‘Dear Mr. President: I Need Your Help’

Donnor Street in Monessen, Pennsylvania

Donnor Street in Monessen, Pennsylvania Gene J. Puskar / AP File Photo

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The mayor of a small southwestern Pennsylvania town that’s set to run out of money this summer makes an appeal to the White House for assistance and says President Obama “should come into town and look at this damn situation.”

Lou Mavrakis, the mayor of Monessen, Pennsylvania, sent a plea to President Obama earlier this month: “Dear Mr. President,” the mayor wrote. “I need your help.”

“Monessen is my lifelong home. A city that has fallen on hard times, but has so much potential,”  Mavrakis explained in his April 13 letter to the White House, which he read to a reporter by phone on Monday. The city’s problem: “We're honestly on the brink of financial collapse.”

With about 7,500 residents, Monessen is a 2.8 square-mile city in southwestern Pennsylvania, located on the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh. Between 1901 and 1986, Pittsburgh Steel Company, which later became Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., provided economic lifeblood for the community. The mayor says that, at one point, around 8,000 people worked at the local steel plant and about 25,000 lived in town.

Like his father, Mavrakis took a job at the mill. That was after high school. “My brother went to college . . . I went straight to the steel mill. I made more money than my brother ever made," the mayor, now 78, said. He worked at the plant for about 19 years before taking a position with the United Steelworkers union. “Back then,” he noted, “it was a different situation.”

The local steel industry’s collapse, which unfolded about three decades ago, has left Monessen with a withered tax base and a hollowed out economy.

Less than three years into his term, Mavrakis, who ran as a Democrat, finds himself steering a city with nearly $470,000 of its $5 million to $6 million annual budget going toward paying off debt. Debt which, he said, was issued during the previous mayor’s tenure. The borrowed money went toward upgrading fire, police and library facilities, according to the mayor. With a principal of about $7.5 million, he said, it will take another 28 years to pay off, and will amount to $13.5 million with debt service. “It's almost impossible for us to maintain that,” Mavrakis said.

Around July, the mayor estimated, the city will run out of money. After that, he believes Monessen will fall under Pennsylvania’s Act 47, which lays out a financial recovery framework for municipalities facing severe financial distress.

There are about 430 blighted homes and buildings throughout the city, according to Mavrakis, and no money to clean them up. The abandoned and rundown structures have spawned pest problems. “I got people calling me: ‘come and get your goddamned snakes out of my yard, or come and get your damned rats and your rodents,’” the mayor said.

“If ISIS was to come to Monessen, you know what they’d do? They’d keep on going, they'd say someone already bombed the goddamned place,” he added, referring to the so-called Islamic State jihadist group. “That’s how bad it is.”

Mavrakis believes that with a lifeline from the federal government, a few million dollars granted or loaned, Monessen could afford to raze the blighted structures, and get the city to a point where it could attract investment again.

“Nobody's going to invest when you have this much blight,” he said.

One qualm the mayor has is that the United States federal government spends large sums each year on aid and other programs in foreign countries. A common question from his constituents, and one that he asks as well, is why more of that money can’t flow toward towns like Monessen.

“The very communities that built this country are suffering the most,” he said, noting that steel produced in Monessen was used to make Chrysler vehicles for years, and the cable supporting California’s Golden Gate Bridge. Up and down the Monongahela River, he said, “we had steel mills everywhere. They’re all gone. They left the blight. They left everything else behind.”

Mavrakis has not yet received a reply to his letter, which was reported by the Uniontown Herald-Standard on Sunday.

The White House press office did not respond to an inquiry about the letter on Monday.

Monessen’s plight stands in sharp contrast to the economic upswing happening in another city situated on the Monongahela River—Pittsburgh, which is located about 30 miles to the north.

A thriving technology sector is boosting the economy there. And the city is currently one of seven finalists in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, which will grant the winner access to as much as $50 million in funding for innovative street and transit projects.

For Monessen’s city government, transportation innovations are not a top priority at the moment. There are other concerns. A woman recently came to Mavrakis’ office to complain about an abandoned house that was drawing rats to her elderly parents’ home.

The mayor went to visit the elderly couple. “Their house is beautiful, well maintained. There's a goddamn dump right next to them,” he said. An exterminator declined to try to get rid of the rats, saying it was futile with the decaying house next door, and not worth the money.

"What do you tell people like that? That are 90 years old, 92 years old?” the mayor said. “Maintained their house all them years, family grew up and everything . . . Is that the way you want to spend the last hours of your life? Dodging rats coming through your damn house.”

Mavrakis contends that if the city could get some form of federal financial assistance, he would account for every penny of spending, and could turn the town into a showcase for how to execute a successful turnaround. That’s a longshot though, and he knows it. "At least President Obama, or somebody,” he said, “should come into town and look at this damn situation."

Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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