Altoona Electing First Full-Time Mayor In Decades
At last week's mayoral debate in downtown Altoona, the two candidates had to do something unusual: explain the position they were running for. Altoona is electing it's first full-time mayor since 1989 and many voters still aren't sure what the difference will mean to them.
The candidates are still sorting it out as well. Democrat Jason Imler said being a full-time mayor means doing "the hard work of talking to people in neighboring communities and in counties. And it's going to require going to Harrisburg, sometimes to Washington, D.C., and sometimes to the halls of power and business."
His opponent, Republican incumbent Matt Pacifico, said he sees the new job as a chance to expand on what he's already been doing.
"Using the ability to be at City Hall everyday to really work hand-in-hand with the city manager to focus on providing family sustaining jobs," said Pacifico. "And we need to find a way to retain the youth."
Until recently, Altoona was governed by statewide laws called the Third Class City code, meaning the state set tax limits and city governance rules. Wayne Hippo, former mayor of Altoona, says the lack of local control limited Altoona's opportunities.
"It was a very conservative, die slowly sort of structure that was never going to allow for any sort of chance to be even competitive with other municipalities," says Hippo. "So it had to change, frankly, to move ahead as a real city."
Last November, Altoona voted to move into home rule. A government study commission, headed by Hippo, wrote a local charter that allowed the city to raise taxes on earned income and reduce property taxes. It also created the full-time mayor position, which Hippo says was long overdue for the 10th largest city in the state.
"Nobody else in the top 22 [largest cities], I believe, had that form of government," says Hippo. "So it's an important change getting us back in the game where we've been sitting out for a quarter century."
Home rule is part of Altoona's plan to get out of Act 47, the state designation for a distressed city. In addition to being able to raise taxes, the city hopes to benefit from having a full-time mayor to serve as an advocate and business liaison to revitalize the city.
Democrat Jason Imler says he has the necessary connections in the city and the county government to get things done. He's a lawyer who has served as a public defender in Blair County, where he "saw the impact of drugs, crime and lack of opportunity on our community."
Imler's platform is focused on bringing middle class jobs to Altoona and making the city more attractive to young people. He doesn't believe budget cuts are enough to get the city out of Act 47.
"It's not something you go through with a pen and cut a couple of police officers and suddenly you're better," Imler said. "We have to do this by increasing the tax base, by bringing in new jobs, bringing in new businesses and bringing in new taxes and new opportunity to our city."
If elected, Imler would be the sole Democrat on a city council made up entirely of Republicans. His opponent, Matt Pacifico, wouldn't have that problem. He's held the position of part-time mayor for two years and prioritizes getting out of Act 47.
"Just four years ago, the city had an $8 million deficit and this year we are projecting a cash surplus reserve fund," said Pacifico. "We will also be the first city to exit Act 47 in the shortest amount of time."
As a local business owner, Pacifico says he is personally invested in helping downtown Altoona bounce back. He helped get the first new hotel downtown in decades and is working closely with Penn State Altoona.
"You have to retain the students and the young people and young professionals after they are done with their classes," said Pacifico. "Everything else would follow: the restaurants, the shops, entertainment."
When Pacifico took the job two years ago, the mayor was paid $4,800 a year. Whoever wins on Tuesday will see that salary increase 15 times over to $75,000 a year. That's average for a full-time mayor of a city this size. But after last week's debate, voters said there was a lot more on the line this election.
"I don't think it automatically applies that it'll be the same job," says Alice Flarend, a teacher in Altoona. "I think a full-time job comes with more than double the responsibilities of what the part-time job was."
Higher pay and higher expectations await Altoona's first full-time mayor in a quarter century. The election is Tuesday.