thompson fought a months-long war that resulted in her plan being rejected three times and the governor’s appointment of a receiver, David Unkovic. After the Dauphin County court approved Unkovic last November, he tried to help the city balance the budget, sell assets and negotiate with bondholders. Amid all that action, a subset of the city council, against the mayor’s wishes, filed a Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy petition that was ultimately rejected by a federal judge as a result of Senator Piccola’s Act 47 legislation.
Harrisburg’s biggest albatross is its responsibility for the debt of the Harrisburg incinerator – a monstrosity of design and a debacle of public financing. The responsibility for this debt first lies with the city and then with Dauphin County and bond insurer Assured Guaranty.
On Apr. 2 Unkovic inexplicably announced his resignation in a letter to the governor. This followed a dramatic press conference Wednesday in which Unkovic began to name names in the Harrisburg drama, beginning with State Senator Piccola, who recently announced his retirement from electoral politics. Also among those Unkovic named was the lobbyist who had worked with the staff of Governor Tom Corbett on the legislation to place Harrisburg into receivership and bar it from filing bankruptcy. Citizen journalist Tara Leo Auchey captured the Unkovic yarn-spinning at his hastily arranged press conference:
Which leads us to another player in the true Harrisburg debt story – Senator Jeff Piccola. During Unkovic’s press conference, he referred to the closing of the Dauphin Meadows landfill and Piccola’s position on that. Now, this is another history lesson but an important one. In 1990, Senator Piccola fought against the Incinerator and fought for use of the landfill for Dauphin County trash. The State agreed and all County trash went away from the Incinerator and to the landfill. When that happened, the Incinerator lost immense value over night.