Closing State Facilities: Saving Money But Sacrificing Trust

Since Neil Sedaka released “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” in 1962, the song has been covered multiple times.  The tune might be experiencing resurgence as the unofficial anthem of the Wolf administration.   There are heated controversies in several Pennsylvania communities over suddenly announced plans to close state facilities.  Luzerne County is facing a double dose of distress.  When Pennsylvania abandons a state facility, the relationship with the community rarely ends well.

Granted, facilities are generally targeted for legitimate reasons.  State officials operate under a constant imperative for greater cost control.  Philosophies and policies in the particular fields change dramatically, altering cost-benefit ratios.  Older facilities age beyond their useful lives, or no longer affordably meet enhanced safety and efficiency requirements.

When saving money is the primary consideration, closure looks like a pure win for taxpayers.  The state’s footprint shrinks a bit.  Savings can be mined from concentrating state workers.  Overhead is reduced, especially when responsibilities shift to community or private settings.  And for properties that can be given over to alternative uses or private redevelopment, what was once a drain on public coffers now produces some revenue.

Of course, nothing in the contentious world of public governance ever rises to pure win.  There is no visible price-tag hanging from state and local relationships, yet the level of cooperation and trust is worth more than a few farthings.  The costs that ripple across the affected communities and workers are significant and painful, economically and politically.  Depending on the history of the facility and how it came into being, there may be a strong sense of betrayal when closure comes as a bolt from the blue.

Over the years, under different administrations, there have been pushes to spread state facilities across the commonwealth to help bolster local economies and give residents a sense of receiving return on their state taxes.  When the glorious ribbon-cutting ceremony takes place, no one sees a bungee cord attached to the facility.

When closure suddenly looms, the community is at a decided disadvantage in its rescue efforts.  Citizens and local officials must scramble to uncover facts buttressing opposition.  Suspicions and criticisms of state officials and bureaucrats for secret deal-making are reinforced.

Meanwhile, state legislators are put in an impossible position.  It looks as if they were deemed unworthy for consultation.  That negative impression is compounded when state officials barely acknowledge their ardent arguments.  Burned enough times over the years, state legislators put in place a public hearing requirement.  A recent hearing over a prison closing in northeastern Pennsylvania showed in stark relief the shortcomings of holding hearings when state officials do not bother to conceal their lack of interest.  State workers caught in these firefights feel devalued and disrespected.

There is no yellow brick road leading to the emerald city in the closure process.  Still, there seems a right way and a wrong way for going about these things.  State facilities are not all alike.  The situation where only a few state centers remain in operation is different from that of prisons, where a sprawling system is too big and too expensive.

As currently carried out, an air of arrogance pervades the process.  State officials send a coldly clinical message that they made a tough decision and feel put upon to be forced to confront heated opinions and inconvenient facts.  For the locals, a compounding frustration is a governor in his second term is likely less sensitive to community unhappiness.

Although the state invariably indicates some sort of internal review led to the decision to put a facility on the chopping block, this is usually seen as window dressing a foreordained conclusion.  The rump group undertaking it rarely seems to countenance all the complications and costs.

A few years ago, the state listed multiple prisons for potential closure.  Ultimately, just one was mothballed.  There was relief in the communities that dodged calamity.  Some asked: why scare us for no purpose?  The silver lining is that once a solid defense is mustered, it is readily available to deploy against a subsequent threat.

A lot is said these days about partnership, collaboration, and trust as keys to healthy intergovernmental relationships.  Override those, and complications arise.  A pertinent example is a small community undertaking a major sewer system expansion to accommodate the needs of a state facility, with the understanding that the state will pay off its share of the long-term debt.  What will happen when the state pulls up stakes creates abundant local anxiety.

Exploring alternative uses for a building or campus before a closure announcement is publicly made potentially cushions the blow and sustains leverage.  Better to say we discussed all the options and implications but disagree over the conclusion than to concede we rushed a decision and are now surprised to find out what we did not know.  The first route is sure to be unpopular, but the second is unpopular plus haphazard plus resented.

With the exception of the Capitol complex, state facilities come minus any lifetime guarantee.  A state budget that expands in priority places must contract in others, especially in an aggressive anti-tax environment.  Something has to give somewhere.  Nevertheless, an abrupt closure can be staggering for a community that has been a good host and made substantial investments to uphold their end of the bargain.  So the tough challenge for state officials is to explain and justify why a community or region drew the short straw.  A below-board decision makes that nigh impossible.

Naturally, a community on the losing end is always going to feel unfairly targeted and treated.  Fairness dictates that state government owes communities a phase down before the phase out.  Consultation limits the potential for litigation.  The fate of a facility is not the last transaction between state government and the affected communities.  The lingering bad taste from a closing poorly done can sour relationships for years and preclude opportunities.  That sounds like classic lose-lose.

David A. Atkinson is a Research Associate with the Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies at the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.