Harrisburg City Council has adopted a $56.3 million budget for 2013. This exceeds anticipated revenues by $3 million, and it further carries over an additional $13 million deficit from prior years. Is this legal?
Harrisburg is a city of the third class. According to Pennsylvania’s Third Class City Code:
Section 1811. Appropriations; Tax Rate.– . . . .
No appropriation . . . shall be made for any purpose in excess of the estimated receipts and revenues for the fiscal year for which such appropriations are made.
How does City Council justify its action? Harrisburg chose decades ago to be governed also by the Optional Third Class City Charter Law, which provides as follows:
Section 301. . . . The plan adopted and the provisions of this act . . . shall supersede any existing charter, and all acts and parts of acts, . . . to the extent that they are inconsistent or in conflict therein. All existing acts or part of acts . . . not inconsistent or in conflict with the organic law so adopted shall remain in full force until modified or repealed as provided by law.
So both statutes are in effect, and the Third Class City Code must be followed unless it is “inconsistent or in conflict with” the Optional Third Class City Charter Law. In adopting its latest budget, Council relied on a 1970 City Solicitor’s memorandum, which advised that, because the latter statute deals with budget matters but does not require a balanced budget, therefore the two statutes are in conflict. This argument would be relevant if the issue were one of field preemption, but it has nothing to do with the issue of conflict.
There is a conflict only if both statutes cannot be given effect simultaneously. A law that requires a balanced budget is not in conflict with another law that is silent on the subject. If both can be obeyed at the same time, then both must be. It is beyond debate that the City of Harrisburg is required to adopt a balanced budget, this year and every year, and no law says otherwise.
Can we expect the Commonwealth to swoop down and fix this mess? The Patriot-News quotes Steve Kratz, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development:
DCED is not a regulatory agency and therefore the department does not have enforcement powers and does not issue legal opinions.
Thus only a private lawsuit by parties with standing could bring the matter before the court of common pleas in an action for declaratory and injunctive relief. Comments are invited below on ways in which the City Council could cut $3 million from the budget—in case they are ordered to do so quickly.