ON Tuesday, New Castle residents will cast the most important vote of their lives. Their vote will determine whether New Castle moves forward with responsive government, competitive tax rates, and well-run essential city services, or continue to be saddled by the dysfunction, hyper-politics, and poor decisions of the past.
For decades, residents have had to choose between self-serving politicians who misuse taxpayer money and good-old-boys who wield their connections to advance their own interests.
The result is a once-thriving city that is teetering toward bankruptcy and receivership, having already sold off many of its assets. In receivership, the people of New Castle would become virtual subjects of the state, with practically no say in how their city is governed or run. Without a change in how the city is governed, receivership is practically inevitable when New Castle loses its Act 47 status in 2024 and again falls under the restrictions of a Class C city.
Without Home Rule, city government will have no choice but to keep raising property taxes, driving more people out of the city.
Frankly, the results would be disastrous for this blue-collar city, and the 21,000 people who live here — but it’s a disaster New Castle can avoid. The people of New Castle can create a bright future for themselves and their city by voting “Yes” Tuesday on Home Rule.
Home Rule would place the day-to-day operations of the city, including its $17 million annual budget, under a trained administrator, hired by the City Council. An enlarged elected City Council, with seven seats instead of five, would continue to set the city’s priorities, responding to the needs and desires of the people.
Voters would still elect a mayor who would, among other things, act as an ombudsman between the people of New Castle and city government. He or she would take complaints from residents, spearhead economic development, and represent the city. The mayor would still be the face of the city.
As it stands, city government is rife with cronyism and dysfunction. The day-to-day operations of the city are run by an elected mayor, who may know nothing about municipal budgets or governance, creating city ordinances, or managing city employees. Furthermore, he often makes decisions based on politics — not what’s best for the city. The person running the daily operations of the city could be a dentist, plumber, social worker, or — God forbid — a journalist.
Inevitably, under the current system, the mayor hires and fires employees based not on their merit or job performance, but on their loyalty, friendship, or financial backing. Small wonder sheer incompetence continues to plague city government — and incompetence in large doses can undermine a city even faster than outright corruption.
Home Rule would remove much of the self-serving politics out of city government and create a government focused on serving the people and developing the city.
In short, under Home Rule, the mayor and city council would set the policies; a trained administrator would carry them out, efficiently and effectively. Because the administrator would be hired by the city council and not elected, he or she would be liberated from the hyper-politics that now affect the mayor’s day-to-day decisions.
Home Rule also would alleviate the city’s heavy reliance on property taxes, which are the least reliable and most regressive way to finance public services. Already, New Castle’s high property taxes are driving people with fixed incomes out of their homes and making the city uncompetitive for economic development. Home Rule would give the city more flexibility in setting taxes, including a reasonable earned income tax which would fund municipal operations in a more fair and sustainable manner.
“Every election cycle we hear about wanting change,” Home Rule commission secretary Marco Bulisco said. “This is actual change.”
New Castle at one point had more millionaires per-capita than any city in America. (Back then, $1 million was a lot of money.) The population neared 50,000 some 60 years ago.
Jobs were aplenty in steel mills, tin mills and in china production. Anyone looking for a job that paid a living wage could walk into a nearby plant and get one.
New Castle earned its nickname of the “Fireworks Capital of the World,” and truly residents had a lot to celebrate.
Today, New Castle has lost half its population. The mills and the good-paying jobs they provided are gone.
The loss of population and jobs that has plagued New Castle over the last 40 years is not entirely due to poor government.
Structural changes in the economy have hurt older cities across the United States. But today, unlike New Castle, many cities are coming back, creating thriving downtowns and attracting jobs and skilled workers to fill them. They are branding themselves and competing, successfully, with other cities for talent and investment.
New Castle is an historic city with much to build on. But to thrive in the 21st century and avoid the tyranny of receivership, it needs a 21st century government.
At stake is the future of New Castle. The choice is clear: Vote Yes on Home Rule.