Are there too many governments in Southwestern Pennsylvania?
While many appreciate the intimacy of a small municipality, the extent of local government fragmentation is extreme across the region. Of Pennsylvania's 2,563 municipalities, 548 are located in the 10 counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania (Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Washington, Westmoreland). The Pittsburgh region is recognized as a national leader in fragmented local government.
Government organization is not limited to the number of local municipalities. There exist 155 school districts in the region, each of which has independent governance and taxing authority. Every school district counts among the largest local governments in the region.
Beyond that, over 362 special purpose governments and public authorities perform a myriad of essential public services. Each typically has an independent board directing them and many have their own ability to tax. Along with 10 county governments, there are at least 1,078 distinct government entities across the region governed by a nearly uncountable number of mayors, legislators, directors and board members.
As important as local government is to the region, the way we govern ourselves is unresponsive to the changes going on here and across the state. Recent decades have seen massive changes in the region's economy and population. Not just the size of the greater region, but where we live within the region has little similarity with a century ago. It would be reasonable to expect similar changes in the size, scale and structures of local governments along the way.
Yet few things are as immutable as the structure of local government in Pennsylvania.
There exists no one answer for how many governments would be optimal or how much change is needed, but a process to implement any change is needed. Some municipalities might need to be broken up while others might need to be merged or even disincorporated. The challenge is there exist few tools for implementing change and less support to overcome the sheer inertia. Governments have evolved over several centuries in Pennsylvania. As often as not municipalities exist and have specific boundaries based on decisions centuries in the past. Once created local governments rarely change and never go away. The result is the maze of governments we have today.
The image above -- better seen as a PDF -- depicts the 1,078 county, municipal, school district and special purpose governments located in the 10 counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania. The sizes are scaled to the number of full-time equivalent employees working for each government.
The list is compiled from the Census Bureau's 2007 Census of Governments. The graphic was produced with IBM's Word Cloud Generator.
Christopher Briem ( www.briem.com ) is a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research. First Published January 10, 2010 5:00 AM