12.10.19 Bailiwick News – State College Borough Council minutes, digested
by Katherine Watt
To provide readers with tools to understand the mechanics of local civics, I’m working on a series of digests, summarizing the contents of the State College Borough Council and Centre Region Council of Governments General Forum meeting minutes for four years (2016 through 2019). The digests will be published along with contextualizing information, structural analysis and opinion about needed reforms.
There are three basic roles Council members perform at meetings. Council members receive reports, which neither requires nor allows responsive Council action; it’s the most passive of the three roles.
Council members also discuss issues. But unless a motion is made for Council to approve or deny adoption of a resolution, the discussion is just a conversation held in front of an audience.
The only times Council members actively exercise their lawmaking and tax-and-spend power as elected officials are when formal motions are made to adopt a new law, amend an old law, or levy taxes, borrow or spend public money.
Most Borough Council meetings play out as a dialog between the Council members on one side, and Borough Manager Tom Fountaine and Borough Solicitor Terry Williams on the other side.
On virtually all public issues, Fountaine presents staff recommendations and argues, politely but firmly, for those recommendations against questioning by Council members, which is usually ill-informed and petulant.
Williams then presents the bare-bones legal argument supporting staff recommendations; it’s some version of “if you follow staff advice, you probably won’t get sued by an adversary with deep pockets.”
Council generally approves the decisions as framed by staff, presented by Fountaine and rationalized by Williams, and usually votes unanimously to do so.
In my view, this public decision-making structure is problematic, for many reasons I’ve laid out previously and will continue to lay out going forward.
For some financial context, in 2008 the State College General Fund budget was about $16,000,000. By 2016, it had increased to about $25,200,000. By this year, 2019, the General Fund budget had risen to $29,446,562. Next year (2020) it’s proposed to be $31,300,000.
It’s doubled in 12 years.
For further financial and structural context, please see the Sept. 23, 2016 and Dec. 9, 2016 issues of Bailiwick News, which provide information about municipal corporate structure, including the difference between the General Fund, other Governmental funds, and multiple Enterprise funds.
1Q2016 State College Borough Council Minutes – Digest
Jan. 4, 2016
Council members and staff wished departing members well, and greeted new members who had been elected in November 2015. Tom Daubert was elected as chairman of Borough Council.
Jan. 11, 2016
Council discussed voting rights of COG committee alternate delegates.
Council discussed Borough parking garages, and a staff proposal to fund a set of parking deck capital projects by borrowing about $6 million. Staff stated Fraser Street garage was expected to last another 30 to 40 years, and Beaver Avenue garage was expected to last another 40 years. Pugh Street garage was expected to require demolition or replacement sooner, timeframe not provided. When asked if the garages are “debt-free or indebted,” staff stated “borrowing was co-mingled for all three garages.”
Council voted (unanimously) to refer a proposed “inclusionary housing” ordinance section, which would bar developers from segregating workforce housing units from student housing units within apartment buildings, to the Planning Commission for review and recommendation.
Council voted to approve public spending of $3,283,000 for December 2015 payroll and bills.
Feb. 1, 2016
Council received a report from Tree Commission chairman Nick Kerlin about the commission’s 2016 work plan, anddiscussed tree vandalism.
Council received a report from Transportation Commission chairman Paul Rito about the commission’s 2016 work plan, and discussed bicycle lanes and the need to educate “10,000 new residents” every year about bicycle safety.
Council discussed switching to a two-year budget cycle.
Council received a staff proposal that Council approve (on Feb. 8) a $5.6 million borrowing package, including $2.2 million to update the Pugh Street Parking Garage, so as to complete nearby public infrastructure projects on the same timeline as the privately-funded Fraser Centre high-rise construction projects (to minimize disruption to area businesses). Staff stated the remaining lifespan of the Pugh Street garage was 20 years, and stated the Beaver Avenue garage cost $22 million when built 11 years ago (2005) and had since required “significant” expenditures for elevator maintenance.
Council discussed parking fund shortfalls, street parking v. garage parking, workers needs v. shoppers needs; and the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza project (budgeted at $846,000). Staff said $200,000 in “reserves” would be put aside for future garage repairs or a new garage.
Council discussed funding for installation of cameras in the Highlands neighborhood and other projects potentially funded by federal Community Development Block Grant money.
Susan Venegoni (private citizen) asked incisive questions about budget procedures and the timing of staff transfer of knowledge to Council members and the public.
Council discussed definitions of “special events” that qualify for increased special event parking rates, set at the Borough Manager’s discretion, including Penn State home games, Blue/White game, Arts Fest and Penn State graduation.
Council voted (unanimous) to award a contract of $354,393 to Walker Parking Consultants for “various maintenance and renovation projects” in parking structures, based on a “base fee” by the “landscape architect.”
Feb. 8, 2016
Council received a report from Planning Commission chair Mike Roeckel about the commission’s 2016 work plan, derived from 2009 Borough strategic plan.
Council received a report from Historic Resources Commission chair Erik Boeldt about the commission’s 2016 work plan, including a Historical Architectural Review Board ordinance proposal (last vetoed in 2002). Council received a report from Design Review Board chair Justin Wheeler on the commission’s 2016 work plan.
Council received a report from Redevelopment Authority chair Sally Lenker on the authority’s 2016 work plan, and an update about the Homestead Investment Program (HIP), through which the Borough was purchasing, renovating and re-selling former student rentals to convert them to owner-occupied homes for neighborhood stabilization.
Council received a report from Taser Advisory Committee chair Ron Madrid, about the work of the committee, which was established in 2015.
Council discussed the role of the Community Development Block Grant “Citizens Advisory Committee,” the anticipated retirement of Police Chief Tom King, and Borough Manager Tom Fountaine’s plan to keep King on the Borough payroll in civilian capacity after his retirement.
Susan Venegoni (private citizen) asked incisive questions about budgeting procedures.
Council voted to approve local government spending of $2,988,000 for January 2016 payroll and bills (unanimous); authorize borrowing $6,032,000 for parking garage projects (unanimous); approve reimbursement of “pre-borrowing” expenses (Resolution 1156, unanimous); approve a fund transfer between accounts for capital projects (Resolution 1157, unanimous); and authorize Borough Manager Fountaine to execute a 5-year lease of Borough streetlight poles to wireless carriers (unanimous).
March 14, 2016
Council received reports from Public Works Director Mark Whitfield, Assistant Borough Manager Roger Dunlap and other staff, about the proposed parking garage projects, a proposed $6.2 million General Obligation Bond approval vote to be held April 4 for same, and the MLK Plaza project.
Council received a report from Borough Manager Tom Fountaine about his revised organizational chart for the municipal corporation, including proposed new Department of Neighborhood and Community Services.
Council received a report from Real Estate Advisory Committee chair Ron Madrid about the Homestead Investment Program, including $95,000 in “sunken costs,” the REAC recommendation to suspend new purchases of student rental homes until Dec. 31, 2016, when the three current HIP homes would hopefully be sold; the $400,000 bidding cap artificially inflating the market and triggering bidding wars; and lenders discomfort with deed restrictions barring future use of the homes for rentals.
Council discussed pending mediation between Borough and Penn State over PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) agreement, [related to the increasing number of for-profit franchise businesses operating in the HUB, tax-exempt; Penn State’s definitions of “franchises” and “management service contracts” and how to classify – for example – the HUB Barnes & Noble, with university-related floor space and also strictly commercial floor space. See Centre County Assessment Office, Annual Penn State PILOT meeting minutes, Jan. 14, 2016.]
Council received a report from Fountaine that the regional municipal managers met recently to discuss changing the funding formula for the Centre Area Transportation Authority (CATA), and the fact that State College has historically paid a larger share than Patton or Ferguson, despite more riders from the townships, on the basis that increased bus use from outlying areas decreases traffic and parking congestion downtown from personal commuter vehicles.
Council heard a request from Luis Rolfo (private citizen) asking Borough Council to adopt an ordinance making marijuana possession “a civil penalty and not a criminal offense.”
Council discussed commission “work plans;” Tom Daubert expressed frustration, saying there was “no sense in Council reviewing the work plans if they could not make changes,” and asking for more information about the Redevelopment Authority’s “State College Town Center Project,” to be told simply that it’s part of the “Allen Street Civic District.”
Council voted to approve the 2016 work plans of Design Review Board, Redevelopment Authority, Historic Resources Commission, Planning Commission, Transportation Commission and Tree Commission (unanimous).
Council discussed changing the definition of “student” to exclude graduate students, related to increasing access to affordable housing; Council voted (unanimous) to take no action on changing the definition of “student” in student home zoning code provisions, to exempt PhD students, but to address the issue through the upcoming comprehensive zoning code overhaul.
Council voted to accept Planning Commission’s recommendation and “do nothing” on a proposed amendment to the inclusionary housing unit distribution requirement within the zoning ordinance (5-2 vote), related to whether developers should be compelled to disperse low-income units among all units, or could be allowed to segregate low-income tenants.
Council discussed fence standards for front yards.
The UPUA (University Park Undergraduate Association) representative announced UPUA recently passed a resolution on a Tenants Bill of Rights.
March 21, 2016
Council received a report from John Lichman, director of State College Borough Water Authority [an independent municipal authority, whose board members are appointed by Borough Council.] Lichman told Council that 60% of water for 72,000 customers is drawn from Harter and Thomas wells [under threat from then-proposed Toll Brothers/Penn State luxury student housing development] and that if the Harter-Thomas wellfields are contaminated, SCBWA would switch to “28 other wells,” and “no one would even notice.” He said SCBWA planned to replace over 108 miles of cast iron pipe over the next few years.
Council received a report from Borough Finance Director Dwight Miller, about the 2015 year-end financial report, and 2015 audits pending.
Council received a report from State College Community Land Trust President Susan Venegoni, about trust work over past 20 years to support affordable housing for lower-income households.
Council received a report from Board of Health chair William Taylor, about restaurant inspections, dog enforcement, massage and tattoo establishment inspections, sanitation compliance and school inspections.
Council received a report from Schlow Library director Cathy Alloway about library operations and usage figures.
Council members gave each other reports in their roles as municipal liaisons to/from Centre Region Council of Governments seven (7) committees: Executive, Finance, Human Resources, Parks Capital, Public Safety, Public Services & Environmental, Transportation & Land Use.
Council members gave each other reports about participation in the National League of Cities Conference.
Council members received a report about a Centre Daily Times letter co-written by Borough Manager Tom Fountaine and Penn State Vice President for Finance and Business David Gray, praising 164 local police officers (from Borough jurisdiction and campus jurisdiction) for taking diversity training.
Susan Venegoni (private citizen) asked incisive questions about the Borough budget, organizational structure, and disparate tax burden when compared to other Centre County municipalities.
Council discussed changes to the police pension program and the State College Community Land Trust. Council voted to approve $2,939,000 in March 2016 payroll and bills. Council voted to “consent” to an announcement that Borough Manager Tom Fountaine had appointed Tom King (outgoing Police Chief) to be a new Assistant Borough Manager effective Sept. 1, 2016, under Fountaine’s independent corporate managerial authority, under the Borough charter.
Council voted (unanimous) to approve Fountaine’s creation of a new governmental department – the Department of Neighborhood and Community Services – under a new corporate organizational chart listing six major operating departments.
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In my view, the most important role of local government is land use regulation to protect public health, public budgets and ecosystem commons.
Land use is currently governed by zoning laws.
I don’t advocate for communist or socialist state- ownership systems, because I think the right to own and benefit from use of private property, when exercised by individuals and families, is a crucial component of individual liberty, and I think individual liberty is a bedrock principle of the American experiment.
I also think worker ownership of business enterprises is a good idea; essayist John Michael Greer refers to it as “democratic syndicalism” in his work.
I think ownership and control of private property by investment corporations, especially at present, with their extraordinary access to cheap credit, is unethical.
And at present, given the high pollution and system-support loads our shared living ecosystems are burdened with, I don’t think private property owners of any scale are entitled to put additional burdens on the commons: clean air and water, publicly-owned and operated water and sewage conveyance and treatment systems, publicly-maintained roads, and historically-productive agricultural fields and forests.
If someone buys or owns an intact ecosystem, whether farm, pasture, wetland or forest, he or she should be prepared to tend it, and should have no recourse to rezoning to convert it to ecologically-burdensome uses.
However, the preemptive land use law we’ve inherited privileges private profit for corporate investors at public expense, ecological expense, and at the personal expense of individual-, family- and worker-owners, by degrading and destroying our shared ecological commons, and by inflating land prices to boot.
Preemptive land use law is at the heart of state and federal usurpation of local self-governing autonomy.
For more detail about the mechanics of the tyranny, below is a reprint from a legal guide for Albemarle County, Virginia, about land use law and the four types of power municipal legislators must work within, despite having no way to meaningfully consent to those limits on their own behalf as free individuals or on behalf of the constituencies they represent. The zoning acronyms are slightly different in Pennsylvania, but the legal principles are the same.
At the most restrictive level are “ministerial” acts, in which the local elected government has no discretion at all. Appointed municipal staff take the action, by signing a contract or granting a permit, for example, in compliance with state or federal rules.
Next are “administrative acts,” in which the local elected government or its delegees may exercise limited discretion by applying standards to a given set of facts: approving a variance, for example.
Then there are “legislative” acts. Within limits set by state and federal governments, local elected government can make general policy decisions that establish rules of conduct by, for example, adopting or amending zoning ordinances.
This is the most useful of the current tools available to communities. It could, for example, be used to adopt a comprehensive overlay zoning district requiring all development proposals to prove they will have no adverse impact on existing ecosystems and public service budgets to gain approval, enshrining the precautionary principle in locally-enforceable law.
The fourth type of local governmental act is the quasi-judicial act, in which local officials interpret legislative policies with regard to individual land development projects. The interpretation is discretionary to a limited extent; the policies being interpreted are not.
In my view, this system is broken and in need of reform, because it largely strips the electorate and our elected representatives of our human dignity and the self-governing autonomy we need to shape and protect the human character and living ecosystems of our communities.