A series of controversies across Pennsylvania involving local governments raises a pressing question: do 2,560 municipalities, 67 counties, 500 school districts, and well over a thousand municipal authorities create costly redundancies and decrease transparency, citizen involvement, and effective oversight?
Pennsylvania has more units of municipal government than almost any other state. This creates a dense web of bureaucracy that is difficult for citizens to navigate and hold accountable. Is Pennsylvania’s system of local government in need of reform?
This question doesn’t include Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or Scranton, which are Pennsylvania’s only First, Second, and SecondA Class cities, respectively. While those municipalities have their own issues, they operate under a unique set of laws.
Instead, this is about the 55 cities, 964 boroughs, and 1,547 townships that 11 million Pennsylvanians call home.
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Pennsylvania’s system of local government is designed so all residents live within one municipality and county. Only public land, state and federal, does not reside within a municipality. The state incorporates municipalities, which means Harrisburg is where they are born and where they get their authority from. All municipal governments, therefore, must follow state laws that dictate their operations.
Pennsylvania has four classes of municipalities that share common features:
- Cities often have larger populations and midsized land masses. On average, Third Class cities have a population of approximately 22,500 residents, are 7.5 square miles, and have 180 full- or part-time municipal employees.
- Boroughs tend to be geographically small, highly dense towns. This is evidenced by an average of 2,600 residents, 1.5 square miles, and nineteen full- or part-time employees.
- Townships are typically geographically large rural or suburban communities. It is not uncommon for one township to encircle one or more boroughs. First Class townships have larger populations, averaging 17,800 residents, 10.5 square miles, and 96 full or part-time employees. Second Class townships are usually rural, averaging 3,900 residents, 28.5 square miles, and sixteen full- or part-time employees.
This thicket of local government means neighboring communities can duplicate municipal services despite being a few miles away. Some municipalities lack enough residents to effectively govern themselves. SpotlightPA recently detailed how these problems can tangibly impact a community.
Spotlight reported on how Tioga Borough, with a population of 700, struggled to fill its sole position for a full-time police officer. Eventually, that position was filled by a former Ohio police officer who was involved in the controversial killing of Tamir Rice. Borough officials failed to vet the officer. The resulting rift in the community nearly led to the collapse of Tioga’s municipal government.
Tioga Township, which has a little more than 900 residents, surrounds Tioga Borough. Two municipal governments exist for fewer than 1,600 residents.
Having a large number of sparsely-populated, resource-poor (in both fiscal and technical terms) municipal governments keeps communities from securing federal and state funds. A recent Governing article noted that the newly enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act “contained $550 billion in new spending,” including “$210 billion… in competitive and discretionary grants.” Many municipalities will struggle to access these grants since “most competitive grants will also require a twenty percent non-federal match, which smaller cities and communities may struggle to produce.”
The article goes on to note, “If federal agencies judge applicants by their capacity to draft and execute complex and resource-intensive projects, areas with smaller populations and smaller tax bases may suffer. Those with larger budgets, more public employees, and richer civic networks receive more and larger federal grants.”
A solution to these problems is to consolidate or merge municipalities, which Pennsylvania law currently allows. For example, Saint Marys, located in Elk County, successfully created a new Class Three city when Saint Marys Borough consolidated with surrounding Benzinger Township in 1994. However, mergers and consolidations are rare. A long-proposed consolidation between Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg Borough recently failed, despite the fact that it would boost Pittsburgh’s declining population and Wilkinsburg’s declining tax base.
An official who works closely with the Pennsylvania General Assembly on local government affairs was asked to comment on Pennsylvania’s system of mergers and consolidations. The official stated that “the perception is that any given merger or consolidation is often perceived as a healthy municipality adopting an unhealthy municipality.” As a result, “it is far more likely that the healthy municipal population will be resistant to the merger or consolidation. This, coupled with the fact that Pennsylvania has a long tradition of local identity and town pride, makes folks approach mergers with caution at best. The prospect of forced mergers has been discussed and almost universally resisted for decades.” The official asked not to be named.
Evidence aside, the system Pennsylvania has is the system Pennsylvanians want.
No recent controversy involving municipal government better captures the weaknesses of the existing system than the ongoing drama in the City of Dubois. Located in rural Clearfield County, Dubois has a population of 7,500. In March, the Office of Attorney General brought several charges against former City Manager Herm Suplizio for allegedly stealing approximately $600,000 from public accounts. The allegations question whether municipal governments have proper internal controls and oversight from their elected councils.
Michael Clement, a resident of Dubois with experience working on election campaigns, was asked what the ongoing situation in his hometown says about Pennsylvania’s system of local government. “Unfortunately, I think it says a lot, not so much about the system, but just about how much we, the people, do not truly pay attention to what our local officials are doing until something comes to light that really gets our attention. We vote for our elected officials, but rarely do we go and question them or give them any kind of feedback, either positive or negative, about the job they are doing.”
The charges brought against Mr. Suplizio halted yearslong efforts to consolidate Dubois with neighboring Sandy Township. When asked if he still supports consolidations and mergers, Mr. Clement said, “I personally totally support consolidation as long as it is done with the main goal of saving taxpayers money. The whole point of consolidation must be to cut down on duplicated government services and costs while still providing the best service to both communities.”
One proposed solution for reforming municipal government is to transfer additional responsibilities and authorities to county government. John Brenner, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, which is an association of Pennsylvania’s Class Three cities, was contacted for his opinion on this idea. He responded, “County governments are already strained for precious resources as it is.”
The official who works with the General Assembly was also asked about this proposed solution. This individual expressed skepticism since “counties that are not governed by a home rule charter are more akin to an administrative arm of the state… not like municipal corporations with typical police power.”
The official specified that counties that adopt home rule charters could take on typical municipal responsibilities and offered Allegheny County as an example. However, like municipal consolidations and mergers, adopting a home rule charter is a complicated, multiyear process that requires tremendous political willpower.
Evidence indicates Pennsylvania’s system of local government fails its residents. However, solutions can come from only two sources: voters within a municipality or the General Assembly. Regarding the General Assembly, Mr. Clement stated, “Harrisburg should absolutely encourage consolidations, but they won’t. They do not want to put their own jobs at risk, so it’s not worth them speaking up on issues that have the potential to get voters worked up and then face their wrath.”
As for local reform, stubborn parochial interests often frustrate efforts within a community. The anonymous official stated, “To put it simply, many Pennsylvanians like the idea of seeing the person responsible for their water, sewer, parks, and police in the supermarket every week.” Evidence aside, the system Pennsylvania has is the system Pennsylvanians want.
Seth Higgins has served as an interim City Councilman in Saint Marys and as Elk County’s Chief Clerk.