Editorials from around Pennsylvania:
ACHILLES' HEEL: BAD AIR QUALITY REQUIRES MORE ATTENTION, Jan. 22
There's nothing like the sulfur dioxide emissions affecting 22 Mon Valley communities to show how poor air quality continues to undermine the region's reputation, quality of life and prospects for advancement — and how zealous regulators must be about changing that.
The Allegheny County Health Department urged the chronically ill, children and the elderly in those communities to limit outdoor activity because a Dec. 24 fire at U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works damaged the coke gas recovery equipment, producing several instances of excessive emissions.
While Pittsburgh rightly prides itself on its new-age economy, it isn't that far removed from the days when air pollution routinely darkened the Downtown skies at noon. The region's air quality is still bad, and people still suffer ill effects. The fire-related emissions, for example, have been linked to exacerbated asthma in a small sample of Clairton High School students.
Although a fire is responsible for the current problem, the coke works and U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson Works are repeat violators of pollution standards, putting their neighbors' health at risk and complicating the Mon Valley's economic development efforts. Residents long have complained about the pollution and assailed the county Health Department for lackluster enforcement.
Over the past year, the department has recommitted itself to enforcement efforts. But now it's on the defensive again with critics questioning why the department waited until two weeks after the fire to issue the air quality advisory.
Department Director Karen Hacker stood by the agency's work, noting it first posted a notice about the fire and potential air quality problems on its Facebook page and followed that up with the formal advisory Jan. 9 after a number of excessive emissions had occurred. Last Wednesday, however, the department acknowledged a "need to do a better job of communicating information" and announced it would post daily updates on its Facebook page and website.
On Jan. 9, the department awarded $300,000 in grants to community groups and municipalities with plans to plant trees, cut auto emissions and otherwise tackle air pollution. That's great. But the focus has to be on keeping after the big, repeat polluters around the county. If the agency doesn't do that, real progress on air quality will remain out of reach.
LANCASTER COUNTY RESIDENTS, LIKE OTHER AMERICANS, NEED GROWN-UPS TO END THE SHUTDOWN MESS, Jan. 23
Lancaster County landlords and residents who rely on federal housing subsidies may see rent payments disrupted if the partial federal government shutdown, now in its second month, continues much longer. LNP's Sam Janesch reported last week that two "housing authorities that distribute roughly $900,000 in federal housing subsidies in Lancaster County every month are fielding concerns from tenants and landlords ... The Lancaster County and Lancaster city authorities — which collectively issue 1,670 monthly housing choice vouchers, commonly known as Section 8 vouchers — are currently funded through next month." But Barbara Wilson, executive director of the Lancaster City Housing Authority, told Janesch, "We haven't been given any information about allocation past February, which is concerning." Funding for the vouchers comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, whose employees have been furloughed.
This isn't just concerning. This is madness.
What has brought Washington, D.C., to its knees isn't some external disaster. It isn't a natural one.
It's a philosophical argument over the merits of a border wall. And it's having real and potentially damaging effects on actual human beings in Lancaster County and across the nation.
Wilson said Section 8 vouchers help provide housing to about 1,500 Lancaster city residents, most of whom are working — making an average of about $10,000 to $15,000, not enough to pay market-value rents. So they're already in a precarious situation. Imagine being them, wondering if this shutdown is going to imperil the roof over their family's heads.
Imagine being a landlord who, shutdown or not, still has bills to pay. Most city landlords have signaled that they'll be accommodating, Wilson said. "But you never know. It's not sustainable for anybody."
It is not sustainable. And for those affected, the anxiety must be significant.
Imagine being a parent who relies on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps — to keep your children fed.
SNAP benefits for February were disbursed this month because of the shutdown. But SNAP recipients are being urged to make them last because of the uncertainty over when the next disbursements may be made. Imagine how worrying that must be.
Close to 1 in 10 county residents rely on federal food assistance — 9,000 from the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program; 49,000 from SNAP. And there but for the grace of God go the rest of us.
Then, of course, are the 800,000 federal workers who either have been furloughed or are working without pay. It is unconscionable to ask an employee to work without compensation — and it may be illegal.
Lawsuits are testing whether it violates the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, or the Fair Labor Standards Act.
We understand that the furloughed workers will get back pay later, but in the meantime, they're struggling to make mortgage, rent, car, credit card and tuition payments, to buy groceries and pay medical bills. A middle class federal employee won't remain in the middle class for long if his or her credit scores are wrecked by a long-term shutdown.
Transportation Security Administration employees at airports — including five at Lancaster Airport — are working without pay. Some TSA screeners reportedly are working additional temporary jobs to get through the shutdown. This is appalling — for them, and for members of the general public, whose safety depends on the sharp eyes and instincts of these essential workers.
We appreciate that Congressman Lloyd Smucker and the other members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus are working to find some solution to the shutdown. We also appreciate that Smucker is among the members of Congress not taking paychecks during the shutdown.
And we laud Smucker for reintroducing a bill that would prohibit future government shutdowns. As Janesch reported, variations of the legislation have been repeatedly introduced to no avail.
The longest shutdown in U.S. history could — and should — win the proposed bill more support.
Negotiations over important issues such as immigration and national security shouldn't be subject to the temper tantrum that a shutdown represents. It's akin to taking the ball home and refusing to play any longer unless one side gets everything it wants.
Which is why we heartily agree with Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick of Bucks County, who has called for an end to this shutdown — an end to holding the federal workforce hostage.
Also a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, Fitzpatrick made his passionate and cogent case earlier this month on PBS' "News Hour."
"The reality is that the Democrats control the House, Republicans control the Senate. This necessarily needs to be a bipartisan solution, as it should be," Fitzpatrick said. "And what needs to happen is, people need to start acting like adults, they need to come to the center. Nobody's going to get everything they want."
Even the Rolling Stones knew that. The aim should be to get what Americans need. And that's an effective government.
For us to get it, the people in Washington, as Fitzpatrick said, are going to need to act like adults.
So, please urge our elected officials in Washington to end the shutdown. And note which lawmakers merely toe their party's line, and which ones show some political courage — and judge those lawmakers accordingly. We certainly will.
This madness has lasted long enough. It's time for the grown-ups in Washington to put the ball back on the field, and fix our broken government.
CONGRESSMAN TOM MARINO OWES HIS CONSTITUENTS AN APOLOGY — AND A REFUND, Jan. 18
What a slap in the face.
Bravely serving just two weeks in the new session of Congress, U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-12th District, has decided he's had enough.
He's resigning next week to take a job in the private sector. Marino, 66, and his office did not respond to questions about the resignation, The Sunbury Daily Item reported Thursday.
Marino, who has survived multiple bouts of kidney cancer, also did not publicly cite his health as a reason for his departure.
So if his resignation is solely for career reasons, Marino owes his voters an apology for wasting their time. And he owes the taxpayers of the 12th District a refund, for making them foot the bill for what's now a pointless election. And now they'll have to go through it again with a special election, where local GOP bigwigs will handpick his potential replacement in the overwhelmingly Republican district.
According to Federal Election Commission data, Marino had $91,992 in his campaign accounts as of Nov. 26, 2018.
If the law allows it, and the cash is still there, that money should be donated to help defray the cost of picking his eventual replacement. There's absolutely no reason the taxpayers of the 12th Congressional District should be expected to subsidize his ambition.
IN SCHEMBER, ERIE GETS MAYOR TIMES DEMAND, Jan. 22
The times demanded much of the person elected Erie's mayor in 2017. The city stood at a crossroads after a decades-long slide that corroded confidence and siphoned away opportunity and hope.
City Hall could no longer afford to manage decline, hold social ills at arm's length as if they were somehow not in its purview, or jealously patrol tiny patches of native resources or political turf.
It needed a person with the will and heart to break bad habits, heal old wounds and help others to see something better and new.
All signs so far indicate that's what it got in Mayor Joe Schember.
As reporter Kevin Flowers detailed, Schember, in reflecting on his first year in office modestly graded it a "B'' and characterized it as a time of learning. Of course, there can be no overnight miracle recovery given the depths of Erie's losses. And no question, discord lies ahead as the city — facing skyrocketing budget deficits — plans to enter the state's Early Intervention Program. Schember's tenure likely will be judged on the fortitude he brings to bear on hard choices that process is likely to demand. In other words, tough stuff lies ahead.
That unseen future, however, takes nothing away from the bracing change in tone, outlook and energy Schember has achieved already.
A recap of some highlights: Schember jump-started the neglected community conversation about Erie Refocused's sweeping prescriptions for renewal by hiring Kathy Wyrosdick as city planner and meeting with residents in small groups, community centers and door-to-door in the Summer of Hope tour.
His reboot of economic development, with its focus on business outreach and support for small businesses, is one of the reasons Erie business leaders rallied and helped the city become one of the first nationwide to launch a prospectus to attract investment through Opportunity Zones created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
The city is finally stepping into the digital age. A new website is in the offing and Schember's wide-ranging activities and city assets are touted cheerfully on social media posts. The city is partnering with the Innovation District and others to fashion itself a "smart city," complete with the latest lighting, technology and security measures.
Schember also took concrete steps to bridge Erie's persistent, damaging racial divide and make it a city of inclusion, starting with the diverse makeup if his administration and initiatives to repair ties between police and the minority community.
Progress on any one of these fronts would have been notable. The needle moved on all of them. Each facet of Schember's fresh outlook, energy and commitment better positions the city for the healing and growth we hope is to come.
WHY WE SHOULD BE PAYING ATTENTION TO HOW THE WORLD SEES PHILLY, Jan. 23
"In one of the largest cities in the United States, in one of the most dense metropolitan areas on the East Coast, not far from New York and Washington, there is a sad image of a population that signals about the hardships of citizens in the world's largest military and economic superpower."
That is the first sentence of a piece in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz titled "You want to see the decline of an empire? Look at Philadelphia" that ran earlier this month. The Israeli newspaper reported on the Department of Public Health's "Health of the City" report that showed that for the third year in a row, life expectancy is declining due to gun violence and drug overdose.
In addition, the British newspaper The Guardian published a piece about the report under the title: "Can Philadelphia 'stop people from dying' as drug crisis and gun violence rage on?"
For some Philadelphians, especially those who live in affluent neighborhoods, this image of Philadelphia might come us a surprise. After all, 2018 was the year that The Eagles won the Super Bowl, Philadelphia made it to the short list of Amazon for its second headquarters, and Comcast opened its massive new technology center. It was just three years ago when the same The Guardian reported that Lonely Planet named Philadelphia one of the top travel destinations in the U.S. under the headline "The grit and glory of Philadelphia: it's time to recognize the city's greatness."
So what is Philadelphia — a city of grit and glory or a declining empire?
The answer is both. The story of Philadelphia in 2019 continues to be a tale of two cities.
That's why Mayor Jim Kenney's efforts to bring international business to Philadelphia is worth noting. According to reporting by Philadelphia Inquirer's Claudia Vargas, Kenney and eight of his deputies have spent $87,000 on trade missions to Europe, Asia, and North America during the mayor's first term.
We have no doubt that during those trips, Philadelphia is presented as the best place on Earth. That's the goal of the trip — and the job of the mayor to tell that story.
But that story is complicated. In a recent construction equipment industry survey that showed people the skylines of four major cities, people mistakenly identified Philadelphia's skyline as belonging to New York or Chicago. Only 26 percent recognized our skyline as ours. There's a lesson in this confusion over identity: the shiny surfaces of our gleaming downtown skyline can blind us to the rest of the city, where a large portion of the population lives in despair.
This, too, is who we are: The poorest large city in America. One of the cities with the highest overdose death rates. A city in which incomes are falling while nationwide wages are increasing.
Our gun violence problem and our overdose problem are not just a reputation problem — they are a daily matter of life and death for our residents. As we celebrate advancements in our city, we shouldn't overlook the less pleasant side of the picture — even if it takes an outsider to remind us.