Sunday, September 25, 2016

Harrisburg officials have been trying for months to jumpstart cleanup on a wall that collapsed next to the Mulberry Street Bridge.

Months after wall collapse, tire shop owner prepares for winter on his own terms
Posted 9:23 PM, September 20, 2016, by Felix Rodrigues Lima

HARRISBURG, Pa. - It's been more than four months since a wall adjacent to the Mulberry Street Bridge collapsed, and with no resolution in sight, the owner of the tire shop where much of the debris from the collapse fell is ramping up preparations for the winter months.

"One of our greatest problems is that all the water that runs off that hill when it rains comes through my building and drowns us," Howard Henry, owner of Howard Tire & Auto, said.

The water collects on the floor of his warehouse when it rains, and seeps down into his shop.

"We're still in a place where we can't do anything to that hill at all until somebody takes responsibility for it," he said.

The warehouse was condemned by the city in June, along with the McFarland building at the top of the hill, although that was appealed by the owners of the McFarland.

The condemnation was supposed to set the stage for a hearing to be held by the city's Building and Housing Code Board of Appeals last week, but it had to be postponed because only two members of the board showed up and a minimum of three were needed for the hearing to go on. Two other members had excused absences, and the fifth seat on the board is vacant.

"I just don't know how you enforce something and issue fines and say there's a hearing on September 15th and not take the steps to be prepared for that hearing," Henry said, frustrated about the bureaucracy.

Efforts by FOX43 to reach several city officials Tuesday were unsuccessful, and many questions continue to remain unanswered about how to resolve the issue.

"I'm just at this place where I'm looking around and I'm wondering if I have to go through the winter like this," Henry said. "And everyone's okay with it, except me, of course."

And that's why he's taking matters into his own hands.

A few weeks ago, Henry began work on a modified drainage system of sorts that may be the best bet to limit further weather damage as the seasons change.

With a team of employees and volunteers, he stabilized the roof and devised a plan to collect runoff from any precipitation this winter. The plan is to use rubber to cover the debris pile.

"Off that hill, we're going to lay the rubber and it's going to look like a great big funnel washing the water right straight into this," he said, pointing to a structure that looks like an oversized gutter.

That gutter will carry precipitation that lands on the collapsed area to a ten-inch pipe, which leads to a storm drain.

It's a project that he says has set him back tens of thousands of dollars, and he's unsure if he will ever be able to recoup that money. One positive development is that Henry's insurance provider is finally working with him after it denied his initial claim. It opted to review its decision after the second collapse at the site.

It's also unknown how long it will take to ultimately resolve this.

"I'm told that it could be years," he said, pausing. "It's really hard to wrap my


HARRISBURG—Harrisburg officials have been trying for months to jumpstart cleanup on a wall that collapsed next to the Mulberry Street Bridge.

The city cited the owner of The McFarland apartments that lost its parking lot in the May 5 collapse and condemned a portion of the apartment building.

But last week, it was a city board that stalled the case.

The Building and Housing Code Board of Appeals postponed a hearing on condemnation because it could not muster a quorum.

The five-member board has four appointed members and two had personal or medical reasons that made it impossible to attend the hearing.

If the board had been fully populated, the hearing likely could have continued as planned with the minimum three members to equal a quorum.

The situation illustrates one of the challenges facing some municipalities: finding qualified volunteers to fill boards and commissions.

"It's always been difficult to find people who are willing to serve and volunteer their time," said Kirk Petroski, who's been the city clerk for seven years. "Some boards are more hands-on and require more time than others. It can be hard to find new people, different names instead of the same small group of people who volunteer."

When Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse took office in 2014, many of the city's dozen or more boards had empty seats that needed to be filled. The Building Code Appeals board, for example, had three vacancies.

The mayor has since filled two slots with council approval but city officials have not been able to identify a third volunteer with construction or building codes experience to appoint. City officials would like to fill the position before next month, to better ensure the hearing rescheduled for Oct. 20 can proceed.

"As long as this is tied up, I can't cite on the condemnation order," said Art Emerick, the city's assistant codes administrator.

Prior to this year, the board hadn't met but once since 2011 because only one appeal had been filed with the city. But this year, there have been three appeals filed, including the one by the owner of The McFarland apartments.

Other vacancies the city is trying to fill quickly before stumbling into quorum issues include two seats on the Historical Architectural Review Board. Papenfuse put forth the name of one volunteer in March, Ron Boston, a lobbyist who lives in uptown. But the nomination stalled. It has not made it into a council committee for a hearing.

City officials are looking for volunteers with experience in history and architecture.

Anyone interested in volunteering for either board should contact Petroski at or the mayor's administrative assistant, Cathy Hall, at

Meanwhile, the city council is considering resurrecting at least two other inactive boards, including a Human Relations Commission and a Police Advisory Committee. The city's Human Relations Commission alone would require nine volunteers, preferably some with experience in arbitration or mediation.

The exact makeup of the Police Advisory Committee is still being considered. City Councilman Cornelius Johnson said he wants to stage a series of meetings across the city to determine what would work best for Harrisburg.

City Council also is looking to revamp the Environmental Advisory Committee. The committee collapsed earlier this year amid friction and disagreements with four out of five members resigning.

The majority of the five-member volunteer board resigned this week, citing hostilities and personal attacks. The board is supposed to advise the city of Harrisburg on environmental issues.

The new committee, under proposed legislation introduced Monday night, would comprise seven members appointed by council. Under the previous model, both the mayor and council appointed members.

Council President Wanda Williams has pledged to reappoint Rafiyqa Muhammad, the only remaining member of the previous EAC. Other resigning board members cited Muhammad's behavior as among the reasons they quit.

Muhammad declined to comment at the time but Williams said Muhammad had priorities that "didn't sit well with the other members," but they should have at least heard her out.

The city also is responsible for filling seats on the board of Capital Region Water. Papenfuse tried earlier this year to fill the expired seat of Bill Cluck by appointing

Charla Plaines, but her nomination became embroiled in a dispute as Cluck fought to retain his seat.

A tie vote by Harrisburg council members Tuesday night on the appointment of Charla Plaines to the Capital Region Water board means Bill Cluck can hang on to his seat at least a few weeks longer.

Council members unanimously criticized the process that played out and said it could discourage volunteers from stepping forward if they could become political footballs.

"Now that you're becoming a pubic official, people may try to tear you down or dig up things on you that may not have any relevance to the position you're seeking to hold," said Councilman Westburn Majors. "I had people confuse me with my deceased father when I was appointed to CRW (in 2010) and it's unfortunate in the climate we live in."

Majors said it's important for the city's future success to encourage more volunteers to step forward.

"The goal is to get more qualified people to participate in our democracy and the city," he said, "because I think the biggest concern is it's always the same people serving on different boards, instead of new names and new voices."

To that end, Petroski and Deputy City Clerk Lance Claiborne are assembling a description of the city's active boards, qualifications and vacancies to post on the city council website.

"We're trying to make the information more available," Petroski said.