HARRISBURG – It is hard to believe anyone would want to run the city of Harrisburg.
To say the Pennsylvania capital, hugging the banks of the Susquehanna River, has seen better days is more than an understatement. The city is saddled with more than $300 million in debt and resides under a state receivership that limits the city government's ability to hurt itself even more.
Harrisburg is not just drowning in debt, it is literally sinking, thanks to the sandy soil under streets — prone to sinkholes — the city cannot repair. There are more than 40 of them, by the city's own count, including one that opened in the wee hours New Years' Day. It has now grown so large it shut down an entire city block and forced residents from their homes.
Avoiding those pesky sinkholes is made tougher at night — because the city does not have the money to replace broken and burned out streetlights, leaving some blocks darkened, as if Harrisburg's financial woes were literally casting a pall over its roads.
And yet, perhaps as a testament to the indomitable nature of the human spirit — or proof that some humans are just plain crazy — five people are competing to be the next mayor.
The general election happens in November but in Harrisburg, like most of Pennsylvania's major cities, the Democratic primary on Tuesday is the most important race in choosing the next mayor.
Linda Thompson, who ended the 28-year reign of former Mayor Stephen Reed in 2009, is the incumbent.
Reed is a big reason Harrisburg is in this mess. He spent millions of public dollars on, for example, a questionable deal to keep a minor league baseball team in town — and build them a new stadium — and a downright wasteful plan to buy artifacts as part of an effort to build a museum dedicated to the American West.
He was in office for the signing of the infamous incinerator deal, now a $260 million lead weight around the city's neck.
The SEC last month accused Harrisburg of lying about the seriousness of the debt problems on public financial documents during the final years of the Reed administration, though no one has been charged with a crime.
Thompson clearly means well, though most of her time in office has been marked by a series of public gaffes and embarrassments that have distracted from issues the city must address. Worse, she is seemingly in over her head and unable to control a City Council and city controller, with whom she has frequently been at odds over the most basic of issues – such as whether Harrisburg should seek municipal bankruptcy.
The controller – Dan Miller, a CPA who owns an accounting business in the city – is one of the three people seeking to replace Thompson.
Miller believes the city should pursue bankruptcy; Thompson has opposed bankruptcy during her time in office, except as a last resort.
Her campaign has been focused on persuading voters that things are turning around, albeit slowly.
"You don't change ships in the middle of the ocean," she has said.
A third candidate is Eric Papenfuse, owner of a successful bookstore in midtown Harrisburg and longtime political gadfly. He is playing the "political outsider" card to its fullest extent, even though much of his campaign has been bankrolled by business interests who oppose bankruptcy.
But while the outcome of the election will help settle some of the questions surrounding the city's future, the bankruptcy question is not one for the mayor alone.
Juliet Moringiello, a professor of law who specializes in bankruptcy at Widener College, said the state will play a role in deciding whether Harrisburg becomes the first city in Pennsylvania to enter municipal bankruptcy.
The state-appointed receiver, William Lynch, opposes such as move.
"While the city is in receivership, the receiver decides if it goes into bankruptcy," said Moringiello. "What voters really need to be looking for is good financial stewardship."
That means, she said, a candidate who looks at the city's other problems — such as an eroding tax base and union contracts that are growing too expensive – and a candidate willing and able to work with the state overseers.
Indeed, those issues are linked to the debt problem. Harrisburg stopped paying debt service last year to make payroll.
Papenfuse thinks the city can get out of its financial turmoil without seeking bankruptcy and sees no need to strong-arm the city's fire and police unions for more concessions.
"He really has confidence the unions have the best interest of the city in mind," said Joyce Davis, Papenfuse's campaign spokeswoman and a former Thompson staffer.
Davis said Papenfuse is confident the debt crisis will be resolved before year's end, and he wants to be a partner with the city's unions.
On that point, Miller and Thompson seem to disagree.
In a recent debate, the two sparred over union contract concessions. The mayor is working to renegotiate benefits for police and firefighters in order to reduce costs, but, Miller said, Thompson was not pushing hard enough to cut benefits to the public workers.
Sporting his financial acumen, Miller points to the city's unfunded OPEB accounts, which pay for health care and other post-employment benefits to retirees.
Simply changing OPEB benefits for new workers, as Thompson is aiming to do, is not enough.
"The system is unsustainable," he said.
Lewis Butts is a fourth candidate.
He has a grand vision for the future of Harrisburg, a vision that includes a hydro-electric dam on the Susquehanna River, free Wi-Fi for everyone in the city's downtown and new tourist attractions.
What Butts lacks, however, is any plan for how to pay for those things, or for how to deal with the city's debt, which he conceded at a recent debate is "over my head."
Butts has a criminal history that includes driving without a license on multiple occasions. Monday, he was formally charged with defacing some of Papenfuse's campaign signs.
Independnet Nevin Mindlin will appear on the ballot in November regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's primary. Other independent candidates have until August to get their names on the ballot.
But even though the winner of the election does not get to single-handedly determine the fate of the city's financial problems, plenty of work must be done, including a budget in sore need of balance.
Harrisburg had a budget deficit of more than $10 million each of the past two years and is running an expected $15 million deficit this year.
Tuesday, one candidate will win the election. Though the decision is not the final one, the winner likely will be handed the reins of the city in January. The task ahead will not be an easy one.