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|Homeowner help, legislative standstill, gift ban, boroughs event, light pollution, 'risky' business, internal conflict, tax status, ghostwriter, and rapid expansion.|
A Pennsylvania program that promises to help homeowners recover from the financial impact of the pandemic is overwhelmed by demand and struggling to deliver relief to increasingly frustrated applicants, Spotlight PA's Charlotte Keith reports.
The Pennsylvania Homeowner Assistance Fund, backed by $350 million in federal aid, rolled out alongside the sunsetting of pandemic-era foreclosure protections, offering people a chance to catch up on mortgages, property taxes, utilities, and more.
But almost a year after it launched, the fund is overwhelmed by demand, interviews and public records show. It frequently struggles to get the information it needs from mortgage companies, causing delays and complaints from increasingly desperate applicants who say they cannot get updates from program workers.
Also this week, the Pennsylvania House has adjourned until late February, almost certainly ending any chance of voters seeing constitutional amendments on their May ballot. The move by Speaker Mark Rozzi ends a chaotic three weeks that began with the Berks County Democrat’s ascension to the top spot in the chamber and his vow to drop his party affiliation.
Finally, Gov. Josh Shapiro has loosened a gift ban that was put in place by his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
Wolf’s gift rules were notoriously strict, and mandated that officials pay cash if they accepted items like disposable water bottles. Shapiro’s version allows employees to accept food or refreshments when “representing the Commonwealth in an official capacity” worth as much or less than the federal government’s per diem rate.
"I sometimes wonder, am I taking the last shots of the Milky Way that’ll ever be seen in Pennsylvania?"
—Brian Reid, a photographer who lives in the Pennsylvania Wilds, on light contamination in rural north-central communities
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|» BROKEN BOROUGHS: Join us today at 6 p.m. EST on Zoom for a free panel on Pennsylvania’s local governments, and how their oversight — or lack thereof — impacts residents and governance. Register for the event here and submit your questions to email@example.com. |
|» Tax caps leave many Pa. municipalities with few ways to raise revenue|
» How communities in north-central Pa. are attempting to preserve a scarce resource: darkness
At least 3 counties are excluding probation officers from Pa. police misconduct database
At least three Pennsylvania counties are not using a statewide misconduct database to provide or access information about probation officers, Spotlight PA has learned.
District courts in Cameron, Carbon, and Elk Counties have opted out of using the database — designed to catalog serious wrongdoings by law enforcement officers and prevent offenders from bouncing around departments — based on guidance they received from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. A spokesperson for that agency said it was “advised that the participation of county probation departments would be voluntary.”
Several county and state elected officials are skeptical of this interpretation and concerned that law enforcement officers with bad conduct may slip through the cracks during background checks.
“Not one police department or police chief in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania wants to mistakenly hire a law enforcement officer with a history of egregious misconduct,” Carbon County Commissioner Chris Lukasevich said during a January public meeting. “We need to take those actions to ensure it doesn’t happen.”
In 2020, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed Act 57 in response to widespread protests over police brutality. It requires the state to maintain records of law enforcement officers who have been disciplined or fired over certain offenses.
But since its implementation, a lack of enforcement mechanisms and limitations of its scope have hindered Act 57’s impact. In July 2022, the small borough of Tioga hired the police officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. A Spotlight PA investigation found that the law would not have prevented that hiring.
State Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia), whose legislation was incorporated into Act 57, has aired frustration that the law was diluted to be less strict. He told Spotlight PA in an email that Act 57 applies to probation officers and noncompliance “brazenly defies clear statutory requirements.”
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts said it was told by counsel for the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission, which is tasked with implementing Act 57, that participation by probation officers is voluntary.
“That information was provided to all president judges,” Stacey Witalec, communications director for the AOPC, wrote in an email.
Pennsylvania State Police, which oversees the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission, did not return a request for comment by press time.
Spotlight PA has found that the confusion stems, in part, from who is considered a “law enforcement officer” under Act 57.
Carbon County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Roger Nanovic cited the ambiguity in the definition as one of the reasons why he determined probation officers are not subject to the law. During a December public meeting, he called the law “a very poorly drafted statute.”
LeeAnn Covac, district court administrator for the Court of Common Pleas of Elk and Cameron Counties, provided a similar rationale in response to a chief clerk questioning the decision, according to emails obtained by Spotlight PA.
Lukasevich, the Carbon County commissioner, objects to his district court’s opting out. He told Spotlight PA the judgment is not substantiated by any legal decisions and contradicts the interpretation of the county’s former and current solicitors.
“I know there’s mention … that the law isn’t perfect,” Lukasevich said during a January commissioners’ meeting. “Are imperfect laws to be disregarded? And I will always argue that compliance isn’t simply important because it’s the law, but because we have a moral responsibility to do the right thing.” —Min Xian, local accountability reporter
|'RISKY' BUSINESS: Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro wants state pension funds to ditch outside money managers, citing "risky investments" associated with Wall Street firms. Shapiro has advocated for low-cost index funds before and has some leverage as governor, The Inquirer (paywall) reports, particularly at the State Employees' Retirement System, where he appoints six of 11 trustees.|
INTERNAL CONFLICT: The power struggle that gripped Butler County's Republican Committee last year included a lawsuit, an intervention by the state party, and a scuffle over a booth at a local farm show. The New York Times (paywall) calls the GOP fracturing there emblematic of the national struggle for control of a Republican Party that's divided by a right-wing grassroots insurgency and turning on itself.
TAX STATUS: Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey has ordered a review of tax-exempt properties belonging to some of the city's most powerful interests to see where that status should be challenged. Per PublicSource, almost 20% of property in Pittsburgh is privately owned and tax-exempt, with the largest share owned by UPMC, a nonprofit worth billions. At stake: more stable city coffers.
GHOSTWRITER: A contested Central Bucks School District library policy seen as a gateway to bans on LGBTQ-friendly books has been reviewed and possibly edited by a statewide conservative group. Courier Times (paywall) reports that the metadata of a leaked copy of the rules made noteworthy changes to an earlier draft and appears to list a Pennsylvania Family Institute attorney as its author.
RAPID EXPANSION: Health giant UPMC has grown from a system of 12 hospitals into a network of 40 in the past 10 years, and a new report by an antitrust advocacy group is raising red flags. UPMC questions the methodology used, per TribLIVE, while Democratic state Rep. Sara Innamorato, who's running for Allegheny County's highest elected position, is floating a related antitrust bill in Harrisburg.
» AP: Refusal to release inaugural donors exposes gap in Pa. law
» ROUTE FIFTY: How Chester's pension system hit a breaking point
» STATEIMPACT: Pa. drillers abandoned 1000s of natural gas wells
» TRIBLIVE: Survivors of the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse speak out
» WITF: State museum has the remains of hundreds of Native Americans
Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org
.FED AND WATERED (Case No. 185):
What thrives when you feed it but dies when you water it?
Last week's answer:
A joke. (Find last week's clue here
Congrats to Ken H.
, who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Ed M., Ted W., Jon N., Donna D., Annette I., Rebecca D., Michael H., Dan W., Karen K., Deb R., Fred O., Irene T., Ken S., Joe S., Beth T., Peter S., Tish M., Mary B., Robert K., Marisa B., Hugh M., Vanessa J., and Cindy W.