IssuesPA

May 1 2006

There's one undeniable fact about local governments in Pennsylvania – there are a lot of them. Some say we should pay the most attention to what happens at the local government level, because decisions made there affect us the most. IssuesPA offers this primer on the many varieties of local governments, and how (and why) they’ve changed over the decades.

(May 2006) Local governments – municipalities and, to a less apparent degree, counties – have the primary, most hands-on responsibility for the health, safety, and welfare of their residents. How local government is organized and structured has major implications for the amount and quality of services provided.

In August 2004, Pennsylvania’s local government structure consisted of 2,565 incorporated municipalities and 67 counties. All land area in the state and, therefore, every Pennsylvanian, is part of an incorporated municipality and part of a county.

How many kinds of municipalities does Pennsylvania have?

A lot. Pennsylvania classifies municipalities by type and each type or classification has a somewhat different set of state-imposed rules guiding their operation and organization. The chart below lists the types of municipalities and the number of each.

 Municipalities in Pennsylvania 2004 - By Type 

 Municipality Type

 Number in Classification

1st Class City (Philadelphia) 

 1

2nd Class City (Pittsburgh) 

 1

2nd Class A City (Scranton) 

 1

3rd Class Cities 

 53

Boroughs 

 961

1st Class Townships 

 91

2nd Class Townships 

 1,456

Town (Bloomsburg) 

 1

 Total

 2,565

The number in each classification has remained essentially unchanged for years. The only exceptions are a few municipalities that have merged or consolidated, and most of these involve small communities and only a small number of people.

If 2,565 seems like a big number, it is, especially when adding 67 counties to the total. Of the selected 13 peer states IssuesPA uses for comparison purposes, only Illinois has more local governments. See the IssuesPA Scorecard for more.  Illinois and Pennsylvania also rank first and second in the nation. When measuring the number of local governments compared to the size of the state’s population, Pennsylvania drops to 23rd highest in the nation, though still number 2 in the 13-state comparison. See the IssuesPA Scorecard for more. 

Is the face of municipal government changing?

Yes. While the classification of Pennsylvania’s municipalities and its members have remained essentially unchanged for some time, many municipal governments and corresponding communities are far different than they were in the past. There’s been a migration of people and wealth away from cities and boroughs, to townships, especially second class townships. The following table illustrates the changes.

 Percent Change in Population, 1986 - 2003
in Pennsylvania Municipalities

 Municipality Type

 Percent Change in Population

1st Class City (Philadelphia) 

 -10.1%

2nd Class City (Pittsburgh) 

 -21.1%

2nd Class A City (Scranton) 

 -13.3%

3rd Class Cities 

 -10.2%

Boroughs 

 -8.0%

1st Class Townships 

2.7%

2nd Class Townships 

20.0%

Town (Bloomsburg) 

 5.6%

 Total

2.2%

Wealth has followed the people, at least by one measure. The table below tracks the change in market value of real estate over the same period as the previous table. As with population change, the growth in real estate market value for cities and boroughs as a group lags the growth in second class townships.

 Percent Change in Market Value, 1986 - 2003
in Pennsylvania Municipalities

 Municipality Type

 Percent Change in Market Value

1st Class City (Philadelphia) 

75%

2nd Class City (Pittsburgh) 

 59%

2nd Class A City (Scranton) 

 123%

3rd Class Cities 

 94%

Boroughs 

 128%

1st Class Townships 

167%

2nd Class Townships 

219%

Town (Bloomsburg) 

 146%

 Total

164%

At first glance, it appears the type or class of government has much to do with changing levels of population and wealth. But statistics demonstrate the geographical movement from Pennsylvania’s older and more urbanized places, usually cities and boroughs, to the suburbs and exurbs. And hidden in those numbers is the movement of people from the most rural and sparsely populated areas to the suburbs.

Bottom line? These changes have strong implications for people who remain in the declining urban and rural areas. Why? The demands for municipal services still exist, but the resources to pay for them decline. There are implications for prospering suburbs as well since economies are regional, and the health of the entire region is important for long-term growth.