Come November, voters will have the chance to approve a home rule study, and if they do, to elect simultaneously a panel that will perform that study.
That study — part of the exit plan mapped out by the city’s Act 47 coordinators — likely will take months to complete. If the commission decides to recommend a home rule charter for New Castle, voters again will get the choice to approve or reject the proposal.
When mulling how to cast their votes on these issues, we suggest city residents and officials remember the following.
•People remain the most important part of the equation. If voters are sincere in a desire to take a good, hard look at potential paths that could lead New Castle out of distressed city status, then those who are given the responsibility of considering those changes must be men and women with no predetermined intentions to keep things as they are. One strong possibility of a home rule charter could be a change from the present mayor-council form of government to a council-manager form. Or the panel could opine that the current structure best serves New Castle. Either way, residents need to be confident that the decision sprang from a thorough, unbiased examination of all the possibilities. Voters must consider carefully the field of study commission candidates and elect only the ones who have no horse in the status-quo derby, nor personal investment in the change-it-all market.
•A home rule charter would offer New Castle the ability to make up a for a revenue loss it will incur when it exits Act 47, a status that allows the city to levy special wage taxes (0.4 percent on residents and a 0.3 percent on commuters). A city operating under a home rule charter can set its own earned income tax level for residents. Lacking that ability, the exit plan says, the city would need to undertake a 35 percent real estate tax increase over three-year period. Rates would jump from 14.226 (2019) to 19.226 (2022).
Such a plan certainly has its plusses. An income tax is the fairest form of taxation, as it obliges those who can afford to pay the most to actually pay the most, rather than placing an increased burden on property owners — many of whom are senior citizens on fixed incomes. Moreover, as the city considers ways to lure businesses to the downtown, higher property taxes would blunt all of its efforts to do so.
And yet, residents must be shown that a home rule charter is more than just a money grab. Despite the fact that he city has levied additional taxes throughout its nearly 13 years of Act 47 status, a perennial pet peeve of residents — the proliferation of potholes — remains unresolved. Voters must be shown that they will get more than a lighter wallet out of home rule.
•One solid first step toward convincing residents of this would be enhanced cooperation between the city and county, particularly when it comes to blight. Thus far, conversation between the two entities has amount mostly to finger pointing, with each side accusing the other of hindering, rather than enabling, progress. The county could have an entirely new board of commissioners come November, and has said that it is hesitant to saddle a new panel with lame-duck initiatives. It’s also possible that just one incumbent will remain on city council by 2020. That doesn’t mean the two panels can’t at least start a discussion of possible remedies without committing to any, so that some sort of groundwork has been laid for incoming office holders.
As with any form of government, a home rule charter is only as good as the people who fill the offices it establishes. And those folks are only as effective as their ability to communicate a vision to their constituents.