Burns: Celebrating Johnstown’s ‘municipal excellence’ premature

Letter sent to DCED secretary ahead of Thursday visit

EBENSBURG, Nov. 27 – In advance of state Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Rick Siger’s scheduled Thursday appearance in Johnstown to bestow a “Municipal Excellence Award” to celebrate “a city on the rise,” state Rep. Frank Burns has sent Siger a letter saying such celebration is premature.

As supporting documentation, Burns, D-Cambria, also shipped Siger a 91-page, SAMHSA ReCAST federal grant application that recites many unfavorable statistics that Burns said show little reason for celebration.

“As the state representative whose district includes Johnstown, my definition of ‘municipal excellence’ must be based on far different criteria than what you and your department’s executive team used to make this determination,” Burns wrote.

“Anyone who has followed the news for the past year is aware of the depth and breadth of serious problems plaguing Johnstown – and it is way premature to say there has been ‘municipal excellence’ in terms of serious and effective efforts to solve them.”

Highlighted in Burns’ letter, for Siger’s personal and professional perusal, were several real-world descriptions of Johnstown’s unsolved problems from the grant application, including:

  • Johnstown’s status as “the poorest city in Pennsylvania,” with a poverty rate of 38.7%, more than three times Pennsylvania’s 12.8% rate; where 43.8% of households receive food stamps, more than triple the 13.2% state and 12.2% national recipiency rates; and where a relative surplus of public housing is one of the main suspected drivers of such a high poverty rate.
  • Johnstown as a place that “has reached a peak of community trauma in the past 24 months as a massive transfer of extremely low-income, transient public housing residents and families have sought safe and affordable housing in Johnstown public housing complexes, which has an overabundance of public housing units available.”
  • The community fallout from the above trend “has caused the Cambria County and Johnstown public health, social services, educational and law enforcement systems to come to the point of collapse, and brought a genuine humanitarian crisis to this small, rural community.”
  • In the 2020-21 school year, Greater Johnstown School District, with a total student enrollment of 3,023, had 800 transient students. Behavioral issues, including truancies and expulsions, as a result of the 25% transient population hinder the learning experience of all students. Local human service providers absorb the financial burden of this phenomenon due to the vast need of these high-risk individuals (mainly single mothers, extended family, and children) moving for a temporary duration with few belongings or community connections.

Burns separately noted to Siger that 97% of Johnstown school district students are economically disadvantaged and receiving free or reduced lunches; the city’s homeless shelters are overflowing, with homeless families forced to shelter in downtown hotels; the city this year lost its only downtown grocery store and pharmacy; the state has decided to move the public assistance office out of the city to Upper Yoder Township, losing another 40-plus jobs; and the Johnstown Public Safety Building has over four feet of water in its basement, creating a public health hazard. 

“Instead of addressing these issues, Johnstown officials recently made the decision to spend $6 million to $8 million of their federal COVID-19 American Rescue Plan funds to completely reconstruct Central Park,” Burns noted.

Burns also informed the DCED secretary, “Unless there is real, documentable progress on these and many other issues, a ‘feel-good’ award from your office amounts to nothing more than a participation trophy, as Johnstown needs way more than a plaque on the wall to fix its deep-rooted problems.

“After your window-dressing celebration of ‘Johnstown, a community where government, nonprofits, businesses and residents are driving the momentum for transformative change’ is over, I welcome the opportunity to meet with you and your executive team, to seriously discuss and formulate real plans to address the city’s problems.”