May 1 2006

Municipal government in Pennsylvania is a $13 billion annual "business" today. How do the state's local governments provide these services? IssuesPA investigated.

(May 2006) Pennsylvania’s municipal governments provide a wide variety of services for their constituents. It starts with the maintenance and repair of local roads within their borders, a responsibility of all municipalities. But most provide an assortment of other services, including public safety, planning and development, public works – sewer, water and even electricity. What else? Parks and recreation, and public health. Over 37,000 locally-elected and appointed officials oversee municipal functions.

How are services provided now?

Many ways. Consider the following:

Police. All cities, many boroughs and some township governments directly provide police protection to citizens. In 2005, Pennsylvania had 1,055 local police departments. More than 100 municipalities have joined forces to form consolidated or regional police forces, and 163 municipalities contract with a neighboring police force for protection. State Police cover the remainder of the state (1,314 municipalities). Most of those under State Police jurisdiction are small rural townships. Some, however, have populations as high as 42,000. Over the last several years, legislation has been introduced, but not approved, to charge local governments for State Police protection.

Fire. Fire protection is a locally-provided service, although municipal governments are involved in different ways. Pennsylvania had 2,448 fire departments in 2005. The vast majority (2,354) consisted of volunteers, 22 used firefighters who were employees of the municipality, and 72 had a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters. The high reliance on volunteers is becoming more of a concern as the number of volunteers declines. In 1976, there were an estimated 300,000 volunteer firefighters. By 2005, that number had dwindled to about 72,000. State government helps volunteer fire companies by providing financial assistance through loans and grants for equipment, buildings and operations; and loosened restrictions on bingo and other games help volunteer companies raise funds locally. But fire companies increasingly seek substantive financial assistance from municipal governments.

Local Authorities. Pennsylvania has over 2,000 active local authorities providing a variety of services, such as managing business districts, airports and parking garages. The largest number? Water and sewer authorities. For the most part, they use service fees, grants, and other income for their operations. These authorities had revenues of over $2.7 billion in 2004. Many include several municipalities within their jurisdiction.

What are the overriding concerns for the future?

Here are the numbers – 1,251 police departments, 2,448 fire departments, 2,008 active authorities – all in Pennsylvania. This seems like a large number of service providers, and it is. The structure providing local government services in Pennsylvania has remained largely unaltered for decades despite massive changes in the state’s demographics and economy, expectations and needs of its citizens, and international competition. And for decades state government has flirted with various ideas for substantive change to its own policies and laws that determine local government responsibilities. But the results generally have been, at best, incremental adjustments. 

Despite decades of state government and civic efforts to merge and consolidate local governments and services, what’s really happened? Few economies of scale, considerable duplication of efforts, and an increasing disparity in the viability of local governments. This puts Pennsylvania at a disadvantage not only compared to its peer states, but also in simply maintaining adequate local government services and a decent quality of life in communities.

Further, issues facing local government have changed dramatically over the past 25 years. Local officials, almost all of whom serve part-time, now are expected to make knowledgeable decisions and take action – often expensive action – on complicated, technical issues such as water pollution control, landfills, economic development incentives, collective bargaining agreements, new ways to finance debt, infrastructure repair, and growth management. Federal abdication of responsibility to states (and, subsequently, to local governments) has added to the burden. 

Bottom line? The degree to which Pennsylvanians receive quality local services often depends on where they live and the skills, vision and ideas of those leading them.