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Skin deep





































Lessons of history lost in
Harrisburg's deepening bond debt crisis

Martin Luther King would not only support
Harrisburg's sanitation workers

He'd speak out against the inequities
of the bond industry and elected officials
who want to take those meager jobs away

Forty-five years ago, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King stepped out onto a balcony of a budget hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, and was gunned down.

What was Dr. King doing in Memphis?

Fighting City Hall: Memphis sanitation workers on display at National Civil Rights Museum (top), and the Martin Luther King, Jr., City Government Center in Harrisburg, PA

He was there to support striking sanitation workers and garbage collectors, who'd been long victimized by racial and economic inequality. The garbage collectors were attempting to join AFSCME, the American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees.

So it was both sad and ironic, last week, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when the city's first African American mayor, Linda Thompson, announced plans to seek bids to privatize the beleaguered city's sanitation and garbage collection operations.

The mayor's announcement means scores of older garbage collectors, unionized in AFSCME, may soon be laid off in Harrisburg. They'll be the latest victims of a deepening economic crisis (some say crime) that has only been addressed, well, skin deep.

There's no doubt the city is broke. It's been hobbled by 3o years of fast and loose bond financing that's run up upwards of $2 billion in bond debt against the city and its schools.

So things aren't looking so good from the mayor's city hall office, whose address happens to be the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., City Government Center, located just off a street once named Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

'Not 1968'

"It sure is crazy, and it sure isn't 1968," Dave Fillman, executive director of the local AFSCME chapter tells me. His union is in talks with the broke city's receiver, he says. He doesn't sound too optimistic he can save many of those garbage jobs.

"I don't know if you can actually blame the mayor, or the city," he says, almost with a sigh. "It's part of the Act 47 procedure, to privatize, slash spending, and save money."

What usually happens in these cases, these days, he tells me, is that "a private outfit will lowball a bid to win the contract for three years. After three years they come back and say, 'our costs have increased, and we have to raise our rates.'"

By that time, he points out, the municipality has already laid off and lost its public trash collectors, sold its trash trucks, and destroyed its public works buildings and infrastructure. The city has no choice but to accept to the privateers' demands.

That's certainly what seems to be what's happening here, as the plan unfolds from the receiver's office, and the Martin Luther King City Government Center.

The Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority's executive director says his agency's purchase of the Harrisburg incinerator hinges on the purchase of the Harrisburg Public Works Building, headquarters of the garbage men.

The building will be razed and the grounds used to bury ash from the troubled incinerator, the exec says. He's in tough negotiations to please potential bond investors.

The receiver also points out that the Lancaster Authority is at the table in discussions to privatize Harrisburg's sanitation collection.

By floating those bonds -- more bonds on top of the bad bonds that have already been floated -- the Lancaster Authority is like a suitor who brings a hundred and some million dollars to the table.

Call it the New Golden Rule: He Who Has the Gold, Makes the Rules.

The rule lately holds much sway over Pennsylvania, and our nation.

'Moral bankruptcy'

But there's an older Golden Rule, one which Rev. King was well acquainted with, and, as much as anything, he laid down his life for.

King didn't have to go to Memphis, we should remember. Some around him advised him against going to Memphis in April 1968. There were other battles, bigger battles, more important battles, than these garbage men in Memphis, they told King. And it was getting ugly, and violent.

It's worth remembering: Martin King had no access to the offices of power in Memphis in 1968. The only welcoming papers Memphis town fathers drew up for Martin King was a court order to have him jailed, should he and others decide to peacefully march.

Had he lived, and come to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania last week, in 2013, I have no doubt where Dr. King would come down on the issue of these sanitation workers losing their jobs as a result of the greed of bond sellers, their investors, and the foolishness of politicians.

But our Dr. King was never one to dwell for long on the surface, or the skin-deep issue.

He would surely look at the big picture. He'd look beneath the surface, and discuss the root cause of the problem.

He would speak, I'm sure, on issues no elected official yet has addressed in Harrisburg:

For nearly 30 years, Harrisburg's officials foolishly worked for the bond industry, not the citizens. Rather than raise taxes, and live within the city's means, Harrisburg officials floated and swapped bonds, and in turn were rewarded with political contributions from the fattened bond industry.

'Rather than raise taxes, and live within the city's means, Harrisburg officials floated and swapped bonds, and were rewarded with politicial contributions from the fattened bond industry.'

Thirty years of this not only bankrupted the city.

It removed the public from understanding what was going on, from participating in the most basic commerce of their city: to have a voice in how their town is run, how services are provided, and paid for.

Now that city is bankrupt, pushed today even further underwater by these same politically connected bond traders.

Martin King surely would speak out against the resulting great inequities we now see in a city where its people are held hostage by these irresponsible investors, and officials.

What, in the final measure, were they investing in, he'd ask? The bankruptcy of the city and the hopelessness of generations of young people with no future? That's a bitter fruit.

King would look at the schools of Harrisburg and wonder why it is that these schools now are $500 million in debt to the bondholders, when school officials cannot afford to give many of the children pencils, or books.

He'd wonder about the inequities of the children in the city's schools having no education, and no future, while the children of the wealthy in the same county, living in homes just a few miles away, have good schools, a good education, and a future.

He'd wonder why the bondholders and the politicians insist on a future for themselves, and their kids, at a cost of taking away the future of this city of fifty thousand.

He'd wonder aloud what sort of town, and what sort of school, this was.

He'd point out there is a bankruptcy of the coffer. But there's also a moral bankruptcy. A financial bankruptcy can be fixed with money. A moral bankruptcy can only be addressed by each of us, in our hearts.

I'm certain Dr. King would support Harrisburg's sanitation workers, who now face losing their jobs, even as the lawyers for the bond industry are making hundreds of dollars an hour, or more, as they take those meager jobs away from them, and their families.

The sanitation workers in Memphis were Martin King's last earthly concern.

On April 4, 1968, Andrew Young, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, met with a judge to work out an agreement to allow a protest march for the Memphis sanitation workers.

That evening, forty-five years ago, as they were getting ready to go to dinner, Young told King about protest plans for the sanitation workers.

Moments later, Martin Luther King stepped onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Then he belonged to the ages.



-- Bill Keisling
posted April 4, 2013



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