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POWERBOOK 2013: Harrisburg receiver's results-driven, pragmatic approach may have put city's past in rear view

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William “Bill” B. Lynch has been receiver for the City of Harrisburg, in the background, since May 2012.
William “Bill” B. Lynch has been receiver for the City of Harrisburg, in the background, since May 2012. - (Photo / Stuart Leask)

There was never going to be one prescription that would eradicate Harrisburg's lingering fiscal pain.

It was always going to take willingness by the primary stakeholders to collaborate and trust the end result would produce enough shared sacrifice to clear the decks and start a new chapter.

A former win-at-all-cost Vietnam War fighter pilot with no background in municipal finance came in to do the job. Receiver William Lynch opted for a problem-solving mentality over one of lengthy litigation to, as he has phrased it, "get the puppies on the paper."

Keeping them there through Commonwealth Court approval of the "Strong Plan" speaks to Lynch's powers of persuasion.

You might not expect that from an adrenaline junkie who loves freefalling and admits patience has never been his strong suit.

"My focus is on getting something done. I'm also convinced that 'perfect' is the enemy of the 'good enough,'" Lynch said. "What we're looking for here is the 'good enough.'"

If the remaining pieces come together — namely, the sale of the incinerator and long-term lease of the city's parking system — Harrisburg's best days might be just over the horizon.

Building trust

Lynch has always said the receiver should never displace city government. And the recovery plan should only tee Harrisburg up for success.

"After the next three to five years, city government has to take this problem on and make it better," he said. "No outsider can do that, as far as I'm concerned."

He has stood by his word. But it did take going to court last year over City Council's failure to increase the earned-income tax rate.

Lynch said he used that mandamus hearing to "really start talking" with city officials, who had frequently been on opposite sides of the fence over many items in the plan. His argument was that an EIT increase was critical to generate revenue, because enough cuts were already being made to try and balance the city's budget.

Judge Bonnie Leadbetter would order the council to make the change before eventually staying it as the receiver's team brokered an agreement with the council to increase the tax on its own for one year. As part of that deal, officials were told they wouldn't have to agree to anything else if the final plan didn't have significant shared pain.

"It was a lot better to work this out," Lynch said. "It takes time to build up a certain amount of trust."

Prior to court approval, council votes on items tied to the plan were nearly all unanimous. Lynch even agreed to an independent financial review of the blueprint to validate it and ease remaining concerns.

"He had choices. He could've gone hard on EIT. He had choices on whether to allow another adviser to come in," said Steven Goldfield, Lynch's chief financial adviser in the development of the plan.

'Still not qualified'

The retired Air Force major general, who spent 40 years in the military and served as adjutant general under three state governors, returned to Harrisburg in May 2012 with his share of critics.

The largest contingent was skeptical of his ability to take on what even Goldfield called a "mess."

Yes, running the state's National Guard meant overseeing a $550 million budget and 22,000 employees. But does that qualify someone to be receiver for a municipality facing crushing incinerator debt and recurring structural deficits?

The city's first receiver, David Unkovic, entered the fray with more than 30 years of municipal finance experience.

"I'm still not qualified, if you will," Lynch said. "I'm no bond lawyer or expert on interest rate swaps."

He credits his progress to being more interested in the solution rather than the process.

Lynch has been successful because of how direct he is and his honesty in admitting what he doesn't know, said Goldfield, who knew nothing about Lynch following Unkovic's resignation.

"He doesn't need to know everything or be smarter than anyone in these fields. He trusts and works with people," said Goldfield. "(But) he knows enough about everything to make informed decisions. He empowers people to do their best."

People person

The numbers in this situation — the first distressed city in Pennsylvania to be placed in receivership — are almost impossible to work out, Goldfield said. The hardest part is actually the people, he said.

That's where Lynch shines, according to those who have worked with him over the years.

"He always said when we were working, 'It's not the problem, it's how you handle the problem,'" said retired Maj. Gen. Jessica Wright, a deputy adjutant general under Lynch who served in the post from 1999 until 2004. "That's very important. A leader can always get mad. That's not a good way to lead, because people will be concerned to bring you issues."

Wright is currently the acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness in Washington, D.C.

Lynch took the job seriously but didn't take himself very serious, she said. He's family-oriented and genuinely cares about people he works with. He listens and doesn't try to dictate, she added.

"He had his ego intact," Wright said. "It wasn't all about him. It was more about the people he served. He fostered that type of attitude."

Lynch is a master of keeping his emotions in check, Goldfield said.

"I think it gets back to his understanding that if you go and try to make this work and get emotional about it, the fighting will continue and it will never get done," he said. "He has remarkable skill at finding out what people need."

And he's giving with his time, Goldfield said. It's common for Lynch to be stopped on the street because of a military connection or someone recognizing him for his current role.

He's also a dog lover — having adopted a state police dog that failed to complete drug training as well as a shelter dog — so he often makes unscheduled stops to chat with owners and their pets, Goldfield said.

"I think it's important to have time for people," Lynch said modestly, as he's also known to help people who are down on their luck.

Lynch said it's gratifying when someone thanks him for his service. And, he admits, he's a bit of a pushover.

Leads from the front

Lynch leads from the front and never asks his staff to do something he hasn't done or couldn't do himself, said state Sen. Robert Robbins, R-Mercer County, who worked with him on issues that came before the Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee.

State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, who worked with Lynch in the Ridge administration, said he's very good at making quick assessments of a situation and determining what steps are necessary to address them.

"If he gave you his word, it was golden," she said.

About William “Bill” B. Lynch

Title: Receiver for the City of Harrisburg since May 2012

Age: 70

Family: Married to Kathleen

Hometown: Hazleton

Education: Bachelor's degree in American literature, Brown University, 1964; law degree from Ohio Northern University, 1976. He also is a graduate of the National War College in Washington, D.C.

Who is your professional hero? "I immediately think of famous fighter pilots. (But) I'd say Colin Powell. I heard him speak to a group of 400 people and then to a group of five. Like Bill Clinton, you feel like he is connecting with you. He is a master. Clinton was charismatic. Powell is like that in a less showy way."

What is the most important thing you do every day? "At my age, get out of bed and get to the gym. I really try and make an effort not to miss more than a couple of days. If I miss two or three days, it's like starting from scratch."

Skydiving history

Harrisburg receiver William Lynch, who retired from the Air Force as a major general, first jumped out of an airplane when he was in college.

Later, when he was the commander of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, he was able to go through jump school.

He would make about 35 military jumps before retiring.

“It’s something every young man should do,” said Lynch, who frequently skydives with his wife, Kathleen.

She has done about 800 jumps.

Lynch also managed to persuade financial adviser Steven Goldfield and his son to go skydiving this summer.

Lynch has 1,000 jumps under his belt and is a licensed skydiving instructor. He also has logged more than 5,000 hours of flight time in his career, having flown 100 combat missions during the Vietnam War. He served with the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing.

Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jasons@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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