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Cross-posted from Lehigh Valley Independent

Pennsylvania's fractured system of 2566 local governments creates a strong and counterproductive incentive for municipalities to compete with each other for revenue instead of cooperate.

It is in the interest of each one to be the very last unconsolidated town, so it can entice new businesses with a comparatively lower tax rate.

Because of this incentive, no board of township supervisors is going to vote to dissolve their own political power and consolidate local government at the county level.

Municipal consolidation is simply not possible on a voluntary basis, as defined by votes at the level of the municipality or the county. It must happen, all at once, in Harrisburg, or it's not going to happen at all.

Lastly, any path to actually getting it done runs up against the political power of PSATS, who would necessarily cease to exist if we dissolved township-level governance.

I'm not really interested in debating the merits of municipal consolidation in this post. I want to hear from the people who both want this to happen, and believe there's a way to make it happen. From those people, I want to know:

What is the political game plan? What elections need to be won, and which incumbents need to be replaced?

What is the political message?

What can be done to make elected officials fear being beaten in the next election if they aren't on board with regional planning and governance?

Can the pension problem be used as a vehicle for municipal consolidation and tax base sharing?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Originally posted to oohdoiloveyou on Wed Aug 04, 2010 at 06:17 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Three observations (0+ / 0-)
    1. People seem to like their local governments, at least around here.  So I wouldn't push it too hard.  Eliminating the election of judges and most "county row" offices is a much bigger priority for me.
    1. In those cases where inefficiencies translate into unnecessarily high taxes, you can count on voters to look sympathetically at consolidation.  If we don't see too much of that, maybe the inefficiencies aren't what we imagined.
    1. Maybe counties should do more--that way we could honor the parochialism of everyone wanting their tiny (or at least tiny-population) township, but pick up some efficiencies in purchasing and operations.
    •  The goal is tax base sharing (0+ / 0-)

      A political campaign for this would lead with the kind of efficiencies you're talking about, but those are really a stalking horse for tax base sharing. The problem is that rich people are able to segregate themselves in certain municipalities, and the effect is more sprawl (since more money flows away from the urban cores), inequality in school funding, and a constant state of competition for businesses between municipalities.

      •  School districts have been consolidated (0+ / 0-)

        We still have too many of them (501, I think), but in the 1960s we had over 2000.  There are relatively few single-jurisdiction school districts anymore, at least when it comes to small jurisdictions.  So to my mind that's a separate issue.

        I think the business-luring aspect of small and fragmented jurisdictions is overstated, since so much economic activity in so-called Pennsyltucky is site-specific.  I can't put my mine in Township B, however low their taxes are, if the stuff to be mined is in Township A.  As for residential segregation, that happens almost everywhere and it's no worse in PA than elsewhere; it even happens in places like Texas, where cities have (as I understand it) unusual powers to gobble up suburbs.

  •  The catch (0+ / 0-)

    Tax base sharing could mean simply revenue sharing among existing municipalities in an economically integrated but unequal region.  Think Minnesota.  Think in particular the Twin Cities Metro Council area or, in the northeastern iron-ore mining region, the Taconite Assistance Area.  In both cases, the revenue sharing enables a fairly consistent region-wide provision of public services within existing government boundaries.

    Or, it can mean consolidation.  Here is where the pitfalls arise.  First question.  Do you consolidate all governments?  Maybe you do, as in Jacksonville, Florida, where the city, the school district and most of Duval County are contiguous.  Trouble with that one is they've created a permanent Republican majority that isn't all that interested in the inner city precincts.  Or maybe you just consolidate the city government, as in Indianapolis or Louisville.  Even worse, because then you put suburban dwellers in control of city politics without the responsibility of the big tax liability (i.e. schools).  This is one reason Des Moines, Iowa, voters balked on a similar consolidation plan.  Such has been the American experience with government consolidation.

    It need not necessarily be that case if you were to pursue comprehensive statewide reform.  But the political challenges of getting that passed are enormous.  Dillon's Rule as interpreted in the US (this gives states ultimate authority over local government) means a great deal of control by states over cities' revenue raising, their powers and so on -- but no-one has dared to use it with consolidating, in part because of a backlash in the first part of the 20th century against big cities having the power to annex their suburbs.  What you'd have to do is get to a Canadian situation where state-wide reorganization is considered possible and acceptable.  But even that is fraught with pitfalls, as conservatives there gave consolidation a bad name with moves such as the one they pulled on Toronto in the late 1990s (forcibly amalgamating the left-voting city and inner suburbs while cutting the conservative-voting outer suburbs loose from metropolitan planning and taxing, and then shredding provincial local government aid).

    So, I'm strongly inclined to favor revenue sharing and shared services among existing governments rather than actually merging governments.

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