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College Student Becomes City Treasurer, Takes on $317 Million Debt

Comstock/Thinkstock(HARRISBURG, Pa.) -- When John Campbell finished class Tuesday at Lebanon Valley College, he had a busy day ahead of him.

In addition to a full course load, the 23-year-old student is juggling two jobs. He is executive director of a nonprofit, and he also just took office as the elected treasurer of Harrisburg, Pa., no small challenge given that the city of 50,000 is saddled with a $317 million debt. Harrisburg's annual budget is about $53 million.

Campbell hit the ground running after taking office Jan. 3. He boldly backed the city's attempt to file for bankruptcy, though it was ultimately dismissed by a U.S. bankruptcy judge. And he opposed the sale of the city's parking garages, against giving up the major cash they generate.

As if wading into the political fray of a struggling city strapped for cash wouldn't be challenge enough for just about any newbie, Campbell also has to deal with concerns about his age and inexperience.

To make matters worse, he looks even younger than he is; he jokes that he "looks like a 12-year-old."

"The initial reaction is, 'How old are you and what are you doing? How did you get to this?'" Campbell said of his reception from colleagues in city government. "But when they get down to it and see what I'm doing, and what I've already done, the reaction totally changes. It starts as caution and the end result is one that is hopeful."

Campbell's resume is hardly ordinary for a man of his age. He has an associate's degree and is hoping to complete his bachelor's degree by 2013, with a double major in business administration and economics. In addition to taking classes and working full-time, he's also served on a number of committees in his community, including as treasurer of some smaller community groups.

But he is not afraid to admit that tackling Harrisburg's big debt is on a whole other playing field.

"It's a challenge, but not one that is insurmountable," Campbell said. "What the community and the constituents were looking for was someone with new ideas and a young face. Regardless of where you come from in terms of experience, there's a learning curve, so I'm coming into the office with an understanding of that and an open mind."

Just three weeks into his new job, Campbell is already receiving positive feedback from colleagues.

City Council President Wanda Williams had worked with Campbell previously and encouraged him to make a run for office.

"He's enthusiastic about being in that position," Williams told ABC News. "He's ambitious and wants to make sure what he does is right."

Williams, who has worked in city government for 22 years -- almost as long as Campbell has been alive -- said her colleagues have been "very accepting" of Campbell.

In addition to his colleagues serving in the city's government, Campbell also will have to win over a state-appointed receiver, David Unkovic, who controls how the city's tax dollars are spent.

Unkovic was appointed to manage the city finances after Harrisburg was unable to provide a financial stability plan to the state due to disagreements between city council and the mayor, Campbell said.

"The receiver has been working with city officials and everyone interested in seeing the city succeed," Unkovic's spokesman Steve Kratz told ABC News. "He looks forward to working with John Campbell as well as other city officials to develop a fiscal recovery plan to get this city back on track."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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