Harrisburg City Council Got More Time
by Tara Leo Auchey
On July 25th, Harrisburg City Council was due in Commonwealth Court to face the Receiver in the fight over who has the final say on raising taxes on the residents of the City of Harrisburg. Included in the Court-approved Receiver’s Recovery Plan is a revenue generating initiative of a 1% increase on the Earned Income Tax (EIT) paid by working residents of the City of Harrisburg. In other fiscally distressed 3rd Class cities in Pennsylvania, the EIT applies to residents as well as non-residents; however, in this capital city of 50,000 commuters, that tool of offsetting fiscal distress has been taken away by State statute.
Per the same statute, the Receiver himself cannot raise taxes, but he can issue orders to make elected officials implement aspects of the Recovery Plan. On June 11, 2012, Receiver William Lynch ordered City Council as the legislative body to pass an ordinance to raise the EIT. City Council has adamantly refused.
After a series of warning letters, Receiver Lynch did what State law allows him to do—he petitioned the Commonwealth Court for a Writ of Mandamus on the matter, a Court command to City Council to do what Lynch says, i.e. raise the tax.
This essential and never-before debated conundrum was scheduled to be heard by Commonwealth Court Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter on July 25th at 10:00am.
The problem, though, is that City Council does not have any attorney to represent its position. Since October 2011, attorney Mark Schwartz has stood as Council’s legal advocate. However, on July 12th, he sent a letter to the Commonwealth Court asking to be released from that duty because he had yet to be paid. In response to Schwartz’s request to be dismissed, City Council officially asked the Court to postpone the hearing date so it had more time to find appropriate counsel to legally defend it against the Receiver’s order.
The State responded forcibly by declaring the Court should not grant the continuance. The State argued it’s not a problem for City Council to go out and immediately replace its attorney. For more on that story, see: Stated Power Procured.
At 1:00pm today, July 20th, Judge Leadbetter held a conference in her chambers to discuss two matters at hand 1) the withdrawal of attorney Mark Schwartz from the case 2) City Council’s request for more time.
Right off the bat, the Judge granted Mark Schwartz’s request to withdrawal his appearance as City Council’s attorney. After praising Schwartz for his fervent advocacy on behalf of Harrisburg’s City Council, Judge Leadbetter excused him and turned to the other matter at hand—the continuance.
As fortuity would have it, the same day of the Harrisburg Receiver versus Harrisburg City Council hearing is the Commonwealth Court hearing on whether or not to repeal the controversial PA Voter ID law. This coincidence was not lost to many who’ve been following the City of Harrisburg court dates. The significance of the activity in the Courthouse that day was foreseen as profound.
It seems that double scheduling of two major issues in Pennsylvania has had something to do with Judge Leadbetter deciding to move the Receiver versus City Council hearing. Continuance granted.
The new hearing date is Tuesday, August 14th, all responses to the Receiver’s Petition are now due August 3rd.
Certainly, the State is not happy with this outcome. Its four-page letter chastising City Council indicated a dominant government playing hardball. This is an issue of the State proving who has the authority.
In fact, it’s been indicated that the State will resist releasing money to fund any legal representation of City Council. After all, since the City of Harrisburg is in State-takeover, all financial decisions lie with the State. Thus, City Council may find itself choked off from defending itself.
On Monday, July 23rd at 5:30pm, Harrisburg City Council will hold a Special Meeting to discuss retaining legal counsel. Neil Grover, attorney and founder of the taxpayers advocate group, Debt Watch Harrisburg, will present a report to City Council (and the public) at that meeting. He will tell City Council what happened during the 1:00pm July 20th Judge’s Chambers conference. There is no one else to brief the City’s legislative body, because while the conversation focused on Harrisburg City Councilors and what to do about them, no one was in attendance on behalf of them.
The Order: Judge Grants Continuance
To access the State’s Letter to Commonwealth Court Objecting to City Council’s request for continuance, see: Stated Power Procured
Harrisburg City Council Special Meeting, Monday, July 23rd at 5:30pm in City Council Chambers, City Hall.