The new mayor of Upper Darby ran on a pledge to modernize the government of Pennsylvania’s sixth-largest municipality. Then the coronavirus pandemic forced her to take down all the basketball hoops in the Delaware County township of 83,000 — a painful move for a former professional basketball player.
In New Castle, the new mayor wanted to fix the western Pennsylvania city’s forlorn finances. Instead, he’s furloughing workers as his tax base evaporates.
And in Williamsport, the new mayor had to justify canceling popular events that fuel the northern Pennsylvania city’s local economy.
A crop of newly installed mayors across Pennsylvania, still catching their breath after what one called a “roller coaster” first 100 days in office, have seen policies and priorities shift swiftly on the front lines of local governments confronted by the pandemic.
Instead of just the usual city challenges of pensions and potholes, they’re dealing with an unprecedented public health crisis and economic collapse, recovery from which will continue deep into their four-year terms.
In Upper Darby, taking down the hoops was a personal blow to Mayor Barbarann Keffer, who issued an emergency declaration on March 13.
“It broke my heart about a week after that, when we had to take down the basketball rims at all the parks,” said Keffer, a Democrat and a former Ivy League champion basketball player at Harvard University who went on to play professionally in Ireland and Germany. “It was just the best thing to do. People were congregating in the parks.”
The crisis has helped accelerate her promised modernization of local government on some fronts. Meetings are now held remotely and broadcast live on a YouTube channel, drawing an audience of people stuck at home. Keffer is looking for a public access channel to also air public sessions. And residents can now file applications and pay fees online. But other innovations are on hold.
Still, Keffer and her fellow new mayors are planning for the day the crisis passes.
“I’m really glad I’m here,” said Keffer, who served on Upper Darby’s township council for six years before winning in November’s general election. “We have a lot of work to do. We will be over this at some point. Then I’m looking forward to continue with the plans that we started.”
One thing that hasn’t changed: Mayors still have to deal with the unexpected, beyond just the pandemic. In Wilkes-Barre, new Mayor George Brown already had plenty to keep him busy. Then a wind storm last week tore the roof off the historic city hall he had just finished renovating.
Now Brown’s team can’t even get into the damaged city hall.
“So, yeah, it’s been a rough three months,” Brown said with a laugh this week.
He’s not alone. Brown formed a group of five mayors in northeastern Pennsylvania, at first to talk over shared concerns like road maintenance, policing, and financial issues. That soon turned into a forum to share ideas and resources to deal with the pandemic, like securing and sharing N95 and surgical masks.
“We’re looking at commonalities, how we can help each other out,” he said of the meetings, which now happen via videoconferencing. “If there’s something where we can help each other out, we’re doing that.”
Paige Cognetti, the new mayor of Scranton, is on that team of mayors. And this is not the first crisis of her career. She served at the U.S. Treasury during President Barack Obama’s first term, when the country faced a major financial crisis.
Cognetti ran as an independent last year, vowing to reform the Lackawanna County city of 77,000 beset with political corruption scandals.
“The reasons why I ran, why I’m here, for better or worse align with what we’re facing," she said. “I have kind of a background of running into a crisis.”
Scranton didn’t have a Facebook page when she took office. Now she holds hour-long Facebook town-hall meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays to talk to constituents.
“While I’m not happy that we’re having to go through this, I am happy, personally, that this is how I get to help,” Cognetti said.
A pandemic can be instructive. Scranton and the surrounding county did not have a health department, one of the “cracks in the system” to be corrected.
“That’s a structural fault," Cognetti said. “It’s no one person or one entity’s fault. But it’s something we really are needing right now and I hope it’s one of those things we’ll fix along the way.”
In Williamsport, Mayor Derek Slaughter’s plan for the opening days of his new administration are on hold in the Lycoming County city of 28,000.
“The first 100 days or so clearly have been a roller coaster," he said.
“It was not an easy decision," he said. “Obviously hindsight is always 20/20. But in those first few days, it was probably 50/50. Some folks understood and some wanted to see the events still go on.”
Slaughter, a former math teacher, said tracking exponential growth models for the virus helped influence his decisions. He is now monitoring another set of numbers: the financial impact of canceling events on businesses in his city.
Williamsport is home to the Little League World Series, a baseball tournament that draws teams from around the world in mid-August. Slaughter is not sure if that will happen this year.
“From a city government standpoint, that has a huge economic impact on our city and on our region in general,” he said. “So we’re hoping that the Little League World Series is able to take place."
Slaughter talks frequently with Mayor Chris Frye in New Castle, a Lawrence County city of about 22,000, 42 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. They share ideas, and concerns for their local economies.
New Castle was already recognized as financially distressed by the state. A fan of small government, Frye, a Republican, wanted to privatize garbage collection as a way to save money
“I expected this job to be tough,” Frye said. “I expected there to be a lot of hurdles, a lot of things to learn.”
His plans for economic development are on hold. And he has furloughed one out of every five of his city’s employees as the local earned income tax base dries up.
“When something like this happens, it shows you how hard it is for a city to prosper when there is no tax base,” Frye said. “And that is exactly what is happening.”
Still, Frye is happy to be on the job.