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Carlisle council considers water system improvements

Following on the heels of recommendations to improve Carlisle borough’s aging stormwater system, a slate of improvements to the borough’s water distribution system have been proposed.

Public Works Director Mark Malarich said the council last year commissioned a study of the water distribution system. The study looked at all the pipes in the system, and evaluated them based on age, the frequency with which they broke, the placement of pipes, water quality issues and water pressure problems. The model that came out of that study was used to prioritize recommendations for improvements.

“The key item that the report identified was the aging infrastructure that we have. We have pipes some of which are over 100 years old and at the end of their useful life,” Malarich said.

There are 86 miles of water mains in the system. One-third of those mains are more than 80 years old, with some of them topping 100 years in operation. As the pipes age, they are more susceptible to breaking. In Carlisle, that has resulted in an average of 0.2 breaks per mile of pipe per year, which is a little higher than the industry benchmark, Malarich said.

The system also contains more than 1,300 valves that are used to isolate sections of the system to minimize the effect on customers should there be an issue in the system.

Malarich said the study recommends replacing 1.5 to 2 miles of water mains per year, which carries a price tag of $1.5 million. This would essentially be an ongoing expenditure as it would take about 20 years to replace 32 miles of pipe that are 80 years or older. By that time, the ones that are over 60 years old would be ready to replace.

The study also recommends accelerating its valve exercise program at a cost of $30,000 and to replace and repair broken valves for $137,000. It was also recommended that water storage tanks be inspected and rehabilitated for $289,000.

That brings the total price tag for the first year to almost $2 million, which will be incorporated into the 2018 budget.

Those recommendations come weeks after North Carolina-based Raftelis Financial Consultants recommended the borough increase its spending on the stormwater system from $400,000 annually to $1.5 million annually to deal with aging infrastructure, flooding caused by urbanization and pipes that are too small or have reached the end of their useful life. There’s also a need for additional operational and maintenance funding, particularly for equipment needs and operations.

To raise the money, the council is exploring the option of enacting a stormwater fee that would be based on the amount of impervious surface on a property.

Malarich said the next step is to undertake a more detailed analysis of parcels in the borough.

“As part of the feasibility study, the consultant looked at just a percentage of the parcels in the borough and did an estimate of the amount of impervious coverage,” he said.

Then, the borough would look at a potential rate structure that weighs system needs against the amount of impervious coverage. It would also need to develop policies related to the fee including options for an appeal process and remediation. The council may also explore the option for a rebate system that rewards property owners who made improvements to their property to reduce stormwater runoff.

“This would become essentially the foundation for our fee system for probably many years to come,” Borough Manager Matt Candland said.

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Election Preview 2017: Off-year elections hard to read in Midstate

Cumberland County voters will head to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 7. Or, roughly a quarter of them will, if past elections are any indication.

Tuesday’s contest is one that occurs every fourth year — a ballot that does not feature any state or national legislative seats, nor a county commissioners’ race. In 2013, turnout for such a race was 22.7 percent, with 33,618 ballots cast out of 148,322 registered voters.

But turnout in local-only elections isn’t necessarily an indicator of their importance. For the median Cumberland County homeowner, with an income of $61,820 and a home value of $188,400, local property taxes are a larger expense in most municipalities and school district than are federal income taxes.

Yet national political winds may still make a difference, even locally, especially since the 2016 election caused significant shifts in Cumberland County’s voting patterns, shifts that may or may not have stuck around a year later.

“We’ll know early Tuesday if the ‘Trump bump’ is true,” said state Rep. Greg Rothman, who chairs the Cumberland County Republican Committee. “If this becomes a proxy on whether you like the president or don’t like the president, then we’ll see the impact.”

Whether a heightened sense of national partisanship trickles down to the local races is hard to tell.

Cumberland is reliably Republican-voting, with most local offices filled by the GOP. But Democratic candidates say they’ve seen renewed interest this election cycle. While some of this is attributable to dissatisfaction with the 2016 race, most of the county’s Democratic candidates for local office aren’t necessarily running on national issues.

“Because of the history we’ve had in Camp Hill of not having many Democrats on the ballot, this is the first time I know of that we’ve had Democrats covered on pretty much every race on the ballot,” said Debbie Smith, the Democratic candidate for mayor of Camp Hill. “Whether or not [the 2016 election] made the difference, we do have more people on the Democratic ballot than in previous years.”

While dissatisfaction with national politics “was certainly a factor” in her decision to run, Smith said she has focused her campaign more on community issues.

Smith’s opponent, incumbent Republican Camp Hill Mayor Mark Simpson, agreed that the influence of national politics on local campaigns was limited.

“I’ve heard a few mentions of Donald Trump, but for the most part it’s a local thing,” Simpson said.

There’s no denying, however, that certain areas of Cumberland County are bellwethers of potentially national significance. Camp Hill is one. Clinton won the borough by 5.54 points in 2016, despite Camp Hill having voted for Romney by 6.33 points in 2012, a Sentinel analysis last year showed. But at the same time, many of the county’s districts saw Trump win by huge margins, far beyond any other Republican candidate.

Those changes are not taken lightly, even by top Republican leadership.

“They watch Cumberland County,” Rothman said. “The map is changing, and I don’t know that anyone can entirely explain it.”

One of the GOP’s most historically successful strategies is straight-ticket voting. Getting party members in the habit of showing up to every election and voting party-line has paid off, Rothman said.

In the 2014 election, according to archived county returns, nearly one-third of all ballots cast were straight-party Republican. Even in the 2013 off-year contest, 20 percent of all ballots cast in the county were GOP ticket.

“We really pushed that and it worked out,” Rothman said. “There is a group of voters that will reliably come out and vote for the party every election, at least 15 percent.”

The state and national Republican organs also provide some support in identifying what districts to target, as well as palm cards and other materials, although these aren’t necessarily specific to local races and contain more of a general conservative message. The county committee has some money to give to local campaigns, but not much, Rothman said.

“We supported some specific efforts in Hampden and New Cumberland and Camp Hill,” Rothman said. “We also did one mailing and a robo-call, which we as a county party did, but that was a get-out-the-vote message and not toward a specific race.”

The Cumberland County Republican Committee has spent about $24,000 in the 2017 election cycle, according to county records, and the Cumberland County Democratic Committee roughly the same — although Democratic expenses also include the party office in Carlisle, reducing the amount spent on campaigning.

Democrats also say their support from the state and national committees is more diffuse, and the county committee is left more on its own to figure out who to target and how.

“During the national campaigns we get strong messages on what to do, but for the local races we try to figure out ourselves where to direct our effort,” said John Alosi, vice chairman of the Cumberland County Democratic Committee.

Like the Republicans, the Democratic committee gets general materials from higher up, most of them focusing on the state judicial races, Alosi said, but direct financial support is generally not there.

However, local Democrats have organized their own campaign strategies. Alosi, running for register of wills, has campaigned as a group with three other Democratic row officer candidates.

“This is the first time we have this many row office candidates that I know of, so we decided to pool our resources,” Alosi said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but yes, I do feel like there’s more of a chance this year simply because there may be a better turnout of Democrats who otherwise would not come out.”

Although local races in some of the state’s more urban areas commonly feature professional campaign firms, these are few and far between in Cumberland even for Republicans, and virtually nonexistent for Democrats.

New Cumberland’s GOP mayoral candidate, Doug Morrow, has received support from Red Maverick Media, a Harrisburg-based firm that has run many successful GOP campaigns at the state level.

“I helped run the Mike Regan for state Senate and we utilized them there, and I was really happy with their materials,” Morrow said. “But I’ve not used them for day-to-day political advice, more for printing and mailing. I’ve never specifically run as a Republican looking for the Republican vote.”

Blair Lawrence, a Democratic candidate for New Cumberland’s borough council, said she has also seen personal interest as more important than partisan.

“A lot of it is just me getting to know my neighbors,” she said. “Some people will readily express dissatisfaction with national politics, others don’t mention it. I know a lot of people that have all the Republican candidates’ signs in their yards as well as mine.”

Why pay raises are elusive even with US unemployment so low

WASHINGTON — With U.S. unemployment at a 17-year low and businesses complaining that they can’t fill jobs, you might expect pay to be rising sharply as companies try to attract or keep workers.

It’s not. The October jobs report showed that pay gains remain sluggish, and the explanations include weak worker productivity and a still-low proportion of adults with jobs. These are long-running trends that still bedevil the economy despite its steady improvement.

Employers added a solid 261,000 jobs last month, the government said Friday, in part because many businesses in Texas and Florida re-opened after having been forced to shut down in September when Hurricanes Harvey and Irma struck.

The unemployment rate reached 4.1 percent, the lowest level in nearly 17 years, from 4.2 percent in September. But the rate dropped for a less-than-encouraging reason: Many people stopped looking for work and so were no longer counted as unemployed.

Still, Friday’s data showed that the hurricanes, for all their fury, hardly knocked the economy or the job market off course. Over the past three months, job growth has averaged 162,000, similar to the pace of hiring before the storms.

“Looking through the volatility from the hurricanes, the U.S. job market is in good shape,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial.

Normally, with the unemployment rate ultra-low, businesses are forced to raise pay significantly to fill jobs or to retain existing employees. The last time the jobless rate was this low, in 2000, average hourly pay was surging at a 4 percent annual pace.

Then was then. In October, by contrast, wages crept up just 2.4 percent from a year earlier, the government said Friday. Though that’s double the pace of five years ago, it’s nearly a half-point less than the year-over-year rate in September.

It’s particularly surprising given that some employers say they’re desperate to hire. Mike Bolen, chief executive of McCarthy Building Cos. in St. Louis, said he needs more electricians, carpenters and laborers, as well as engineers, marketing and IT support. McCarthy has 16 offices and employs 4,000.

“We like to say there is no unemployment,” Bolen said. “We have a shortage of everything, everywhere.”

Four years ago, there would be about 30 potential employees in a union hall waiting for job postings, he said. Now, the halls are empty, and there are posted jobs with no takers.

Bolen is working with high schools and community colleges to train and recruit people. He says he’s raised pay in recent years and offers attractive wages: An entry-level laborer in Denver can start at $16 to $20 an hour and earn up to $30 after one year.

Homebuilders also say they would construct more homes, which could relieve a housing shortage that is depressing sales, if they could find more workers.

Still, the construction industry as a whole isn’t raising pay much: Wages rose just 2.2 percent in October from a year earlier, Friday’s report showed. That’s even lower than the economywide average.

Reed Nyffeler, CEO of Signal 88 Security, is similarly frustrated. He says job applications have fallen 90 percent since the recession. The company, which provides security in 200 U.S. markets, needs security officers and professional staff.

“We have franchisees telling me every day they are turning down contracts because they can’t find workers,” Nyffeler said.

Signal 88 has raised starting pay for security officers from $9.25 an hour to $11.25 in the past two years. But other low-wage employers have also lifted pay, Nyffeler said, thereby creating new competition for Signal.

Many potential applicants can’t pass drug tests, Nyffeler says, while others can live off government benefits.

His ability to raise pay is limited because his clients are reluctant to pay more for his company’s services, Nyffeler says. Signal 88 bills at $17 an hour, on average. The company tries to raise prices each year when it renews contracts, but many of its clients then threaten to seek alternatives.

Other companies appear in similar circumstances: Price increases throughout the economy are weak. Inflation rose just 2.2 percent in September from a year ago and would have been lower without a spike in gas prices.

One way out of the conundrum would be to raise worker efficiency. When workers become more productive — when their output per hour rises — companies can afford to pay more without raising prices.

Yet productivity growth has been weak since the recession ended in 2009. It grew just 1.2 percent a year, on average, in the past decade. That’s less than half the growth rate before the recession. One reason productivity has been so sluggish is that companies haven’t invested much in machinery, technology and other equipment that could boost workers’ output.

The Trump administration and Republican Congress are pushing a cut in the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent in hopes of encouraging more productivity-boosting investment. But some economists argue that the increased profits stemming from the tax cut will be used mainly to boost dividends and share buybacks.

Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed, the job listing website, notes that the proportion of adults with jobs remains below pre-recession levels. That raises the possibility that there are more Americans available to work than the unemployment rate suggests. It also means that if employers can hire them, they may not feel pressure to raise pay.

Last month, 78.8 percent of adults aged 25 through 54 had jobs. That figure has risen 1.5 percentage points in the past two years. Yet it topped 81 percent in 2000, the last time unemployment was this low.

“By that measure, the labor market is not unusually tight,” Kolko said.

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Election Preview 2017: Initiative wouldn't necessarily eliminate property taxes

Voters reading the state’s constitutional ballot initiative at the polls on Tuesday may be led to believe that, if the referendum passes, they won’t have to pay any more property taxes on their homes.

That isn’t exactly the case, however. As is often the case, tax cuts are unlikely to happen until replacement revenue can be decided upon.

This year’s ballot initiative asks voters if the state’s constitution should be amended to allow the state General Assembly to pass legislation allowing up to 100 percent of a home’s assessed value to be exempted from property taxes.

The referendum would further alter what is known as the “uniformity clause” of the state constitution, which mandates that taxes must be uniform “among the same class of subjects.”

In the case of real estate, this means certain types of property cannot be taxed at a different rate than others. The only exception to this was created 20 years ago, with a homestead tax exemption referendum that allowed local governments to make up to one-half of the median home value in their districts tax exempt for resident homeowners.

The initiative was intended to provide relief to owner-occupied properties where residents, especially elderly residents whose property values had risen since they purchased their homes, were in danger of being priced out.

If the new initiative passes Tuesday, the Legislature will be able to increase the homestead exemption to up to 100 percent of a given home’s value. But counties, school districts, and municipalities are unlikely to introduce major homeowner tax breaks unless they have some other type of revenue to fill in.

“Voters may be thinking this will eliminate homeowner property tax, and that’s just not the case,” Cumberland County Commissioner Jim Hertzler said. “Hopefully what it will do is spark renewed discussion on this issue, where the question is how and when the state Legislature will provide the revenue to replace property taxes, or grant local jurisdictions alternative revenue options.”

As chair of the Assessment and Taxation Committee for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, Hertzler has advocated for the state to pass legislation allowing counties to implement a tax of up to 1 percent on sales, personal income or earned income. This tax could only be used to offset identical reductions in property tax revenue created by a homestead exemption.

For instance, a 1 percent sales tax in Cumberland County would generate an estimated $50 million per year, Hertzler said. This would then allow to county to create at $15 million homeowner tax exemption, an average of $800 in relief per owner-occupied property.

“We’re still waiting for the Legislature to give us the tools to implement the referendum that passed 20 years ago,” Hertzler said.

Local governments in Pennsylvania collected a combined $18 billion per year in property taxes as of two years ago, Hertzler said, with roughly $11 billion coming from homeowners.

The bulk of these taxes go to school districts, which have already seen state per-student aid dwindle, and obligations to the state’s pension system increase. Without a miraculous $11 billion revenue windfall, or $11 billion cost reduction, local authorities will be unable to implement complete homeowner tax relief.

“A lot of our school directors think they are going to have to do something if this passes, which is not the case yet,” said Steve Robinson of the Pennsylvania School Boards’ Association. “It’s impossible to say at this point how this would impact local school districts because we don’t know what a revenue replacement would look like yet.”

Jim Hertzler