Why PA’s Urban Areas Can’t Have Nice Things

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A few comments on this post noted that school district consolidation at the county level wouldn’t do anything for Philadelphia, and that’s true. Philly already has a countywide school district.

But this gets at the political problem with having varied state classes for different types of urban areas, each with their own bespoke enumerated powers. This must-read intro to PA municipal government from the evil PSATS explains how it works:

In 1895, when some cities were growing rapidly, the state assigned them to four population classes. These classifications, which still exist today, allow the General Assembly to pass laws for cities according to their population:

• First Class – 1 million or more
• Second Class – 250,000 – 999,999
• Second Class A – 80,000 – 249,999
• Third Class – cities with a population of less than 250,000 that have not elected to become a city of the second class A.

These designations delineate different powers to the different subgroups, which creates hurdles for them to coordinate broadly on legislative responses to urban problems.

It’s hard to get politicians in Philadelphia to care about the school district consolidation issue, and other issues that only second class (and second class A!) and third class cities are having, because they aren’t affected by them personally.

But it’s critical to understand that some of the constraints on second and third class city powers really hobble their ability to fix some of their own problems and become places that people want to live. This is turn diminishes the clout of urban areas generally in Harrisburg, and that comes back to bite Philly in the medium to long run.

What we need to get better urban policy from Harrisburg is a long coalition of central city, borough, and first-ring suburban lawmakers to come together and identify issues of mutual interest to work on such as:

- more transit funding
- more pedestrian and bike infrastructure funding
- fair school funding formula
- one percent sales tax option for all municipalities
- poured alcohol tax option for all municipalities
- splite-rate property tax option for all municipalities
building code reform
- rental housing subsidies
- reversing the Township Tax Grab of 1965
- municipal consolidation and service sharing incentives
- binding authority for Municipal Planning Organization recommendations
- and of course defunding PSATS

This entry was posted in Economic Development, Economy, Land Use, Transportation.

2 Responses to Why PA’s Urban Areas Can’t Have Nice Things

  1. Tim says:

    The idea of city classes makes sense in principle, but it is structured solely to pass special laws for (heh, or against) Philly and Pittsburgh.

    First class cities: Philadelphia (1.5M)
    Second class cities: Pittsburgh (305K)
    Second class A cities: (Not sure if they have “applied”) Allentown (118K), Erie (101K), Reading (88K)

  2. What we need to do is break PA up into different states. Seriously. It’s just too wide an array of people and wants and needs. There’s no need for it.