The shadows of Harrisburg's long-running debt crisis spilled over into the hotly contested mayor's race on Saturday as candidates Wanda Williams and Otto V. Banks blamed each other for the city's long legacy of financial troubles at a grassroots forum sponsored by Concerned Over the children of Harrisburg or CATCH.
The firefight upgraded a forum where three of the five Democratic mayoral candidates Williams, Banks, and incumbent Mayor Eric Papenfuse had the opportunity to share their competing visions of the role of Harrisburg city government in a hoped-for city renaissance.
It started when Williams, the current president of the city council, targeted a major Papenfuse campaign topic.
As he seeks a third term, the mayor is happy to advocate bringing the city government back from the brink of bankruptcy to the point where he says the town hall is again filled with functioning departments and budgets with the help of one State-approved expansion of its expanded tax authority, and private investment is returning to the city.
Williams pushed back, arguing, in fact, that it was her city council, working with then-Mayor Linda Thompson, to guide the city through a period of judicial oversight in which the so-called "Harrisburg Strong" plan was being developed. This led to the city's incinerator and parking lot being sold off to help restructure its debt.
Williams' argument is that the debt crisis was already escalating before Papenfuse took office, and that the current mayor is largely based on tax flows that started in 2013 when he first ran for office.
“The mayor had nothing to do with the restructuring of this debt. By the time he got here we were out of debt and had already sold most of our assets. We had to do that, ”said Williams, referring to her role in holding three different mayors accountable as members of the city council.
"We have worked to restructure this debt so it doesn't affect the city's residents."
Williams was part of a group of councilors who actually blocked Thompson's initial attempts to complete a debt restructuring package. They hired a lawyer in October 2011 to try to bankrupt the city, arguing that it was the best way to protect the city's residents and taxpayers from the mistakes and misjudgments made by bond dealers and contractors outside of the city City to pay.
The council's bankruptcy petition was denied in a federal court.
Williams claims, however, that their early struggles ultimately resulted in a better outcome for city dwellers.
Banks was one of six councilors who voted in 2003 for the major incinerator renovation that was blamed for plunging Harrisburg into fiscal chaos. He was elected from the board two years later, and before the full scope of the city's tax problems became clear, largely because he had converted his party membership to Republicans.
After leaving the council, Banks joined the administration of President George W. Bush in Washington and eventually rose to become deputy assistant secretary for economic development in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The banks switched back to the Democratic Party last year. He said he found it "impossible to be part of a party led by someone who I believe is a racist".
Councilors from that era have repeatedly accused Reed of hiding important aspects of the incinerator retrofit – like the fact that prime contractor Barlow Projects did not qualify for a performance guarantee that would have protected the city from some financial loss if it didn't succeed to deliver a successful project.
On Saturday, after listening to Williams, Banks said subsequent councilors – which Williams has served since 2006 – were negligently overseen for the next five years as Harrisburg's debt rose to $ 362.5 million.
"You just sat there," Banks said of the subsequent councils. "Because if they did their job, the city would not have been in the financial position that it was in and that we were in."
That brought Williams' fiery personality to the fore. She pointed to the banks' support for the $ 125 million bond guarantee in 2003, which was a key to the incinerator retrofit by then Mayor Stephen R. Reed. "So don't get confused, Mister Banks," said Williams, "because you were here and part of this financial debacle."
Off-Mic accused Banks Williams of lying and asked her to "tell the truth".
"You also do it (tell the truth) as if you do not live in the city," countered Williams at the beginning of this campaign with a reference to legal challenges, whether banks really live in the city.
The petitioners in this case argued that Banks moved from Swatara Township to a house on South 19th Street on paper, but that he does not actually live there.
Dauphin County Judge Andrew Dowling threw the case back, ruling that while the evidence is clear that Banks has not stayed at the 19th Street residence every night since the August 2020 acquisition, there is enough evidence to support that sincere intention were presented to establish it as his permanent residence.
Papenfuse, of course, had its own role in the incinerator debt crisis. As a representative of the Harrisburg Authority Board, Papenfuse began his political career as one of the earliest whistleblowers against Reed's bond deals.
Almost as soon as the fireworks broke out, the embers faded.
Williams had to leave the CATCH forum early because of a personal engagement, and Banks left the forum shortly after Williams to hold more events on his busy Saturday calendar.
But Banks said before leaving that he went into this year's race because as much as Papenfuse and Williams said they did for the city, “Nothing has changed here in Harrisburg … we still have it to do with chronicle unemployment. We are still facing police brutality, hyperviolence and a poor school district.
"We're also still dealing with a leadership that is all but ignoring the needs of the people in this community. I want to be mayor of the entire city of Harrisburg, not just part of the city … That's why why I run because I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. "
That made Papenfuse go back to his opening theme that the city is shaking off its debt hangover and being ready for a better future.
Papenfuse said he had high hopes that Harrisburg's recent development spurt with new job opportunities for residents will pay off, and he stressed his early support for the Harrisburg School District's move to state administration as the best way to get the city's struggling schools fast To transform Mayor said another part of the answer must be to address long-term systemic inequalities.
The other two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, Dave Schankweiler, the founder and former editor of the Central Penn Business Journal, and Kevyn Knox, general manager of the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center, did not attend the CATCH forum. Both said they had schedule conflicts on Saturday.
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