What Is the Best Solution to PA’s Balkanized Local Government Problem?

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Great article from Anthony Wood in the Inquirer on Colwyn and other tiny PA towns that are too small to support a government. As I’ve been arguing here frequently, local governments should be focused on cutting budgets through service sharing and organizational reforms, not cuts to service levels. Levels of service can be maintained if politicians are willing to think creatively and dispense with the parochial mentality:

At a time when public money has become ever-scarcer, local-government experts say Colwyn is the kind of town that raises an overwhelming question:

What is a place with only 2,500 people doing with its own government? Wouldn’t it be better off merging with a neighbor so they could share the expenses?

It turns out that the Delaware County borough, jammed between Darby and Sharon Hill, actually is one of the larger municipalities in the Keystone State […]

The median population of a New Jersey municipality is about 22,000; in Pennsylvania, it is 1,900.


The costs of operating all those town halls and paying so many municipal officials and police officers are extracting a price from taxpayers, said Gerald Cross, executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League’s Central Division.

“These local governments are nothing but locally based cash businesses,” said Cross. In towns with dwindling resources, tax bases, and populations, “you just get worse and worse services for higher taxes.”

Several smaller Pennsylvania towns, notably in Berks County, have opted for mergers, an oft-proposed solution. But they are complicated and laborious, said Cross, a merger specialist. They can fall apart for reasons that have nothing to do with government inefficiencies. (He said one failed because the husband of a township official ran off with a prospective merger partner’s secretary.)

Chris Briem has been pointing this out for a while now, and I’ve come around to his view that municipal consolidation – or at least the strategy of going around trying to get groups of 2 or 3 political jurisdictions to agree to merge – is not really a workable strategy.

If you want to actually merge a significant number of municipalities, it’s going to have to come from some kind of state-level action – either something like Gene DiGirolamo’s plan where the state simply dissolves all the municipalities into the 67 counties, or my 5K Plan where the state simply stops recognizing any town under 5000 people as a legally incorporated municipality after a certain date.

The more politically practical plan that Chris has been writing about is for county governments to start offering a menu of municipal services, where municipalities can then contract for services from the county instead of providing them in-house. The idea is that eventually enough municipalities will choose to contract for county services that you’ll start to see some economy of scale. And all the while you’re building the capacity of counties to deliver services, so that if one day people want to try for the DiGirolamo plan in the future, county services aren’t some unknown thing since lots of people would already have a good idea of how that works in practice. That’s the idea behind what they’re doing in Cuyahoga County, OH and in Los Angeles County, CA with the “contract cities” model.

Another possibility is for the PA General Assembly to pass a disincorporation law where voters can elect, via ballot initiative, to disincorporate their municipality and have the county take over service provision to the unincorporated territory. The 1968 PA Constitution gives the General Assembly the power to pass such a law, as well as the power to create and dissolve municipalities at will, but they never have. I think this is a much better idea than the Act 47 rigmarole. Instead of making painful cuts and raising taxes, Harrisburg and Scranton could simply vote to disincorporate and make Dauphin and Lackawanna Counties take over their municipal services.

This could get kind of hairy under the current system, where counties haven’t yet built the institutional capacity to provide municipal services, but under the Cuyahoga/LA contract cities model, counties would already be providing municipal services so it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to start delivering services to the City Formerly Known As Harrisburg.

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