On Jan. 19, the Lawrence Township board of supervisors and the Clearfield Borough Council will vote whether or not to move forward with consolidating the two municipalities.
If the plan passes both boards, it will then go to the voters of the municipalities on May 16 to vote on the referendum.
The Clearfield-Lawrence Joint Consolidation Committee has finished its work in drafting a home rule charter and memorandum of understanding.
Now, members are starting an outreach to the public to explain their work, including a public meeting at the Clearfield Junior-Senior High School this Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.
To that end, GANT News has interviewed the co-chairmen of the committee, Bill Lawhead of Lawrence Township and Brian Lytle of Clearfield Borough to get their perspectives on the consolidation plan.
The plan is for a consolidation, which is two equal partners joining together to make something better. A merger is when one entity takes over the other one.
In the case of Clearfield and Lawrence Township, the two – if approved – will join together and form a new municipality, the City of Clearfield, under home rule charter.
Lawhead has been a resident and supervisor for Lawrence Township for many years and understands both the people of the township as well as how the governance of a second-class township operates.
Lawhead explained the two municipalities were made aware of a grant to explore consolidation was available from the state Department of Community and Economic Development and the application needed to be submitted before January of 2015.
He said the borough initially applied for the grant, but the township had to sign on as well and apply in conjunction with the borough. The first meeting of the committee, made up of community members with different perspectives, was in March of 2015.
Lawhead was asked to explain home rule in his own words. “It puts the rules in the hands of the city,” he said, then explained that under state law, boroughs and townships are governed by municipal codes. Home rule is where “it’s your home and you make the rules.” It allows for flexibility on how things are done, but still follows state and federal laws.
The committee first hired the Pennsylvania Economy League, a not-partisan community think tank founded during the Great Depression to help communities to work together to improve government efficiency and eliminate wasteful spending.
Lawhead said priorities included exploring finances to see where the two municipalities were, a study on population and also looking into the status and functionality of the police, road crews, manpower, equipment, contracts and so on.
Initially Lawhead and township Secretary Barb Shaffner, along with Brian Lytle and Leslie Stott from the borough, came up with a list of possible committee members representing a cross section of the community, including real estate, the former DCED secretary Alan Walker, a banker, representatives of local government and so on.
The reason for this, he said, was to get as many perspectives and opinions as possible. The meetings have also been open to the public, some held in late afternoon and some held in the early evening.
The engineering firm was also brought on board. Since both municipalities use the same engineering firm, Stiffler and McGraw, it was easier to get the needed information and do comparisons.
This isn’t the first time a joint venture has been discussed, but this is the furthest it has come in the process.
Lawhead said most of the discussions have revolved around regionalization of the police departments, but there were different issues that would crop up and breakdown in communication. He said discussion on joining the municipalities themselves never grew beyond the occasional mention.
Of course, the topic on everyone’s mind has been, how can this help us? “I think the benefit for everybody is improved service in the future,” Lawhead stated.
He cautioned that no one will see “tons of money” at first, but finances will improve over time. There will be a better response time for police, he said, adding that there is already cooperation there.
Road maintenance will also improve. He noted how borough and township crews will plow snow up to a certain point on a street, to the municipal line, when it would make sense to just keep going.
That efficiency will be part of consolidation. “Delivery of services will be the biggest benefit,” Lawhead noted. The two share addresses, the police and fire companies already work together, “It just makes sense.”
What about disadvantages? “I can’t think of any disadvantages,” Lawhead replied. He did note that the rumor mill has already started churning and many are afraid the township will get raked over the coals and the only benefit is to the borough and that the borough is just after the township’s money. Lawhead pointed out that the borough and township are very much the same financially and have about the same debts.
Right now, the municipalities are restricted on how high they can raise taxes. Under home rule charter, they would not be as restricted, but under the home rule charter draft, they will still be limited on how high they can raise taxes and those raises have to be justified.
The first hurdle is public outreach. The next hurdle is the vote of both governing boards. “I can only hope at the January joint meeting, they both agree,” Lawhead said, adding he hopes the boards will let the people decide how they will be governed in the future.
If the measure is approved in January, it will go to the voters. And if approved then, the work to put things together begins. The committee will help get things running, Lawhead said.
“We’re on the hook until June 2020,” he said. The home rule charter will take effect January of 2020. The nine representatives of the city council will be elected in the interim, eight council members and a mayor.
Lawhead said this will be an opportunity for the younger generation to get involved, to have a say in how their community operates.
“Let’s put it to the people,” he said.