- Associated Press - Saturday, August 22, 2015

ALTOONA, Pa. (AP) - It’s no secret that Cambria County’s population is shrinking, losing an average of 1,000 people each year.

While the larger municipalities may have been able to absorb the loss, some officials in the county’s smaller boroughs said they’ve been struggling.

Few people want to sit on councils, and tax revenue fluctuates as people move.

Within the last four months, three Cambria County boroughs have successfully petitioned the county to downsize their councils, while some onlookers have broached the idea of merging or consolidating with their neighbors.

The ones who sit on those councils, however, said they want to keep going as long as possible; they care about their towns; and they don’t want to see them disappear.

Searching for interest

Longtime Chest Springs Mayor Eugene Eckenrode, whose borough is one of the county’s smallest, said its five-person council has been operating with one open seat for years.

Although the borough is one of the few to have added population, according to the Penn State Data Center, many of those new residents are transient and have moved into town to take advantage of affordable housing, he said.

And after accounting for the very old and very young, the population able and willing to sit on council has remained almost flat, he said.

Council members routinely petition friends and neighbors to join, but many people can’t find the time or don’t want the extra responsibility of a council seat.

“When you become a council member, you also become park and street commissioner. You get all these other duties thrown upon you,” he said. “A lot of people don’t want to come on the council for that simple reason.”

With four interested and active council members, Eckenrode said there haven’t been problems reaching a quorum at most meetings, but the even number has sometimes resulted in a split vote, requiring he step in to break the tie.

Facing the reality

Earlier this month, Cambria County President Judge Timothy Creany approved Ehrenfeld Borough’s petition to shrink its council from seven to five members, having done the same in May for Dale Borough and in April for Loretto Borough.

Creany said the municipalities have all faced similar circumstances.

“They were at the point where they were not able to field quorums at some meetings,” he said.

Council members had invited people to run for council; they’d posted signs and nominated people from the community to fill open positions, but still came up short.

“As one of the witnesses (for Ehrenfeld) testified … when they don’t have a quorum, the only thing they can do is pay their bills,” he said, while other planning and immediate concerns have to wait. “It really hamstrings their ability to do their jobs.”

Creany said with only about 100 registered voters in a town with a population of less than 250, asking seven of them to sit on Ehrenfeld’s council is about a 5 to 6 percent participation rate.

“That’s a pretty big demand,” he said, so asking for smaller council was a practical move.

“I think that they’ve faced the reality,” he said, “For them to be able to work effectively and consistently, they have to do it.”

‘We do all right’

Two years ago, Tunnelhill Borough also went before a judge to reduce its council from seven to five.

Mike Taddei, Tunnelhill Borough Council president, said the reasons were the same: People didn’t want to join council, and some that did still wouldn’t come to meetings.

Because Tunnelhill has the unique distinction of being one of only a few boroughs in the state to be split between two counties, it also has unique complications.

A Blair County Court approved its council reduction. Tunnelhill’s Blair residents vote for Penn Cambria School Board members and Blair County commissioners.

Council members convene meetings on the Cambria County side, and the borough has sometimes struggled to get a Blair County resident elected to the board.

Even the population loss in Tunnelhill is lopsided.

According to the Penn State Data Center, Tunnelhill Borough lost 46 residents between 2000 and 2010, but all of them came from the Cambria half, while the Blair side remained at a stable 118 residents.

But Taddei said the borough works through its problems. Council recently purchased a new truck and skid loader and is working through the issues with a multimillion-dollar sewer project under the Gallitzin sewer authority.

“We do all right for having 300-some people,” he said.

He also pointed to Peoples Natural Gas agreeing to install gas main lines and laterals at no cost to customers as a major win for residents, noting that the community would never have been able to afford it otherwise.

“I figure everybody should probably sign up now,” he said. “But it took all that time. They wanted us to pay a fortune. How could we?”

Future concerns

Despite local leaders’ efforts to reverse, or at least stem, the population bleed in Cambria County, it’s likely that most of its 63 municipalities will continue to shrink. And what happens next?

Creany said it’s possible that some borough officials might come before the court again hoping to shrink their councils further.

He said he’s familiar with the statute to reduce councils from seven to five members, but he’s yet to have a borough ask for a three-person council.

“It may well happen,” he said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development tracks consolidation and merger proposals, including a 2007 proposal to merge South Fork and Ehrenfeld boroughs, and a 2004 request to consolidate Portage Borough and Portage Township.

A similar consolidation request from Portage made in 1991 included Cassandra Borough.

But Taddei said he thinks neither a merger- where one municipality takes over another - nor a consolidation - when municipalities join to form a new government - with neighboring Gallitzin Borough is likely, thanks to a history of bad blood between the two.

“There was talk years ago about joining (them),” he said. “Their councilmen said Tunnelhill would never be on the sewer or water authorities. We thought that was really negative, so guess what? We walked out and said, ‘Never again.’”

Preserving identity

Likewise, Le Hritz, who has served as Tunnelhill’s mayor since 2009, said everyone involved in Tunnelhill’s government remains committed to its identity; many have served on council for 30-plus years and none take a salary for their work.

Although she was adamant there would never be a Gallitzin merger or consolidation, when asked what would happen after the longtime council members stepped down, she admitted that Tunnelhill might then have to discuss the possibility.

And Taddei conceded that the pros might outweigh the cons; he softened when talking about Gallitzin’s current council, whose members, he said, are “good people.”

But Tunnelhill Borough is doing OK, he added.

“I think we’re doing a great job for the little borough that we are. … We try. We don’t go above our means or anything,” he said.

Eckenrode said the distinction of being one of the oldest Cambria County boroughs matters to Chest Springs, and the people who run for council or show up to meetings don’t want things to change.

Either Clearfield or Allegheny Township would have no problem absorbing the borough’s small budget and clearing its one mile of roads, but people “born and raised here, and their grandparents that were born and raised, are the people that keep it going,” he said.

Both Taddei and Eckenrode pointed to the Spangler-Barnesboro consolidation as a possible future for their towns, but said many still act as if Northern Cambria is two separate places.

They questioned what the point of merging would be if they were still seen as two and not one.

“There’s always a ripple in there somewhere,” Taddei said. “I’d rather stay the way we are.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1ITJxUf

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Information from: Altoona Mirror, https://www.altoonamirror.com


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