HARRISBURG (Reuters) - In the battle to repair the tattered finances of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, residents have turned to an unlikely city treasurer: a 23-year-old college student.
Whether John Campbell, who was installed as treasurer on January 3, is the right person to lead that charge for Harrisburg, the state’s capital, remains to be seen. He is not without convictions of what is needed.
He supported the city’s bankruptcy filing, which was later dismissed by a U.S. bankruptcy judge, and wants to sell the incinerator that is at the root of the city’s crushing $317 million in debt.
But as a college student studying for dual bachelor’s degrees in business administration and economics, Campbell will have to navigate a tough road.
The city council and mayor barely speak, little money is available for routine road and streetlight repairs, and high crime and poor schools have fueled suburban flight.
Not to mention that a receiver installed by Pennsylvania’s governor -- David Unkovic, a long-time public finance expert -- has sole authority over how tax dollars are spent.
That does not seem to daunt Campbell, who faced little opposition in November’s general election 3 after winning a primary election last spring.
As Harrisburg’s part-time treasurer - a post that pays $20,000 a year - he is responsible for collecting taxes and other fees as well as investing what little money the city has.
“What the voters of Harrisburg are looking for right now is somebody who understands finance,” said Campbell, whose term runs through 2016. “When we’re talking about bonds and arbitrage, having someone who understands how campaigns work is not going to help.”
Campbell, a former Democratic Party official who earned an associate’s degree at a Harrisburg community college and hopes to complete his bachelor’s degrees by 2013, is trying to use the power of his office, once considered a backwater of city government, to bridge the financial gap.
But with the state receiver in charge of the city’s finances, Campbell’s flexibility is limited.
Though he supported the city’s bankruptcy filing, he opposes the sale of the city’s parking garages, one of Harrisburg’s most dependable revenue sources. He wants to sell the indebted incinerator and the city’s large collection of Wild West and African-American artifacts, leftovers from a previous mayor’s obsession with making Harrisburg a museum mecca.
City council members say that, so far, Campbell has proven himself a quick learner.
At a council meeting last week Mayor Linda Thompson’s staff pushed to sell delinquent tax liens to raise cash that would help cull some debt, much of which is owed to Assured Guaranty
Campbell opposed the move, telling council members they could expect an immediate 20 percent loss if they sold the liens, while keeping them would pay off over time.
“It made no sense, logically, to sell them,” Campbell said. “It would be like accepting one of those payday loans.”
The information convinced the council to not sell the tax liens, helping it save more than $400,000 over time, said Wanda Williams, the city council’s president.
“We were very surprised at how intense Campbell’s report was,” said Williams. “He was able to address all the questions council members had.”
Some, however, are reserving praise.
Corky Goldstein, a Harrisburg attorney and resident for nearly 40 years, says Campbell’s age - he turns 24 next month - may work against him as he moves through the community.
“I don’t think he’s the person in this particular case that will make a difference,” said Goldstein, who sits on the board overseeing Harrisburg’s parking garages. “But he’s in a position to learn a lot of the players and learn how the decisions are made.”
A self-described workaholic, Campbell also has a full-time job at a Harrisburg historical society.
He attends his boyfriend’s synagogue on Fridays and the pair go to his Presbyterian church on Sunday. He owns two dogs, and like many his age is addicted to his iPhone.
As Harrisburg grapples with its debt, Campbell and other officials are awaiting next month’s report from Unkovic, the receiver, that will outline how the city can spend and collect money.
Because Unkovic technically has complete control over the city’s finances, that has s led to some confusion over whether Campbell can hire a full-time deputy, a position he says is critical. He’s asked Unkovic how to proceed, but says he has yet to hear back.
“Our office is running at bare-bone levels, and it’s evident by the amount we need to get done here,” Campbell said. “It’s a little confusing, because I’d like to hire someone right away. We’re in a limbo at this point.”
A spokesman for Unkovic did not respond to a request for comment.
In the interim, Campbell wants to update the city’s technology to let residents pay bills online, something he aggressively promoted during his campaign.
He also wants to tax those who commute into Harrisburg and use its roads and other services for free.
“It doesn’t help our tax base that half our population is below the poverty line and half of the land in the city is not taxable because it is state or federally owned,” he said.
State officials have so far resisted a commuter tax for the capital city.
“This could be a great revenue stream, and we could then negotiate with our bondholders and try to level out our debt payments and pay it off in a reasonable amount of time,” Campbell said. “This is a plan that you could do, if there’s just courage in the political system, but that clearly is lacking at the state level.”
Despite the somewhat bellicose talk, Campbell says he does not currently envision a role for himself in state politics, though he is quick to add that might change.
“If there’s something that I think I can do better than the current person, or there’s an opening and I think that my expertise can be applied and I can better serve my constituents,” he said, “I‘m completely open to that.”
Reporting By Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Leslie Adler