Communities in crisis: Local towns fight to provide services

The cry for services and the dollars that fund them are burdening municipalities that face shrinking tax bases and dwindling, ever-aging populations.

Lycoming County’s many communities are not alone in facing these problems.

A recently released report, “Communities in Crisis: The Truth and Consequences of Municipal Distress in Pennsylvania,” reveals that many municipalities are struggling as never before.

The Pennsylvania Economy League study goes as far as ranking communities with respect to tax bases and tax burdens.

Some municipalities, such as Jersey Shore and Montgomery, have been fighting what would appear to be a losing battle against those forces since the 1970s, according to the report.

Yet, other communities, such as Picture Rocks and Loyalsock Township, have fared much better.

Overall, the report reveals a disturbing downward trend threatening the ability of many communities to provide just basic services, including infrastructure and public safety. Moreover, core municipalities, whose fiscal health has a direct influence on the surrounding region as centers of commerce, are becoming increasingly distressed, according to the report.

Unfunded mandates, those services required by but not supported by state and federal governments, help create budget problems, according to officials.

Old Lycoming Township Manager Robert Whitford said that the community is in the midst of upgrading its stormwater system thanks to the MS4 standards.

“That is just something we didn’t have to fund before,” he said. “It’s out of the taxpayer’s pocket.”

At the same time, the township finds itself doing what it can to fund other services at a time when costs continue to rise.

Despite the financial challenges, the township has done its best to keep down taxes, Whitford noted.

The last tax hike in 2015 was a one-mill increase.

That brought in a much needed $244,000 in extra revenue to the township.

“We have had minimal tax increases just to keep everything at an even keel. The last thing anyone wants to see is a huge tax hike,” he said. “Every year, it is a juggling match to be able to maintain what the residents of the community want.”

Whitford said he could think of no services that have been cut in recent years.

The Pennsylvania Economy League gave Old Lycoming a quintile ranking of five for the years 2014 and 1990. That represents the lowest rating a municipality can receive with respect to “least tax base and most tax burden.”

A quintile ranking of one means a community has the most tax base and lowest tax burden.

Old Lycoming had a more favorable ranking of three in 1970, according to the report, a sign that the community is struggling as never before.

“Everything goes up. You try to keep a happy balance,” Whitford said.

The story is much the same in other local communities.

The borough of Jersey Shore had rankings of five for 1970, and again in 1990 and 2014.

Despite that ranking, Borough Manager Joseph Hamm said: “I think we are doing well. We are not struggling to keep lights on or pay bills.”

At the same time, he made it clear that officials are very mindful of spending.

Much of it comes down to simply not making any unnecessary purchases.

Meanwhile, cuts have been made, including money allocations to organizations.

The community library amount was slashed last year from $14,000 to $7,000 and summer recreation from $16,000 to $8,000.

Roads and public safety, which comprise much of the budget, continue to see increased costs.

And, the borough can no longer depend on receiving the level of funding as it once did from Act 13 dollars tied to natural gas drilling proceeds. As the drilling has decreased, the share to local municipalities has decreased as well.

“Our population is not increasing,” Hamm said. “We are certainly seeing a lot of things that are having a negative impact.”

He noted that 50 percent of the borough’s homes are in a flood plain, which decreases the overall tax assessment value of those residences.

In December, borough council approved a no-tax hike budget for 2018.

The story is much the same in smaller communities such as Montgomery.

The PEL report gave the borough of 1,543 people rankings of five for each of the three years it considered.

“Right now, we are kind of holding our own,” Borough Manager John Lynch said.

Real estate taxes were not raised for 2018.

However, taxes went up one mill last year. That brought in about $40,000 in additional revenue to the budget.

Much of the borough’s approximately $600,000 budget is used to pay police costs.

“It’s always nice to have extra money,” he said.

In South Williamsport, taxes have been hiked just four times in the past 25 years, according to borough councilman Bernard Schelb.

That doesn’t include the tax increase of 0.32 mills for 2018.

Schelb, a longtime member of council’s finance committee, said it comes down to doing “the best with what we have.”

The report gave the borough rankings of five for 1990 and 2014, and a three for 1970.

Schelb said the borough faces the problem of many communities — lack of growth.

“In terms of businesses, we lost our major hotels. We have one left up there (on Route 15) — Red Roof,” he said. “We have nothing in terms of development.”

Schelb noted that there exists virtually no available land for expansion, making it “very difficult from a budget standpoint.”

Last year, the borough hiked taxes 0.5 mills.