home rule charter overhaul

Members of the Home Rule Charter Committee include (from left, front) Kevin Kearns, Mary Larsen, Chris Callihane. Back: Geoff Hurd, Nancy Carroll, Bill Matthews and Bradley Kitlowski

Look for the chance to weigh in on some changes in the way Mt. Lebanon does business.

For a year and a half—from June 2012 to December 2013—the Mt. Lebanon Ad Hoc Home Rule Charter Study Committee took a long-overdue look at the municipality’s charter, which is similar to a local Constitution. The charter was adopted in 1975, and last was updated 20 years ago.

After reviewing each section of the charter, paying special attention to some sections highlighted by municipal staff, the committee decided to filter everything through two criteria: Is the section outdated, or otherwise in need of change? Does the section represent “good governance?”

With those guidelines in mind, the committee came up with nine recommendations:

GENDER NEUTRALITY When the charter was adopted in 1975, gender neutrality in official documents was not the norm. As a result, masculine pronouns were used almost exclusively. The committee recommended changing language throughout the document to reflect more inclusiveness and respect.

PUBLIC NOTICE Sections of the charter require the municipality to give public notice prior to taking certain actions, such as adopting a new ordinance or municipal budget, or giving notice of a referendum in an upcoming election. In the dark pre-Internet days, this was best accomplished in newspapers, with a price tag attached. Last year, Mt. Lebanon spent about $18,000 in newspaper ads giving the required public notice. The recommended change would give the commission more latitude in giving notice, balancing the written notices with postings on the municipal website, sending out LeboALERTS and other technology not available 39 years ago.

PUBLIC NOTICE RELATING TO THE ISSUANCE OF DEBT This is a separate category of public notice, covered under its own section of the charter. As written, the charter requires two notices, one 15 to 30 days prior to the commission meeting where the debt ordinance will be raised, and the second seven to 15 days prior to the meeting. Since state law only requires one public notice in this case, given between three and 30 days prior to the meeting, the municipal staff found the additional notification to be burdensome at times, preventing the municipality from taking advantage of locking in lower interest rates in bond issues. The committee recommends issuing only one public notice, between seven and 30 days prior to the relevant commission meeting.

OFFICIAL RECORDS Another housekeeping measure. Section 325 of the charter provides that all ordinances and resolutions must be entered in a permanent record book. Currently, that book is located in the municipal manager’s office, and can only be viewed by appointment during regular business hours. If the charter was changed to allow the records to also be kept electronically on the municipal website, they could be accessed much more freely.

PROCEDURES TO ISSUE DEBT The charter currently requires a 4-1 super majority in order to issue bonds or incur any other type of debt. This is the only action under the current charter that requires a super majority. All other decisions, including financial ones such as budgeting and taxation, require a simple 3-2 majority.

“We’re not making it easier to go deeper in debt,” says committee member Kevin Kearns, a professor at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. “We just want to bring (issuing debt) into line with any other form of governance.”

TREASURER The committee recommends transitioning from an elected treasurer to an appointed one. Reasons for this recommendation include the fact that elected officials are generally responsible for setting policy, and Mt. Lebanon’s treasurer has only administrative responsibilities. Also, Mt. Lebanon has recently outsourced the collection of earned income tax to Jordan Tax Service, further reducing the treasurer’s role and making it more conducive to bringing the function under the auspices of the municipal manager.

FIRST CLASS TOWNSHIPS LIMITS Mt. Lebanon’s charter ties its tax rate to those of all First Class Townships, which are determined by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in Harrisburg. The committee is recommending that this section be deleted, which would free up the municipality to set its own tax rates.

“It’s not that we’re removing all of the limits on tax rates,” says Kearns. “But we want to put the power into the hands of the commission and citizens. Our home rule charter is our local constitution, and as such, as much freedom as possible should reside here, at the local level.”

EARNED INCOME TAX AND REAL ESTATE TAX Currently, any increase in earned income tax mandates an equivalent reduction of real estate taxes. The committee decided that this restriction hampered the municipality’s flexibility in managing the balance of revenue stream, and is recommending the elimination of the requirement.

2-MILL REAL ESTATE TAX INCREASE LIMIT  Currently, the commission cannot raise taxes by more than 2 mills without taking it to the voters. This provision was adopted in 1977, when Allegheny County property tax was based on 25 percent of assessed value, necessitating a much higher millage rate in order to raise enough money for local governments to operate. Since 2001, the county has moved to a system in which properties are assessed at 100 percent of market value, significantly decreasing the importance of a 2-mill limit. The committee recommends eliminating the restriction and instead limiting millage rate increase to a level that would generate no more than 20 percent more revenue than the previous year.

Municipal Manager Steve Feller says the nine recommendations will not be put forth for a referendum all at once, but instead in pieces over the next few primary and general elections. Before any of the recommendations can be acted upon, it is up to the Mt. Lebanon Commission to accept and prioritize the recommendations, draft an ordinance and come up with the appropriate ballot language.

Feller had praise for the committee’s hard work and approach to the task. “The deliberations were lengthy, but always civil in nature,” he says. “All of the committee members did a great job.”