If anyone were to doubt that being a professional manager is akin to the role of a corporate chief executive officer, one need only to look at Chambersburg, PA and the scope of ongoing and completed projects accomplished in recent years. From operating its own utilities, implementing award-winning “green’ programs, and launching plans for a new recreational facility, Borough Manager, Jeffery Stonehill has had his hands full.
“Chambersburg has given me the opportunity to develop exciting new projects and initiatives using entrepreneurial business practices not often seen in local government. It is exciting to be a part of a community where so much innovation is happening,” Stonehill said.
Few local governments play such a significant a role in the macroeconomic factors that influence the local economy as Chambersburg. This is because the utility departments drive operating costs down for local businesses and other government units throughout the borough and the region.
While not always appreciated, the borough’s sound fiscal management and lower consumer utility rates benefit private and public sector organizations. Local employers have been able to hire more employees while organizations such as the Chambersburg Area School District and Chambersburg Hospital, have controlled costs and reduced their need for local revenue; controlling tax rates and healthcare expenses for the community.
So how has the 21,000-citizen county seat accomplished this? In short, utilities.
Chambersburg sells power through the northeast grid from Chicago to New York City.
It is is one of 35 boroughs to operate a municipal electric utility and it is the largest in the state. It’s also the only borough to operate generating stations. Growing faster than most towns in Pennsylvania, Chambersburg supplies more services than any other state municipality and is home to more municipal utilities than any other jurisdiction in Pennsylvania. The jurisdiction also is the only one operating electric generating stations including one that turns trash into electricity.
One of two municipalities in Pennsylvania to operate a natural gas utility, Chambersburg offers loans to help residents convert their homes to gas which comes from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. It also is one of about 50 U.S. communities that operate both a natural gas and an electric system.
Chambersburg also manages a water system, a sanitary sewer system, a trash utility that processes single-stream and green yard waste recycling, and a new storm sewer utility; one of the first storm sewer utilities to form under the new Federal mandate to regulate storm water.
The Chambersburg Electric Department buys some of the power it resells from a public-private partnership with Energy Power Partners (EPP) and the Blue Ridge Landfill in Scotland, PA. The Blue Ridge relationship is full circle. Blue Ridge creates power by harvesting methane gas from the decomposing waste it receives from Chambersburg. In turn, Chambersburg buys all of the power output from the EPA award winning power generating project.
In 2014, the Blue Ridge plant generated about 16% of the total electricity consumed by the Chambersburg Borough Electric Department customers. The renewable sustainable landfill gas plant power project and a corresponding “extension cord” electric line (four miles) built to connect it to the borough continues to help Chambersburg provide sustainable energy and stabilized rates.
“Chambersburg Electric Department rates have consistently been lower than available market rates,” said Don Rundle, director of purchasing and materials at the T.B. Woods, a local machinery manufacturer.
“We recommend that other municipalities learn to use their utilities as an economic development tool to grow their communities,” Stonehill said in a recent ICMATV video.
A Green Borough
Living up to its motto as a “clean, green, safe, and healthy community,” Chambersburg began a new single stream curbside recycling program in early 2016. Single-stream means all paper fibers, plastics, metals, and other containers are mixed in one collection truck, instead of being sorted by the customers into separate containers and handled separately throughout the collection process. Curbside collection now is handled by a private vendor on the same days as regular trash collection.
Beginning in 2014, the borough opened a 6.7-acre green yard waste collection and transfer station. Eligible green yard waste includes acorns, bark, branches, brush, bushes, flowers, foliage, kindling, knots, leaves, limbs, plants, roots/rootballs, sawdust, shrubs, twigs, and wood chips. The site includes a set of truck scales for weighing landscapers’ and contractors’ recycling loads. All the collected material is processed by a third-party vendor into mulch. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection awarded a grant of $225,000 toward the $906,000 cost of land acquisition and construction for this facility. The facility serves residents and visitors from other regional municipalities.
In 2015, town council authorized the Recreation Department to hire an aquatic engineering and design firm to assist staff with evaluation of the municipal pool complex at Memorial Park. Of the three alternatives presented, council selected a complete replacement of the facility and decided to move ahead with borrowing enough money through a dedicated recreation bond issue and pledged to pay off that bond with a new recreation real estate tax.
In September 2016, town council approved the recreation bond sale for $9.75 million to include enough money for the pool project and a number of other park and playground improvement projects throughout the borough. A modern regional aquatic facility is anticipated by 2018. The facility will be run as a separate enterprise of the Borough; a business, just like all the utilities.
These utility, community and environmental projects are the basis for a strong quality of life in our community, says Stonehill, and are a big reason corporations such as TB Woods (www.tbwoods.com), Ventura Foods (www.venturafoods.com), Summit Health (www.summithealth.org) and the Shook Home (www.shookhome.org) have expanded and do business in the area.
Finally, attests Stonehill, the success of the borough has a direct impact on the success of all of Franklin County. Chambersburg is the economic and services hub of the region and the Franklin County Seat. It is the utility provider for neighboring municipalities which enjoy the success of low utility rates and proximity to Chambersburg’s vibrant downtown.
- Population has grown from 17,838 to 20,508 (15% growth) in 2013.
- Budget is the 11th largest in Pennsylvania and the largest borough.
- Few utility rate increases over the last decade including no water rate increase since 2001, no natural gas rate increase since 2013, and no electric rate change since 2014, when the electric rate was lowered for the third time.
- Lowest composite utility bill for customers in Pennsylvania, which has led to economic development and growth.
- Investment in planning, programming, new businesses, public art projects, capital ventures and more. Over $30 million of investment is planned between 2016-2020 for historic downtown Chambersburg. Recently, the Franklin County Government also announced its intentions to evaluate a renovation and/or expansion of the courthouse complex at historic Memorial Square. A recent Public Opinion article describes the impact.
- Public infrastructure projects completed and being planned.
- Downtown vacancy rate has been cut in half since early 2015, from 6% to 3%. And several new businesses have opened or relocated downtown this year.
Stonehill credits civic engagement and an open inclusive grassroots style of local government for the success of the borough. The borough website, www.chambersburgpa.gov, maintains a transparency page where citizens and businesses can find detailed information about government operations. A local radio station, NewsTalk103.7FM, hosts weekly discussions with officials about projects and upcoming meeting agendas for local meetings. Chambersburg prints an annual report, which is mailed to every utility customer (11,000) served by the borough utilities.
“I am blessed that my council and my community respect the value of being a credentialed city manager, and that the value of my participation in organizations such as ICMA and others, can be seen in my daily success in my community.”