Consolidation is a hot topic in Clearfield Borough and Lawrence Township at the moment. People have questions, and there are many concerns.
First, what is consolidation?
It isn’t one municipality taking over another, like in a merger. In a consolidation, the two join together in mutual agreement, creating a new municipality.
If the proposed consolidation of Clearfield Borough and Lawrence Township goes through, the new municipality will be named City of Clearfield.
What is a home rule charter?
First, the Clearfield-Lawrence joint consolidation committee, made up of community members and representatives of the two governing boards, has chosen to draft a home rule charter.
In the simplest of terms, those at home make the rules. Under Pennsylvania law, townships and boroughs have to abide by municipal codes, which limit much of what they can do. Under home rule, which is fairly new to the state, those codes no longer apply.
The home rule charter, drafted by the committee, is something like a local constitution, outlining how everything will work and limiting what the new government can and cannot do.
Why is this even being discussed?
For some time now, both the borough and the township have been looking at a bleak future, according to prior GANT News reports.
The problem for both is simple: how can you continue to provide services to residents when revenues remain essentially flat, but costs keep going up?
Both municipalities have been working hard to keep their heads above water. But there is only so much they can do.
Here is how the situation looks:
Clearfield Borough’s property tax millage is at 25 mills, which is very close to the maximum limit allowed by law. This has been the tax rate since 2007.
There has only been a 2.4 percent growth in the population of ages 18-64 years with the primary wage earners between 1990 and 2010.
Additionally, there was a decline in the number of those under age 18 years, by 19 percent, and a decline of those 65 years and older by 16.2 percent. Also, the median housing values in the borough are significantly lower than the state as a whole.
Local services taxes are up but earned income taxes are down. Furthermore, expenditures continue to rise.
Once the cash balance is depleted, the borough will be in financial straits and need to increase real estate taxes. But they can only go so far. The limit on a second-class borough, like Clearfield, is 30 mills.
In Lawrence Township, things look a little more desperate. The township’s millage is at 16 mills, which is over the set maximum rate for a second-class township.
The township had to petition the courts to be able to raise the millage by 2 mills from the limit of 14. The township can do this again for three additional mills, but that is the absolute limit.
There has been an overall decline of residents between the ages of 18-64 years and a slight increase in residents 65 years and older. Like Clearfield Borough, the median housing values are significantly lower than the state.
The township has seen significant spending in public works and fire since 2012. In recent years, Act 13 money, from the impact fee on Marcellus Shale drilling, has been used to fill the gaps, but the township has been warned not to rely on these funds.
The highest expenditures have been pensions, which have gone up 145 percent in the past five years, and health insurance.
Residents in both municipalities expect more services. However, the cost of those services continues to rise: police, street workers, sewage collection and so on. Before very much longer, both the borough and the township will need to make hard decisions regarding those services.
The consolidation committee began meeting in March of 2015 and has met regularly ever since, going over all of these facts and more. If the municipalities consolidate, it could mean savings for both, according to prior GANT News reports.
One fear from residents is that the new government will raise taxes by an unprecedented amount.
While it is true the state government cannot limit how much taxes are charged under home rule, the committee also understands that there must be limits. Therefore, a limit was built into the draft home rule charter restricting how much the taxes can be raised, and the reasons must be valid.
Also, if the consolidation goes through, there will be one police force, one administrative building and employees, one street crew and so on. No one with a full-time job when consolidation takes place will lose their job, but things will be restructured a little bit.
Fire companies will be left alone, as they are volunteer and mostly independent. A new governing board would be chosen; a city council made up of eight council members and a mayor, all with term limits. The mayor and four council members would be elected at large, and four council members from each of four wards (one per ward).
Representatives of the Pennsylvania Economy League, which was hired to help guide the committee through the process via a grant through the state Department of Community and Economic Development, noted that it is possible that real estate taxes could go down.
There is also potential for growth. The borough is limited in growth, but the township has growth potential due to available land, according to prior GANT News reports.
As a home rule city, Clearfield would be able to take advantage of this. More businesses mean more residents, and that equals more revenue, which could eventually equal more growth.
The next steps include the township supervisors and borough council voting on whether to move forward at a special meeting Jan. 19, 2017.
If they all agree, then the matter will be placed on the May of 2017 ballot as a referendum question. If the measure fails either in January or May, it will be five years before it can appear on the ballot again.
The Clearfield-Lawrence joint committee members are launching a public outreach campaign on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Clearfield Junior-Senior High School. Residents of all walks of life are encouraged to attend, hear what the committee has to say and talk with them.
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