Exile on State Street: Population Decline
Is the City of Erie's population decline the final knockout punch?
Sometimes you hate to be right. This time it really hurts.
As you know by now, the U.S. Census Bureau recently released its 2014 census statistics for the City of Erie. And, as I predicted for the last several years, it is now estimated that the City of Erie's population has fallen below 100,000 for the first time in almost a century, standing now at 99,452 as of July 2014.
We have to go back to 1920 to see a similar figure! Folks, this is nearly a knockout punch for the City and the Erie Region. It wasn't enough that we lost the designation as the third largest city in the Commonwealth. Or, that we no longer have a representative in Congress. Or, that the state legislature has sliced and diced Erie County so that we no longer have unified representation in Harrisburg, because ladies and gentlemen, the City's loss of population and the corresponding political clout that comes with it has dire consequences for our entire region.
Did this have to happen? I don't believe so.
As reported in the Erie Times-News, when asked how the City could reverse this decades long population slide, the only thing Erie Mayor Joe Sinnott could say was that "it's a complicated question." Not surprising from an administration that for 10 years now has offered not a single idea to address the City's fundamental problem, which is the fact that the City is not an environment that people want to invest in, be it to live or to do business. In fact, the administration of the current mayor has contributed significantly to the City's slide by doing virtually nothing to address the root problem.
The answer to Erie's population decline is not complex at all. Is it hard? Yes. Does it take some vision? Of course. And will it require hard work and leadership? Absolutely.
With the recent municipal elections behind us, and as we look forward to a new mayor in a couple of years, I am going to offer some suggestions that hopefully a few of the candidates who will vie for the City's top job might consider. Because folks, the City of Erie is on its last legs. It's in cardiac arrest, and the people running it – be it the administration or city council – don't even seem to realize it. If the population statistics don't wake them up, then nothing will. But I have to have hope. I live here. My businesses are here. My kids go to school here.
Here are a few suggestions that we all could start working on now to address this "complicated question" and reverse this trend – or, at least demand that the next mayor support them. This is by no means a complete list as there are so many things a leader of Erie could be doing. I tried some of these things myself when I was mayor, and I have suggested them in this column before.
First, stop raising taxes. In the last three years, the City has raised taxes approximately 24 percent. That is not a novel or creative way to deal with the City's problems. Coupled with the school district's high tax bill, the City is just not competitive.
How do you avoid raising taxes? In one respect we have to run the City more efficiently. In my administration, we implemented the "DROP" plan, a retirement incentive that allowed us to reduce the City's workforce by nearly 200 through retirements. The savings from that program delivered benefits for years.
Other savings ideas, which the current administration has failed to adopt, include the electronic payroll system. The City still employs numerous payroll clerks to calculate wages. Why not do this with 20th century technology? That's right – 20th century. The next mayor needs to push for innovative and creative ways to reduce the City's expenses to avoid raising taxes.
Second, and related to taxes, is to develop new revenue sources. I've beaten this horse numerous times before to deaf ears. We've seen over a hundred million dollars of investment by the Convention Center Authority in the convention center, hotels, and the ice arena and ballpark complex. Does the City get one red cent from any of these facilities to address its budgetary issues? Of course not. Why isn't the mayor at every single Convention Center Authority meeting demanding a piece of the 7 percent room tax? The City hosts these facilities. Much of the revenue generated from them comes from outside the City. Why don't the consumers using these facilities pay their fair share of the expenses to run the City?
In addition, why isn't the mayor going after all of the so-called "nonprofits" to get fair payments in lieu of taxes? These "nonprofits," including the hospitals, the universities, and others, pay their top executives hefty salaries that the private sector can only envy, yet pay only token amounts for the benefits they receive from the City. The next mayor needs to go into the ring with the nonprofits and fight for fair share payment to offset the burden on city residents.
Third, and again related to taxes, as well as expense reduction, the City needs to open serious negotiations with the County about transferring the City's well-trained and qualified fire department to the County. This makes sense on so many fronts its ridiculous that this discussion has not happened.
The fire department represents about a $17 million expense to the City. The impoverished and overtaxed city residents can't afford it. At the same time, the volunteer fire departments throughout much of the County, and in particular the metropolitan area, are experiencing great difficulty staffing themselves. By transferring the fire department to the County and redeploying its force in a strategic geographic fashion, not only would the City realize a significant cost reduction by spreading this important regional public safety necessity among all of Erie County, but the County as a whole would benefit from increased public safety. After all, Millcreek Township has already started going to part-time paid fire personnel to address its needs. The next mayor needs to begin discussions with the county executive to make this happen.
Fourth – and this one really hits home – after experiencing another shooting and wounding in my neighborhood, there is no doubt that the gun violence that has plagued the City now for almost two years has contributed significantly to the flight of people from the City. I know the police have been doing their best. But where the hell has the current mayor been? At my count, he has had one press conference last year to address this situation.
The next mayor needs to show the people of Erie that he or she is out in front of this problem. The mayor should have weekly press conferences telling the citizens of Erie how we are dealing with the problem. The mayor should be conducting neighborhood sweeps, as I did, going through the violence prone areas, which are now practically the whole city, with police, public works, and code officials, cleaning up junk and debris, closing down crack houses, going to neighborhood watch meetings and fundamentally letting the people of Erie know that he or she gives a damn about their plight.
Finally, we need to rebuild the fundamental blocks upon which all cities are built – and that is the neighborhood. Let's be frank, folks. The City's housing stock is old. If there is a decent neighborhood without blight, your house is overtaxed. When I was mayor, through the backing of city council, we adopted the City-wide, 100 percent LERTA (Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance) program, a tax incentive to get people to reinvest in the City. And you know what? It worked.
In the early- to mid-2000s, the City experienced a mini building boom. We actually were able to challenge census figures at the time and proved that the City had gained back some ground, largely due to this program.
What did the current administration and council do? Cut back on the program. What happened? We lost any ground we had gained. The next mayor needs to utilize existing resources, such as LERTA, to attract residential and commercial investment in the City.
Is the City finished? Of course not. But the latest population data confirms a decline that has far reaching implications for the City and the entire Erie Region.
These ideas are just the surface of what the next mayor needs to address. Folks, the City is in a fight for its life, and we, the citizens of Erie, need a champion who can fight back. We need a man or woman as the next mayor with a spine of steel and an acute vision that can go into the arena and throw some counter punches. Without a leader of that sort, the City really will be down and out for the count.
Rick Filippi can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.