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Incoming Harrisburg mayor takes on heavy burden

| Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, 8:36 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Eric Papenfuse, the mayor-elect of one of Pennsylvania's most financially distressed cities and its state capital, was still getting congratulatory hugs and handshakes in his Harrisburg bookstore several days after last week's election.

“There are a lot of people who want to get involved and haven't really felt connected to city government for a while, so we're hoping we can take advantage of that” as part of the transition from businessman to mayor, he said in an interview.

Papenfuse, a Democrat who trounced incumbent Mayor Linda Thompson in the May primary and won Tuesday's election with about 50 percent of the vote, has been active in Harrisburg politics for years, but this will be the first elective office he has held.

“There was a certain weightiness that came down upon me Wednesday,” Papenfuse said. “I feel a great burden because there are so many people that not only have their hopes in the city but are also counting on me to make sure that there is a measure of accountability.”

His victory couldn't have happened at a more tumultuous time in the debt-saddled city, where officials are hoping for a December closing on a financial recovery plan that has been under negotiation since an unprecedented state takeover of the city government two years ago.

A state-appointed receiver and his team of lawyers and financial advisers are putting the finishing touches on a recovery plan that calls for the sale of the city's municipal trash incinerator, whose $350 million in debt the city has been unable to repay. The Lancaster Solid Waste Management Authority is expected to buy the facility for between $126 million and $132 million.

The recovery plan calls for $283 million in borrowing by a state economic development agency, largely to pay for city debts that include $100 million in Harrisburg Parking Authority debt. The state agency, the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority, would be repaid by receipts from the city's parking lots, garages and meters.

Harrisburg's creditors, meanwhile, have agreed to walk away from potentially more than $100 million, concessions that City Council members opposed to the takeover had long demanded as part of any debt deal.

Taxpayers are contributing to the recovery, as the city doubled its earned-income tax rate through 2016.

The plan will eliminate the incinerator debate and ensure a balanced city budget for at least the next three years, said Cory Angell, spokesman for the receiver's office.

“It gives the city a good shot at a predictable and viable economic future,” Angell said.

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