UNIONTOWN, Pa. - For years, two wealthy benefactors showered this city with millions of dollars to help fix broken sidewalks, build patriotic statues and install new canopied storefronts in the hope of drawing people, and money, downtown.
But the financial problems plaguing Uniontown were too big to fix that easily, leading the mayor this year to declare the city broke and lay off nearly half of its workers. Now, city leaders say they will have to raise taxes and make other tough choices to avoid state intervention and keep the city afloat.
"We just have to work together to try and get this mess fixed," said Mayor Ed Fike, 67, who took office in January.
Fike, a U.S. mail contractor, said he was blindsided by the problems with the city's budget. He said he didn't know until taking office in January that the city's 2008 budget of about $7.7 million had a deficit of $1.3 million.
"I was overwhelmed. I was never in this building before I was elected," Fike said. "When you drive by City Hall or the courthouse it gives you a good feeling of ... security. You know that our wheels is all greased and they're all running right and little did I know that this was kind of the biggest farce that there ever was. The city was bankrupt."
Cities like Uniontown and even some larger ones in the state are suffering in part because of economic pressures that have been building for many years, said Rick Schuettler, deputy executive director of the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities. One factor is the reliance on property taxes and earned income taxes that generate little revenue for cities with aging populations and homeowners moving to the suburbs.
Ten cities, six boroughs and a township in Pennsylvania currently have "distressed" status and qualify for special state support under the 21-year-old Municipalities Financial Recovery Act. Six of those communities, including Pittsburgh, have been added to the list in the past decade.
Uniontown has a long and storied history, dating back to its founding on one of America's most important days - July 4, 1776. Visitors to Uniontown are greeted on one of its main thoroughfares by a bronze statue of native son and Army Gen. George C. Marshall sitting atop a horse, his dog jumping by his side.
The city prospered when the nation's first highway, U.S. Route 40, also known as the National Road, was built in its backyard. Later, coal was discovered and mined to help support Pittsburgh's booming steel industry about 40 miles away.
In the last few decades, though, Uniontown has been losing population and businesses to the suburbs, or out of the county entirely.
Earlier this year, Fike announced that the city was laying off 31 of its 83 workers, including three firefighters. On Tuesday, the city council tentatively agreed to a tax increase. *