FILE - PA Curt Topper 9-10-2019

Secretary Curt Topper of Pennsylvania's Department of General Services testifies Sept. 10, 2019, before a joint hearing of the House and Senate State Government committees.

The state of Pennsylvania has been wanting to sell the former Allentown State Hospital property since 2012. The land was appraised at a value of $2.6 million when it was declared as surplus property, but the state so far has been unable to find a buyer.

In the meantime, the total cost of maintaining the property so that it doesn’t fall into disrepair has been $14 million – meaning the state would be something like $11.4 million ahead of where it is now if it had simply given away the property for nothing.

No one is suggesting that the state should give away property, but Secretary Curt Topper of the Department of General Services would like to see some significant changes to the way the state approves sales of surplus properties to try to avoid long-term, multimillion dollar charges for carrying parcels that are no longer of use to the state.

Topper presented a group of proposals Tuesday to a joint hearing of the House and Senate State Government committees, aiming to paint his department’s suggestions as a fiscally responsible attempt to better use taxpayer dollars.

“One of the things we would propose is … to allow the Department of General Services to proceed with property sales in a process that still involves the General Assembly, but rather doesn't require a specific piece of legislation for every single parcel,” Topper said. “Specifically, what we would propose is … the ability to do a ‘best value’ sale and involve the members of the General Assembly who are closest to the property in the determination of which proposal constitutes best value.”

Topper explained that current statutes require DGS to accept the highest bid in a property sale, regardless of the wishes of the local community. So once lawmakers pass a bill that allows the sale of a specific property, there’s no mechanism from that point forward for them to dictate the future use of that land.

The alternate proposal from DGS calls for the passage of legislation that would enable the department to make sales on its own authority, with an unspecified amount of input from the lawmakers who represent the locale of each parcel. Topper expressed repeatedly that he was open to discussions about the role of the lawmakers in the process, but the idea of giving up the Legislature’s current level of oversight seemed to make some of the committee members uncomfortable on Tuesday.

“As [Rep.] Russ Diamond said, … we’re responsible, it's the legislature that's responsible for every dollar that goes out,” said Rep. Cris Dush, R-Brookville. “Because we're holding a gun to the head of every taxpayer and telling them ‘you must pay.’ So we want to make sure that if we're compelling people to pay, using the force of government to compel people to pay, that it's being used wisely.”

Topper was also accompanied by Maj. Edward Hoke of the Pennsylvania State Police in making the presentation. Hoke was advocating specifically for the ability to enter into lease-to-own deals, which he argued would have significant savings and improve flexibility as policing needs change across the state.

“Over the last 10 years, from 2008 through fiscal year 2018, the cost for the Pennsylvania State Police to lease properties at our facilities … has almost doubled, from $10 million to almost $20 million,” Hoke said. “That cost is significant to us because it comes out of our operating budget. … The PSP would be highly in favor of seeing lease-to-own legislation put into place.”

Topper, responding to the discomfort that lawmakers were expressing with the amount of authority that might accrue to his office if all his proposals were implemented, repeatedly signaled a willingness to compromise and find solutions that pleased all parties.

“What we are very anxious to do is to work with the General Assembly to come up with a better system,” Topper said. “It doesn't have to be the system that we propose. We're just looking for a way to do this more efficiently.”

Regional Editor

Dave Lemery is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He was the editor of Suburban Life Media when its flagship newspaper was named best weekly in Illinois, and he has worked at papers in South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York.