Our view: Harrisburg needs to fix municipal government system

November 19th, 2017 3:48 pm

The Pennsylvania Economy League performed a valuable, if thankless, job in gauging the level of financial distress for 2,388 local governments statewide.

“Valuable” because this is exactly the kind of tedious number crunching needed to expose weaknesses not only in individual municipalities, but in the whole antiquated municipal government system used in Pennsylvania.

“Thankless” because too few people will take the time to give it even a cursory review, and those that do look at it and could take action based on are unlikely to do so.

One of the biggest reasons for the latter is that big number of governments: 2,388 of them across the state. As many who live in our municipal-rich county know, having lots of little governments creates lots of little fiefdoms with lots of political leaders eager to protect their own turfs and exploit their own power for personal gain.

Locally, the findings weren’t that much of a surprise if you’ve been watching demographic, shopping and business trends for the last half-century.

More densely-populated cities and municipalities — once the epicenters of commerce and entertainment precisely because they had so many people in so small a space — are among the most distressed. More suburban areas once too remote and undeserved by infrastructure — Harveys Lake, Bear Creek Township, Mountain Top and Sugarloaf and Valley townships — have boomed as people moved to the wooded developments with roomy houses and big yards.

The problem, as PEL Executive Director Gerald Cross pointed out during a presentation of the report, is that those dense cities and boroughs lose population and thus tax base, but don’t lose all the costly infrastructure needed when they were in full boom

“When people move out, they do not take the streets, the sewers, the houses with them,” Cross said.”They take their wealth. They take the tax base with them. They leave behind the legacy cost of older infrastructure, older requirements, older homes and the services that have been in place for years to pay for them.”

Cross and PEL Spokeswoman Lynne Shedlock offered three common-sense changes the state could make to adapt to the times. Of course, being common sense solutions means Harrisburg has ignored them for years and almost certainly will continue to do so.

First, rewrite the laws limiting municipal taxing options. Give cities, boroughs and townships flexibility in levying taxes to suit their situations.

Second, loosen the laws regarding regional cooperation. In fact, rewrite the rules to encourage things like regional police forces and sharing of expensive equipment and services.

Third, stop letting municipalities forego the cost of local police departments without paying for reliance on State Police coverage.

The report shows the state municipal government system is broken, and that’s on Harrisburg. There are some relatively simple fixes, and they would benefit the entire state by helping distressed municipalities recover. State lawmakers need to see that need.