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City of St. Marys shows how others can reverse slide

| Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 10:03 p.m.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
An afternoon shopper is silhouetted against the backdrop of construction as a construction crew tears down a building dating back to the mid-1800's to make way for a for a small park on Erie Avenue in St. Marys.
Peg Yanak, 70, of St. Marys stands outside the Persnickety gift shop, (formerly a spotting goods store) where she operates an Avon booth, on Erie Avenue in St. Marys.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Ray Beimel, owner of Beimel Photographics and a former St. Marys City Council member, talks about some of the keys to St. Marys' success on Erie Avenue.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Albert Assalone of St. Marys, a worker at the Second Chance retail shop, watches construction on Erie Avenue in St. Marys.
William C. Brock, CEO of Straub Brewery, pours a pint from the 'eternal tap' at the brewery in St. Marys.

ST. MARYS — Scattered across nearly 100 square miles, people here depend on just one fire company, one police force, one street department.

It's exactly how this sprawling Elk County community wants it.

Residents in St. Marys borough and Benzinger Township voted in 1991 to contain costs and merge their neighboring municipalities into a rural mega-town: the City of St. Marys. Two decades in, local leaders say Pennsylvania's newest city has gotten past territorial sniping, saved millions in government wages and burnished a profile as a regional hub for business in northern Pennsylvania.

“I won't pretend it was easy meshing everything together,” said town historian Ray Beimel, remembering stress over feared tax increases and cuts in public services. “Except for a few cranks, you hear almost no one now say it was a bad idea.”

St. Marys is the second-biggest city in Pennsylvania by land mass, behind Philadelphia and about 1.7 times the size of Pittsburgh. About 13,000 people live in its rolling countrysides and small-town streetscapes, an area about 50 times larger than the third-class cities of Allegheny County.

As small cities near Pittsburgh absorb heavy debts and struggle as state-designated “distressed” communities, St. Marys has sustained itself with economies of scale. Residents haven't seen a city tax increase in about six years, and the city saves roughly $1 million a year in wages and benefits from redundant public jobs cut through attrition, said city Councilman Gary Anderson. Combined staffing has dipped 26 percent.

“We get more block-grant money than we would before” as separate entities, Anderson said. “We're more efficient, even though the consolidation plan specified there would be no layoffs. You eliminated a lot of management positions (through attrition). They're the higher-paid people.”

As a borough, St. Marys faced many of the constraints that entangle more traditional third-class cities. It was land-locked and largely built up, limiting new development and new tax revenue opportunities. Regional public services and other non-taxed organizations in town — such as churches — leaned on the borough's largesse, though both borough and non-borough residents use them.

“It's often more desirable economically and easier to build on undeveloped land than to go into developed spaces, knock down and rebuild,” said George W. Dougherty Jr., an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. “From a development perspective, cities struggle with the fact that they have history.”

Spreading their financial burdens across a wider tax base is typically a tough sell for nearby suburban or rural townships, which might ask: “Why in God's name would we take on those problems?” Dougherty said. In fact, many residents of the former Benzinger Township had a small tax increase when St. Marys first merged, although lower sewer bills helped offset that.

“It evened out the load so everyone was paying their share of the common good,” Beimel said of the consolidation.

Government observers say the payoffs often take time to emerge, supporting a more regional approach to economic health and core community services such as venues for the arts, small businesses and social support agencies that cluster in town centers.

Those financial boosts don't necessarily mend the cultural schisms among neighboring communities, which can hold tightly to their historical identities, place-names and traditions.

“Everyone wants their own fiefdom,” said Kate Lomax, executive director of the Community Education Council of Elk and Cameron Counties. “They're fighting for their own fiefdoms.”

But she and colleague Jackie Herbstritt, the operations and facilities manager, agreed that consolidation has helped St. Marys residents think regionally about their future. Phrases like “across the tracks” once put invisible lines on the map but have lost meaning with the under-30 crowd, Herbstritt said.

William C. Brock, CEO at the landmark Straub Brewery up the road, said St. Marys' evolution into a city helped the town's identity. He said streamlining local government makes it easier for businesses to move around and expand operations without navigating multiple layers of bureaucracy.

“I think the less people you have to talk to, the easier it is to expand and do what you need to do,” Brock said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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