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Chambersburg Council considers home rule, again

May 18, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Almost a year after hearing a presentation on the subject, and 201 years after it was incorporated as a borough, the Chambersburg Borough Council took another look Monday night at changing its form of government.

In June 2003, Frederick A. Reddig, deputy director for the Governor's Center for Local Government Services, detailed for the council the steps it would need to take to change from what he called a "weak mayor - council" system to become a home rule municipality.

Under the current system, the borough's mayor can vote only in the case of a tie, while the council has legislative powers.

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Reddig was back again Monday and told the council that only about 70 of Pennsylvania's 2,566 municipal governments have made the switch, most in the first few years after it passed.

Under home rule, Reddig said, the borough would be able to charter its own form of municipal government, rather than have to adhere strictly to the state's Borough Code. That could result in greater flexibility on issues such as taxation, term limits and qualifications for serving in office.

"This is a process that could take two or more years" and cost $20,000 or more, Borough Manager Eric Oyer told the council. Before deciding to proceed, he said the council has to answer the fundamental question of what it intends to rectify by changing its form of government.

Last year, Council President William McLaughlin suggested that home rule could allow the borough to shift the tax burden from property tax to earned income tax, which has a more reliable rate of revenue growth.

"For urban communities, the borough form of government is perhaps the most backward and inefficient" and the Legislature is not going to overhaul the borough code, he said.

"The borough code may be fine for Orrstown ...but it is not fine for the 21st century city that Chambersburg has evolved into," McLaughlin said. Orrstown is Franklin County's smallest borough with about 200 residents to Chambersburg's 17,000.

"It could be initiated by the council or the electorate," Reddig said of the home rule process. The first step is to decide to form a study commission, with the seven to 11 members being elected by the borough's registered voters.

The commission would study the current government for up to nine months and recommend if a change is needed. If change is recommended, the commission would spend nine more months drafting a charter, which would then go before voters again.

Reddig said the commission could consider other options, including maintaining the borough code while changing some functions of government.

Mayor Thomas Newcomer said only about 300 voters would have to sign on to get the 5 percent of the electorate needed to force the borough to put the issue of a study commission on the ballot.

McLaughlin asked council members whether they wanted to proceed with a study commission or maintain the status quo.

"I move the latter," Councilman John Redding said.

"I'd like some time to think about it," Councilwoman Elaine Swartz said.

"I brought it up 13 years ago, I can wait another week," McLaughlin said.

It will be closer to three weeks. The council scheduled further discussion of the issue at its June 14 meeting.

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