New Castle News

Letters to the Editor

March 14, 2013

Our Opinion: Home rule question offers mixed bag

NEW CASTLE — The question of whether or not a Pennsylvania city should adopt a home rule charter is a long, detailed process.

And well it should be. Changing the structure of government is an important undertaking, and one that should be pursued with information widely available to citizens.

That’s because voters are the ones who decide if a home rule charter is implemented.

Home rule allows a municipality to make a variety of changes to the way it operates, taxes and does business — independent of traditional state restrictions. It doesn’t mean anything goes. For example, a Pennsylvania city can’t impose its own sales tax, but it could set a wage tax beyond existing state restrictions.

This issue is pertinent in New Castle, because an examination of home rule is being recommended by the city’s Act 47 management team. In essence, the goal is to determine if there are any potential changes in New Castle’s government that would better serve the community.

At this point, we don’t know if there is any particular benefit to home rule. In part, that’s because we have no specific home rule charter to assess. That would come after an elected commission conducts a study and makes a recommendation to the voters.

But we do see a value in having a study. If nothing else, it would stimulate discussion about local government in New Castle, its strengths and weaknesses and ideas for improvement. Such a process — even if it produces no home rule charter — could provide long-term benefits to the community by creating a dialogue and promoting new ways of looking at problems.

City officials may see home rule as a mechanism for removing New Castle from Act 47 status. This designation of financial distress is viewed as a detriment to attracting new businesses and residents to the community.

Perhaps that’s true, but it’s also true that a city government lacking fiscal discipline and operating at a deficit turns people away.

Absent other significant changes, the only way home rule would allow the city to free itself from Act 47 involves taxes. Right now, New Castle is allowed to impose wage taxes on non-residents who work in the city. This taxing power — possible only under Act 47 — nets the city about $2.5 million a year.

With home rule, New Castle could hike taxes on residents to a rate beyond state restrictions. But are city residents prepared to embrace home rule if the main outcome is to force them to pay more?

We view a study of city government as a way to prompt a broader public discussion that does not exist now. But whether it leads to home rule is another matter entirely.

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