He said more than 50 percent of some municipal budgets are going to pay pensions and other personnel costs.

Fisher said Pennsylvania’s health care and pension crisis “is sucking the life out of our cities and our governments. It has to be dealt with.”

A legislative solution?

“Sadly, little progress has been made in Harrisburg,” said Fisher.

“One wise mayor said to me that the major problems we face with this issue in Harrisburg is the Republicans like the police and firemen department and the Democrats like the unions, which creates the perfect storm for ‘let’s not do anything because we can’t get re-elected if we take either one of them on’," Fisher added.

“I’d rather fix that problem before it becomes a problem,” said State Rep. Seth Grove of York County, one of two Republican legislators on the panel who have introduced legislation to being tackling the issue.

“I know it’s very unique for government to actually try to solve it before it happens, right?

“The default position of the General Assembly is to do nothing. For me that’s unacceptable. We have a major problem. Let’s fix the problem.”

“We’re going to have to put together a bill to get this done,” said DePasquale, a former Democratic state representative. “I don’t think we can expect leadership from the top on this. We’ve got to have this come from the ground up to get something over the finish line.

He said people say “let’s wait till the next governor to get this thing done” but feels waiting will only make the problem worse.

Everyone is going to have to be a part of discussions and compromises leading to solutions -- police and fire departments, unions, the business community and legislators, said DePasquale. “This is not going to fix itself.”

“No matter where you are ideologically, there’s no way we’re going to get a bill to the governor’s desk that you’re going to think ‘everything about it is something I agree with’,” said the auditor general.

Program moderator Tony Iannelli, president and CEO of the chamber, said legislators in Harrisburg “are not lining up to jump on this bandwagon in terms of legislation. Someone’s got to support this.”

“I’m very disappointed in our Democrats,” said Easton Mayor Sal Panto, who is a Democrat. “We can’t get one Democratic representative to stand with us and say ‘I’m going to sponsor this’. That’s wrong. You need to go to the Democrats in this Valley and say ‘we need you on board’.”

One of those Democrats, State Rep. Mike Schlossberg of Allentown, attended the program but was not on the panel.

“This is not a Democrat issue, this is not a Republican issue –this is a Pennsylvania bipartisan issue,” said Donchez. “We really need to move forward, whether we have a new governor or not, to really save cities.”

Allentown’s mayor said it’s going to take a grassroots effort by people who are faced with losing municipal services and paying high taxes to say “enough is enough.”

“Until the general public starts putting pressure on their legislators, nothing is going happen that’s going to be substantive,”
said Pawlowski.

Losing benefits?

Iannelli asked if a legislative solution could result in municipal workers losing some of their pension benefits.

“We don’t know all the answers to those questions,” admitted DePasquale.

But the auditor general added if the state legislature doesn’t find solutions, people will get such questions answered by federal bankruptcy judges.

And he predicted: “Nobody will like what a federal judge says. I think people’s pension benefits will get whacked and taxes will go up. And there will be no negotiation because the judge will just say ‘here’s what you’re doing’.

“If you think that’s a good alternative, let’s just do nothing. Because I’m telling you, we’re going to have cities going there.”

Solutions