City Council on Wednesday made a move that could reverberate for decades - introducing an ordinance that could lead to a change in the city's form of government.
If adopted by council Feb. 13, the ordinance would place a referendum on the May primary ballot asking whether to create a government study commission, as recommended in the city's Act 47 plan.
If a majority of voters approve and the necessary seven commission candidates receive enough votes to be elected, the panel would have nine months to examine options, which would include making Altoona a home-rule community.
That recommendation would itself become subject of a voter referendum.
Adopting home rule is an Act 47 "exit strategy," because it would allow the city to get out from under state caps on real estate and earned income taxes, according to the city's recently adopted Act 47 recovery plan.
Act 47 removed those caps temporarily, allowing the city to balance a budget that otherwise would be in deficit this year, but the caps will return when the city leaves the distress program.
City officials have said repeatedly they want to get out of Act 47 as soon as possible.
Home rule would not allow the city to keep its recently levied Act 47 commuter tax - which is an additional earned income tax on non-residents who work in the city.
Nanticoke and Plymouth Township, Luzerne County, have adopted home rule as part of their Act 47 exit strategy, according to the recovery plan.
Home rule would allow the city to escape systemic problems that developed despite good management, as detailed in fiscal studies of Altoona by the Pennsylvania Economy League and the Act 47 coordinator, Councilman Dave Butterbaugh said.
It would allow the city to get out of the "Catch 22" situation inflicted by provisions of the state's Third Class City Code, which sets compensation requirements for necessary services, while putting limitations on raising revenues needed to pay for those services, Butterbaugh said.
"It would give Altoona its sovereignty back," Councilman Mark Geis said. "A study commission is the first step."
Staff proposed the ordinance introduction without preamble - it wasn't on the printed agenda for Wednesday - after City Manager Joe Weakland, solicitor Larry Clapper and Mayor Bill Schirf realized recently that there was no time to waste if the referendum was to go on the primary ballot.
State law requires that the proposal be advertised a designated number of times and filed at least 13 Tuesdays before the election, Weakland said.
People who want to run for a spot on the study commission must be registered voters and city residents. They must obtain 200 signatures or 2 percent of the number of city votes cast in the last gubernatorial election - whichever is less, according to Clapper. In order to be elected, commission candidates must receive as least as many votes as signatures required to get on the ballot.
Write-in candidates would need to meet those same signature criteria - except with votes at the ballot box.
If the referendum succeeds, the commission could hold public and private meetings involving anyone it wants to help it come up with a recommendation on a form of government for the city, according to Clapper.
If it recommends home rule, it can ask for an additional nine months to write a home-rule charter, Clapper said.
Home rule, however, is not a "panacea," said Councilman Bruce Kelley, noting that there are municipalities - including Johnstown - that remain in the Act 47 program despite home rule.
Tyrone is the only home-rule community in Blair County, according to the recovery plan.
Before 1987, a full-time, five-member City Council ran the city.
In 1987, based on a resident petition, a referendum initiated a government study commission, which led to the current form of government, under the Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law.
Like DuBois, the city adopted the council-manager plan under the optional plans provision of the law.
Under home rule, the city could continue under the council-manager form of government or go with a strong mayor.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.