TELL THE average longtime resident of Hazleton, Nanticoke, Pittston or Wilkes-Barre they live in a third-class city and the reaction often is visceral. Who're you calling third class?
The sense of insult is as understandable as it is misplaced. As a story in Sunday edition of The Times Leader pointed out, by state law, a city's class is determined by population. It was never intended to be judgmental, merely size-descriptive.
But it has become judgmental. The class system determines what mandates – such as providing police and fire protection – a city must follow, and what options it has in fulfilling mandates.
There was a time when basing such mandates on population made some sense. Cities grew because they were the only places providing many social, cultural and financial options, from movie theaters to banks, to well-stocked stores. But those days are gone.
Modern roads, communications and business methods dissolved such differences. Businesses could set up in more rural – and roomy – townships or boroughs and get along just fine. Cities hollowed out; wealth fled.
The city-class system has become archaic. It has created unfair competition between cities and neighboring municipalities. Pittston has 7,732 people. Hazle Township has more than 9,000. Pittston is required to have a police force; Hazle Township gets free coverage from state police. There is neither equity nor logic in that.
The best idea: Harrisburg radically revamps state municipal codes. Second choice: The state covers more of the city services it mandates. Neither is remotely likely.
But a new, third alternative launched by State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Johnstown, is doable. Wozniak proposed forming a legislative third-class city caucus. Senators and representatives who serve the state's 53 third-class cities can meet, discuss problems and work toward solutions. Many area legislators are on board.
Such a caucus could wield some clout. They may also find that successes in one city could transfer or be modified into successes in other cities.
And lest those living in prosperous municipalities think this isn't about them, remember: Cities are not encased in geodesic domes. A healthy city helps all neighbors; city crime and decay never respect artificial boundaries.