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Pa. capital's mayor-elect has his work cut out

November 10, 2013
Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Eric Papenfuse, the mayor-elect of one of Pennsylvania's most financially distressed cities and its state capital, was still getting congratulatory hugs and handshakes at his Harrisburg bookstore several days after last week's election.

"There are a lot of people who want to get involved and haven't really felt connected to city government for a while, so we're hoping we can take advantage of that" as part of the transition from businessman to mayor, he said in an interview Friday.

Papenfuse, a Democrat who trounced incumbent Mayor Linda Thompson in the May primary and won Tuesday's election with about 50 percent of the vote, has been active in Harrisburg politics for years, but this will be the first elective office he has held.

"There was a certain weightiness that came down upon me Wednesday," Papenfuse said. "I feel a great burden because there are so many people that not only have their hopes in the city but are also counting on me to make sure that there is a measure of accountability."

His victory couldn't have come at a more tumultuous time in the debt-saddled city, where officials are hoping for a December closing on a financial recovery plan that has been under negotiation since an unprecedented state takeover of the city government two years ago.

A state-appointed receiver and his team of lawyers and financial advisers are putting the finishing touches on a recovery plan that calls for the sale of the city's municipal trash incinerator, whose $350 million in debt the city has been unable to repay. The Lancaster Solid Waste Management Authority is expected to buy the facility for between $126 million and $132 million.

The recovery plan also calls for $283 million in borrowing by a state economic development agency, largely to pay for city debts that include $100 million in Harrisburg Parking Authority debt. The state agency, the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority, would be repaid by receipts from the city's parking lots, garages and meters.

Harrisburg's creditors, meanwhile, have agreed to walk away from potentially more than $100 million, concessions that City Council members opposed to the takeover had long demanded as part of any debt deal.

Taxpayers also are contributing to the recovery, as the city doubled its earned-income tax rate through 2016.

The plan will eliminate the incinerator debate and ensure a balanced city budget for at least the next three years, said Cory Angell, spokesman for the receiver's office.

"It gives the city a good shot at a predictable and viable economic future," Angell said.

Papenfuse, a Baltimore native and son of a retired Maryland state archivist and a schoolteacher, holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Yale University. He met his wife in graduate school and they moved to Harrisburg in 1999. They have three children.

A business that started as selling books from his home evolved into the sprawling Midtown Scholar Bookstore-Cafe, which also serves as a spacious meeting place for political debates, community discussions and musical performances in a neighborhood in transition.

Papenfuse said he would work to improve the relationship between the mayor's office and the City Council and between the mayor's office and the public.

"A lot of the public feels disconnected from all the major decisions," he said.

The mayor-elect said he and city department heads will be "out engaging the public on a regular basis, so you don't have to come to city hall to ask your questions. We'll be out."

 
 

 

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